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A return to the haunted world of The Red Church and Drummer Boy, from Amazon’s 47North imprint.
When wealthy developer Larkin McFall moves to the small Appalachian Mountain community of Barkersville, generations-old tales of supernatural phenomena, sudden deaths, and odd disappearances resurface.My books are now out in all markets, so load up your Nook, Kobo reader, or iPad.
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I’ve gotten out of the “writer babble” business for two reasons: (1) I don’t know as much as I thought I did, and (2) it’s all changing so fast that even the boldest predictions of digital evolution quickly become laughable.
I don’t even use traditional publishing as a reference point anymore, because that is so far removed from most writers’ realities that it may as well be Shangri-la or Hollywood. The indie vs. trad debate is now only meaningful for a small group of people, and they are all making way more money than you or me.
So you are indie, and if you are lucky, you made a nice little nest egg back when most serious writers were standing on the sidelines deciding whether indie was the way to go. Hopefully, you shook off the intellectual shackles that chained us to the agent speed-dating sessions at writing conferences and were hammered and locked into place by “publishing experts” with 20-year writing careers in the old system. You know the mantras: “Get an agent,” “Only hacks self-publish,” and “You can’t produce and distribute a book without the advice of publishing experts like us.” Basically, ego affirmation. Of course the experts didn’t want to lose their position of authority (and in the agents’ case, the intermediary status of being the first in line to get checks.)
But the gate was left open and the horses all got out of the barn, or something like that (come up with your own gatekeeper metaphor; I am writing this for free!) So now we have a market where the 99-cent ebook had a year’s run, and the pool was finally beginning to find stratification (crappy books sinking, good books nailing stable plateaus) when Amazon unleashed the latest version of indie roulette—the free ebook.
I’m on record as predicting the flat-text e-book era has an outside range of five years, at least for fiction—specialized non-fiction and manuals will continue to be valuable for their content alone. I believe e-book sales will continue, but certainly not with expanding profits for all involved. Now that there are 20,000 free Kindle books available every single day, how long before readers come to expect and even demand free books exclusively? And what happens when the system is set up so that those who are the best or luckiest at giving away books become the people who dominate the bestseller lists?
Freebie roulette. Great for readers. Good for Amazon (maybe in the short term, but it is hard to figure the long term). Terrible for authors.
The market is diverse enough to support many different price tiers, but writers who want to survive in 2015 will need to make money off of free books, or they will soon quit writing.
I only see one outcome: ad-supported or sponsored books. At first blush, you’d think N.Y. has an advantage, since Madison Avenue is right there. But can corporations, with their large structures, be able to compete when indie or smaller entities can react more quickly to present conditions instead of protecting some imagined status quo? It’s almost certain that Amazon will eventually have a Prime library with unlimited lending, and ads in books will subsidize the cost (with writers making a nickel a download). It’s hard to figure where any of the other ebook giants will level out, since they are all five years behind in a two-year race.
But what if you don’t want to put all your balls on Amazon’s roulette wheel? J.K. Rowling can inspire a Pottermore built around her brand, and James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Clive Cussler have already built factories around their names (and, yes, V.C. Andrews, you can roll over in your grave two or three more times for all I care, because this is all your fault). But most of us are not factories or we wouldn’t have to self-publish.
This points out the new era of the branded writer. And not just "writer," but "content creator" and even mere "idea marketer." A personality is more suited to building brand identification and audience than a publisher is. I say "James Patterson" and you get an image. I say "Random House" and what do you get? Randomness. We’ve seen it here locally: "Ray’s Weather" is where you check the weather and "Todd’s Calendar" is where you click to find what’s happening in the region—and both are ad supported. You can get the free content elsewhere but you don’t get the human personality attached.
I’m already experimenting with the ad model because I believe it is viable. I am counting on Idea Marketing being one of my foundational pillars. I am not quite sure what it all looks like right now, but I look at it this way—you don’t need NY in order to give away tons of free e-books or to spread an idea or to build a social platform. You are the idea you want to spread.
Other authors will say “I’ll never sell out.” (Ironically, those are usually the authors who have given most of their incomes to agents and publishers…) I don’t blame people for sticking with what worked in the past. It all goes to how invested you are in a certain system and how the alternative looks, and, of course, the turf where you’ve staked out your ego. Publishing-industry talk on e-books uses phrases like "managing risk" and "cautious adaptation." That is why those of us in the trenches knew Barnes & Noble was in serious trouble when most in the “publishing industry” only realized it recently when BN’s horrifyingly bad third-quarter reports came in. They are working off of old data while I work off the data I got an hour ago.
And my data says this may be the very peak of the Golden Age of digital publishing. The $9.99 novel may be dead this year, since three-quarters of the current bestsellers are low-priced indie books. As fast as major publishers yank their name-brand authors out of digital libraries, 10 new indies cram into that virtual shelf space. Maybe forever. James Patterson’s factory can’t run on $2.99 ebooks, but mine can.
But what happens when the $2.99 and 99 cents drop to permanently free? Where’s your sponsor? Are you willing to go there? It’s not going to be as clumsy as an image of a refreshing Bud Lite popping up when the main character enters a bar (though it’s not unthinkable at some point.) Can you see Jack Reacher with a favorite brand of soft drink, or Bella Swan wearing only Calvin Klein? At what point is your willing suspension of disbelief shattered? At what point do you realize the ad is the only reason the book can exist at all?
My informal polling on ad-supported ebooks yields statements like: "I’ll quit reading before I put up with that." I also remember saying I’d never carry a cell phone, or be on Facebook, or give up my vinyl albums, or start thinking that maybe nuclear energy is the best short-range answer to our energy addiction. Or that I’d ever read an entire book on a screen.
So, ads in ebooks. Just another road of many.Share … Follow Scott …
Some people think I am a writer.
I am actually an organic gardener.
I love to dig in the dirt. I love drive my beat-up old truck to my neighbor’s cow pasture and load it up with manure. I love to plant my seeds and watch each plant develop its individual personality. I say a prayer when I harvest them and eat them, because I am grateful. My passion is saving heirloom, non-genetically-modified plant seeds because I believe the corporate hybrids have many risks—control is one, cost is one, and biological collapse is another. Tomorrow, we will still need to eat.
So writing to me is just a means to that end—my real business. But it is bigger than that, and more organic than that. My writing is a garden just as my life is a garden. I plant seeds and share. Sure, there will be drought, freeze, famine, and blight, but the seeds carry over to the next season.
I think part of our challenge as creators (and "marketing" and "idea sharing" take just as much creativity as "writing" or "idea sharing" in a book, if not more) is to break away from preconceptions and limitations we place on ourselves.
It doesn’t make mathematical or logical sense, but the more I give away, the more I grow—not just money, which is just another "idea," but in people and warmth and new ideas. I now meet lots of cool people through "marketing"—because I don’t market anymore. I killed myself trying to sell books and push books and pimp books, I have done every absurd thing in the Marketing 101 bibles, and I probably annoyed a lot of people. And it really didn’t work all that well, and it was work, not fun. Gardening is fun. It is my spirit place, one good connection to the conduits in which I believe.
Now I grow attraction. My creativity garden is just like my dirt garden—I plant seeds, grow stuff, eat, share seeds, and my neighbor shares seeds and food and growing tips. And we all eat.
That may be la-la fairy-babble for writers weaned on all the "Must-do Tips for Book Marketing!!!" or “Robo-Tweet Your Personalized Brand!” or "How I sold a Million Books and YOU CAN, TOO!!!! (if you give me $5)." I am done with all that! I can walk away after this year if I can grow better gardens somewhere else. Writing is a means to the bigger garden for me.
And I now only work and play and dig with people who believe in adding value and growing the bigger garden. I don’t do stuff just to make money, or help other people make money. If I can’t see “value-added” on every aspect for everyone, I walk away. I don’t need it. Greed and desire and ego poison my garden.
The irony is that I am now “successful” in some bizarre, subjective writing sense, so people look to me as an example, which is the only reason I am writing this blog post. I don’t care if you buy my books. Really. My “idea boxes” under the name of “books” are there if you want them, but 7 billion people will never want them. The idea boxes themselves are miniature gardens. They just come in different forms, but they are all seeds.
What’s in your garden, and how are you tending it today?Share … Follow Scott …
I’ve heard just about every indie myth in the book.
About how the secret to selling books is blogging.
No, wait, isn’t Twitter the secret to selling books?
How about the “Good cover, good blurb, good book” mantra that gets murmured thoughtlessly all over the place, with no definition of what “good” means?
I call baloney on all that. Only one thing sells, and that’s sales. Because we see more exceptions than examples. We see crappy books selling by the bucketloads, we see hideously lurid covers clogging the charts, and we see literary geniuses wallowing in what constitutes the workhouses of the indie era.
A quarter million authors, with talent so similar as to be almost interchangeable…
The only difference I see is that some sell and others don’t. Now, 90 percent of it is luck, but it also seems the people who get lucky are those who work harder at the 10 percent they can control.
It was true in Gutenberg’s day and it’s true now. The means are different, but the basics are still the same. Unless people know you exist, they won’t sample your superfab product or ideology or art or concept. Unless you have some value to your audience, there is no worthwhile connection.
I know a number of Negative Nellies who spend lots of time telling me why things won’t work. “You can’t self-publish. You can’t give away books and then expect to sell them. Facebook doesn’t work. People who use advertising are cheating.”
Well, you know what? I want to be everywhere. Not to brag about some meaningless rank, or to sail away on my yacht while starving people wail on the docks. No, I do it because I believe in my work. I believe my ideology is compassionate and, although I am far from perfect, I think human existence matters and that exploring the ugliness and beauty is why we are here. Books and stories are a way we can learn about one another and make sense of this huge, random universe.
And writers love their ranks and sales figures and proof of how they are smarter than someone else, but you know what? The reader is smarter than every writer who ever put a quill to paper or scrawled mud on a cave wall.
The reader makes sense of the story and brings it alive. The reader works much, much harder than the writer. The reader is the most precious part of the telepathic creation of imagination.
As a writer, don’t you want to meet that reader through whatever means possible? Sure, most things “don’t work.” But is it truly the “thing,” or is it you that fails?
What have you given your reader today?
What have you done to make instead of take?
How is the world better because you happened to string some words together and shove them in everyone’s face?
Make it matter. Then use every ethical, moral, and tangible tool in your kit to make yourself visible. Marketing without heart is just data. Writing without a reason is just noise.
What’s your value? Not “What’s the optimal price for my ebook?”
Be valuable and you will sell all the books you deserve.
Value creates its own visibility.Share … Follow Scott …
You know the players.
They have a good thing at home, a sweet and loyal mate who takes care of them and fulfills their every need.
But they can’t resist a little on the side. It’s not even about need, because they are already fulfilled. It’s the curiosity, the dim hope or fear that maybe that side action is somehow the secret awesome soul-mate thing they talk about in books.
Or maybe they are scared to death of exclusivity, because all their hopes, dreams, and book sales are pinned to that loyal partner. And how much do you really know about that partner after all? Huh?
Yes, writers in the digital age sometimes have too many choices. A few short years ago (an entire epoch in technological evolution), we signed a deal with a publisher and hoped it worked it out. We deeply suspected we’d eventually get dumped, and with no alimony, but we couldn’t help but dream it was a love that would last forever. And our publisher was a jealous mate, often shackling us to the bedposts and not even allowing us to look out the window at other prospects.
Now we have all the partners we want. Promiscuous publication. Unsafe text. As many places to sell our books as we can seduce someone into posting. The new indie freedom means never having to say “You’re the only one for me.”
I think that freedom is also a different kind of prison. I’ve even been preaching, “Diversification is the key to survival when everything is changing so rapidly and in such unforeseen ways.”
So we run our books through Amazon, BN, Smashwords, Apple Kobo, Overdrive, Xinxii, and the myriad of small online bookstores that we aren’t even sure exist. Has anyone ever actually sold a Google book? Or a Diesel book?
But what if one good publisher wanted a true partnership and lured you to the altar with dreamy promises of Happy Ever After?
First, dash cold water in your face. There is no happy ever after in publishing. At the luckiest, you will amass enough money to take care of yourself in your old age, but we’ve all been to those writing conventions where they’re holding a charity auction for the old and sick living legend who somehow lost everything, including the rights to their own work.
But that doesn’t mean it might not be worth a shot. Amazon has announced its lending library, and reports say indie authors will be allowed in—with the catch of exclusivity. Yes, your book could only be distributed through Amazon.
On the face of it, that’s a true horror after we’ve fought so hard for our freedom and stormed the Bastille and—oh, wait. We actually did nothing but get lucky. We were sitting right here writing when Amazon launched the indie age for us.
Bob Dylan sang, ”You gotta serve sum-bahd-ah.” At some point, probably soon, we may have to decide which market, or few markets, will be the beds we are making to lie down in. A rental library is not only inevitable, it’s a no-brainer idea that should have happened years ago. Don’t be surprised if every major market, and every major publisher, soon launches some form of a rental library. The wide-open egalitarianism sparked by dozens of markets acting in their own best interests (opening their doors to scads of easy content they didn’t have to develop) may constrict and narrow as the partners get jealous and controlling.
The device wars will likely be over in a year or two, and then the real lover’s spat erupts. It’s ultimately a content war, as Apple demonstrated with the music business (and a nice 30 percent off the top, thank you very much).
You’re going to have to serve somebody. It might be a good idea to make sure it’s someone you love. An even better idea may be making sure it loves you back.Share … Follow Scott …
Most observers and even some authors believe the major publishing industry has been slow to respond to the electronic-book era. True, the industry is struggling with pricing while trying to protect hardcover sales and has not been especially welcoming of digital books, especially those that compete with their higher-priced versions. But they have not been putting their heads in the sand, either.
Publishing contracts of this century almost universally grant publishers the electronic rights to the content, and those clauses may have seemed innocuous even two years ago, when e-book sales were negligible. The clauses that were afterthoughts returned the electronic rights to the writers when the book went out of print, back when that term was more cut-and-dried.
But, increasingly, the publishers are setting clauses that lock in the license as long as some minimum sales levels are reached. I don’t get a lot of contracts these days, but the ones I know about generally have numbers like "If ebook royalties reach $100 in a six-month period, the clause automatically renews." In other words, if some laughable minimum of sales is met, the publisher retains the rights. Possibly forever, if the clause keeps renewing.
That is literally indentured servitude that traps writers over an entire career, at least those unlucky enough to have the moderate success needed to stay trapped by the clause. Ironically, those writers who are most deeply invested in The System are the ones who are going to be in the worst shape in five years, and even worse in 10 or 20, their retirement years, when they will be getting nickels instead of dollars.
You’d think agents and authors would be screaming about this development, but the ones who are most invested in The System are the ones most actively in denial. Look at the agent blogs–most are talking about how challenging the current system is and how lousy the quality of submissions are (when they are not actively making fun of some poor author’s query letter), not how their roles may be diminishing, and very few (I’ve only found one) will admit that the current ebook clauses are suicide. I know agents have fought these battles with publishers, insisting on better e-book terms, but at the end of the day, you just get the most you can right now and take your 15 percent. Any agent who did otherwise would be either looking for job or heralded as a true advocate of the author. In other words, blackballed by New York.
In today’s publishing environment, you still need an agent and the agent still needs to get a significant deal. It makes sense for them to do the best they can right now and not worry so much about the long term. Unless the client is a blockbuster, the client likely will not be earning royalties or a lifetime revenue stream anyway.
Even if you are an e-book phenomenon, you will do better if you have shelf presence. Take Boyd Morrison’s deal for The Ark, after making a name selling $1.99 e-books. He was signed by a major publisher and now his e-book is $11.99 and he’s not making much more per sale than he did back then–and the poor consumer is expected to pay six times the price. By Boyd’s own admission, the biggest edits were some minor stuff and the changing of one character’s name. Where’s all that extra money going and what value was added?
Publishers are great at distributing books and can afford to ship free copies to the numerous book bloggers, who often seem to be reviewing the same book at the same time. That’s been the carrot publishers are still holding out while they grip the stick to beat authors over the head. "You’re not a real writer and no one will review your books" is still a powerful tool.
If publishers use the carrot to lock down long-time e-book rights, and ebooks become even 20 percent of the market (as is predicted by 2015), then those publishers have just made major bank, and will continue to do so as e-books increase in popularity. I don’t see anyone predicting the genie will be shoved back in the bottle and all this new-fangled technology will get boring. After an e-book is published, it is nothing but content, and the publishers will be skimming both the cream and the milk, with little additional work besides dipping the ladle. As the e-book market grows, those publishers who have hoarded the most content will be on Easy Street. Those writers who gave the most away will be in the soup-kitchen lines, or, if they’re lucky, they will be the beneficiaries of charity auctions at fan conventions.
Agents are debating whether it’s better for the writers to get 15 percent of list or 25 percent of net–well, what about 70 percent of gross? How about that, Mr. Agent and Ms. Publisher? (And, by the way, you can trim 15 percent off that 15 percent, so the writer is getting around 13 percent.) And when e-books reach their natural price range of $1-$5, those writers will be getting a quarter a copy and have no control over anything, while publishers will have an easy, ongoing revenue stream because they essentially own the content (you can call it a "license," but if it’s for a rock-bottom e-book floor to keep the clause active, then it will last forever).
Sure, publishers will be happy to return your rights once the content is worthless, meaning your career is dead and every drop has been squeezed from the teat. Of course, agents will get their spillover as long as their names were on the original contracts.
The odd thing is how little the word "author" appears in all this discussion of "The Future of E-books." But, then, most authors went into writing because they were lousy at math. And, I suspect, they like getting beaten with sticks.Share … Follow Scott …
I’m one of those writers teetering between two worlds. I was inducted into this writing game with the typical professional mantras: Write what you know; never pay an agent to represent your work; never self-publish.
About 700 rejection slips later, I sold six mid-list mass-market paperbacks. Some sold well, got award notice, and earned fans; others faded with barely a trace. Somewhere along the way, my career lost its momentum. I am captain of the ship, so it all starts with my lax hand on the rudder.
After parting ways with my agent and going several years without a book sale, I was at a crossroads. Giving up wasn’t an option, since I’d been writing new novels, screenplays, comic books, and short stories and had a mountain of material. I queried a few agents and publishers and found the industry had changed a lot since I broke in—now not only did industry professionals takes six months or more to respond, they often didn’t bother to reply at all.
I’d followed the developments of the Kindle, but I was still too doped from my industry indoctrination to seriously consider self-publishing. Every professional writing organization I’d ever been in had a list of "approved publishers," and you couldn’t call yourself a "professional" unless you sold a book to someone on the list. It didn’t matter that some of the publishers on the list might only pay a $500 advance, and that you might earn $20,000 from selling the book yourself—it’s shunned within the tribe.
After I got the rights back to my first and best-selling novel, the supernatural thriller The Red Church, I kicked around ways to get it back out to the public. All of them looked difficult or costly, and I know I didn’t want to print a garage full of books and drive around servicing commission accounts of two or three books per store. Luckily, the e-book phenomenon was taking off, mostly in the underground, where independent authors could release books with little overhead. Amazon also made it very easy to publish e-books, and even set up paper books through its print-on-demand press.
After a little research, I put out a couple of e-books on Amazon, including The Red Church and some older story collections. To my utter delight, the novel quickly reached a new audience and sold steadily. It sold so well that I predict I will earn more from it this year than I did from its original advance paid by the print publisher. After a couple of months, I released The Skull Ring, a psychological thriller in which a flawed heroine is targeted by a sinister cult. The novel always seemed to slip between the cracks and had been around for a while, but never got shopped. Today, with the click of a few buttons, I can send it on its merry way to e-book audiences in multiple platforms and formats.
I never dreamed I’d self-publish, much less release an original novel. I had to step out on the tightrope and realize no one—agent, publisher, or another writer—was going to save me. If I wanted a career, I’d have to risk it.
The mere act of taking action rejuvenated my writing, put control and outcome back in my hands, and opened an entire new world. The only limit to my growth is my ability to connect with an audience and please it. If readers like the work, they buy it and I write more books. Shortly after that second novel was released, I was contacted by an agent, and hopefully I will be releasing paper books through New York again. In the meantime, I am preparing two more original novels for release while working to get back rights to my older novels.
It’s a new era, and the old-school phrase "Money flows to the writer" can now be absolute—it doesn’t have to detour through agents, publishers, corporations, distributors, or bookstores. The successful writers of this new era will move in both worlds and take more responsibility for their careers, and they will choose their industry allies carefully.
In this new era, you can actually say "No" to a book offer—something nearly unthinkable a decade ago—because you know what your books are really worth. The audience tells you.
That sounds like a sustainable career move to me.Share … Follow Scott …
Q: I have been submitting stories to magazines for some years, with a fair amount of success. But one problem that drives me nuts is this business of magazines indicating they don’t want simultaneous submissions. It seems that the majority of them are saying this now and it seems arrogant to me. I mean, in several years I have seen exactly two magazines respond to a submission within the time frame they claim they will.
They all end of hoarding your story for literally months while expecting you to not submit it anywhere else until they get around to rejecting it. I hesitate to ignore this "no simultaneous submission" tyranny, but don’t want to get a reputation among editors. I know that, as writers, we seem to be at the absolute bottom of the pecking order in the publishing business, but what can we do about this?
A: Submitting can seem frustrating, because it’s a condition of supply and demand. Magazine editors get hundreds of submissions, there are fewer magazines all the time, and the wait often seems unreasonable. (After all, why can’t an editor open that morning’s mail, breeze through all the submissions, and send out responses by the afternoon?)
Well, because most of them have jobs and spouses and a huge printing bill and are doing it for love or a noble belief in preserving a dying art form–the short story. And because some writers keep sending the same bad story around for years, there could easily be 20,000 stories circulating at any given time. Imagine an editor who takes two stories out of 100 (a fairly plausible percentage for anyone with standards). The editor, running on editor-brain, is slotting the story, thinking about how it will complement the others she’s selected and perhaps how this writer will help promote and sell the magazine, if there is "name value" involved. To then go to the trouble of contacting a writer and finding the story is gone really weakens the editor’s enthusiasm. If it happened several times, anyone would get discouraged and come to believe publishing is not worth the effort, and you lose another market.
I have to say I have disregarded that dictum in one or two circumstances, usually if I sense a publication is in trouble and will never publish. You don’t want your story tied up for years after an "acceptance" where the magazine "pays on publication," yet never publishes. You don’t want it in a pile where a writer pretended to launch a publication in order to curry favor and win a peer award. You don’t want to be stuck with someone who suddenly becomes persona non grata through some bizarre revelation, because editors are far more prone to bad reputations than writers are.
But the approach I took early in my career seems the most practical–to keep a submission at every feasible, desirable market at all times. While the number of markets is limited, your supply is unlimited. No one is stopping you from writing another story while your latest is in the slush pile. With so few decent markets, it is easy to have more stories than places to send them. Once you have stories at all your favorite publications, write a few more, or some articles, or a novel or non-fiction book.
Once you have a dozen circulating, you will likely not obsess over the first couple, nor even remember them, so you will want to keep a submission log. When one gets rejected, immediately send another to that editor if you still want to publish there. If you are confident about that rejected story, send it back out to another market immediately, or take a second or third look at it. With this strategy, you not only are improving as you go, you are maximizing your odds–because until you are a commodity in the marketplace, there is still a good bit of timing and luck involved, even if your stories are well crafted.
Best of all, you will stay busy and creatively fulfilled. The biggest challenge for a writer is to be happy. The world is not set up to indulge writers. Life makes it hard, time makes other demands, people want to drag us away from our imaginations and "get with the program." I say it all the time, but repeat it here: Enjoy this day’s work, because this may be all you get out of the deal. If that’s not enough, maybe you’re not a writer. And if you write no matter what I say, then good for you, because you are already successful!Share … Follow Scott …
While writing, editing, representing, and publishing are all highly subjective skills, or even "arts" depending on your definition, repeated exposure to certain unsuccessful traits make them easy to identify. In short, it’s much easier to find what is failing rather than explain what makes a piece of writing succeed.
After working as a freelance editor for several years and logging a decade as a journalist and copy editor, I’ve found a number of minor problems that sap vitality from an otherwise compelling story. Some writers even believe those small errors will not hurt their manuscript’s chances, not realizing they are competing with hundreds or thousands of similar manuscripts. Careful editing is especially important in an era when editors spend more time meeting with the sales staff than scrawling notes in red ink. Whether you carefully pore over your manuscript on your own or trust someone else with the task, the ultimate goal is to have a manuscript that’s as flawless as possible.
In the manuscripts I’ve edited, I have encountered a number of recurring practical errors that make even a blockbuster story lose a little luster.
1. Comma usage. The convention of serial commas, as made famous in the book title "Eats, Shoots, And Leaves" appears to be undergoing a change, as some small publishers are now accepting the Associated Press style common in newspapers and magazines (where the preceding example would be published as "Eats, Shoots and Leaves.) While I use Strunk & White’s "The Elements of Style" as my bible, even publishers that stray from long-established rules still want consistency, so pick a horse and ride it.
Understand the function of clauses, as they are one of the basic building blocks of sentence structure. If you insert a clause in the middle of a sentence and start off with a comma, you might need another comma to close off the phrase. Don’t simply throw in a comma because you feel a sentence is running long or if you want a natural pause in the middle. Rewrite the sentence if necessary. Better yet, learn the simple rules of commas.
2. He said, she said. Some writers avoid using a character’s name too often because it might seem unnatural, but clarity is the ultimate goal of all good writing. A sentence like "He went for his gun, but he shot him first" could have several different interpretations, even if only two male characters are involved. Crooked Tom could be trying to steal Johnny Cop’s gun or Crooked Tom could be reaching for his own gun, and either could be squeezing off the first shot. If there are three characters in this scene, you’d really have a circus. "Crooked Tom went for his gun, but Johnny Cop shot Innocent Abe first"is clearer, even if the paragraph is already littered with their names. You don’t want your reader to pause and figure out which "he" is which. If your reader pauses too often, she is soon likely to stop altogether.
3. Wry Saidisms. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using "said" over and over, and readers are trained to accept the word as easily as they do standard punctuation. You can get away with a character’s occasionally "whining" or "demanding," but use them as spice and save them for moments when you need a little extra punch. Avoid "stating" altogether, as it is a hallmark of badly written press releases, and the word only applies to a formal statement such as one given in authority or for a police report. "Whispering" and "shouting" are fine, because they are as much action as stage direction. If you insist on someone hissing a line, make sure it contains at least one sibilance, or "S" sound.
"Ly" adverbs slow down the sentence and often foil the writer’s intent. For example, "Bill quickly crossed the room" is slower than "Bill crossed the room," and the word "suddenly" is its own oxymoron. Such adverbs are especially cumbersome in dialogue tags. Indeed, they often become comical, as popularized in Tom Swifties such as "‘You’re going against the grain,’ he said wryly" or "‘The sun is out,’ he observed brightly."
4. Overexcitement! Hoard your exclamation points and only dole them out when necessary. Some preach avoiding them altogether and instead relying on dynamic writing to convey the excitement. In general, they can be effective when used sparingly in dialogue, but they quickly become boring when overused and should rarely if ever conclude an action sentence. Generally, dependence on exclamation points indicates a lack of power in your action sentences.
Adding a bit of visual oomph or dialogue tag is a better choice: "‘Look out,’ he shouted, diving for cover as bullets zinged overhead." The word "shouted" does the work of the exclamation point, though if you are in the book’s climax or a particularly brisk and intense scene, then one or two can do the work of unnecessary words, too. In this case, I’d let "Look out!" slide, assuming exclamation points weren’t already hopping all over the page like drunk celebrities begging for tabloid coverage. Anyone using two or more exclamation points together will not only be rejected but taken out and shot!!!
5. Heady confusion. Point of view is one of the fundamental keys to good fiction writing. Stories that keep a clear point of view immediately move themselves to the front of the class or the slush pile. Simply put, find out who is telling the story and stick with that character until there’s a clear shift to another point of view. In third-person limited viewpoint, make sure the character doesn’t "know" things happening outside her range of perception. Make sure the character isn’t experiencing the thoughts of another character unless one of them has ESP.
Omniscient viewpoint gives you the authorial power of God, knowing all and seeing all, but it can be a bit aloof and less successful at emotionally engaging the reader. If using first-person viewpoint, then you must be doubly sure you’re limited to your "I" character’s thoughts and sensations. Second-person is a bit artificial and calls attention to itself but can be effective if that’s what you’re after. Mixing first, second, third, and omniscient viewpoints can be hazardous to your reader’s (and your career’s) health.
6. Keeping Your Distance. Newer writers tend to rely on "He saw," "He felt," "He smelled," "He tasted," or "He heard" instead of just letting the actions or sensations occur. It shows a lack of a confidence. If you have done a good job of securing your character viewpoint, then when that stack of dishes clatters to the ground, the reader knows who hears the smash. Like any mechanism, it has a time and place, but several of these in the same paragraph really sap the energy: "He felt that what he heard was an elephant that sounded like it was in the jungle." Better: "An elephant trumpeted in the distant jungle." The more immediate the imagery, the more powerful.
7. Slow Death. Too many useless mannerisms, bits of business or trivia, and descriptions can bog your tale down right out of the starting gate. While the color of someone’s coat can be a revealing detail, make sure there’s a reason for its inclusion, and beware stacking up lots of physical description before the reader has a chance to build her own image. The reader’s less likely to care that Susan is of medium build with brown eyes and auburn hair than the fact that Susan is carrying a bouquet of wilted flowers, has wet mascara runs, and is missing one earring.
Whatever you do, don’t have a character enter a room waving a cigarette, inhaling between every two lines of dialogue, flicking ashes, lighting another, and repeating until the scene is mercifully expired from emphysema. The same goes for meals: avoid them just as you would avoid showing a character going to the bathroom. Unless there is a plot purpose or intriguing piece of character development at stake, let that type of business take place offstage or mention it in passing.
Now for the final bad habit of unsuccessful writers, one which makes all the above meaningless: the habit of not writing. In my career, I’ve only seen two kinds of writers. Those who succeed and those who quit. Be one of those who succeed.
(Originally published in Writer’s Journal)Share … Follow Scott …