Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What Is Your Spark?


"He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art... And when the process is over, when the...novel is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth."  -- E.M. Forster

By P.J. Parrish

Where does it come from?

I'm talking about that original impulse, that first bud of creativity that eventually grows into a book. Can you remember? What was it that tickled your brain and set the synapses glowing? What the very first moment when you knew you were onto something?

I'm not talking about inspiration or muses or the "need" to write. I'm trying to focus way way down to that little thing that got you going on whatever it is you are now working so hard to bring to life. What was the spark?

Normally I don't think much about stuff from the ether like this. Especially since we here at The Kill Zone tend to focus on practical stuff like building credible characters and sturdy plot structures. But sometimes it's fun -- and maybe even a little instructive -- to turn the microscope to its finest setting and examine the beginnings of life.

Every writer starts a novel from a different impulse. Some start with a situation, many by asking "what if?" Many writers are character-led.  Often you can trace it back to something as small as an overheard conversation. Or an old man standing a corner glimpsed as you pass by in your car. It can be a line from a half-forgotten poem or the smell of dime store lipstick.

Sometimes that first impulse is too weak to sustain a novel. Sometimes that clot of embryonic cells never quite grows into a character. But sometimes, when you dip a bucket into the subconscious you draw up something special.

I got to thinking about this today because I was trolling the internet boning up on the history of the detective novel. I am going to be on a panel at the Edgar Symposium tomorrow that focuses on the future of the detective novel. And because I didn't want my fellow panelists to wipe the floor with me I was, I admit, doing a little brushing up on my genre history.

That's why I happened upon a lecture P.D. James gave in 1997 called Murder and Mystery: The Craft of the Detective Story. (Click here to read it). I'm a huge James fan; she and Georges Simenon were my guiding lights when I was trying to learn how to write detective novels. Jules Maigret and Adam Dalgliesh...those are the guys I'd want on the case when there's a body on the slab.

So you can imagine how cool it was to read this paper of hers. It's a great survey of the detective genre. But what I found really fascinating was the part where she talked about how she got her ideas. For James, it always starts with the setting.

I was gobsmacked when I read that. Because that's what always gets me going. I can't see a story until I can see the setting. Our books move between Michigan and Florida. Our settings have been, variously, an isolated island in the gulf, an abandoned insane asylum, an old family farm, a cattle pen overgrown with weeds, and an Everglades swamp way down south where the bottom of the state spreads out into the straits like a tattered flag.

Sometimes I almost feel like one of those weird psychics who claim they can see the place of death. When we are starting a new book, I can't always tell you exactly where we are. But I can sort of feel it. And eventually the place materializes on the page, sort of like an old Polaroid.

Like right now, we working on a new Louis book that takes him back to Michigan. That's all we knew when we started, that he had to go home. But where? Kelly insisted it had to be the Upper Peninsula (she went to college up there) and we eventually decided to take Louis as far north as we could -- way up to the Keweenaw Peninsula, that strange spit of land that extends out into Lake Superior like a crooked finger pointing the way toward the Canadian wilderness. End of earth sort of idea.

But still, things weren't gelling. There was a spark but it wasn't catching. Then I saw a photograph someone had taken of a small abandoned cemetery. Its crumbling headstones are obscured by dense carpets of clover. It's in the middle of nowhere. But it once the middle of somewhere -- a lively town where the copper miners lived and worked in the 1800s.

P.D. James said that once she found her setting all she then had to do was begin talking to its inhabitants. Thus came her characters. So it has happened with us. We're only ten chapters into this new book so we're still meeting the natives, still learning their histories, still trying to develop an ear for their odd Yooper accents. (it's somewhere between the nasal tones of Detroit and the lilt of Canada with some Finnish thrown in).

In a bit of synchronicity, I am the editor of the Edgar annual this year and months ago we decided on our theme -- the sense of place in the crime novel. The essays are great -- Lawrence Block on New York City, Peter Lovesey on Bath England, William Kent Kreuger on northern Minnesota, Cara Black on Paris -- each writer talking about how place colors their stories.

Even as I read them it didn't really occur to me how important setting was to me as a writer. But it is the thing from which everything else comes. If I don't know where I am I can't begin to tell you where my story is going. I need to know my place. It is my first spark.

What is yours?

p.s. Forgive me if I don't respond right away but I am en route to NYC today. Will catch up when I get into Newark Airport. There's wifi on the bus! 



Monday, April 29, 2013

Rituals and Superstititions

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I remember hearing a talk given by a historical writer who went into great detail about how she got herself prepared to write each day. Her rituals included mood lightning, music, incense, and a few historically appropriate artifacts to get her into the mood, and I remember thinking "what?! I don't have the luxury of time for all of that, I just have to sit down and write!". But in many ways that's not strictly speaking true. I was thinking about it this morning and realized that, like many writers, I do have my own set of rituals and superstitions that form part of the creative process that leads to sitting down, facing the empty page, and writing.

First of all, I have to mentally prepare myself - that means from the moment I get up the words are already forming. In the shower I'm formulating sentences and by the time I'm in the car on the way back from school I feel the ghosts of my characters coming to take their seats. I'm mentally rehearsing for when I finally sit down and write...and when I do I have  a separate notebook for each new novel. I have a scrapbook too - in which I jot down historical notes and cut and paste maps or photographs. When I write in long hand, which I sometimes do rather than type, it has to always be done in a rolling-ball or  fountain pen as I hate ballpoint pens (I used to only write in ink using a fountain pen until my dog Hamish chewed it to bits...) I always write at home, never in cafes, and always in total silence.

Okay, so I admit it's a pretty lame ritual. I'm not up at the crack of dawn like some writers who get their best work done at 4am, and if I had my choice I wouldn't be up at 2am either (although I often end up writing this late out of necessity).  I don't write in a shed like Roald Dahl or use ballpoint pen on A4 paper with only two punch holes (not four) like Philip Pullman. I don't have an antique hour glass like Dan Brown that I use to mark the time (nor do I do a session of push ups or sit ups either!). I also usually write fully clothed (unlike John Cheever  who apparently wrote in his underwear). So I guess I fall on the rather dull end of the writing ritual scale.

But how about you? Do you have any  specific writing rituals? Are you superstitious (or OCD...) and insist on anything specific when you write? 




Sunday, April 28, 2013

Should You Quit Your Day Job to Write?




Today's post is brought to you by FIGHT CITY, the new Irish Jimmy Gallagher novelette. And the best part is, it's FREE for Kindles and Kindle apps today through Thursday. It's Los Angeles, 1955, and all Jimmy Gallagher wants to do is meet his girl, Ruby, at the movies. But the City of Angels decides to put up its dukes and give Jimmy the fight of his life...

***

Back in the day, 25 years ago or so, when I was starting to pursue writing seriously, I wondered if it was possible to actually make a living at this thing. I know that was the dream of just about every scribe I came in contact with. The ideal was you could live anywhere, maybe on an island where they served piña coladas, and you would write during the day, eat your fill at night and, when needed, withdraw money from your ever-increasing bank account in the Caymans.

Or you could put your feet up on your desk or coffee table, stay in your pajamas if you wanted to, go unshaven for days at a time, and have publishers pay you large amounts because readers would want to buy your books the moment they hit the shelves.

Back then, you didn't pay much attention to the statistics, which told you that the number of writers who managed to make more than $5000 a year was pretty small. You were going to be one of the exceptions!

When I finally did become a professional, I kept practicing law until I had a few years under my belt where the writing income was steady and growing. I phased out the law only when I had a track record and a multi-book contract in hand.

Thus, I have never been one to tell new writers they should hastily quit their day jobs. There is a lot to be said for a day job, as long as you don't hate it so much that going to work feels like your soul is being sucked into the vacuum cleaner of dread.


But maybe not even then. The day job gives you reliable, steady income. It makes life predictable, financially speaking. It keeps you around people (writing full time is an isolating pursuit that sometimes makes you feel and act--and perhaps even look--like Ben Gunn from Treasure Island).


And if the job includes benefits, so much the better. Leaving all that for the uncertain life of a freelance writer is not a jump to be taken lightly. Ten years ago I would have advised a writer to have positive royalty income plus a multi-book contract before thinking of going it alone.

Of course, we are now in a new, self-publishing age. As I wrote last week, it is ever more possible to make serious money as a writer. Traditional publishing, undergoing its own uncertainties about the future, is no longer the only game in town--although it is still a game, and it is still in town, and it is still on its feet

So maybe you're thinking of "the dream" for yourself.  Here are some things you should ponder before taking the plunge.

1. Do you have the chops?

Let's be blunt here. Most self-published material is not ready for prime time. In the "old days" (that is, before 2007), the arbiters of what was ready was a coterie of agents and acquisitions editors. To gain their approval, writers would grind their way through a learning process that included lots of words typed, craft studied, manuscripts critiqued (by friends, a group, or a professional freelance editor) and so on. Now, a writer can leapfrog all that and bounce straight into digital publication. But that may not be the right hop.

My advice: Find a way to replicate some of the traditional process before you publish. I'm a craft guy, as you know. In my early years I would try to identify my weak spots and then design self-study programs. Even when it wasn't that intense, I'd be reading craft books and Writer's Digest and novels I admired (to enjoy first then take apart). This should be ongoing for you. Since 1988 I don't think a week has gone by when I did not do some active reading in or study of the techniques of writing fiction. If you're just starting out to form your own library of craft books, I can suggest a place to begin.

Find a critique group of fellow writers you can exchange manuscripts with. Avoid toxic relationships, however.

Put together an actual proposal for your novel, even if you're going to self-publish. Try to "sell" it to a friend or family member. This is a grinder, but it makes better writers.

2. Can you live with financial uncertainty?

As promising as self-publishing is, it is still a labor-intensive, up-and-down proposition. To help you live with the risk, I would counsel that you have a savings account with at least six months of living expenses in it. That cushion will soften any blows that come month-by-month. 

Even when your flow becomes positive, you're going to have to have the discipline to set aside money for estimated tax payments and unanticipated emergencies.

You will need to follow the advice of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

To be a full-time writer, learn to live below your means and sock the rest away: some for taxes, some for charity, some for retirement, some for investment, some in a liquid account.

Or marry a rich person.

3. Does your self-publishing income show a year-long, upward trendline?

Unless and until you can produce new material on a regular basis, and show a steady increase in income over the course of a year (which is enough time to allow for fluctuations), I wouldn't advise quitting your day job.


Further, your average monthly income at the end of the year should be hitting four figures. If you make under that much, but show a strong upward line, and know you can increase your output if you have more time to write, you might consider giving yourself a year of freedom from the day job to see what you can do. Everyone will have a different calculation about this. Commitments and financial needs will vary. If you are single and living in Tulsa or Fargo, your income needs will be less than if you are married and living in San Francisco or New York.

Make sure the people you care about most are okay with what you're doing, unless it's just your brother Arnold who thinks you're crazy to be a writer anyway.

4. Can you operate a business?

This is going to be your job. You have to have a certain amount of business acumen to do it well. Some of my writer friends admit that they don't have that kind of mind. For them, the day job or a working spouse is essential. They just want to write and hope for the best. That's fine. There's nothing wrong with that.

But the strategies for setting up a self-publishing business are not difficult to understand or implement. In fact, it's little more than what you would have to do as an author for a traditional house. In the trad world you still have to market yourself which requires . . . strategies and discipline. You can put that same energy into setting up a self-publishing stream. You also now have a plethora of options, from doing it all yourself to going through a service (e.g., Smashwords, BookBaby) to choosing a bit of both.

5. What about health insurance?

A final factor is the benefit of health insurance. I have no idea what the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is going to look like in 2014, when it really kicks in. Does anybody? (Well, here's a start.)  But if it does one of the things it promises, it may mean that formerly uninsurable freelance writers (even with pre-existing conditions) can get health care coverage. (NOTE: What I'm looking for is practical information on what you think the ACA could mean for individuals. Let's not get into a vitriolic debate about the act itself or its progenitor.)

So those are the thoughts out of the middle of my head. Let's open it up for discussion. Do you dream of doing this writing thing full time? What advice would you give someone thinking about it?


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Left Behind


I will be the first to admit that I am not handy around the house. Oh, I can repair a PC and an iMac, but wiring, painting, serious plumbing, wallpapering, or anything else that doesn’t leave one much of a margin of error...nope. John Ramsey Miller, I’m not. So no one was more surprised than I when this week I purchased and actually operated a chainsaw.

We had a part of one of our larger fir trees at casa de Hartlaub detach in a wind storm a few days/weeks/months ago and my neighbors, who usually are all fine fellows (since the conjurer of the dark arts who lived next door moved) were becoming somewhat standoffish, no doubt due to the fact that scurries of rabid chipmunks were regularly taking residence in the boughs. The detached part was bigger than most normal trees so it wasn’t something that I could haul to the curb like a Christmas tree. Some cutting and separation was accordingly in order. I went to my local hardware superstore and purchased a Homelite electric chainsaw. The directions were wonderful, and it worked like a dream. I put on a set of headphones, potted up The Complete Bitches Brew to 11, and began cutting away.

I discovered something, however. Chainsaws are for right-handed people. I’m left-hand dominant. And I mean dominant. Not even the Sisters of Charity, circa 1957, could break me of my left hand use, notwithstanding the observation that such a proclivity indicated that I was doomed to be an instrument of the devil. I do almost everything (yeah, even that) with my left hand. As with most such things, I called the Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and a few other agencies and I’m going to get this discrimination redressed. Not really. Just kidding. I worked around it, used it properly --- with my right hand on the trigger, left hand on the grip (or something like that) stood with the blade away from me and cut the heck out of that thing. I had that tree demolished before Miles, Chick Corea, et al. were halfway through “Spanish Key.”

Left-handed people have to adapt to a right-handed world. Does that make us special? Smarter? More creative? All or none of the foregoing? Consider this: I attended a legal seminar several years ago where the attendees sat at random, eleven seats to each long table. The lad next to me nudged me about two hours into the presentation and nodded down the table, where nine other people were busy taking notes. Every single person was left-handed. Maybe the Sisters of Charity were right.

I think it is a given that the people who are gracious enough to visit this blogspot on a regular basis are among the most creative and intelligent on the planet. And great folks of course, to boot. I accordingly am taking a totally unscientific survey: are you left- or right-handed? And do you have a good left-handed story, funny or not so much, that you would care to share with us?



Friday, April 26, 2013

Reader Friday: What kind of writer are you?


When it comes to developing a story, are you a Plotter, Pantser or Tweener? Would you ever try walking on the other side?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

First-page critiques at TKZ

We're delighted to announce the launch of first-page critiques as a regular feature here at TKZ! You can send us the first page of your manuscript, and we'll critique it.

Here's how it works: Send us the first page (400 words max) of your manuscript in an email or as a Word attachment, along with the title, to the email address killzoneblog at gmail dot com. We'll take the first 30 submissions we receive, then announce when we're accepting submissions again. The pages will be divvied up among the Zoners for review. We'll post the pages on recurrent Thursdays, along with a critique. Readers will be able to comment as well. Note: Critiques are done anonymously--writers' names will not be posted, and reviewers will not know who authored their assigned pages.

In years past we've had great fun doing this exercise! We're looking forward to reading some of your pages!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Multiple Book Releases

What happens when you have more than one book to promote at the same time? Do you annoy readers with announcements about the new releases, blog tours, and contests? Which book do you choose to emphasize in your online blasts?

In this digital age, we can publish as fast as we can write. But at what point are we diluting our own sales? And how will our digital releases affect our print books with their higher price point?

I’ve reached this quandary in April through no planning of my own. Wild Rose Press gave me April 26 as the official release date for Warrior Rogue, #2 in my paranormal Drift Lords series. But then they decided to enter it into the Kindle Select program, meaning the ebook came out in December and my five free days were in February. I did a big push over Valentine’s Day weekend with announcements and contests.

I’d planned another promotional campaign for April 26 to celebrate the print release and the book’s availability for Nook and other formats. I set my newsletter to go out on that date, a Rafflecopter contest to start then, and a blog tour shortly thereafter. (If you want to sign up for my newsletter, visit http://nancyjcohen.com and fill in the form on the left sidebar).

But the best laid plans go awry. Two things happened to impact my campaign. Warrior Rogue showed up in print about two weeks early. And Shear Murder, Bad Hair Day Mystery #10, came out in ebook for $3.19!

I’d been panting with anticipation for the digital release of Shear Murder, but Five Star wouldn’t give me a specific date. This title had only been available as an expensive hardcover for over a year. And finally it shows up in the same month as my promoted new release. What to do?

Since I’d already set up my contest and newsletter and blog tour for Warrior Rogue, I’m going ahead with those plans for April 26. That date seems like a moot point now, since the title is already available in various formats. The irony is that Warrior Rogue, initially $2.99, price jumped to $5.99. So now that ebook costs more than Shear Murder at $3.19.

I don’t want to bombard my fans with notices and confuse them with my two different genres, but I really want to get word out about Shear Murder. It’s easier to keep new releases apart when they aren’t the same month!

And hereafter, I won’t treat release dates as absolute. There’s no point in planning a big hoopla around a certain date when the book shows up weeks earlier. Is this a result of the digital age?

Those of you who are hybrid authors, both traditionally and indie published, can at least space out your own uploads so as not to compete with your publisher’s plans. But if you’re writing two or more books per year for different publishers, how do you alternate your online promotions? And as a reader, how much news from an author is too much?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

When writers don't play nice in real life, do readers care?



For the most part, writers are the nicest group of people you'll ever meet. When I went to my first writer's
conference back in 2006 as a newbie without a publishing contract, I was expecting to be dismissed by the "real" authors there. Instead, I found myself surrounded by the most welcoming, supportive professional community I'd ever met.
Of course. there are always exceptions. I've become more aware of those exceptions recently because of Facebook. People who are active on Facebook eventually reveal themselves, personality warts and all. For writers, sometimes too much revealing of self ignites blowback from readers.

Last week, a well-known author posted a Facebook rant about a political topic. Her comments were followed by vocal disappointment from some of her readers; all of the commenters expressed disappointment in the author. A few vowed never to buy her books again. Ouch.

We've even been taken to task occasionally here at TKZ. Whenever a blogger has made an ill considered, controversial or tactless remark, it's "Katie, bar the door." You guys always let us know when we've fumbled the courtesy ball. And for that, we thank you. :)

But it occurs to me that most people don't want to buy "nice" books. Few people want to read about the Village of Nice, Happy People. We want conflict, emotion, and tension from our stories. But we don't want that from our real-life writers.

I grew up surrounded by high-achieving, volatile personalities, so I guess I expect my artists to be a bit raw in person. But I'm wondering--have you ever encountered a writer who was rude or obnoxious in real life, and did that experience make you less likely to buy his or her book? 

I'll leave you with Jack Nicholson from As Good As It Gets, in which he offends an ardent fan.




Monday, April 22, 2013

Getting Everything Right Is Wrong


by Boyd Morrison

I’m averse to making mistakes, which probably stems from my educational background. I’m an engineer by training. In that profession, errors can have devastating consequences. Miscalculate the thickness of concrete walls, and a billion-dollar oil rig sinks (Sleipner A platform). Change the design of a single bolt, and a crowded walkway collapses (Kansas City Hyatt). Underestimate the effect of cold weather on a simple rubber O-ring, and a space shuttle explodes (Challenger).

So I’ve been conditioned to avoid mistakes at all costs. The problem is that I’m no longer an engineer. I’m now in the creative fields of writing and acting. In my new professions, mistakes are just fine. No one dies. Nothing is destroyed. In fact, mistakes are encouraged. That’s how you improve.

In writing, trying to eliminate mistakes is the mistake. Yes, there are objective errors that you want to avoid in a novel. Don’t put a safety on a Glock pistol. Don’t make your continuity and timelines inconsistent. Don’t change the name of a character halfway through. These are indisputable mistakes, and yet I have seen them all in novels. Bestselling novels.

In one of my own books, THE ARK, I explained that the elevators of a slowing airplane lowered to maintain altitude. Of course, this is incorrect. The elevators should go up to pitch the aircraft up. I’ve flown planes myself. I have a degree in mechanical engineering during which I studied fluid dynamics. I know that it was wrong, and I still made the mistake. No one—including my brother, who is a former Air Force pilot—caught the error until the book was in stores. No one died, and only one reader has ever brought it up (in fact, it’s the only reason I know the mistake happened). However, the error still bugs me.

What’s more insidious for a writer is the avoidance of subjective mistakes. We want to get everything right in a story: characters, plot, twists, literary merit, creativity, emotional resonance. We want the story to be perfect, and impatient people like me want it to be perfect from the moment we start typing it.

But it never is. It can’t be. Ever. I bet you’d only be able to come up with a tiny list of  stories that didn’t have a single thing you’d change. And even then, go look at the Amazon reviews for those books. You’ll find at least a few people (and sometimes hundreds of them) who don’t agree with your definition of perfection.

Voltaire is considered the originator of the phrase, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” We’re afraid that if our story isn’t perfect, it won’t be good enough. The idea for a novel that we have in our minds never comes out on the page like we imagine. Sometimes we can’t write at all because we’ll be disappointed that it won’t come out perfectly formed on the first try.

What we have to come to terms with is that making mistakes is part of the process. That’s how we learn. That’s how we make art. My wife, who is sometimes frustrated when I delay delivering pages to her to edit, gave me a T-shirt for Christmas that says, “Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.” That notion can be freeing if you take it to heart. You can’t make it better if it doesn’t exist in the first place.

I’m getting more comfortable with making mistakes, but it’s a daily struggle. The lesson slowly worming its way into my head is that to fixate on creating the perfect novel results in creating nothing. So I’m learning to focus on the right thing: getting a story out that reflects my voice, where even the flaws and imperfections are unique to me.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



Last week's post on publishing options drew some spirited responses, especially from one of TKZ's erstwhile contributors. In his opinion, "self-publishing is an exercise in frustration and a path to near-assured failure for first-time authors."

Now, I have great affection and respect for said commenter, who argues well for his point of view. But I was nonetheless discomfited by that "near-assured failure." Been thinking about it all week. What does "failure" even mean? Who sets the standard? If a new author finds a way to make steady but not huge income, is that "failure"? If a new author keeps working and growing as a writer, is that "failure"? On the other hand, might it possibly be said that self-publishing, done consistently and skillfully, can actually lead to near-assured success? What is "success"? Is it a loyal readership, even if it pales in comparison to Dean Koontz's (well, every readership pales in comparison to Dean Koontz's)? Is it the happiness that comes from writing and publishing more, faster, being in control of one's destiny and, yes, making some money at it?

This led me to reflect, yet again, on the writers I admire most: the professionals of the old pulp days. I've been on record for a long time stating that this new digital age is like the pulp era, only with more opportunity and potentially better pay. But it requires a certain kind of writer. One like Erle Stanley Gardner (1889 - 1970).

Gardner is best know as the creator of Perry Mason. When he hit on that character and that formula, he was set for life. But what most people don't know is how hard he worked to get there. He was a practicing lawyer in the 1920s, and was looking for a way to make money on the side. Writing for the exploding market in detective and crime fiction seemed promising. 

He set out to do it the only way he knew how––full speed ahead. His output was, as he described it later, "man killing." One hundred thousand words a month. A month. Over a million words a year, for at least ten years. (And much of it while he was still practicing law).

He did manage to sell some stories, but not enough to please him. Then one day he realized he did not know how to plot. His stories were merely "event combinations." Lawyer that he was, he set out to find out how to write plots that sold (I resonate with this, because I was a practicing lawyer when I set out to learn the same thing!)

Boy, did he ever get it. And he kept up his prodigious output until he was a mainstay of famous pulps like Black Mask. Then, in 1933, came The Case of the Velvet Claws and the
introduction of Perry Mason. There was no looking back. At one time Gardner was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling author who ever lived.

While the success that Gardner achieved is rare for writers of any stripe, his example and work ethic can be replicated today. More and more authors are doing a nice business self-pubbing. I'm not just talking about the "stars" like Hugh Howey, Bella Andre and the newest sensation, Colleen Hoover. I'm talking about people you've never heard of, and who don't really mind that because they have plenty of readers who have.

So how do you self-publish fiction successfully? Learn the following lessons from Erle Stanley Gardner. (Note: The info in this post comes from the biography of Gardner by Dorothy B. Hughes.)

1. Treat it like a job

For Gardner and other successful pulpsters, writing was a job, especially during the Depression. They had to eat. They didn't have time to sit around the coffee bar ruminating about theories of literature. They actually had to produce stories, lots of them. They studied the markets (and wrote in popular genres, like detective and Western) and pounded the keys of their manual typewriters. Gardner was a two-finger typist and had to put adhesive tape on his tips because they would start to bleed. (This is one reason he later turned to dictating his stories, having them transcribed by a team of secretaries).

Seeing writing as a professional pursuit, Gardner reflected on his previous work in the sales field. "I had always told our salesmen that if a man had drive enough, if he kept on punching doorbells, sooner or later he would make his quota of sales. I guess the same thing applies to story writing. I know it did in my case."

It can in your case, too. Volume is a key to success in self-publishing fiction. That, and learning a few business basics and strategies.

2. Treat it like a craft

When Gardner kept getting rejection slips that said "plot too thin," he knew he had to learn how to do it. After much study he said he "began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is." He began to build stories, not just make them up on the fly. He made a list of parts and turned those into "plot wheels" which was a way of coming up with innumerable combinations. He was able, with this system, to come up with a complete story idea in thirty seconds.

Learning to plot stories that sell can be done, because Gardner did it, and I did it. And I wrote a book about it. It's called Plot & Structure.

Gardner also wrote in various lengths. Successful self-publishing writers write short stories and novellas as well as full novels. Keep learning and growing as a writer. 

3. Treat it like a sacrifice

There's an old saying about the law, that it is a "jealous mistress." To be any good as a lawyer demands time and sacrifice. Gardner knew he had to be productive to make real money, so he set a quota for himself of 5,000 words a day. If he missed a day due to a trial or other legal matter, he would make up the difference on another day.

I am often asked what the single best piece of writing advice I ever got was, and I always say, Write to a quota. I write six days a week, and take Sundays off. It's worked for me for over twenty years. Virtually no one can write 5,000 words a day like Gardner. And of course most writers have day jobs and family responsibilities. So the key is to figure out what you can produce and commit to doing that week in and week out.

This is my standard suggestion: Figure out what you can comfortably write per week, given your particular circumstances. It doesn't matter the number, just find it. Then up that by 10% and divide into six days. Make that your goal. Keep a record on a spreadsheet that tracks your daily writing and turns it into weekly totals. It will give you confidence to see those numbers adding up throughout the year.

Be prepared to give some things up (TV is a jealous mistress, too) in order to find time to write.

4. Treat it like a mad passion

You've got to be a little nuts if you want to be a professional writer. In those early years, Gardner said, "I would work until one, one-thirty or two o'clock in the morning when I would be so dog-tired that I would stop to rest and would fall asleep in the chair and have nightmares, dreaming for the most part about the characters in the story, waking up a few seconds later all confused as to what was in the story and what had been in my dream. At that time I would go to bed. I would sleep for about three hours a night, waking up around five or five-thirty in the morning. Then I would take a shower, shave, pull up my typewriter and write until it came time to go to the office."

Now, I don't suggest a madness of that magnitude! I find it inspiring, but also know I could never keep a schedule like that (well, maybe if I was twenty-five and unmarried . . .) But dip your quill into Gardner's passion and scribble some of it on your writing soul. And embrace the fact that you are part of a grand fellowship of the mad, the storytellers, the weavers of dreams.

5. Treat it like an adventure right up to the end

A favorite anecdote about Gardner, when he was selling some but not enough, occurred after he felt he finally "got it" about plotting. He sent a story to Black Mask with this note: "If you have any comments on it, put them on the back of a check." Gardner knew he had reached a place of consistent sales, was in this for the long haul, and would never stop writing.

Do you know that about yourself? Are you in this thing to the finish? Make that decision now, and you have a chance to become successful self-publishing fiction.

Gardner completed his last Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Fabulous Fake, six months before his death. Cancer caught up with him. He was hospitalized a few times. But he kept working on a non-fiction book about crime. His editor at Morrow sent him a note suggesting he might want to slow down. Gardner sent one back: "You should know Gardner by now . . . when I get enthusiastic about something, I put the whole machinery into operation."

Erle Stanley Gardner died on March 11, 1970. He had made some autobiographical notes before his death. The last words were these: "My life is filled with color and always has been. I want adventure. I want variety. I want something to look forward to . . . The one dividend we are sure of is the opportunity to have beautiful daydreams . . . . This is as it should be. This is the color of life. I love it."

If you want to self-publish fiction, and make some money at it, do it the Gardner way. Love life, love writing, put your "whole machinery" into action, and never shut down the operation.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Finishing the First Draft

By Mark Alpert

It was a terrible week in the news -- the bombs in Boston, the explosion in Texas, the failure of the background-check bill -- so it was a great relief to plunge into fiction. And fiction-wise, it was a wonderful week for me, because I completed the first draft of my next novel. My daily word count always rises to extraordinary (at least for me) levels when I’m nearing the end, partly because I get caught up in the climax of the book and partly because I just want to finish the darn thing. I love writing 2,000 words a day, but it also makes me feel bad about how little I write at other times. I say to myself, “Why can’t you write this much all the time? Then you could knock off a novel in two months and spend the rest of the year on your tennis game.”

I can’t reveal any details about the book because I hate talking about my novels while I’m still writing them. And I know I’ll be revising this book for the next few months, so it’s not really finished. But completing the first draft is a big milestone for me. At least I know now how the book will end. I had a vague idea of the ending while I was writing the manuscript, but I wasn’t sure how it would all come together until I started the final chapter. Before that moment I worried I would hit some unforeseen obstacle -- a logical inconsistency, or maybe a hopelessly implausible plot twist -- and the whole enterprise would fall apart.
But it didn’t. At this point I have no idea whether the book is any good, but at least it hangs together. Now I have to wait to hear from my editor. He already read the beginning of the book, and he liked it, but I don’t know how he’ll feel about the end. I’m not even sure how I feel about it. I’m too close to the thing. But I’m cautiously optimistic. The reason for my optimism: bullet ants. The ending has a scene featuring bullet ants. You see, I just broke my rule about never revealing details of a novel-in-progress, but I couldn’t help it. Bullet ants are fascinating creatures.

Although I still have lots of work to do on the book, I decided to reward myself for finishing the first draft. So I spent three days biking and playing tennis. (I have to work off the five pounds I gained while writing the novel.) The best reward, though, was simply writing THE END at the bottom of the last page of the manuscript. I have no idea how many times I’ll be able to write those words in my life, so I intend to enjoy the experience as much as possible every time it happens.

 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Reader Friday: Does writing make you happy?

Let's take a break from all the heavy news today, shall we? And ponder this question: Does writing make you happy?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Advice Would You Give to Young Writers?

By Jordan Dane
@JordanDane




Today I am presenting a workshop to the Creative Writing students at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). This is a free offering of like-minded authors getting together to share their thoughts on the publishing industry and the craft of writing. I plan on sharing my thoughts on the latest trends in publishing with a focus on the Young Adult and New Adult markets. I will also spend more time talking about author craft and the epiphanies I have learned through the books I've written. Each book teaches you something different, right? Writing is the best way to learn those things, mostly through trial and error when you learn best from your mistakes.

I also want to spend time talking about the writer’s life and the discipline to accomplish daily goals. Usually life, the day job, and other obligations can force you to set aside your passion to write, but if it’s important to you, I say make time for it, even if that’s only a page a day.

The hardest thing I will broach is the crazy things happening in the publishing industry with regard to the changing contractual terms and what it means to self-publish or navigate the ebook services being offered by large publishers and agents, etc. But I find it hard to stop the long list of warnings that I would want them to be aware of so they don’t sign their copyrights away for the life of their book, simply to get published. It’s a scary world out there in this interim phase while the industry is sorting things out. But I don’t want to scare them off either. So I am limiting my warnings to only the most treacherous ones that dangle like gems stones and look all polished and pretty, but have complications. Things like royalty value for digital books, the ala carte subrights menu, rights reversions, and what agents and publishers are offering that could be troublesome. When the goal is to get them to incorporate writing into their daily life, or to nurture something that could become a passion later in life, I don't want to discourage them from the start.

When I talk to young writers, I want to simply encourage them to write and recognize that if they have the drive and passion for writing, they should write whether they get published or not. I remember how important reading and writing was for me in school and how it stayed with me for my whole life. But first comes the desire and getting hooked on it. It’s a quality of life thing. I usually encourage them to keep a journal of their thoughts or characters they want to develop, or keep a file of ideas for future books. I will share James Scott Bell’s wonderful TKZ post on how to write a short story or share one of my favorite Joe Moore posts on editing your work in Writing is Rewriting. There are so many posts that I’ve found useful at TKZ that I’m still pinching myself that I am a member here.

But my question to all of you is – what advice would you give to a young writer? Someone who is in college or high school and has the writing bug? Everyone here at TKZ would have something to offer young writers. What would you tell them?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The End Game

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

I enjoy taking about the mechanics of writing, particularly the basics—Writing 101. The reason is that it’s where most new writers stumble and fall. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to play the end game and lose.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying conclusion. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time.

There are a number of methods you can use to make sure your ending works. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your protagonist to work toward and, in the end, they are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the protag and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

So how are you guys at playing the End Game. Any additional tips? What about telling us your favorite ending to a movie or book?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

When Titles Go Bad


By P.J. Parrish

Okay, we’re starting out today with a quiz. No Google-cheating for the answers either. Here are the original titles for some books. I guarantee you’ve read at least one. (I’ve read them all which is why I picked them) Can you guess what they wound up being called?

The Last Man in Europe
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen
Fiesta
At This Point in Time
Wacking Off

Now let’s talk about what you're going to call your book. Because this is the most important marketing decision you will make and frankly, given the quality of some titles out there, we all need some help on this front.

The naming of books is a difficult matter. 
It isn't just one of your holiday games. 
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter 
when I tell you, a book must have three different names.

Apologies to T.S. Eliot but I’ve found that his rhyme about naming cats works for books. In my life I’ve had sixteen cats and published sixteen books. Weird stat, huh? Got me thinking  about how important a name is when it comes to your book.

How important? I found a marketing survey that asked readers what was the element that most influenced why they bought a book. Excluding Gigantoid Author Name (ie James Patterson can put his name on an Altoid can and it would sell) here is the order:

1. Title
2. Cover
3. Back copy
4. Opening paragraphs
5. Price

This is why when Carson McCullers submitted her first novel The Mute to Houghton-Mifflin they bought it and renamed the book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This is why after William Golding’s first novel Strangers from Within was plucked from Faber and Faber’s slush pile, it was retitled Lord of the Flies.

First impressions count. And your title is like a business card, a quick but well-calculated introduction you offer your reader in the hopes it will entice her to want to know more. It doesn’t matter if you’re traditionally published or doing it yourself, the wrong title can make or break your book – and you.

Going traditional? In your average publishing house, there will be many people with their hands on your book: editors, sales reps, marketing managers, publicists, even book buyers at the major booksellers will weigh in on the consumer appeal of your title. (Walmart threatened to not stock our book South of Hell because of the title; they backed off) Chances are your title will be challenged or even changed.

Going self-published? What you call your book will be entirely up to you so it’s really important to understand what a title needs to do. More on that in a moment.

Let’s go back to T.S. Eliot for a sec. He says that cats have three names: the first is the one the family uses in every day life. For us this was UNTITLED LOUIS KINCAID THRILLER NO. 1. That’s how it appeared on our contract. Lots of writers call their book WIP or The Book. Or in some sad cases, That Thing That Has Eaten Up My Life For Ten Years.

Eliot’s second name for cats is “fancier names that sound sweeter.” For us, it was The Last Rose of Summer, the title we submitted. We loved this title. We thought it spoke volumes about our thriller which was about the vestiges of Old South racism, forbidden love and death. But it wasn't dark enough. It sounded like a romance.

Eliot’s third cat name is one that's “particular, peculiar and more dignified.” This is the title your book really needs. For us, it was Dark of the Moon. We came upon that title after weeks of gnashing our teeth. I pulled my volume of Langston Hughes poems from the shelf and there was his poem “Silhouette” and our final title.


Southern gentle lady,
Do not swoon.
They've just hung a black man
In the dark of the moon.

They've hung a black man
To the roadside tree
In the dark of the moon
For the world to see
How Dixie protects
Its white womanhood.

Southern gentle lady,
          Be good!
          Be good!


I think some authors have “the title gene” and come up with the perfect names. Others lock onto signposts like Sue Grafton’s alphabet, John Sandford’s “Prey” or Evanovich’s numbers. Although I have to say I’m not crazy about this approach especially since it has spawned some lazy imitation gimmicks. (Hey, I’m going to write an erotic-suspense series! I just Googled condom names! Want to buy my book Vibrating Johnny?)

We’ve been lucky and have had to change only two of our titles. Maybe it’s because I used to write newspaper headlines so my brain is trained to take a story and smash it down into ten words or less that you can read from a passing car. I do know that authors struggle mightily with their titles. There’s even a award for the worst title -– and of course it’s awarded by the British.


Bookseller Magazine gave their prize this year to Reginald Bakeley for his book Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop – and Other Practical advice In Our Campaign Against the Fairy Kingdom. The runners-up were:

How Tea Cosies Changed the World.
God's Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis.
How to Sharpen Pencils.
Was Hitler Ill?

In twelve years of teaching workshops and doing critiques I’ve have seen maybe one title that I thought really captured the book’s tone. (It was our own Kathryn Lilly’s Dying To Be Thin.) So I know how hard this is. Here is my advice on titles, for what it's worth:

  1. Capture your tone and genre. Go on Amazon and look up books similar to yours (cruise the genre bestseller lists). Words have inflection, mood and color. Choose them carefully.
  2. Grab the reader emotionally. Two titles that do it for me: The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 
  3. Don’t settle for clichés. Yes, it’s hard to come up with fresh permutations on old standby words (especially in genre fiction where we rely on “dark” “blood” “death” etc.) But you have to find words that are unique about your story and draw upon them. Here’s a great title that twists a cliché word: Something Wicked This Way Comes.
  4. Don't use empty arcane words that you think sound cool. Examples of bad titles: The Cambistry Conspiracy. (about world trade) The Hedonic Dilemma (about psychology ethics).  Penultimate to Die. (the second-to-the-last victim).  Don't worry...I made these up. 
  5. Create an expectation about the story. You know why I love this title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? It makes me say, “Oh yeah, buddy? Show me!” and he does.
  6. Be brief and punchy. Okay, I know I just gave you a bunch of long titles I love but there is something wonderful about short titles and studies show most bestsellers have short titles: Gone Girl works. So does Tell No One, Lolita and Jaws (original title A Stillness in the Water).
  7. Make the title work on other levels. This is hard but worth the brain-sweat if you can do it. Consider what these titles come to mean once you get deep into the stories: Catch 22, Silence of the Lambs. But don’t get too clever. I love Louise Ure’s book Forcing Amaryllis and the title is brilliant because it is about a rape and murder. But do most understand that the title is from a gardening term about forcing a plant to bloom early? Not so sure.
  8. Make a list of key words that appear in your book. Is there something you can build on? For our book A Killing Rain, the title came when I heard a Florida farmer describe that drenching downpour that can kill off the tomato crop and we used it in the book. The title was there all the time and we didn't see it at first.
  9. Search existing works -- the Bible, poetry, Shakespeare. I found our title An Unquiet Grave in an 17th century English poem.
  10. Write 20 titles and let them sit for a week or so. Go back and read them and something will jump out. Find some beta-readers you can test with. Titles usually evoke visceral immediate responses. You will know immediately if they connect.

And last: Never get emotionally attached to a title. It’s the worst thing you can do because it probably will be changed. Or needs to be. Because your first title is usually, as T.S. Eliot said, a prosaic every-day thing. You can do better. It's there. You just have to dig deep. Sweat out that great title that Eliot called the “ineffable, effable, effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name.”

Answers to the quiz:
The Last Man in Europe (1984)
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen (Valley of the Dolls)
Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises)
At This Point in Time (All the President’s Men)
Wacking Off (Portnoy’s Complaint)