For all the writers out there… Links!

Classic story structures and what they can teach us about novel plotting.

Infographic: The key book publishing paths.

How writer’s workshops can be hostile, by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen.

From Chuck Wendig, a “hot steaming sack of business advice” for writers.

John Scalzi explains the concept of the “brain eater,” a danger lurking for writers and other creative types.

Information overload and the loss of meaning…

One drawback I see in our ability to communicate faster than ever before is that we have become lazy about our language. A word or phrase will suddenly pop up everywhere, and we tend to pick it up and repeat it without really questioning what it means or how it’s being used. See, for example, the term deep state, which I had never heard before a couple of weeks ago but now seem to see all over the place. By using and reusing this term without really interrogating it, we lend credence to it. Without being aware of it, something that was just an idea or a concept becomes objective reality. (For more on this fascinating phenomenon and how it infects our thinking, see this article.)

There is a pervasive sense now that writing of all kinds should be done quickly and published as soon as possible to maximize virality. I’m guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I have a hard time now taking my time with my writing, putting my energy into longer pieces, and crafting them to communicate my thoughts as precisely as possible. The medium of blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets reward the hastily composed post and the quick trigger finger when it comes to clicking “Publish.” Even with this post right now, I am scribbling my initial thoughts and planning to publish what amounts to a rough draft.

This is what we’ve come to expect from blogs and other online writing, and I find that I consume it in the same way it was written: as quickly as possible, without pause to reflect on what the author is actually saying. Web writing is quick to produce, quick to consume, and if I may be crude about it, quite often amounts to a gigantic mound of shit.

My challenge to myself, and to you, is to question the language that constantly swirls around us. Instead of skimming a report or story, read it word by word and try to parse the writer’s exact meaning. (Often you will find that you can’t pin down that meaning because the writing is lazy or purposely obfuscating, and therefore untrustworthy.) Read the story in print instead of on the computer screen and see if that makes a difference. Write down words or phrases whose meanings you can’t quite pin down and look them up–is the writer using them in accordance with their accepted definitions?

Being bombarded by so much rapid-fire information has led to a kind of paralysis. It has become more difficult to determine what is fact and what is hyperbole and what is propaganda and what is advertisement. It’s like walking down a grocery-store aisle and freezing when presented with a thousand different options for hand lotion or breakfast cereal–which is the best choice? Or are they all essentially the same?

The best strategy for dealing with overwhelming amounts of information may be similar to that for dealing with too much stuff: consume less and focus on the quality of what we do take in.

Should You Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish? | Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman gives really great advice on whether to self-publish or go the traditional route. Here’s a key point:

I see some writers self-publish mainly because they lack patience with the querying and submissions process of traditional publishing. Or they want the instant gratification of getting their work on the market. But again, this is one of the worst reasons to self-publish. I find many authors on my doorstep because they thought “Why not self-publish now and shop it around later to agents/editors?” — and ended up disappointed with the results. If you have any interest whatsoever in traditional publishing, exhaust all your agent/publisher options first. Get thoroughly rejected (as much as that may hurt), and then self-publish. It’s very, very hard to go in the other direction successfully.

Source: Should You Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish? | Jane Friedman

Present vs. past tense: Which to use in your writing

Over the past few years, I have noticed that more and more writers are using the present tense rather than the past tense to tell their stories. I think this trend started in young adult fiction, but now writers of all genres are employing the technique. Some readers don’t like this and will refuse to read books written in present tense.

The present tense is not a grating style choice for me as a reader, unlike the recent trend of not using quotation marks. (That trend, thankfully, seems to be fading away.) I hated it when authors chose not to use quotation marks because it almost always threw me out of the story. I had to keep stopping to figure out whether someone was talking or not. It got to be so common that I wouldn’t even read a book that didn’t have quotation marks. This rule could be broken successfully, though. Cormac McCarthy famously doesn’t use quotation marks, and his writing is so good that there never is any question about what is dialogue and what isn’t. I broke my own rule as well, because I have read and enjoyed several of his novels.

Employing present tense is different, I think, because when done well, it can help draw the reader into the story. It is harder to write effectively in present tense than in past tense (for reasons that I’ll get into), but it’s not Cormac McCarthy-hard. Even more importantly, using present tense is quite often the right choice for the story being told.

To read a story is to be told a story. The storyteller differs from book to book, but someone is telling it, whether it’s a character, a disembodied narrator, or even the writer. Most stories are written in past tense because we are being told a story that has already happened.

This used to be a much more overt conceit. Many stories used to have a frame that related how the storyteller was telling the story and why. The storyteller might be writing the story down in a letter or diary, for instance. Readers needed this conceit for believability. As novels became more common, the conceit was mostly dropped, although it is still used from time to time.

A story told in present tense, though, is happening now. The reader experiences the events along with the storyteller. This makes the story feel more immediate and dramatic, almost cinematic. It’s like watching a movie: We believe we are watching events unfold as they happen.

The downside is that the present-tense narrator cannot know the future. In stories written in past tense, the narrator has the benefit of hindsight, which can be used to heighten suspense. Stephen King employs this technique quite often when he lets slip a character’s fate: “This was the last time he’d ever…” Hindsight also provides the opportunity to layer in meaning and character development, to interpret past events in terms of what came afterward.

A present-tense narrator is, like all of us, stuck in the here and now. A slip in this regard can derail the reading experience. I recently received a copy of Blake Crouch’s novel Dark Matter for early review. It’s written in the present tense, but early on, the first-person narrator reveals that he knows his own future. I won’t say this is the only reason I chose not to review the book–I really didn’t care for the writing style–but it was one of the reasons. Perhaps it wasn’t a mistake–perhaps the author had a good rationale for this–but I hadn’t gotten far enough in the story to trust the author on that.

Another problem with present tense is that it relates events as they happen, both the exciting and the mundane. For this reason, present tense is often a better choice for novels with lots of action. We don’t want to read about narrators brushing their teeth or sitting through work meetings. Even this limitation can be gotten around. I recently reviewed an indie book that employed the simple but effective technique of “fast forwarding” through the boring bits, again like a movie.

Authors should not choose present tense because it’s trendy, though, or because everyone seems to be doing it. They should choose the tense that works for the story they are writing. Present tense doesn’t seem like a good choice for historical novels, for instance, because they are presumed to have taken place in the past. Then again, Hilary Mantel uses it for her Wolf Hall novels, which I haven’t read, but who am I to argue with books that have received so many accolades?

Present and past tense can even be mixed, if done with purpose. Kristin Hannah does this in The Nightingale: The contemporary sections are written in present tense, and the historical sections are written in past tense. Things are happening to the narrator as she is telling the story, and the choice of tense helps convey that. (Take care when mixing tenses, though; incorrectly used verb tenses will trip up the reader.)

Present tense is another tool in the author’s toolkit. When chosen purposefully and employed skillfully, it can be an effective way to tell a story.

Quality of self-published books, revisited…

Recently, I wrote about the issue of quality in self-published books when compared to traditionally published books. I’m not the first or only person to have written about this (see here and here and here and here). I have also written about it on this blog many times.

On my latest post on this subject, a commenter wrote: “Writing fiction well is incredibly difficult. There are many areas that need to be mastered.” Truer words… Writing anything well is hard; writing fiction is much more so. Good writing is almost invisible to the reader. It allows the reader to slide effortlessly into the story. Errors trip the reader up like stones in the path; too many of them throw the reader right out of immersion.

The good news is that writing, like any skill, only gets better with practice. Perhaps this is how we should look at self-publishing: as a place to practice. As long as both readers and writers are aware of this–and readers who don’t want to spend their time or money on books that aren’t ready for prime time aren’t excoriated for that–I see no problem.

By the way, readers get better with practice too. The more you read, the easier it becomes to lose a connection with a poorly written book.

The self-published arena is mind-bogglingly huge. I’m not saying that every self-published book was written by someone just learning how to write. I am not talking about writers who have been doing this a while and who have established a readership. Their decision to self-publish is primarily a business decision. Their readers will find their books wherever they are. They don’t need me telling them how to produce a high-quality product.

Who am I talking to? I’m talking to writers who are learning and who aspire to become better at what they do so they can reach more readers.

If, as a writer, you want to be favorably reviewed–not by Joe Schmo book blogger, but by professional publications whose recommendations you can use to help sell your book–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to be considered for prizes, then you need to worry about quality. If you want to get your book into libraries–and libraries are a primary market for many children’s books*–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to attract readers who primarily read traditionally published books–who are looking for a great read and nothing more–then you need to worry about quality.

If you have such aspirations and you decide to self-publish, then you need to make your book the best it can be. You will be up against not only all of the barriers that all writers face, but also the stigma of self-publishing in general. Rightly or wrongly, self-published books in general have a reputation for low quality. Even if you in particular are an outstanding writer who pays scrupulous attention to crafting your books, you still have to contend with the fact that the majority of self-published authors do not. By some counts, up to a million books are self-published each year. Think about that.

In future posts, I will talk more specifically about common mistakes I see and how writers can improve the quality of their work. This is meant to be advice, not prescriptive. Take it or leave it. Note that comments are moderated and I do have a commenting policy here.

*Please, if you write for children, please use correct spelling and grammar. They are just beginning to learn the language. They deserve competent teachers.

As a review, here are my ten markers for a minimum baseline of quality fiction writing, slightly updated:

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. 
  2. Verb tense is consistent. 
  3. Point of view is consistent. 
  4. Character names are consistent. So are other facts given in the text.
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. 
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.

More is less…

I am currently taking a course in editing, and I thought this gem shared by the professor was worth saving:

“More is less.” Cut as much as you can without losing meaning and you may have it. If you don’t need the words for the poetry of the language and you don’t need the words to tell the story, you don’t need the words.

Self-publishing’s quality problem…

When I pick up a book in a bookstore — which, more than likely, is a book issued by a publishing company, also known as a “traditionally published” book — I can usually assume that book will meet my baseline for quality*. In other words, it may not be a good story, the writing may be lacking, or it may not be a book that speaks to me, but at the very least, it will be readable.

As a freelance book reviewer,** I have reviewed a fair number of self-published books, otherwise known as “indies,” over the past year and a half. The majority of these did not meet even the bare minimum baseline for quality. Conservatively, I’d estimate that at least 70 percent of the self-published books I reviewed were essentially unreadable. (A small number of the books I reviewed were published by small presses, but in terms of quality, they resembled traditionally published books more than self-published books.)

This is a problem for self-published authors. Indie books have to compete not only against one another, but also against the millions of traditionally published books that are in print or are being published. As a reader, what incentive do I have to even consider self-published books as an option if I know that any one I happen to choose is very likely to be gobbledygook? I could choose instead to read only traditionally published books and have more than enough reading material to last me several lifetimes.

Yes, some self-published authors are quite good and are worth reading. But readers have no incentive to swim through a vast ocean of junk just to find those few pearls. Amazon reviews are completely useless as a guide to quality. Every self-published book I’ve reviewed, even the most wretched, has several five-star reviews on Amazon, presumably written by the author’s friends or family members or perhaps even by the author himself.

Speaking of Amazon, which is the largest marketplace for self-published books, their business model rewards authors who publish most frequently. In other words, Amazon incentivizes writers to produce more and and more junk without regard for quality, including books shamelessly plagiarized from better authors.

If those who self-publish want to be considered viable alternatives to traditionally published authors, they are going to have to figure out some trustworthy way to signal to readers which books are worth their time and money. I’m not sure of the solution–although I have some ideas–but right now, self-publishing doesn’t seem like a viable alternative for either serious writers or for readers.

*For reference, here is my personal baseline of quality, the ten minimum standards a book must meet in order for me to consider it readable. If a book I am reviewing does not meet these standards, it will not get a good review. Period. Note that these standards are for fiction; nonfiction requires different standards, although there is a lot of crossover.

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. (At the very least, run the spell checker.)
  2. Verb tense is consistent.
  3. Point of view is consistent. (No head-hopping or random switches between first and third person.)
  4. Character names are consistent. (Really.)
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. (“As you know, Bob…”)
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.

If, as a writer, you don’t understand what I mean by any of these terms, you need to do some basic study of your chosen craft.

**Note: I am assigned book reviews by the publications that I review for. I don’t receive books from the authors directly. All books reviewed on my blogs are books that I review from my personal reading, not book reviews that I am paid to write.

Coming up, I will discuss some other ways self-published authors can produce a higher quality product.