Writing: Secrets of the World’s Bestselling Writer

I bought this book a few months ago, recommended by people at the Kindleboards, and finally started reading it last week.

The book deals with the work of Erle Stanley Gardner, and the fact that he was called “The World’s Bestselling Writer” on the cover made me curious, because I’d never heard of the man. The fact that I don’t read a lot of crime detective stories doesn’t help, neither does it help that these were stories and books that my grandparents enjoyed. The book itself was written in 1980, and I strongly suspect that the author lost the Bestselling Writer crown to one blond-haired female writer who writes, amongst other things, about a boy wizard. But we’ll leave that for statisticians to bicker over.

Perry Mason, I’d heard of the stories about him, but also only as something the generation of my grandparents and parents enjoyed.

What then, in this day of the internet and computers, can be learned from a writer who learned to write in seriousness almost 100 years ago, and whose writerly biography is so peppered with implied sexism (merely reflecting the day and age of course, but FFS, was there any purpose for women, in real life and fiction, other than to bring the tea or to be rescued?) that I almost gave up reading several times, were it not that the book is quite pricey for an ebook, and the people who recommended it are people I respect.

Anyway. Putting aside the fact that women didn’t exist back then, the book goes on to reveal a most interesting lifestyle with meticulous detail to fact and study. Also with incredible work ethic and how he went about using the latest technology to achieve his incredible output.

It was an interesting and inspiring read.

I didn’t learn anything major that I didn’t already know–watching people with this kind of inventory this make a killing on Amazon–but I found the book inspiring, because it illustrates so well how a dedicated work ethic pays off big time. Many writers wait around for the muse to strike, whittling away time while they could be writing something. Anything, really. Many writers revise endlessly, and quite possibly revise the death out a story.

As I’ve come to realise, as a writer, you’re not selling stories. You’re selling your ability to produce more stories.

Writing: Secrets of the World’s Bestselling Writer was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

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Self-publishing: Weatherproof your sales

A lot of people right now are talking about their predictions for 2015. At the Kindleboards, well-selling self-publishers are talking about the year to come. Lindsay Buroker does the same in her blog, and planning for the future and selling on non-Amazon platforms was a big part of the Marketing SFF podcast that I just recorded with Lindsay Buroker, Joseph Lallo and Jeffrey Poole.

As we were talking about self-publising and marketing, something struck me about looking at the future in an author’s career: the most important thing you can do is to weatherproof your sales.

Weatherproofing your sales is:

  1. Diversification
  2. Taking control of your own audience
  3. Building an innate level of sales that does not rely on the vagaries of retail site algorithms

In the section of the podcast where Joseph asks his questions, he asks about the difference in marketing between romance and SFF. I think that traditional marketing has less effect on SFF audiences, because they tend to be more cynical. Almost every advertising site reports that SFF ads don’t do as well. The readers shop by author, and books don’t tend to go out of fashion as quickly. There is less author churn.

This makes that SFF is an excellent genre in which to weatherproof your sales. How?

  • Well, since SFF buyers seem less “sale” or platform-driven, list your works on whatever sites will have you. The hip SF readers are often fervent Amazon-haters, and it helps if you’re cool enough to list your books on Google Play or whatever site the latest cool kids shop at.
  • Since SFF buyers are more likely to shop by author, take control over your audience by making sure you have an up-to-date website, blog, that you are contactable on most social media, that you have a mailing list and that you are seen to be a “good egg”in the SFF community.
  • On the subject of mailing lists, I cannot over-state their importance. I noticed this even back in 1996, when I used mailing lists to sell second-hand academic books. Of course back then, there was no Mailchimp and none such nonsense as “opt-in”. I did it everything by hand, but it was very successful. Mailing list = your audience. These are people who have chosen to hear about your new releases.
  • Ad free selling! Do you get tired of the ad rollercoaster? You run an ad, sales are great for a bit and then a few days later, you’re back where you started. It’s exhausting. Ad free selling involves making book 1 of a series free or cheap. Then you grab a beer from the fridge and sit back. Don’t worry or get nervous about “sell-through”. Consider these freebies leaflets that you use to let people know about you.

What are my predictions for 2015?

  • Things will be harder? Yup. They have always been getting harder, ever since publishing started.
  • People will drop out? Yup. They always have. Many new, bright-eyed people will come in. Many will get disillusioned and leave. They’ve been doing that since the start of time.
  • Businesses will fail? Yup. Dunno which ones yet, but I’m sure some will.
  • Amazon will do something daft? Yup. They always have. Usually in the second half of the year.

OK, so the above is taking the Mickey. My point is that as self-publisher, you have to be flexible enough to weather the things that happen that kick you in the gut, and to take the opportunities offered by the things that don’t.

Only one thing I know: Ambassador 3 will be an awesome book. Because all I can do is produce the most awesome books that I can write, to publish them in a series and make the first one cheaper or free. That tactic has worked since the start of time, and no matter what daft things Amazon or anyone else will do, it will continue to work.

Self-publishing: Weatherproof your sales was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Why learning to write is only the beginning

Trader's HonourI’m going to do something REALLY embarrassing. I’ll be posting, below, a small snippet of the very first novel I completed. By the time I penned this, I had already spent some time in various workshops and I’d taken my dutiful dose of No adverbs, no forbidden words, no weasel words and no repetition, and there are indeed very few of those crimes in the manuscript. In fact, I admit that I now use more adverbs than I did back then. I use more passive constructions, and I use more “forbidden” words. Because these words or constructions evolved in the language for a reason, and sometimes a sentence is genuinely clearer when you add the word “that”. Trust me.

So, without further ado, here is the snippet from Trader’s Honour as I wrote it in 2005, with excuses for the absolutely TERRIBLE writing. I’ll elaborate on that after the piece.

* * *

Two days. That was all that stood between happiness and despair.
Two days ago, the morning of the election had dawned without a cloud in the sky and the city of Miran was covered in a sparkling blanket of snow. The beauty of the morning was lost on Rehan. He was tired; it had been very late when he had returned home the previous night. He was sitting at breakfast in the dining room, leafing aimlessly through a bundle of election brochures, wondering who he was going to vote for. The successful candidate would take up the post of commander of the Mirani armed forces and one of the four High-councillors of Miran. It was an important election, but Rehan felt too tired to care.
‘I don’t like the sound of what Nemedor Satarin is proposing,’ Braedon said, gesturing to the election brochures Rehan was holding.
Rehan leafed through the papers until he came to the relevant brochure. It was printed on orange paper and bore just a few slogans “Free Miran of foreign influences,” “Restore our nation to its former glory,” and “Bring back order to our streets.”
‘It doesn’t say much, doesn’t it?’ he said, breaking his fish bread in pieces and dropping them in his soup.
‘No,’ Braedon said, ‘but he has strong opinions that many of the upper classes find appealing.’
Rehan looked up with a frown.
‘What is appealing about freeing Miran of foreign influences? How can we or the merchants function without foreigners?’
‘People haven’t forgotten the war, Rehan,’ came Isandra Andrahar’s sharp voice from the other end of the table.
Rehan looked at his mother, her back bathed in sunlight, which made her hair glow like silver.
‘What does the war have to do with this?’ he asked.
‘You were too young,’ the way she said this made it sound like an accusation. ‘The Asto fighters raided the warehouses in our agricultural district, and what could the Mirani army do? Nothing! The Asto army could easily have pushed their way to our capital!’
‘But they didn’t,’ Rehan said; he looked down at his plate to fish a piece of bread out of his soup. ‘They only wanted to free up their food supplies, which were rightfully theirs anyway. They are not interested in conquering other colonies.’
He still couldn’t see how this had anything to do with the local election.
His mother drew herself up and waved a bony finger at him.
‘When I was a girl, and that dreadful Palayi man – whatever his first name was – was Chief coordinator of Asto, there was a constant threat of war,’ she continued. ‘We should never trust those Coldi people. They are barbarians – incapable of tolerating any opposition. Thania Lingui may seem a lot more peaceful, but what happens when he retires? Will the next Chief coordinator want to have absolute control over Asto’s food supply? We are close, we have much fertile land, we already produce a lot of their food. We need strong defenses to stop them invading!’ and as Rehan was about to put the bread in his mouth, she snapped. ‘And don’t do that! You’re eating like a commoner!’
Rehan sighed, put the bread down and picked up his spoon. Table manners, table manners! Was that all she ever cared about? He was at home, for goodness sake!

* * *

OMG, this is truly embarrassingly bad. It does not violate many Creative Writing 101 Rules, but it’s bad, bad, bad. I’ll explain why.

I used this novel as learning-to-write exercise. I was probably halfway through when it occurred to me that it had to have a plot. I was so wrapped up in my characters that I merely enjoyed seeing what they did. And they did a lot of things. Plenty happens in this novel. In fact, all these happenings are what made me decide to salvage the story, because GOOD stuff happens, but it wasn’t connected, was connected in the wrong way with way too much bullshit that went off at right angles. In other words: I hadn’t learned to write a solid plot and keep that plot on the rails while I was writing.

The POV is weak. I bet that in this piece you can’t even tell who the POV character is (hint: it’s Rehan). There is very little direct internal thought. It just hadn’t occurred to me yet that I could write in that way.

All the characters act like arseholes. They’re also far too forthcoming with information. This is classic immaturity in character development. One of the most important things a writer needs to learn is that what a character says is that character’s perception of the truth, unless the character is lying, but the character doesn’t even need to lie outright for their replies to be coloured. Also, what is not being said is often more powerful than what is being said. Over-the-top-ness of character reactions, as in this snippet, is also classic beginner prose.

Worst of all, I’m using the wrong main character. There is a reason why all the characters are arseholes, that is because they ARE arseholes of some kind, at least in this point in the story. It only occurred to me much later that I was trying to write The Devil Wears Prada from Anna Wintour’s POV. Doesn’t work. You need another character.

All these things above are not really teachable. They are not what most critique groups deal with. They are skills you have to develop through practice, and through reading awesome fiction and listening to experienced writers. Still, if you happen to get commentary of this nature when you begin, you will most likely not understand it at the level that it needs to be understood. The above things are largely intuitive and are why it is so hard to quantify “good writing”. The writing “rules” are really only the beginning.

So, I decided to salvage, gut and re-write the story. I added a completely new character who is not related to this highly dysfunctional family but comes into it as newcomer. To be sure, she has her own stakes, as you have seen in the snippet I posted a few days ago. Because we now see the story through the eyes of someone who is more sympathetic at the start of the story, it doesn’t matter that the three brothers and their mother behave like boors right now. Yes, some of it is only an act, and as my character’s stakes and that of the family intertwine, the abrasiveness will vanish.

Like so (and three cheers to the reader of this blog who can spot the future love affair):

Mikandra stomped the snow off her boots on the mat, slipped them off and put them next to the men’s boots lined up next to the door. She selected the smallest pair of slippers she could find on the rack under the cloak stand. They enfolded her feet with luxurious warmth, and the fur that lined the inside had not yet flattened with use.
She followed Taerzo–wearing similar footwear–across the hall into the living room, where traditional oil lamps burned on the walls and their flapping flames made grotesque shadows on the walls. With its marble flooring, antique hearth and hand-crafted furniture, the house was the epitome of old-fashioned noble households. Well, except for the hub with its blinking lights in the corner of the hall.
In the living room, Braedon sat at the table behind a huge pile of books. He glanced up when Taerzo came in, looked back at his books and then up again at Mikandra. He raised his eyebrows and raked his hair behind his ear. Apart from Taerzo, who was not that much older than her and was considered to be the joker of the family, she found Braedon least intimidating. He was rather plain, straightforward and quiet. He did not wear lots of jewellery or other display of status like his two older brothers. He came into the hospital quite a bit, and was always courteous and kind to the nurses or surgeons.
Braedon gestured to the seat next to him.
Mikandra sat, still clutching the letter. On the page in the book facing him were long columns of financial data. He had a reader on his other side, which was, apart from the hub in the hall, the only concession to technology in this very traditional house. The screen glared more columns of figures.
She was going to show them the letter, but Braedon brought his fingers to his lips.
There were voices at the back of the room, in a section partitioned off from the dining area by a sliding door.
Through the glass in the door, she could see second-oldest brother Rehan in front of the hearth, facing a man who sat on the couch.
“Anyway,” Rehan was saying, the words only slightly muffled by the door. “Whatever has caused it and why ever you did this, your behaviour has been nothing short of grossly inadequate. You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do, and unless I’m satisfied, I will call in the Guild Lawkeepers, and they will get to the bottom of this.”
“You’re not going to sack me?” The man sounded incredulous.
“You’ve worked with us for long enough to know that is not our style. I would very much like to sack you, but it does not solve anything. Sacking you does not put our accounts in order.”
“Uhm . . . I guess.”
Mikandra realised the man on the couch was the Andrahar account keeper, Trimor Estredin, the husband of one of her mother’s theatre friends.
“You guess?” Rehan continued. “What will go a long way towards putting our accounts in order is your story about what happened. Why did you approve these books? Why did you sign all these pages that clearly have mistakes on them? Where is the missing money?”
“I honestly don’t remember doing all that.”
There was a heavy thud of some object hitting wood. “Bullshit! That’s fucking bullshit and you know it. You know what happened. You were there. This is your work! Get the fuck out of here. Go to the office. Come back when you have something to say. Don’t dare run away. Don’t think we won’t find you.”
The man rose and left the room at a run. A moment later, the door shut.
Heaving a big sign, Rehan opened the partition doors. “Fucking numbskull. Blubbering nitwit.” He stopped a few paces into the room, and frowned at Mikandra. Met her eyes. His hair, normally a silk-like curtain over his back, had become entangled in the clasp of his cloak. His cheeks were red. “What’s this about? Any more problems?”
Mikandra lifted the letter.
“I got my letter of acceptance,” she said, but she no longer felt exuberant. Something was very wrong.
“The fuck you did?” He still sounded angry.
Braedon said, “Rehan, please mind your–”
“Don’t tell me what I can or can’t say in my own house. We don’t have the time to deal with fucking pambies.”
He looked at Mikandra. His expression was so penetrating that she felt like fleeing. He was very tall, his appearance immaculate. At least he wore his Trading uniform, the khaki shirt and trousers with the ornate belt and his high boots. But no medallion.
“All right, you win. No more fucking swearing in the presence of women, eh?” He blew out a breath and turned to the window.
Mikandra looked back at Braedon who at least didn’t terrify her as much. “What’s wrong?”
“We’ve had our licence suspended by court order.”
What? A big black hole opened in Mikandra’s mind. A suspended licence meant no sponsorship. It meant no work, no place for her to go to. It meant–how was that even possible? These were the Andrahar Traders, the most influential in all of Miran. “What happened?” Black spots crept into her vision.

The power of the prophecy

Crystal ball. Image snarfed from Dreamstime free

Forgive me for being a little grumpy.

You see, today I started a book that had been sitting in my TBR pile for a long time. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the previous book by this author and had been looking forward to reading the book. No, I’m not going to tell you who the author is because that is beside the point of this post.

The book started in an interesting way, but then it all went south. You see, the author introduced a prophecy. Not just any prophecy, but one of the heavy-handed ZOMG the prophecy tells me I have to do this, so I do it type, no matter that the story itself didn’t support any reasons for the course of action. In fact, the prophecy was the only thing guiding all characters throughout the first third of the book. I don’t know what happened in the rest of the book. I’m not sure that I want to find out.

Am I the only one who finds this type of handling of prophecies cliché, tiresome and naïve? Those are the type of stories we wrote when we just started writing and didn’t know any better. They’re not the type of books I expect from a mature writer.

What is it about prophecies and fantasy?

Prophecies can be handled in a number of different ways.

At its most basic, there is the plot that takes a known prophecy at face value, without question of its authenticity or its predicting value. This type of dealing with prophecy is what I would call heavy-handed or naïve, because it takes all deciding power away from the character, and negates the need for the character’s actions to make sense. When “the prophecy said so” is the reason for something to happen, a flag should go up that you’ve entered this territory.

Alternately, a prophecy could be considered “true” in the fantasy society, but the character affected by it could resist the implications. This becomes more interesting, because now we’ve entered a personal conflict into the mix. Apart from the fact that the character must do X or something terrible will happen, the character doesn’t believe that the prophecy has value.

Or the other way around: the character believes the prophecy has value, but society doesn’t.

The history of the prophecy and its reach. A lot of fantasy prophecies tend to be well-known in the affected society. They’re part of some older legend, which, magically, everyone in the country knows even though they’ve to invent the internet or similar means of communication.

Or the prophecy could be not so well-known or only partially known–see Harry Potter. In this type of plot, a prophecy becomes part of the main plot device. Rather than handing the characters the prophecy at the start of the book, the characters must first discover the prophecy, then decide whether or not they’ll want to believe it, and then solve it. This type of plot becomes a mystery. The prophecy doesn’t drive the plot, discovering the prophecy does. Thus, the content of the prophecy becomes less important than the process of discovering it.

Alternately, there could be a prophecy that is proven to be complete bunk in the progress of the plot. But there had better be something even better (a conspiracy, and even worse prophecy) hiding behind the wreckage, or you’ll have some dissatisfied readers.

I don’t know what else you could do with prophecies. The prophecy as a plot device bores me to death. That said, I would love to write something that looks at prophecies from an unexpected angle, just to prove that you can breathe life into this tired plot device.

Any thoughts?

Holding my interest

This post applies to both slush reading and my foraging of self-published work.

Many stories simply don’t hold my interest.

I’m not talking about subject matter, especially in the case of self-published material, because I read the blurb, and that gives me an idea of what the story is about. It is that, given an interesting premise, the writer has proceeded to tell that story in a manner that is, frankly, boring.

Note: no friends, from none of my social networks, were injured in this post.

I recently downloaded a number of self-published works from the higher rankings of Amazon. And with all of these, I found the first few chapters written with insufficient storytelling skill to continue reading. I don’t mean writing at sentence level. I usually look at the sample, and weed out the works with clunky prose. I mean that the story structure did not enhance the plot.

But! wails the self-published author, wait until you get to chapter 5. That’s where it becomes interesting.

You know, buddy, I ain’t got till chapter 5. You have perhaps two or three chapters to convince me that I should spend time reading your book.

So, if you have something interesting, show me your money sooner, rather than later. Make something happen, I don’t care what. or make me care about your character, or curious about some event. But for the love of the great teapot in the sky, don’t use your first, brief, action scene as a crutch to spew three chapters worth of flippin’ backstory. Just don’t, OK?

From the slush minion’s diary #12: stories that are boring

When I started reading slush, I feared the onslaught of the great unwashed grammar monster and the evil spelling pixie. You sometimes hear people gripe about how the content of slush is soooooo bad. But the reality is that those people are just jaded whingers. The vast majority of submitting writers know how to spell and use correct grammar. By far the most important reason a story gets rejected is this:

The story is boring.

Now I should perhaps rephrase this: the beginning of the story is boring. Because if the beginning is not interesting, a slush reader won’t read on. Really. A slush reader (or any reader) has no obligation to finish reading a story. As writer, your task is to make sure a reader finishes the story. Actually, I should rephrase that again: the beginnning of the story is boring to me.

As you can see, I’ve just put a couple of caveats into the statement. What is boring to me may not be boring to others.

That said, I tend to look unkindly upon stories that do any (or, heaven forbid, all) of the following:

The story starts with an interesting tidbit that grabs my attention, usually in a very short scene. The second scene is a huge slab of narrative explaining the situation in retrospect. Repeated use of the word ‘had’ is indicative. The third scene involves the character going through some mundane, everyday situation. These scenes often start with statements that establish time, such as ‘The next day’, or ‘That day…’

The story starts with the character gazing reflectively out a window, or similar, and thinking about something that has happened or is about to happen. It is really hard to pull this off as an effective start to short fiction, even if your window looks out over a spaceport that is being blow apart in an interstellar war. The point is that the character is detached from the action and is not doing anything. Watching action does not equate taking part in it.

The story starts with a scene (or even more than one scene) in which the character does everyday stuff. Sometimes, you feel a need to establish a character’s living situation before the inciting incident. If the living situation is interesting enough, you can sometimes get away with it, but usually it’s more interesting to start with the inciting incident.

A slush reader is under no obligation to read the entire story. If something interesting happens halfway in the story, start the story with that. Don’t cheat and start the story with the interesting thing, and then backfill the next few scenes with the not-so-interesting, mundane stuff that was the original beginning of the story. You shall be found out. The mundane stuff is not interesting. You don’t need it.

unsolicited writing advice #1

I remember a time, it now seems long ago, that I was writing a novel. This was to be my First Serious Novel, and all the people in the know, you know, the ones who had been in the writing workshop a year longer than me, said: you have to finish what you start. If you don’t finish it, you can never send it out.

And that kinda made sense.

So I slaved over that novel, re-wrote it goodness-knows-how-many times over about two years, always starting from the beginning, usually stalling somewhere at the mid-point. I wrote little else, until finally, after a lot of frustration, I had Finished it. Yay.

Except it was much too long. And the plot was far too convoluted. And the story resolution was satisfactory for the main character, but not really for anyone else. And did I tell you it was a mess? That went without saying. It was my First Serious Novel after all.

I didn’t see that, so I sent it out, as per All-Knowing Writing Gurus. I actually got some requests, but soon after, I started writing other novels, and short stories, and forgot about this novel for a while.

Until, one day, I had an Idea.

X, Y, and Z were wrong, and the functions performed by characters A, B and C could be served by a single personality, who would then have more word-space.

I re-wrote the novel one last time. Fixed up the characters, tossed a bunch of alternate POVs, cut a number of plot lines, and effectively halved the word count. I knew what I was doing, because I know how I was going to do it.

It took me two weeks. I was offered a contract, which I didn’t accept, but the novel is now with another publisher.

The moral of this tale: I see so many writers struggling with plot-less first novels. The worst are the ones that have a seed of a good idea, and where the writer is being told this by others. The writer will spend hour after hour on a story without really knowing how to fix it.

For these writers, here are some thoughts:

1. For crying out loud, stop what you’re doing and start writing something fresh
2. The work you did on this novel is not going to go away. It will still be there when you put it aside for 1-2 years and come back to it later
3. For crying out loud, don’t touch that damn novel again until you are very clear about what’s wrong with it and how to fix it
4. Stop wasting your time on projects that have stalled, or that somehow won’t work.
5. Did I say stop wasting your time?

Plot bunnies #1

An SF writer said,

The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story

Was it Ray Bradbury? I can’t remember. If you can, help me out of my misery.

In any case, he’s right. A short story is not a situation, not even an event. A short story is a change, a discovery, a revelation.

What’s going to be revealed in your story?

This is a story about a girl who can fly – is not a story. It’s a situation. Presumably early in the piece, we’re shown this girl can fly. And then? What happens then? The fact that she can fly needs to lead to something, needs to help solve a problem, or maybe the girl has a problem because she can fly.

Alternatively: this is a story about a girl who finds out she can fly – is also a story. The girl will start off noticing some weird thing, and weirdness will get worse until the revelation at the end: Hey, I can fly!

So – what about your stories? What elements are setting and situation, givens that are revealed close to the beginning of the story, and which elements are true plot bunnies, discoveries that will change the situation, that will change your characters’ lives?