2014! Welcome to the world of tomorrow! Just with no flying cars. Or jetpacks. And far less moonbases than Space: 1999, Inherit the Stars, or 2001: A Space Odyssey led us to expect.
Wow. We’re only two days in and 2014 is kind of a letdown so far.
Anyway, as I often do at the start of the year, I’d like to take a minute or three to talk about this page and the kind of stuff I babble on about. And touch on a few of the things I don’t.
And to do this, I’m going to dip my toe into a potentially controversial subject. So hopefully I won’t offend anyone too much
Maybe it’s just the circles I travel in, but I tend to see a lot of “after the fact” material. It’s on pages I get links to or I get spammed with messages about it. People with blogs about how to self-publish and why traditional publishers are dinosaurs. About how to get past those evil “gatekeepers” and why they’re pointless. Which ebook platform is best. How to format for said platform. Where to find a good agent. Where to find a good artist for my cover. How to network. Good places for self-promotion. How much I should self-promote. How much I should pay for that promotion.
The reason I call this “after the fact” material is because it skips a major step. Every one of those issues is about getting my book in front of readers. None of it addresses the important question...
Should my book be in front of readers?
Is my book ready to be published, by me or anyone else? Does it deserve to make it past those gatekeepers? Do I have something worth promoting?
And that’s what I don’t see a lot of out there—help to get past that first step. Because the best chef in the world can’t do anything with no tools and an empty kitchen. If I don’t have a full, polished manuscript, all those other tips are kind of useless.
This is why, in my opinion, self-publishing still has—and probably always will have—a stigma hanging over it. There are some absolutely phenomenal self published books out there, and some authors who are making great money as self-publishers. But the ugly truth is that, statistically, most self-published material is bad. Now that it’s so easy and cheap to self-publish, I’d even say that these days the vast majority of self-published stuff is awful. There’s a lot more good stuff than a decade ago, absolutely, but by the same token there’s tons and tons more bad stuff.
So, that’s what I want to do here. I try to help with that first step. Every week I toss out some advice, tips, and observations on how to improve a manuscript and turn it into something people want to buy and read. Things I was told or stumbled across (or learned the hard way) in the thirty or so years that I’ve been stringing words together.
Now, the two main things you’ll find here is advice on writing and rules on writing. Yes, there are rules. No, I don’t care what he said. No, I don’t care what she said either. There are rules that have to be followed. Bear with me.
Advice is optional. When to write. Where to write. What to write. How to develop characters. How to edit. How many drafts I need to go through. What kind of structure a particular story should have. What point of view to use. I’d say the ranty blog is about 60-65% advice.
This is the kind of stuff that’s going to be individual to each writer. I like to write in the afternoon, but you might be more productive in the morning, and she’s more productive after midnight. I tend to plan a rough outline in my head, but you might need three really detailed pages before you begin, and he might be fine with a dozen notecards taped to the wall. I might need music to write but you need absolute silence and she can’t write unless she’s outside and wearing a Ren Faire outfit. The thing about advice is that it’s rarely wrong, it just might not be advice that works for me or you. That’s one of the main tenets here, my golden rule.
It drives me nuts when I come across someone insisting advice must be strictly followed. I think a lot of would-be writers get messed up by this, and these are the folks who end up staring at a blank page every morning in a silent room, wondering why they can’t write the opening of the goth-witch-lit novel they have no interest in but were told is going to be the new big thing. They often get stuck wearing an itchy corset, too.
Y’see, Timmy, rules are the real non-optional stuff. Spelling. Grammar. Structure (you have to have some kind of it). Likable characters (not necessarily good characters, but someone my readers won’t mind following) with believable arcs. Flow. Coherency. This page is maybe 35-40% rules, at any given time.
Most of us had at least five or six teachers during our lives who tried to teach us the rules of writing—the basic mechanics of how words go together to express ideas. If I want to make a living at this, I need to know those mechanics. If I don’t know how to spell, if I don’t understand structure, if commas and apostrophes are baffling to me, if I can’t sense how my readers will react to something... well, it’s going to be very hard for me to have any success as a writer.
The flipside of what I mentioned above, it’s also very damaging when some folks try to insist that rules are just loose guidelines, that it doesn’t matter if I follow them or not. I think a lot of that comes out of folks who see the rules broken by an experienced professional and assume they can be ignored from the start. They point to the exception and use that as their reason to not learn the rules. This kind of deliberate ignorance leads to poor writing and bad habits, and it means a lot of potentially good writers never improve.
Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t understand the rules, I’m not going to know how to break them. A good writer can break some of the rules, but it’s like playing Jenga. I can’t pull out all the blocks holding up the stack, and if I’m going to pull out this one I need to make sure that one is rock-solid. If I don’t understand the basic rules of how the tower stands, I’m going to bring it crashing down on my second turn. Maybe even my first.
Because it might look really cool and fun when the building collapses out across the city, but it doesn’t get a lot of repeat customers.
What else, what else, what else...
Do I repeat myself here? Well... yeah. Especially if you’ve been following along for two or three years. I try to come up with new ways to approach the same problem. Sometimes I’ll hear something new and clever that I’ll try to share, or maybe even expand on. At the end of the day, though, this page is more like a mid-level class on writing. You can take the same class twice and get more out of it, but by the third of fourth time there’s a serious case of diminishing returns. I’m not saying any of you long-time followers should leave, but don’t be too surprised if I end up talking about dialogue or character voices or something like that.
Speaking of which, next time I wanted to talk about dialogue and character voices.
Until then, go write.