Lessons from a 20-Year Career

In the IBPA Independent magazine, December 2017, there is an article by Ron W Mumford about the lessons he has learned on his 20-year path through the industry.  He certainly has a sense of humour and some good advice to offer, so I’ve quoted excerpts below.  Ron has written a non-fiction book, Finding Your Soulmate, God’s Way, a thriller, Gray Justice, and a fantasy trilogy: Wayne’s Angel, Betwixt, and Z-Gen.  As a businessman, before his started writing books,  he had taken a company public on NASDAQ, become a licensed financial consultant with two of the largest brokerage firms in the US.

Ron W Mumford

He says, ” During the 1990’s I wrote my first novel: 800 pages double spaced, 200,000 words.  I was so proud of myself.  The work was sure to win the Pulitzer Prize!  Sound familiar?  After my first edit by a professional editor, the work was cut in half with a notation from the editor, ‘Ron, you have written two books in one and you ramble.’

As regards the publishing industry, he says, “What a new and different industry full of well-wishers, scammers and instant-success gurus, all looking to take your money while promising the bestseller list and delivering nothing.  I queried literary agents for two years, finally found a couple, and, again, got nothing.  Finally I decided I would become a literary agent and go to New York and Hollywood to learn first hand how this crazy industry worked. I picked up several writer clients and headed to New York City with client manuscripts in hand.  All the Big Five publishing companies rolled out the red carpet to a new literary agent from Texas.  I spent half a day at Simon & Schuster and even met Stephen King’s editor.  I asked each editor, ‘What are yo looking for?’  They all replied, ‘Great writing.’  I asked, ‘Define ‘great writing.’  Again, each editor replied similarly, ‘We’ll know it when we see it’.

‘”What a cop out!  What they should have said in complete honesty was, ‘We are looking for well-known authors and celebrities with a huge following so we can sell hundreds of thousands of books.  Your chance of being published by us are about 100,000 to one.’

“My last stop in lower Manhattan was at Warner Books, where I was granted an appointment with a vice president/editor.  When I entered his office and gave him my card, he snapped, ‘What gives you the audacity to think you can be a literary agent?’  This guy did not know Texas audacity.  I took a deep breath, leaned on his desk and replied, ‘The same audacity that told me I could swim with the sharks on Wall Street.  Do you want to talk books or what?’  Needless to say, Warner and my literary agency didn’t do any business.”

Ron says that he sent out 100 client manuscripts a month to small and medium sized publishers and he managed to get 12 books published.  He mentions that he got one client a seven-book deal, and that the client later got a five-book deal with HarperCollins.  “After my money and my passion hit new levels of low, I passed her (the client) on to a great literary agency.  There are good lit agents out there.

“I sent emails to every IT/social media guru that I personally knew, asking them, ‘How do you mass market books?’  I got no replies.  I talked to one guy that guaranteed a best seller.   I asked him how he does his marketing and how much he charges.  Answer, ‘For 30 days, I send out tweets on Twitter, I charge $3000.’  I passed on that offer, even for a ‘guaranteed bestseller.”

Unfortunately, Ron does not offer any sure-fire solutions to the achievement of mass book marketing at an affordable price.


Rules for Writing Fiction

On the Guardian website, February 20, 2010, there is an article, Ten Rules for Writing Fiction Parts 1 & 2, which caught my eye, mainly because of the writers who were offering their opinions.  In this post I’ve picked out some that haven’t been covered before in this blog, and with which I agree or disagree.

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze from the article

Is this a metaphor for writing fiction or for the opinions about it?

  • Hilary Mantel: “Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.”      I agree!
  • Michael Moorcock: “If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.” and “Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery)”   Good point.
  • Will Self: ” You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”    I find this quite interesting; I had only feelings of pride for my first book when completed.  More recently, with my eighth, I do feel that sense of inadequacy.
  • Zacie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”     This is very similar to Will Self’s comment.
  • Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”    I did just this with my last two novels.   By the way, when one does this, one has to be connected to the Internet – contrary to the advice of several authors.
  • Sarah Waters: “Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”     I like the analogy.
  • Jonathan Franzen: “Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.”    I think this is probably good advice.  Luckily the two novels I’ve written in the first person are distinctive.
  • Esther Freud: “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”   I don’t agree with this; I think that a whimsical, unexpected metaphor can be very enlightening.
  • Neil Gaiman: “Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”  I thought it was jut my compulsive self: noticing a problem in an earlier chapter and immediately rushing to find and fix it.
  • P D James: “Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”   I think this is an excellent point and it is contrary to some who encourage the use of common words or discourage the use of a thesaurus.

Internal Dialogue

“Internal Dialogue: the Greatest Tool for Gaining Reader Confidence” by Elizabeth Sims appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  Ms Sims introduces the article with  a discussion about how con artists work.  “The best con artists don’t begin by asking for your confidence – they give you theirs first.  Here’s my story. I want you, you especially to hear this.  The request for help comes later.  But before either compassion or greed can be exploited, the mark must feel something for the con artist.  When you think about it, what is fiction but one beautiful long con?  The reader – the mark – opens a book craving a good story, thirsting to be part of something special.   We, as writers, do everything possible to gain the trust of our  readers so we can entertain, shock, delight and amuse them all the way to the end.

“And the greatest tool for gaining reader confidence is internal dialogue.  Because when a character reveals his thoughts, he’s confiding in the audience.  I’m counting on you to understand me – and possibly even help me understand myself.   Suddenly readers are in the thick of it; they feel involved and invested.

“Internal  dialogue is the inner voice of a character, which is a metaphysical subject.  In most modern cultures – and, consequently, most  modern literature – there’s a dichotomy within the self: there’s an I and a me.”

(I, the objective pronoun which takes the action and me, the subjective pronoun to which the action is done)

Ms Sims goes on to say: “with internal dialogue, you can:

  • Establish your characters and their unique voices
  • Show the difference between what a character thinks versus what she says or does; this can fuel tragedy or comedy
  • Trace a character’s growth and development, or a character’s degeneration
  • Develop you plot
  • Reveal things below the surface: pain, secrets, hopes, fears . . .
  • Create and develop suspense.  Especially when the reader knows more that the character
  • Change the subject.  A character’s thoughts may drive your story in a new direction
  • Reveal a character’s opinions
  • Describe.  A character can look around and comment on his surroundings; he can observe and analyze
  • Develop and reveal character motivation.  Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • Reflection.  Let your character think through a problem or process an event to whatever degree she is capable of. A character can be a tad less smart than the reader, thus permitting the reader to feel on top of things.
  • Adjust the pace.  Let your character pause and reflect.  It will slow things down and let the reader absorb what just happened.

“Internal dialogue typically takes three basic forms: first-person narration (I thought . . .), third-person narration (She thought . . .), and direct thought-speech (where the character seems to speak directly to the reader).  Then there’s the issue of tense. . . . You’ll find that the majority of internal dialogue is written in the present tense, no matter whether the rest of the work is in the past.  As to format, the only rule is to avoid quotation marks, single or double, as they’re associated with spoken aloud dialogue and can confuse the reader.  It used to be the convention to put inner thoughts in italics . . . Now the trend seems to be to keep everything in Roman text, the idea being that italics are intrusive and unnecessary.”

Ms Sims mentions several pitfalls to avoid:

  • Making a character’s inner voice into a wisecracker,  “Such a voice can be entertaining but only if used sparingly.”
  • Head hopping among various characters
  • ‘I thought to myself . . .’  “Who but oneself does one think to?”
  • Telling chunks of backstory by having a character remember it
  • Putting in anything that doesn’t serve the story

I think this makes clear the power of internal dialogue, but, like any other written vehicle it must be used in a balanced, appropriate way.  My personal preference is to write internal dialogue in the first-person present and to use italics, which I don’t think is confusing.

Ms Sims quotes the following passage from Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person, she thought, that I was ever really frank and honest with; at home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

I would write this as:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person that I was ever really frank and honest with.   At home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

The Florida Writer says: “Elizabeth Sims is the author of the Rita Farmer Mysteries and Goldie award-winning Lillian Byrd Crime Series.  She’s also a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, specialising in the art and craft of fiction.  Her instructional title, You’ve Got a Book in You: a Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, has helped thousands of writers find their wings.

Elizabeth Sims


Seeking Father Khaliq has been awarded first place, Religion/Spirituality in the Royal Dragonfly Literary Awards, 2017

The synopsis of Seeking Father Khaliq is as follows:

Kareem al-Busiri is a tenured professor of philosophy at a prestigious Egyptian university.  A woman whose eyes alone are visible, invites him to meet a Princess Basheera.  After doubt and discussion, he agrees.  Princess Basheera asks al-Busiri to find Father Khaliq, who is apparently her very old father, and she suggest that he find him on the Hajj.

Kareem is a secular Sunni Muslim, a widower, with three children: Naqib, the oldest is a leftist lawyer and secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood; Wahida, like her late mother is a Copt, working for the Red Crescent; Kalifa, a handsome, principled conservative plans to be an army infantry officer.  Adeeba is a winsome widowed Copt, Kareem’s late wife’s best friend, professor of archaeology, and an expert in ancient Coptic history, culture and language.  Adeeba’s younger adult daughter, Sagira, has a romantic interest in Kalifa.

On the Hajj, which Kareem undertakes with Hafez, a busy-body, agnostic colleague, there are near encounters with Father Khaliq.  The religious fervour of two million pilgrims, and the mystery of the Hajj make an indelible impression on al-Busiri.

Princess Basheera encounters Kareem on several occasions, appearing unexpectedly, wearing casual clothing, but always a niqab, exposing only her eyes.  She discusses his findings, she suggests new pilgrimages, and there is often an exchange of views on the ideas of important Arabic philosophers.  Kareem wonders: Is she real, or do I imagine her?

On a trip to Medina, al-Busiri visits the Prophet’s tomb and finds that, next to the Prophet is a vacant tomb reserved  for the second coming of Jesus.  He narrowly escapes a suicide bombing in the Date Market, and hears a woman crying out for Father Khaliq.

Persuaded to go on Arba’een, the pilgrimage of over twenty million to the Shia shrines in Karbala, Iraq, Kareem joins eleven Shia scholars from the University of Bagdad.  He becomes caught up in the intensity of the emotion at the tomb of Ali, the Prophet’s grandson and Shia icon.  During the return to Bagdad, the professors are taken hostage by a violent ISIS cadre and held for ransom.  Locked in an abandoned house in Ramadi, they are rescued by a Shia militia in a bloody shoot-out during which four of the Iraqi professors are killed.

On his return to Cairo, Kareem finds that Kalifa has been posted to north-eastern Sinai, where the army is engaged in almost daily skirmishes with Wilayat Sinai (the ISIS affiliate in Egypt).  Wahida suspects that her older brother’s law firm is providing material support to the terrorists.  Kareem reports the law firm, anonymously, to Egyptian intelligence, and meets with his son in an attempt to moderate his increasingly strident views.

With Hafez, on a trip to Jerusalem, the great mosques on the Noble Sanctuary, the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter, and a Druze settlement on the Golan Heights are visited.  Again, there is the illusive Father Khaliq.  Kareem walks the Via Dolorosa with a Christian guide.

Kalifa and Sagira are married in jubilant Coptic and Islamic ceremonies.

Adeeba takes Kareem on a trip to Rome where he is impressed with the splendour of Christian pageantry, music and art, and the two become lovers.  She tells him she has found that ‘Khaliq’ is one of the lesser-known of Allah’s ninety-nine names.

Kalifa is killed in an attack on his base with a rocket which Wilayat Sinai was not known to have.  Wahida suspects that Naqib was involved in the supply chain.  Kareem washes his son’s body for burial; a grieving Naqib appears at the burial.  Wahida finds damning circumstantial evidence, which she passes to an intelligence officer, of Naqib’s involvement with the terrorists.  Naqib, and his law firm partners, are arrested, tried in secret, sentenced to death, and hung.  Again, Kareem washes the body of his son.

Kareem is grief-stricken, and visits his mosque for prayer.  He hears a voice offering reassurance.  Is it Allah?  Adeeba, whom he has now married, suggests that he must seek a new identity in his remaining family and his profession.  In a vacant classroom, Princess Basheera appears once again.  She debates with him the meaning and relevance if an idea of the philosopher Ibn Sina.  Kareem understands her message; she disappears.

Seeking Father Khaiiq  have recently won another award: the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award, Spiritual Fiction, 2017:


What Is a Novel?

When I first started writing, and someone asked me the question, “What is a novel?”, I would have replied, “A good story.”  But frequently, brief replies don’t really enlighten the questioner, and the more I write, the more I understand that a ‘good story’ is actually very complicated indeed – at least when it is written down, printed, publicised, sold to the general public, and liked by its readers well enough to earn its writer more than a trivial income.

So what does a ‘good story’ consist of?  There are a number of qualities of a ‘good story’, and while some may not be directly measurable, they are all, at least scrutinisable and subject to opinion:

  • The Plot:  A plan of what happens in the story.  Is it interesting?  Is it predictable or unpredictable?
  • The Characters:  The fictional people who populate the story.  Do they come alive?  Do we care about (like or despise) them?  Are they active or passive? Are their relationships to one another interesting?  Do the characters’ beginnings and end points support the Message?
  • The Setting:  The time(s) and place(s) in which the story takes place.  Is the particular setting of interest to the particular reader?  Is it easy to place oneself as the reader comfortably into the setting?
  • The Message:  What, in an overall sense, is the author trying to say to the reader? If nothing, do we care?  If something, is it clear?  Does it make us think?
  • The Tone:  The kind of emotion which is inherent in the language the author uses.  Is it sad? angry? melancholy?  matter-of fact?  Does the tone seem to support the Message?
  • The Narrator;  Who’s telling the story?  Is the choice of narrator supportive of the above five characteristics?
  • The Tense:  Is the story told in the present or the past tense?  Is the story supported by the choice of tense?
  • The Action:  Exactly what happens.  Is it credible?  Is it attention grabbing?  Is there too much or too little action?  Is the action relevant to the Message?

And then, there are the variables which define how the story is told:

  • The Language:  At what educational level is the story pitched (toddler vs college grad)?
  • The Words:  Do the words convey an exact (vs approximate) meaning?  Are there cliches?  Are there too many or too few words?  Do they convey appropriate feelings as well as facts.
  • The Sentences:  Does the author use correct grammar and punctuaton?  Do the sentence structures facilitate understanding?   Are they readable without difficulty: not too complex; not too simple?
  • Realism vs Fantasy:  Is the author’s choice of realism vs fantasy supportive of the story overall.  If there are elements of fantasy, does the reader automatically suspend disbelief?
  • Dialogue vs Backstory vs Narrative:  Is there a balanced use of these techniques?  Does their use support the story?
  • Tension:  How much tension does the author build into the story?  Does it support the plot? is there too much or too little tension?

Perhaps there are some variables I’ve overlooked.  Please don’t hesitate to mention them.