Welcome. Please stay and read a bit.
With a bit of luck, the list that follows will provide some useful hints to
some writers. Since misery loves company, we writers tend to share advice with
each other. Unfortunately, since we're all banging our heads against the same
walls, much of the advice tends to come out as same old, same old. Sorry about
that. The odds against success are pretty steep, although not quite insurmountable.
- ADVICE/OPINIONS - There are few, if any, absolutes in writing.
Advice that works for one person may not work for another. Consider the editor
who rejects a manuscript that later proves to be a bestseller. It just
didn't 'work' for that editor. And, if you've ever read a bestseller
you didn't like at all, remember that you've stood in the shoes of that
editor who rejected a bestseller.
- AUDIENCE - If you have more than one book to write and are trying to
choose between them, consider the audience. Who might be interested in your
book? All other things being equal, choose the largest audience. In a sense, the
book publishers are your first audience. Go through the list of book publishers
in the latest issue of Writer's Market (published yearly by Writer's Digest Magazine)
and list possible publishers of each of the books you have in mind. Again, all other
things being equal, the longest list wins.
- CHARACTERS - One trick I use to keep fictional characters on course is
to model them in my own mind after a memorable TV or movie character. (TV
sitcoms depend very much on memorable characters.) Then I can ask myself,
"What would the model character have done in this situation?" You can also model
your characters after people you know, but this requires great care to disguise
the characters so as not to lose friends or invite lawsuits. (Surely you know at
least one person whose decisions and motivations puzzle you. This is fertile ground
for a fictional character.) When your first draft is done, ask yourself whether
there are characters you ought to rename or change in some way (hair color, height,
etc.) to avoid trouble. Likewise, if you are writing nonfiction, be careful
who you identify by name, especially when the episode is not complimentary.
Provable truth may be a good defense, but the other guy may call it malicious.
- CONTRACTS - One day I got a phone call from a publisher I had submitted a
manuscript to. He said he liked the book in general, but I'd have to rework it
in a manner that would fit a series he was publishing. I agreed to do that and
spent the next three months on the revised manuscript I submitted. That publisher
never acknowledged receipt of the revision or answered any of my follow-up letters
or phone calls. (Many years later, having forgotten that publisher, I sent another
query to him and got the same sort of phone call in reply. The phone call was
unmistakeably similar, refreshing the old memory. It may be that this is a dirty
trick the S.O.B. plays often.) Hard experience tells me that my reply to the phone
call should have been, "That really sounds interesting, but I won't be able to put my
current projects on hold for it without an advance and a written contract." And when
a publisher does offer a contract, read it carefully and know that some of its terms
are negotiable. Negotiate the best deal you can, but don't overestimate how much
the publisher needs you. After you've read a contract, try to think of what the
contract doesn't say. It's easier to think about what the contract does say than
it is to recognize ommissions. "Mastering The Business Of Writing"(Richard Curtis,
1996, Allworth Press) is one book that presents a good understanding of writing
- COPYRIGHT - You own the copyright to your work without formally applying
for it, however, if you ever sue anyone for infringement, your chance of winning
is much better if your copyright is registered. Formally applying for a copyright
certificate is not difficult or expensive and doesn't require a lawyer. I did it
once for a completed nonfiction manuscript which languished for a few years afterward.
Then I did a considerable revision. And that left me worrying (needlessly) about
whether the earlier copyright would block a new copyright. In any event, I had
wasted my time. Still, I've shown "Western Limericks" samples to so many people
that I did get a formal copyright for it, just to be on the safe side. The fee is
$45 these days.
- DESCRIPTION - In high school I read "The House Of Seven Gables" and told the
English teacher it wasn't a good book because it had too much description and too
little action. My short-changing of description may actually go back to that
experience and is excessive. Recently, I read "Jitterbug" by Loren Estleman (Forge,
1998) and was very favorably impressed by descriptive details in the novel. Unlike
Loren (a fellow member of the Western Writers of America), I'm old enough to remember
many details of life in the USA during WW II. And I found his descriptive details
bringing that time back with something akin to historical accuracy. They obviously
improve the novel by reinforcing that sense of being in the scene he creates. So,
yes, pay great attention to your use of descriptive details. Each time you review
your manuscript, think about those details and whether they are adequate to create
a sense of being there.
- FICTION / NONFICTION - Fiction is much easier to write than nonfiction, but
I think a unique work of nonfiction has a statistically better chance of holding
its audience over a longer span of years. Nonfiction can require a lot of work
to confirm that your memories are correct and perhaps to locate people who were
involved. Fiction allows the writer to build an audience by following a strong
character through sequels, but there may be nonfiction events that only you can
write. For myself, "The Green Flame" was that 'absolutely must write' book. I still
get e-mails about it and its second-hand price attests to its unique nature.
- FINANCES - It's been said thousands of times, but I'll say it again, "Don't
give up your day job!" No matter how great you think your book is, don't bet
that the publishing or reading world is going to agree with you. Just the sheer
volume of other books being published will make it hard for your book to be
noticed. Do try to make money at writing, and, if that's your intention, start
keeping detailed records of your income and expenses, adequate for income tax
purposes. In the absence of proof of a profit motive, the IRS will declare your
effort to be a hobby and will disallow your expenses as a deduction. (But, just
the same, be prepared to accept the satisfaction of a job well done as your main
reward.) As a stepping stone to a writing career, you may note that many
published writers have worked for newspapers or are college professors (usually
historians or English literature professors). Of course, that doesn't apply to
myself. You may note that much of my advice is in the nature of, "This is
probably what I shoulda done."
- GENRE - Most writers choose to write what they enjoy reading, or at least
write on a subject they know a lot about. There are at least two good reasons
for sticking to one genre; (a) it saves a lot of work because info and ideas
that don't fit in one book can be used in the next, and (b) publishers like
their writers to stay with one genre because it builds author name recognition
and each succeeding book helps to sell the next. (These days, agents and editors
ask about your 'platform.' What they're really asking is, are you famous or do
you have a loyal audience of any kind? If you are Sarah Palin, they will publish
anything under your name, whether you've written it or not. Assuming you aren't
famous, let's hope you have a strong presence on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. so
that you can strongly assist with sales.) Authors who write in more than one genre
are apt to use a different pen name in each genre to avoid confusing their readers.
(An analogy frequently given is that one shouldn't put peaches in a can labeled,
"pears.") Why switch genres? Well, they go in and out of vogue. If you're in a
dying genre, you may switch to one that's hot. Note that I don't follow this genre
advice myself. This leaves me free to pursue any good idea that comes along, but
I do pay the penalties inherent in not following the above advice.
- GRUDGES - Don't hold any! Rejections are a frequent fact of life for most, if
not all writers. Don't take them personally! Keep your sense of humor. Holding
grudges will harm you more than anyone else and sometimes block good things from
happening. And to paraphrase something else that's been frequently said, "Forgive
thy enemies. It will keep them in a great state of confusion." Our notions of
getting even, or getting revenge, are all screwed up. Revenge doesn't erase the
original hurt or damage. I'm not a bible-thumper, but I think the bible is right
on that point; "Revenge is mine, sayeth The Lord." Revenge is something we can't
have. Try forgiveness. That works.
- INTERNET - Be skeptical of strangers who approach you via the internet. I had
one 'publisher' invite me to send a manuscript copy to him recently, and my first
impulse was to do it as quickly as possible. On more critical examination of his
e-mail, though, I realized it was a phony offer that would surely waste my time and
try to con me out of more than time. If you get such an offer, you will be eager to
believe it's for real, but do cross-check its authenticity every which way you can.
- LEGALITY & LIABILITY - Give due thought to staying out of court. Don't do any
needless harm to anyone's reputation. Never plagiarize. If you must quote another
author in any substantial way, get written permission. If a setting you have in
mind is a real place and something terrible happens there, you may want to alter
the setting enough so's not to pinpoint the place. A case in point was The
Amityville Horror, which identified a certain house as being haunted. An owner of
the house sued, saying that the book had badly damaged the resale value of the house.
And, if your setting is identifiable, check the phone book for that area to see if
any of your fictional character names happen to match real people in the area. Or,
lacking a phone book, search for your character's name on the internet.
- LOCATION - It is convenient to have a real location in mind when writing fiction
and I have done that. The advantage is that distances, climate, topography, and
descriptions fall into place easily and accurately. But, in one case I transplanted
the location to a different state and in another, I changed town names and installed
a non-existing road. I wasn't sure that it would have done any damage to anyone if I
hadn't disguised the locations but why leave such possibilities open to the sue-happy?
- MEMOIRS - Writing a memoir reaches into distant memories and teaches how strange
memory is. By its 3rd or 4th revision, all the key things in the tale will seem to be in
place, but in going through the entire manuscript over and over again from beginning to
end, one finds that little details pop out of memory that aren't key to the story, but
give a more complete picture of the time. Sometimes these pop-out details come as the
manuscript is re-read, and sometimes they come out of nowhere during the day. I've
carried file cards in my shirt pocket for many years now, and find them very handy to
capture those pop-out details as soon as possible after they pop. If you're writing a
memoir, don't get in too much of a hurry. The memories return in their own sweet time,
not yours. Also, if you're young, get some pictures now of things that might not be
there years later if there's a possibility that they could be useful in a future memoir.
- OMISSIONS - One of the most annoying of all omissions, is the one you think of
after your book has gone to press. It's usually nothing humongous. Just little things
that would have been an improvement. It happens.
- PAUSE - Somewhere in writing a book, the project is apt to grab you. It becomes
your top priority. You can't wait to get it done. You become preoccupied with getting
your characters through the next scene. Learn to take a long pause from time to time.
Give it a rest after the first draft and each draft thereafter. Take time to re-think the
overall plot. It will help you avoid some of those omissions mentioned above. Also,
it will help you to spot awkward sentences that tend to become invisible when the text
is too fresh in your mind.
- PICTURES - Except for The Green Flame, my books to date have been devoid of pictures,
a mistake not repeated in "Western Limericks", which has a sketch to go with each limerick.
Way back in grade school I used to flip through a book to check its picture supply before
deciding whether or not to read it. Today, I still tend to check the pictures first if
there are any. I've found the sketching effort to be remarkably like writing short
stories. There are many layouts that might show what you hope to show. You choose one
and start on it. Many revisions later, you come close to something that works. Later
still, you edit in a few more revisions. Try it. There may come a day when you'll want
some pictures in your book. Likewise, if photos of certain locations, buildings, or people
would be appropriate for your book, try to take those pictures in advance of needing them,
then store them where you can find them.
- POETRY - Many people can tell you that there's little or no market for poetry, and,
unfortunately, that's probably true. And, by now, you may have noticed that I often don't
follow my own advice. The book I'd still like to find a publisher for, Western Limericks,
is poetry of a sort. I have a quarrel with the stuff many folks call poetry today. It's
really prose with a ragged right margin. It too often consists of beautiful thoughts, but
lacks the rhyme and rhythm that makes real poetry so difficult to compose. To do the
limericks, I start with a subject, write any and all lines that come to mind that are
appropriate to the subject, then search among those lines for any that will work with the
limerick format. With enough work, a suitable limerick takes shape, though the rhythm
often doesn't match that of the classic limericks that stick in the mind. That's why classic
and memorable poetry is such a small percentage of what's been published. Will "Western
Limericks" ever be accepted by a conventional publisher, or will the author have to chalk
it up to experience? Stay tuned. (Meanwhile, I expect to add a few pages as time permits.)
- TIME - Time is scarce, and, therefore, valuable. Most people are awash in
family and work obligations that would seem to rule out any serious writing effort.
But it's not hopeless. Can you find at least 30 minutes per day? Carry with you a
laptop computer or a few sheets of folded lined notebook paper. Parts of my novel, Thirsty, were written
that way at a very busy time in my life. If you're a compulsive writer, as I am, you'll
find that there's a classic monkey on your back that will nag you to write and lay a
guilt trip on you when you could have and didn't.
- TITLE - Do spend a lot of time thinking about the best title for your work. Make
lists of possible titles. Think about the nature of your book, the audience you want
it to reach, and how strongly the title relates to what's in the book. I have no regrets
about any of the titles chosen for my books so far and that results partly from considering
it a crucial choice.
- TOOLS - In case you're wondering about the writing tools pictured at the top of this
page, the colonial inkwell and quill pen were before my time, but the Remington portable
typewriter is the one I did the novel, Thirsty, on. (The inkwell has been in the family
about 80 years now and is reputed to be 'Mad Anthony Wayne's Inkwell' because it was
found at a location once occupied by General Wayne.) If you must use a typewriter, I
recommend that you use one with large type that doesn't need frequent cleaning. I had
a fairly new typewriter when I was working on Thirsty, but it had a typeface that plugged
easily and I paid $10 for the second-hand Remington to save time. I used to do the
first draft of my book-length projects in ball-point pen on lined 3-hole notebook paper.
Deletion was done by crossing out lines, which is much faster than erasing. The pages were
numbered, and text added or moved via margin notes reminding me where things should go.
This ends up looking very messy, but it was a fast way to get that first draft done.
Having said that, I've done the first and all subsequent drafts of my novel "LA&LL" on a computer. I got my
first computer in 1987. It had no hard drive, but I was able to do The Green Flame on it
and I would never go back to a typewriter. My third word processor is the one I did the
Xlibris books on. It's twelve years old and terribly obsolete in that (a) Windows 98 is close
to obsolete, (b) I see signs that 3.5" disks are becoming obsolete, (c) it needs a CD burner,
and (d) its 'camera port' doesn't match the cable on today's digital cameras. I bought a new
Windows 7 computer last August, but am still doing battle to get some of its features working.
(I got an external 3.5" disk drive for it, but html code for this web site, downloaded to
disks and installed on the Windows 7 machine do not produce pages that accept the JPEG images.)
I also have a Windows XP computer that I hope to never ever connect to the internet; that infernal
source of viruses, pop-up ads, and liars. The time-saving ease of changing text and doing print-outs
on a word processor is a boon I'm grateful for, though I don't enjoy crossing swords with the
damned things when they get as obstinate as I am. I know a very successful writer who finds his
typewriter quite friendly and comfortable. If you also feel that way, maybe you really are right
to ignore the computer world. (Most publishers still want queries & proposals in hardcopy, but
those same publishers are also likely to want a full manuscript on computer discs or memory sticks.
No problem if there's a computer savvy secretary in town who will do the job for a price, saving
you the price of a computer & software.) By now, I'm comfortable enough with word processors to
do almost everything from scratch on the word processor. Whether book manuscripts or
short pieces, I probably do a complete re-read and edit about ten times before I consider
the job done. And I may still do first drafts of book-length work and some short stories
with ballpoint pens.
- VOICE - What the heck is a writer's 'voice'? I think it's something that includes a
writer's style and outlook on life. In my own case, I try to emphasize plot, minimize
description and choose characters to fit the needs of the plot. Also, I hope never to have
a villain who is totally evil and finds great joy in tormenting anyone. And I expect that
most of my 'good guys' will survive the plot. Also, friends tell me I write the way I talk,
though that isn't obvious to me. These are the sort of things that tend to add up to a
writer's 'voice'. Other writers may emphasize description, a certain location, or characters
for their own sake, and their voice evolves from that.
- WRITER'S BLOCK - This is no problem unless you've saddled yourself with a tight
deadline. I usually have a plot outline fairly well in mind before I have anything on
paper. If the draft gets stuck somewhere, I just jump ahead to another scene and give
the sticky spot time to sort itself out. And if it stays stuck, I skip to an entirely
different book length plot. Right now, not counting "Western Limericks", I have one
complete novel, "Lady Ashley & Lord Louie", that I expect to get published eventually,
a non-fiction book I need to start on soon, and another novel in mind to start on shortly
thereafter. I think it will always be somewhat that way.