J K Rowling on Writing

On her website, J K Rowling has a page in which she answers the question, “Do you have tips for others trying to write?”

Ms Rowling says, ” I have to say that I can’t stand lists of ‘must do’s’, whether in life or in writing.

I haven’t got ten rules that guarantee success, although I promise I’d share them if I did. The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.

So forget the ‘must do’s’ and concentrate on the ‘you probably won’t get far withouts’, which are:

Reading

This is especially for younger writers. You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.

Discipline

Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.

Resilience and humility

These go hand-in-hand, because rejection and criticism are part of a writer’s life. Informed feedback is useful and necessary, but some of the greatest writers were rejected multiple times. Being able to pick yourself up and keep going is invaluable if you’re to survive your work being publicly assessed. The harshest critic is often inside your own head. These days I can usually calm that particular critic down by feeding her a biscuit and giving her a break, although in the early days I sometimes had to take a week off before she’d take a more kindly view of the work in progress. Part of the reason there were seven years between having the idea for Philosopher’s Stone and getting it published, was that I kept putting the manuscript away for months at a time, convinced it was rubbish.

Courage

Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.

Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?

Independence

By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.

I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.

Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”

Good Dialogue

Matthew FitzSimmons has an article on writing dialogue, dated September 1, 2021, on the Writer’s Digest website. He makes some points that wouldn’t normally be high on the last for a writing class, but nonetheless, I think they’re worth remembering.

Matthew FitzSimmons is the author of Constance, as well as the Wall Street Journal bestselling Gibson Vaughn series, which includes Origami ManDebris LineCold HarborPoisonfeather, and The Short Drop. Born in Illinois and raised in London, he now lives in Washington, DC.

Matthew FitzSimmons

Mr FitzSimmons says, “I was teaching English at a high school in Washington, D.C., when I wrote my first novel, The Short Drop. One of the perks of being a teacher is having summers off, and it took me a little over two years to finish the manuscript. At the time, I thought one of the book’s strengths was the dialogue. After all, I came from a theater background and so much of directing is thinking about the spoken word. Plus, and I don’t say this to brag, but at that point I had 40-plus years of practical, hands-on experience in “talking.” So how hard could writing dialogue really be?

Well, my developmental editor on The Short Drop, the wonderful Ed Stackler, got his ink-stained mitts on it and disabused me of the notion that a lifetime achievement award for best original dialogue was my destiny. After that, I stopped taking dialogue for granted and began to craft a personal writing philosophy on the art and artifice of dialogue. Here are a few of the guidelines I keep in mind each day I sit down at my desk.

1. No One Uses a Name Without a Reason

Ed’s first lesson was one that in retrospect should have been painfully obvious—no one says anyone’s name in general conversation. (Alright, not never, but rarely.) When a name is spoken, it has purpose behind it. A few examples to illustrate the point: 

  • When someone is trying to get another person’s attention: “Matt. What do you want from the bar?” 
  • When someone is attempting to dominate another person: “Isn’t that right, Mr. FitzSimmons?” 
  • When someone is showing off that they were paying attention when you met and actually remember your name: “Matthew, good to see you again.”

There are, of course, many others, but always for a reason. When was the last time you used the name of your best friend?

2. Hemingway’s Non Sequiturs (or, Not Everyone is Having the Same Conversation)

Whatever your opinion of Ernest Hemingway, the man was brilliant with dialogue. I strongly recommend his short stories—“Hills Like White Elephants”, for example, is a masterclass of elliptical dialogue. But it was a couplet of dialogue between Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes from chapter IV of The Sun Also Rises that taught me that the most interesting dialogue is rarely a straight line. It goes:

“Don’t worry,” Brett said. “I’ve never let you down, have I?”
“Heard from Mike?”

Not a lot to it until you consider that Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett and that Mike is Brett’s latest husband. Read it again. Now what was merely an innocent non sequitur becomes a cutting, passive-aggressive barb more incisive than any five-page argument. How people answer, or don’t answer, questions is an incredibly useful tool for revealing relationship, character, and agenda.

3. Complete Sentences/Correct Grammar

Dialogue composed of nothing but complete sentences will sound false to the ear. Grammar also tends to take a backseat as well. A character who uses who/whom correctly in casual speech is revealing a lot about their background. More often than not, people use shortcuts to limit the number of words necessary to communicate information. One example: Personal pronouns are frequently omitted—“I’m running late,” often becomes “Running late,” and so on. Listen to, and become a student of, how people speak, and what it can tell a reader about your characters.

4. Multitask

I always aim for dialogue to perform more than one purpose. If a passage of exposition is absolutely necessary, I always ask, “What other jobs can that dialogue be performing in terms of character and story?” Small talk is especially challenging, because as a species we (sadly) depend on it to navigate almost every social interaction. In prose, small talk is deadly to a reader’s interest and less is definitely more.

5. Not Everyone Sounds Like Me

If you spent any significant time around me, you’d quickly pick up on my conversation style, my verbal tics, and my sense of humor. When I first began writing seriously in my 20s, there was a tendency for all of my characters to sound like versions of myself. What was pleasant in small doses (I hope) was catastrophic in large ones (the world really doesn’t need more than one Matthew FitzSimmons in any conversation). It was an incredibly important self-discovery. I realized that if all my characters sounded like me that I wasn’t putting in the work to fully realize each of my characters. A habit I’ve developed in the years since is to write “interviews” with my characters to think through how they speak and why. Once I understand their conversational posture, I have a much better insight into who they are as people.”

Mr FitzSimmons point about people not using names was brought home to me when the manuscript for my novel Nebrodi Mountains came back from the editor with many names deleted. And I particularly like Hemingway’s not sequiturs as a clever dialogue device.

How Not to Lose The Plot

James Gault has an article on the Voice of Literature e-zine in which he discusses the elements of plotting.

James says, “I write mostly political thrillers with a touch of humour, set in the present but sometimes with references to the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of my books are in the Scottish vernacular. Some are really comic novels. They always have references to social issues. I try to offer readers interesting and engrossing characters, and favour relatively complex exciting plots with more than one unexpected twist in them.”

James Gault

He says, “What is a plot? Is it just the series of events that occur in a work of fiction, what we might call the story? Or is it perhaps more specific than that? Words can be hijacked to mean whatever the writer wants, and in this case I am shamelessly going to do that and define a plot in a specific sense.

A plot is a story with certain characteristics. For my definition, I am borrowing from a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, in which he analyses and classifies the stories of works of fiction from different eras and from poems, plays, novels and films. You may not agree with all his classifications, but he puts his finger on what is perhaps the essential element of a fictional plot: a character is presented with a problem and has to overcome the challenges of solving that problem.

In a way, all fictional stories (and possibly all interesting real life ones) fit this model. The structure is obvious in certain genres: mysteries, thrillers, romance etc. Other genres do not at first sight appear to conform, and these I would call episodic genres. They include biographical novels, sagas, slice of life stories and so on. In these cases, there is no central problem to be solved, but a series of different problems which arise and are resolved.  So they are more a collection of related plots, tied together by a central theme. For me, this kind of book requires much more talent from the writer, who has to find some other narrative drive to pull readers through to the end of the work. 

Of course, the path to coming up with the solution to the main plot problem is normally long and tortuous. Other, smaller problems arise along the way, obstacles are put in the path of the protagonist, attempts to move forward are thwarted and misleading information is presented and misinterpreted with disastrous results. Unexpected plot twists make readers stop and re-evaluate their conclusions so far, and set their imaginations off in new directions. There is often a false ending, where everything seems to be resolved and then some forgotten fact or incident raises its head, plunging the reader back into the problem and looking again for a secure and safe answer, but with heightened suspicion now. Without a good helping of all of these ingredients, no narrative can expect to hold a reader’s attention to the end.

I’m going to risk an oversimplification here. There are other elements to novels, like writing style, atmosphere, accurate details, but I would contend that to be effective, the two main essentials are character and plot. So, for a novel (or play, or film, or TV drama, or narrative poem) to engage its audience. there are two essential  goals the writers must reach:

  • find an interesting and difficult problem for the protagonist to solve
  • create main characters with whom readers can identify as they try to solve the problem.

Achieving these goals may not result in a best seller, but I do not think any success can be achieved without them.”

Describing a Character More Effectively

An article offering eleven secrets to writers describing characters appeared in the Writer’s Digest on January 14, 2015.   It was written by Rebecca McClanahan, whose website describes her as ‘author, educator, and public speaker specializing in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.’  She has written 10 books.

Rebecca McClanahan

Ms McClanahan says, in part: “The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.

1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him.

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair.

Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair.

4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination.

5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond.

6.In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her.

7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.

8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff.

9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

Be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

With writers like Milan Kunera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes. A writer who describes what a character sees also reveals, in part, a character’s inner drama. In The Madness of a Seduced Woman, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer describes a farm through the eyes of the novel’s main character, Agnes, who has just fallen in love and is anticipating her first sexual encounter, which she simultaneously longs for and fears.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …”

 

The Seven Deadly Sins of Novelists (According to Editors)

A post with the above title was published on the Writer’s Digest bog on October 18, 2018.  I was interested because until recently I had not used a first class editor, and when I did, I found it to be an entirely different experience.  The authors of this piece are freelance professional editor, Pam Johnson and novelist Steven James, whose “award-winning, pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base,” his website claims.

Steven James and Pam Johnson

Their Seven Deadly Sins are:

1. Lack of Communication: Failing to specify expectations.

When I submitted my manuscript the editor, I highlighted my own concerns and reservations about the novel.  This gave him something meaty to work on.

2. Sloppiness: Not submitting your best work.

“Poor punctuation, grammar, spelling and so on is so distracting to an editor that she will struggle to concentrate on the story she’s been hired to edit.”

This seems obvious.

3. Stubbornness: Refusing to change your course of action.

The editor suggested a major rewrite which involved a change in the narration and a different role for a minor character.  It was, I admit, a difficult pill to swallow, but once I started on it, I could see what a huge difference it would make.

4. Impatience: Not realizing that writing a book is a long process.

I was certainly guilty of this when I started writing, and, unfortunately, the self publishing process makes it easy hurry things through to completion.  When an agent and the publishers editor are involved and both of them have a financial incentive to produce the best quality novel, the process becomes more thorough and careful.

5. Passing the Buck: Expecting your editor to write the book.

This expectation is lazy, wishful thinking.  With benefit of hindsight, I probably should have asked the editor to review the re-written manuscript, but I was hoping that the next edit would be done by my agent and the one after than by the publisher’s editor,

6. Testiness: Getting upset with your editor when she’s only trying to help.

Fortunately, my editor takes the view that ‘criticism is the enemy of creativity’, so he always had reasons for any major changes suggested.  This helped me to latch onto his point of view.

7. Throwing in the Towel: When the going gets tough, the author quits.

“Writing a book is a long, difficult process—and editing can be equally strenuous. You need to be patient and work hard. Even if your current book doesn’t make it into Barnes & Noble, you will learn so much from writing it. Maybe the experience will lead to a future bestselling novel. And the sense of accomplishment when you’ve completed your work truly is priceless.”

My view, as well.

Review: Before We Were Yours

I bought a copy of this historical novel written by Lisa Wingate.  Ms Wingate’s long bio reads, in part: “Lisa Wingate is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours, which remained on the bestseller list for fifty-four weeks in hardcover and has sold over 2 million copies. She has penned over thirty novels and coauthored a nonfiction book, Before and After with Judy Christie. Her award-winning works have been selected for state and community One Book reads throughout the country, have been published in over forty languages, and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide.  Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.”

Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours is a historical novel written in two parts.  One part is set along the Mississippi River, near Memphis, in the late 1930’s and early ’40’s.  The second part, in Georgia,  is more contemporary.  The first part centers on a family of ‘river gypsies’ who live in a shanty boat on the river.  The parents are Briny and Queenie Foss; their five children are Rill, the narrator, a girl of twelve and the oldest, Camilla, Lark, Fern and Gabion, a male toddler.  The story begins with Queenie in the throes of giving a difficult birth to twins.  Briny takes her to the hospital in Memphis, leaving the children on the boat in Rill’s care.  All five children are abducted and taken into care by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a real abduction and orphanage mill which made an estimated $10 million for it’s real owner, Georgia Tann, and was active from the 1920’s until it was shut down in 1950.  It made a habit of taking children into custody on false premises and placing them in wealthy, childless families.  Most of the first part deals with the hardships faced by the Foss children as they wait for a family to take them away: first Gabion, then Camilla is separated and disappears, then Lark.  Rill and Fern escape from the family that took them in, only to find that Queenie is dead in the childbirth and Briny is mortally crippled with drink.  Rill and Fern return voluntarily to their assigned parents.

The second part is told by Avery, single in her 30’s, who turns out to be the granddaughter of one of Queenie’s twins, who survived, and was also taken in by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and adopted.  The grandmother, Judy, now in her 70’s and suffering from dementia, is the widow of a Stafford, who are a dynasty of Georgia senators.  Avery is being prepped to run for the Senate, replacing her father, who is ill.  She meets May Crandall, who is in her 90’s and in a nursing home, during a pre-campaign visit to the nursing home.  May, we discover later, is Rill.  Much of the second part is taken up with Avery, being assisted by the grandson of a friend of Judy’s, trying to piece together her family history.

Ms Wingate is clearly a talented writer.  She describes her characters and the life on a shanty boat so clearly that they are real.  She is also a master at keeping the reader turning pages, a one suffers anxiety about what happens next.  The story itself is heart-rendingly captivating.

In my view, though, the novel has its flaws.  In the first part, there are too many chapters, with too much detail, about the hardships the Foss children endured, while they were awaiting adoption.  I think the story would be stronger if it were edited down,  In the second part, there are secondary issues that aren’t well enough developed to stand alongside the children’s story: the effect that disclosure of their real heritage would have on the Stafford name, and Avery’s decision about whom to marry.  There are also too many family events that do not really contribute to character development or the plot.  More rigorous editing would have made this a memorable novel.

Publishing Proverbs

A post by Paula Munier on the Career Authors website two days ago caught my attention.  It begins, “Publishing is rife with conventional wisdom but some of it is actually useful.”

Ms Munier’s website says, “My professional evolution mirrors that of publishing itself.  From my early days as a reporter to my latest incarnation as all-around content queen and bottle washer, I’ve reinvented myself as the publishing industry has changed—and keeps on changing. The only constant: My love of the written word. Over my 20-plus years in the business, I’ve conceived, created, produced, and marketed exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Fidelity, Disney, Gannett, F+W Media, Quarto, Greenspun Media Group, among others. ”

Paula Munier

Some of the publishing proverbs she mentions are as follows:

“1. The first page sells the book, the last page sells the next book.

I repeated this recently at a Zoom event and like an old dog full of old tricks I was surprised that so many writers there had not heard it. But it’s as true today as it was when I got my first job in book publishing some 25 years ago. The first page must grab the reader, the last page must satisfy the reader.

2. If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, it better fire in act two.

I’m paraphrasing Anton Chekhov here, whose classic advice on foreshadowing has become so beloved a dramatic principle that it’s now known as Chekhov’s Gun.

3. Don’t get it right, get it written.

I used to tell my reporters this when they were running late with their stories back in my newspaper days. I wasn’t the first to say it, but I do say it a lot, not only to those reporters but to authors when I was an acquisitions editor and to clients now that I’m an agent and ultimately to myself whenever I get stuck in my own writing. All you need is a first draft —and then you can fix it.

4. Writing is rewriting.

I repeat, writing is rewriting. Embrace the revision process and the advice of smart editors. Rewriting what separates the wannabes from the pros.

5. When in doubt, delete.

This is every editor’s mantra. So the next time you find yourself struggling to make some aspect of your story work, delete it instead. I learned this lesson again while revising A Hiding Place. . . . My editor suggested I lose one of my favorite clues, and I balked. I’d done all that research! But eventually I caved and the book is far better for it.

6. You can’t start the fire, but you can fuel it.

This is what the sales and PR and marketing people always tell you when you complain to your publisher that they’re not doing enough to promote your book. Which means that if the book doesn’t catch fire when it debuts, they’re not going to spend what they see as bad money after good trying to light up sales.

7. Hook, book, cook.

I heard an editor quote this just recently; apparently my swell fellow agent and author Eric Smith uses this phrase to describe the best way to pitch a project: 1) hook, as in high-concept premise; 2) book, as in what happens in the story; and 3) cook, as in you the author and what about you personally and/or professionally informs your work. A good formula for a pitch.

8. It takes a million words to make a writer.

When I was in my twenties, I joined my first writer’s group. The grande dame of the group was an erudite professor who was a far more experienced and successful writer than the rest of us. She regarded me as the neophyte I was and told me severely, “It takes a million words to make a writer.” She was correct, of course. A million words or 10,000 hours or just a hell of lot of writing and rewriting.

9. You can’t make a living but you can make a killing.

I first heard this attributed to James Michener, but many people have said it. And why not, since this is the unfortunate lot of artists, especially in America. Most artists can’t make a lavish living doing their art, but a lucky few find fame and fortune. Here’s hoping it’s you and me.

10. There’s no crying in publishing.

. . . I say There’s no crying in publishing. And then I quote the inimitable and prolific Jane C, Cleland, Agatha-winning author of nonfiction and fiction, who never complains about the vagaries of the publishing business. Rather, she says that she just tries to write a better book.”

I agree with all of the above, except for number 3.  I find that when I force myself to write at pace, as I did when I started writing, I produce too much cliché and uninteresting text.  This is particularly true when you’re trying to write a literary novel.  For me, it’s better to spend time trying to get it nearly right, an then go back and do some polishing.

Review: Authors A. I.

In my post the week before last, I introduced Authors A. I. as a new tool to help authors improve their fiction writing, and I said I would try it out.  Last week, I went on the Authors A I website, paid my $89 for a single review, and an hour later I received an email from Marlowe – the name of the persona who has the artificial intelligence – attaching her report on the draft of my latest novel, for which I’m seeking an agent.

Authors A. I. doesn’t permit subscribers to sent out copies of Marlowe’s reports, but they would be happy if I send out copies of graphics from my report.  Unfortunately, I can’t find a way to copy and paste the graphics, so, I’ll describe them.

The first graphic is a plot of narrative arc and plot turns against the percentage of the novel from 0% – the beginning to 100% – the end.  For my novel, the narrative arc in green is a complete sine wave, starting at its low point, going through a positive peak, a negative peak and ending on a positive peak, which is accurate.  The plot turns, in purple, starts very negative, goes through two positive peaks, turns negative and trends upward through twp peaks to end positive.  I don’t disagree with this but the commentary in this section is general and is not specific to my novel.

The second graphic is narrative beats, a series of ten fairly evenly spaced vertical purple lines, each marked with the percentage of the book at which it occurs.  Beats are turning points where conflict is resolved or introduced.  The commentary says that beats should be evenly spaced and about ten.  I have to confess that’s the way my novel turned out; not the way I designed it.  This section quotes from the text of my novel where Marlowe says the beat occurred.

The third graphic is pacing and shows the relative pacing versus the length of the book.  For my book, there are five peaks of relatively high pace and four valleys, two of which are very low.  Again, the peaks and valleys are marked with percentages, and the text at those points is printed out.  The commentary is general and not specific to my novel.

The fourth graphic shows the personality traits of four of my characters in terms of the top five of nine trails each character exhibits.  This section is useful in observing whether the characters are different enough from each other and are they as intended?

The fifth graphic is dialogue vs. narrative.  My novel is 58% dialogue in purple and 42% narrative in green.  This is heavier in dialogue than I would have wanted, but at least the dialogue is evenly spaced throughout the book.  A graphic of a multitude of purple and green lines shows how each is used throughout the book.  Two characters act as narrators in the novel, and much of the story is revealed between their quotation marks.

The graphic on major subjects in the book is disappointing.  It shows the most important subject – at 5.47% – as Important Decisions and it descends through nine other subjects to Description of the Body at 2.47%.  The major subjects of the book are: death/dying, faith, family and vocation.  None of these makes the list.

There is a section on explicit language.  I said ‘damn’ five times.  A section on cliches says I used ‘hands on’ five times.  Repetitive phrases says I used  ‘to be a’ thirty times.  This could be interesting data.

There is a graphic on sentence length vs. number of sentences of that length.  In popular fiction, most sentences are two to ten words long.  My average sentence length is 12.82 words.  Popular fiction typically has a complexity score of 2.0 to 3.0  My novel has a complexity score of  2.76, and my most complex sentence scores 7.19. My reading grade score is 7.18.  To put this in context, you need to have a look at https://contently.com/2015/01/28/this-surprising-reading-level-analysis-will-change-the-way-you-write/

The graphic on use of adverbs shows that I (disappointingly) used ‘very’ 121 times (out of 81,000 words), and similarly for adjectives, I used ‘good’ 149 times.  There is a graphic on verb choice and use of the passive voice.  This, though, requires use of the find function in Word to see whether ‘is’ is part of the passive voice.

There is a table which shows the frequency of various forms of punctuation.  There is no spell check in this version of Marlowe.

I feel that my $89 were well invested in at least provoking my thinking and stirring me to action on a couple of points.

Marlowe is under development.  Hopefully, later versions will produce more manuscript-specific comments on the metrics used.

Moral Dilemmas Make Better Characters

Writer’s Digest has an article on making characters more impactful written by Steven James and dated September 1, 2016, which is quite interesting.

Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels. He serves as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest magazine, hosts the biweekly podcast The Story Blender, and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “[a] master storyteller at the peak of his game.”

Steven James

Selections from the article follow:

Give Your Character Dueling Desires.

Before our characters can face difficult moral decisions, we need to give them beliefs that matter: The assassin has his own moral code not to harm women or children, the missionary would rather die than renounce his faith, the father would sacrifice everything to pay the ransom to save his daughter.

A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who will be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget.

So, to create an intriguing character facing meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.

For example: A woman wants (1) peace in her home and (2) openness between her and her husband. So, when she begins to suspect that he’s cheating on her, she’ll struggle with trying to decide whether or not to confront him about it. If she only wanted peace she could ignore the problem; if she only wanted openness she would bring it up regardless of the results. But her dueling desires won’t allow her such a simple solution.

That creates tension.  And tension drives a story forward.

So, find two things that your character is dedicated to and then make him choose between them. Look for ways to use his two desires to force him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.

Put Your Character’s Convictions to the Test.

We don’t usually think of it this way, but in a very real sense, to bribe someone is to pay him to go against his beliefs; to extort someone is to threaten him unless he goes against them.

For example:

  • How much would you have to pay the vegan animal rights activist to eat a steak (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten her in order to coerce her into doing it (extortion)?
  • What would you need to pay the pregnant teenage Catholic girl to convince her to have an abortion (bribery)? What threat could you use to get her to do it (extortion)?

Look for ways to bribe and extort your characters. Don’t be easy on them. As writers we sometimes care about our characters so much that we don’t want them to suffer. As a result we might shy away from putting them into difficult situations.

That’s the exact opposite of what needs to happen in order for our fiction to be compelling.

Force Your Character Into a Corner.

Don’t give him an easy out. Don’t give him any wiggle room. Force him to make a choice, to act. He cannot abstain. Take him through the process of dilemma, choice, action and consequence:

If there’s an easy solution there’s no true moral dilemma. Don’t make one of the choices “the lesser of two evils”; after all, if one is lesser, it makes the decision easier.

For example, say you’ve taken the suggestion in the first point above and forced your character to choose between honoring equal obligations. He could be caught between loyalty to two parties, or perhaps be torn between his family obligations and his job responsibilities. Now, raise the stakes—his marriage is at risk and so is his job, but he can’t save them both. What does he do?

The more imminent you make the choice and the higher the stakes that decision carries, the sharper the dramatic tension and the greater your readers’ emotional engagement. To achieve this, ask “What if?” and the questions that naturally follow:

What if an attorney finds herself defending someone she knows is guilty? What does she do? What if that person is her best friend?

Again, make your character reevaluate his beliefs, question his assumptions and justify his choices. Ask yourself: How is he going to get out of this? What will he have to give up (something precious) or take upon himself (something painful) in the process?

Explore those slippery slopes. Delve into those gray areas. Avoid questions that elicit a yes or no answer, such as: “Is killing the innocent ever justified?” Instead, frame the question in a way that forces you to take things deeper: “When is killing the innocent justified?”

Let the Dilemmas Grow From the Genre.

Examine your genre and allow it to influence the choices your character must face. For instance, crime stories naturally lend themselves to exploring issues of justice and injustice: At what point do revenge and justice converge? What does that require of this character? When is preemptive justice really injustice?

Love, romance and relationship stories often deal with themes of faithfulness and betrayal: When is it better to hide the truth than to share it? How far can you shade the truth before it becomes a lie? When do you tell someone a secret that would hurt him? For example, your protagonist, a young bride-to-be, has a one-night stand. She feels terrible because she loves her fiancé, but should she tell him what happened and shatter him—and perhaps lose him—or keep the truth hidden?

Fantasy, myth and science fiction are good venues for exploring issues of consciousness, humanity and morality: How self-aware does something need to be (an animal, a computer, an unborn baby) before it should be afforded the same rights as fully developed humans? At what point does destroying an AI computer become murder? Do we really have free will or are our choices determined by our genetic makeup and environmental cues?

Look for the Third Way.

You want your readers to be thinking, I have no idea how this is going to play out. And then, when they see where things go, you want them to be satisfied.

There’s a story in the Bible about a time religious leaders caught a woman committing adultery and brought her to Jesus. In those days, in that culture, adultery was an offense that was punishable by death. The men asked Jesus what they should do with this woman. Now, if Jesus had told them to simply let her go free he would have been contravening the law; if, however, he told them to put her to death, he would have undermined his message of “forgiveness and mercy.”

It seemed like a pretty good trap, until he said, “Whoever is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

I call this finding the Third Way. It’s a solution that’s consistent with the character’s attitude, beliefs and priorities, while also being logical and surprising.

We want the solutions that our heroes come up with to be unexpected and inevitable.

Present yours with a seemingly impossible conundrum.

And then help him find the Third Way out.”

Putting characters into a difficult dilemma is a great way to add tension to a story and ramp up the reader’s interest!

Personalities of Successful Authors

There is a two-year old article in Inc. magazine by Kaleigh Moore titled ‘6 Characteristics Every Great Write Has in Common’, which I found interesting.  Ms Moore’s website says, “I write blog content for eCommerce platforms and the SaaS tools that integrate with them.  I’ve been hired by top companies on the Fortune 500 as well as growing SaaS companies. Some of my past and present clients include AT&T, ReCharge Payments, Shopify, and IBM.  I also write about retail for major publications like Forbes, Vogue Business, and Adweek.”

Kaleigh Moore

While it is unclear where Ms Moore gets the expertise to write about writers, perhaps she is self-taught.  Here is what she said:

“It’s hard to know if you’re a good writer–especially if no one has ever torn apart a piece you’ve written or “ooohed” and “ahhhed” over your work. But one of the easiest ways to spot a great writer is through the qualities he/she exhibits on a daily basis.

These qualities are essential for an effective writer because they spotlight a certain devotion and openness–both of which are necessary to achieve writing greatness. Read through this list and see if you line up with the 6 most important qualities of an effective writer.

1. Attention to Detail

Great writers are observers, always taking mental notes and noting subtle changes around them. This attention to detail not only makes them fantastic editors who can spot the smallest grammatical error during a read-through, but it adds a special touch to their writing, too. No descriptive detail gets left behind.

2. Discipline

Writers who excel are familiar with frustration because re-writes, edits, and improvements all come by maintaining a disciplined approach to writing. Great writers are devoted to constantly re-evaluating their work, no matter how small the task may be. They focus on their craft and are constantly working to get better through intense discipline.

3. Clarity

An effective writer is able to distil complex thoughts and ideas into simple, clear language that’s quickly and easily understood by others. This valuable quality helps them tackle even the densest subject matter by breaking it down into uncomplicated pieces.

4. Strong Vocabulary

No one likes to read the same words over and over again, so a strong, robust vocabulary is an asset to any good writer. Incorporating interesting and unusual words into their writing, this skill helps them maintain a reader’s interest and allows them to communicate more effectively by accessing the perfect word for any situation.

5. Open to Changes

Being open to external edits and suggestions is key for exceptional writers because it enables them to improve their writing, even though it might damage their ego in the meantime. Open-mindedness allows them to see their work through the eyes of others and improve weak points.

6. Passion for Reading

Voracious readers often make great writers, because being immersed in a world of words helps one better understand the nuts and bolts of writing (like syntax, tone, framing, etc.) The more one reads, the more learned he/she becomes on all of the different writing tools and stylistic angles that exist.”

 

The Self-Publishing School website lists these five characteristics of authors: Exercise Patience, Apply Consistency, Practise Optimism, Value Criticism and Be Empathetic.

It seems to me that Discipline and Apply Consistency and both Discipline; and Open to Changes and Value Criticism are both Value Criticism.  For me, both characteristics are important.

Attention to Detail is important in the text one produces, but being observant of what goes on around you is less important than Being Empathetic; after all, novels are ’empathy machines’.

Clarity is definitely important, and rather than Strong Vocabulary, I would say Excellent Command of English, as being a general skill.

Passion for reading, as Ms Moore says, is important.

Patience can be a useful trait, but I think that if one is Disciplined, one must necessarily also be patient

Practise Optimism doesn’t feel right for me.  While I am an optimist, I think the valuable trait is Be Motivated.  In other words, I think it’s OK to be a pessimist as long as you’re motivated.

For me there is one essential ingredient, particularly if one is a novelist, that is left off both lists:  Creativity

My list of the top 8 characteristics is therefore:

  • Be Empathetic
  • Be Disciplined
  • Be Motivated
  • Be Creative
  • Clarity
  • Excellent Command of English
  • Open to Changes
  • Passion for Reading