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Social Media and the Writer

Conventional wisdom says that in the year 2020, social media is key to getting noticed, whether you’re an author or a musician or even an artist. The internet is full of people throwing around words like “platform” and “following,” but is a platform really neccessary if you want to be published? Does having a following on Twitter help an author sell books?

The answer, as with so many things, seems to be: it depends. A social media following certainly doesn’t seem to hurt certain authors. I only read Alexa Donne’s space romance The Stars We Steal because I watch her YouTube channel. I have picked up books because I came across recommendations in my Twitter feed, usually from authors who are mutuals (that is, two people who follow each other on a platform) with the author in question. I cannot say that social media unequivocally does not affect an author’s chances at publication or their future book sales. However, for every one of these authors, there are many successful authors with a minimal or even non-existent social media presence. Certainly genre factors heavily too — Young Adult fiction writers are notoriously prolific on social media, particularly Twitter. Adult historical fiction writers, perhaps not quite as much (my favorite historical fiction writer, Sharon K. Penman, keeps a Facebook page and a sporadically updated blog as the full extent of her social media presence and yet she still has managed a long and successful career. Each genre seems to have its own social media norms, but generally speaking, the younger your audience skews, the more important social media will be.

That said, avoiding social media altogether as an up and coming writer in 2020 is probably not a realistic game plan. Sharon K. Penman, who I mentioned above, started her career in the 1980s, and by the time social media was invented, much less widespread, she was already well established as a historical fiction writer. In 2020, however, a social media presence is expected. Not only do accounts on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram give potential agents an idea about your “platform,” perhaps more importantly they give an idea about what kind of person you are and what sort of content you engage with. Do you harass teenagers in the Harry Potter fandom and generally make a fool of yourself? Are you vocal about social issues? Do you interact positively with other writers, or are you antagonistic? These things might count for more than a high follower count, which, afterall, can be a poor mark of your overall reach as a writer.

So do numbers matter? Do you need Twitter followers in the tens of thousands to get published? Certainly not. I can think of dozens of professional published writers who have followings of fewer than 10k. I can name many writers with very high follower counts who gained those followers mainly through writers’ lifts and follow for follow games rather than through genuine interaction. My own personal Twitter following is modest, hovering between 2500-3000 followers, but my interactions are genuine, and when you scroll through my feed, you will get an immediate sense of what I am passionate about. I interact positively with my fellow writers, am vocal about the issues that are important to me. I am happy with my social media presence and do not feel pressured to inflate my follower count just for the sake of empty numbers. Genuine engagement will always make a bigger impression than numbers with no interaction to back them up.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to build a social media presence, but do it honestly. Do not stress about numbers. If you’re trying for traditional publication, you should probably be on the more popular social media platforms, but you don’t need to be a huge name with a massive following. Create a genuine following, avoid being antagonistic or overly edgy, at least on your main account, and try to interact positively in the writing community. Follow some writers and agents you admire, boost other writers during pitch events, join in conversations about what’s going on in the industry, and you might even start enjoying the process of creating your social media platform. At the very least, the process should feel less like a chore, and more like simply another step on the long road to becoming a published writer.

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Writing the Deed: Sex Scenes in Fiction

Eventually most writers will have to decide whether or to include sex scenes in their books, and if so, how to handle them. Sex scenes can be incredibly difficult to write well, to the point that while good ones can add chemistry and passion to an on-page pairing, terrible ones can ruin an otherwise good book.

Sex scenes or not?

Not all books need sex scenes, or even romance at all. A reader is just as capable of getting involved in a well written platonic friendship as in a romance, and most readers would prefer a well written friendship to a poorly written romance. Even the writer who does choose a romantic sub-plot, or even a romantic main plot, does not need to include the deed itself. Authors who feel uncomfortable or unable to write a gripping sex scene might consider writing a sweet romance. Also consider — are the characters in question underage? Harry Potter, for instance, includes romance, but considering the age of the characters and the target audience, actual sex scenes would have been in poor taste. As a rule, Middle Grades books should be sex-free, while Young Adult books run the gamut, with more chaste romances found in books like Yes, No, Maybe So, by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, or The Betrothed, by Kiera Cass. In those books the couples in question share kisses, but nothing much beyond that, aside from, of course, lots of mutual longing and angst.

The middle-ground: fade to black

“Fade to black” is a technique that borrows its name from cinematography, when the camera would cut away from a couple, or literally, fade to black, before a sex scene as a chance to get explicit. In writing, fade to black can include details of foreplay — kissing, touching, with the action usually staying above the waist — but will generally stop short of penetration or description of body parts below the waist. Many writers skillfully employ fade to black as a way to imply the sex act without having to write more graphic descriptions. Many YA and adult authors use fade to black as a sort of middle-ground. Holly Black’s Folk of the Air books for the most part have fade to black sex scenes, as does the Graceling series by Kristin Chashore. In adult fantasy Juliet Marillier and Robin McKinley both write great love stories and sex scenes that are either fade to black, or low on detail. Keep in mind that a fade to black sex scene does not have mean that it was written for your grandmother. Many authors subscribe to the less is more philosophy when it comes to sex, revealing just enough detail to excite the reader’s imagination, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps according to their own preference. Fade to black sex scenes should be treated as any other sex scenes, and if you want the scene to be sexy, rules of consent should apply. A person being forced or coerced into sex is not appealing outside of specific kink communities, and if you’re writing for those, you’ll know it.

Explicit detail

Finally, if you’ve decided to write a sex scene, you might decide to go for broke and make it explicit. Perhaps your book has a grittier setting, and the sex scenes are not meant to be pleasant, in which case brutal detail can bring home the cruelty of the act. Perhaps you do intend for the sex scenes to be sexy and romantic, and believe the more detail, the hotter the scene. Detailed sex scenes can be hot and passionate, but they can also quickly verge into cringe territory when writers try to get overly creative with their euphemisms. What reader of A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t remember Martin’s “fat pink mast” or “Myrish swamp?” Or Sarah J. Maas’ description in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series of her male lead’s “velvet wrapped steel?” There is something about sex scenes that turns authors all of a sudden into aspiring poets, and a cock is no longer just a cock.

Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, praised by many to have some of the best sex scenes in fiction, says in a blog post “A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids,” and goes on to elaborate that this can mean any emotion — not just love, but anger, sadness, tenderness, surprise, boredom, anything. She suggests that one of the most efficient ways to accomplish the exchange of emotions is through dialogue, so rather than describing a play by play of body parts, who put what where, your characters should speak to each other, talking through the sex scenes. Perhaps they talk about the act itself “tell me how much you want me” (and the benefit of your characters talking it through is that the consent is explicit) or perhaps they speak about their feelings for each other, or perhaps they use metaphor to talk around important issues.

Actions can also accomplish something similar. Does character A reach up and touch character B’s face during the act? Does he rake his nails down his partner’s back? Actions can express emotions too. Most readers do not care how large your character’s member is, or how pink another character’s nipples are. The details are matter are the details that anchor the sex act to the story emotionally. Painting a complete visual picture is less important to writing a compelling sex scene than is connecting the characters to the acts through their emotional reactions to the action.

Regardless of whether you choose to write fade to black or no sex scenes, of course make sure that you do not glorify rape or non consensual sex, and be extremely careful when depicting underage characters having sex. A rule of thumb is that teenagers having sex with other teenagers is generally acceptable and can be written in a healthy way, but teenagers having sex with a 500 year old immortal vampires is unhealthy and problematic. If you want to write problematic sex scenes — sex between the lord of the manor and a servant, for instance — make sure that you depict it as problematic.

Sex scenes can be a lot of fun, and certainly writers should not shy away from sex if they feel comfortable writing, but nor should a writer feel obligated to include sex scenes. However, if you do choose to take on detailed sex scenes, write with care, because while a good sex scene rarely makes or breaks a book, a cringey one, or worse, a problematic one, can easily poison the well of what is otherwise a good book.

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Twitter Pitching 101

Twitter is an invaluable tool for an aspiring writer. Not only can writers connect with each other through various hashtags such as #writingcommunity and #amwriting, but many agents and editors also hang out on Twitter, making it a great place to make industry connections and even pitch your manuscript. Throughout the year various pitch events take place on Twitter, in which agents and editors review submissions from writers and request manuscripts based upon what they see. Many authors have launched their careers after Twitter pitch events, but catching an agent’s eye with a 280 character tweet is not always easy.

Follow the rules

Whatever guidelines the pitch event has set, make sure that you follow them. Being unable to follow simple instructions will not endear you to an editor, so now is not the time to play fast and loose with the rules. If the rules say the pitch must fit inside one tweet, then fit it in one tweet. If the rules say no pictures, then do not include your mood board, no matter how cool it is. Most pitch events have very clear guidelines which are available online, so make sure you review the rules before you pitch.

Remember your goal

Your pitch is not a synopsis of your story, and you do not need to worry about including every detail. The most important thing is that you should grab the viewer’s interest, and make them curious enough to request an actual synopsis. What is the most intriguing thing about your manuscript? This recent pitch, which garnered some interest in the recent #DvPit event, for instance, starts with an intriguing hook that raises immediate questions:

“When Skjall accidentally shoots the daughter of the King, he finds himself thrown down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and blood rites. Now, he is caught between two feuding monarchs determined to destroy each other.”

Don’t be gimmicky

While I have seen gimmicky pitches work occasionally, in general, it is best to be professional and let your pitch speak for itself. Bullet lists, loads of emojis in place of words, pitches in verse — no matter what the gimmick is, agents have seen it before, and I promise they’ll be more impressed with a punchy pitch with a good hook than any attempts at being clever. If you have a strong concept, then gaining the attention of an agent or editor is really a matter of how you present it. You have 280 characters, so rather than wasting them on emojis, show off your skills. A pitch is a form of writing, and if you can’t write an intriguing tweet, how can industry professionals expect you to write a whole novel?

Comp your work

While comps are not required, they are often a good way of conveying a lot of information with a few words, and giving the reader an immediate feel for your manuscript. If possible, try to choose your comps from relatively recent publications, and avoid overly obvious comps, such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, which will read as laziness. The general consensus is that movies and even T.V. shows may be used in comps as well, but they should be relatively well known. Normally you should use two works that are relatively different in order to provide a contrast, or something unexpected. If I said, for instance, that I was writing a book that was a combination of The 100, which is a gritty YA Sci-Fi about a group of teens surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and The Selection, a romance about a prince’s competition for a royal bride, there is an element of unexpected to the pairing that an agent might find intriguing. Consider if I said I was writing a book that was The Selection meets The Royal We. While those two books are not really similar in detail, nor in setting, they are close enough in genre and theme that pairing them together as comps does nothing for the pitch.

Try different tactics

Most pitch events allow you to pitch several times throughout the day, so take that opportunity to rephrase your pitch and see which version lands. You may find that some agents are drawn to one version of the pitch, while others are drawn to another. Play around with the phrasing of your pitch and see which version is most effective. If you find one version is most effective, you might re-use that version, making slight changes only. This is usually not against the rules.

Pitch events throughout the year:

January: #SFFPit — an event for science fiction and fantasy pitches

February: #KissPitch — an event for romance and women’s fiction pitches

March, June, September, December: #PitMad — an open event for all unrepresented authors in all genres

April: #DvPit — an event for marginalized and underrepresented voices in publishing, all genres

 

 

 

 

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Am I Too Old to Publish?

Recently a young writer on Twitter lamented the fact that they were, perhaps, at thirty years old and still unpublished, too old to achieve their dream of becoming a published writer. The myth that a writer must publish in their 20s or risk being over the hill, too old, too irrelevant, is a pervasive one. Perhaps it is fueled by the popularity of Young Adult fiction, which would, perhaps, being catered towards young people, favor a more youthful voice. Perhaps it is simply authors’ networks on sites such as Twitter and Goodreads skew young, creating the overall impression that writers are being published at greater numbers in their 20s than in their 30s and 40s. Whatever it is, the myth of the young prodigy is just that, mostly a myth. If you are approaching 30, or, like me, 40, and haven’t been published yet, there are a great many reasons why you should not lose hope. In fact, sometimes being published later can even be better than being a young prodigy.

Writers get better with age

Wait, don’t roll your eyes at me yet; this is not the meaningless platitude that it sounds like. Whereas other creatives — painters, musicians, sculptors — can produce brilliant work while very young (call it a fluke of talent, or the genius of a prodigy), a novel relies far less on sheer talent and much more upon skill and experience. An inexperienced writer may hit upon a few brilliant lines, an entire poem, but the amount of brilliance required to create a truly brilliant novel is generally something that takes time. Now, let me add, before some 20-something takes offense, that of course great young talents do come along every now and then; however, the majority of us are going to need more time to hone our craft. With time we acquire not only more writing skills and techniques, we acquire lire experience. The “write what you know” adage can be fairly limiting if you’re 24 in ways that it will not be when you are 44.

You can publish too young

You are never too young to start writing, but I do firmly believe that you be too young to publish. I don’t believe there is any magic number, for it will vary from person to person, but if you publish before you are ready you may find yourself piegeonholed before you even really know yourself as a writer. The stuff you love at 25 might not actually what you wish to base your entire career on. Take the example of Terry Brooks, who was pigeonholed early on as a Tolkien clone and struggled for years to shake that label. If you publish before your skills are up to par you may also find yourself in the unenviable position of having published a dud. If your first book is a flop, or at best a mid-lister, will you be given a second chance? Perhaps. Some authors change agents, or even genres, and make a successful second go of it. However, there is no denying that it is much easier to keep momentum going than to regain lost momentum.  Think about those people you knew who were ultra successful in high school, but sort of fizzled out later in life. There is simply something to be said for the idea that success often sits more comfortably on the shoulders of those with a bit more experience and maturity.

Your capacity to accept criticism is better when you get older

Taking criticism can be hard. I read a Goodreads review recently in which the review writer mentioned how the young author whose book she was reviewing had a propensity for mentioning and calling out her negative Goodreads reviews in social media. This made the reviewer highly uncomfortable, feeling like if she spoke honestly, she was running the risk of being put on blast by someone with a larger following and more social capital than she, a regular person reviewing a book for other readers. While it can be hard, authors have a strong responsibility not to interact with their negative reviews, and to take criticism, provided it is  given in good faith, with grace. Grace, however, is often something that develops later in life (I myself was not a very gracious 25 year old). A young writer who finds themselves unable to handle criticism may alienate the very reviewers who are responsible for hyping a book and driving sales. On the other hand, praise can be a heady thing. The older we are, the more we learn to handle praise without allowing it to go to our heads. Young writers who get too used to lavish praise may find it harder to grow as writers, feeling like they have no reason to improve. While many authors will warn other writers, don’t read the reviews, ignoring reviews altogether takes a certain amount of self discipline that few young people have.

The myth is simply untrue

About 10 years ago writer Jim Hines did a survey of over 200 novelists and found that the average age at publication for an author’s first novel was 36. Not 25, not even 30, but 36. Now, that’s the average, which means that many published younger than that, but many published older. It seems that, overall, the majority of novelists were about 30-40 years old when they sold their first book. So the idea that you must be a wunderkind, be published in your 20s or not at all, is simply not true.

Now, my disclaimer, lest young authors take offense

If you’re a young published writer reading this, please understand, I’m very happy for you and wish you all the success in the world. This is not meant as an attack on young writers, but rather, I hope to give those writers who are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, or even older, a bit of encouragement. Youth is not everything, and writing is perhaps one of the few creative industries in which youth is not always an advantage. Of course there are plenty of reasons why publishing in your 20s is great, and perhaps even better than publishing later in life, but if you’re a published writer in your twenties, you’ve achieved the dream. Writers in their 30s, worrying that it might never happen, are the ones who, at the moment, need this boost.

So if you’re an older writer? Keep writing, keep learning, and keep improving. It is never too late, and you are never too old, and as long as you have something interesting to say, and can say it in an interesting way,  no matter how old you are, there will be someone out there who wants to read it.

General Writing, Uncategorized

Software for Fiction Writers

Judging by how often would-be writers ask what software to use, you might think their choice would make them a better writer. It won’t, of course. The only useful answer is to use whatever application with which you are comfortable. However, there are other considerations, such as stability, security, and price that you might want to consider.

Here are some of the popular choices, and what you should know about them:

MS Word

For many, MS Word has the advantage of being familiar. Many, too, already have a copy of it on their computer. However, Word is not designed for files of more than about thirty pages. Manuscripts of several hundred pages can crash in Word, risking corruption.

Nor should you use Word’s infamous master document feature, which allows you to create a mini-TOC of files so that you are never working with a single bulky file. Technical writers used to say that master documents in Word are always in one of two states: corrupted and about to be corrupted. I’ve seen no evidence the situation has improved in recent releases, and, anyway, the interface is awkward.

If you must use Word, the only sane way is to use one file per chapter. Any other approach risks disaster.

Google Docs

Google Docs has the advantage that files can be accessed on any computer. If you are one of the legions of users who treat word processors like a typewriter, it may be adequate for you — and it is convenient for adding comments when you critique. However, it barely comes with styles, let alone standard features like fields that can automate your work. Possibly, a careful choice of extensions would make Google Docs tolerable, but why make the effort when other choices are available, and do the job better?

However, if you do use Docs, preserve your privacy by uploading only encyrpted files. You should take the same precaution with online storage. A variation of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) can teach you to encrypt and explain the process.

OpenOffice & LibreOffice

Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both descendants of OpenOffice.org. Both are free for the download, but LibreOffice is more streamlined and has more features. Both are far more stable than MS Word — I’ve loaded 900 page files into them without much problem, and never any corruption.

Like MS Word, OpenOffice and LibreOffice include a master document feature. However, unlike Word’s, their master document features are stable. Both also include a complete set of features to automate your work.

Scrivener and Its Alternatives

Scrivener is valued less for its word processing tools than its tools for organizing and outlining information for planning. It has numerous fans, although some admit they don’t use many of the features. Others balk at paying for the full version of the software, despite the fact that discount coupons are often available online.

If you still would rather not pay, you could use LibreOffice and develop templates that mimic most of Scrivener’s functions. You can also find free alternatives like Bibisco. Personally, I am cool towards this kind of software, finding that it creates an illusion of progress that is really busy work, but many dedicated outliners swear by it.

For me, a more practical solution solution might be to install a personal wiki. Wikis were originally designed for software developers to plan and collaborate, and support a wide variety of file formats in a single document, making them equally useful for writers. The greatest drawback is that their ever-changing content encourages chaos, but with an effort you can slow down the chaos by imposing some basic structure.

All these applications are easily available, so shop around before settling on one. If none of these suit you, there are numerous text editors that provide a minimal tool, with few distractions. In the end, it’s you, not the software, that matters.

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The Last Words: How to End a Chapter

I admit, as a writer, I have a bit of a “thing” when it comes to writing endings. While overall I do not consider myself a perfectionist, the ending is something that I will re-do again and again — on first draft, mind — in order to get it it just perfect.  The final page, the final paragraph, right down to the final sentence, each need to pack not only an emotional impact, but they need to set the stage and make the reader eager to keep reading. There are many ways that a chapter can end, and depending on where you are in your overall narrative, you will find yourself using different techniques at different points in the chapter. If, like me, you sometimes find yourself struggling to end things, here are a few suggestions for writing the end of a chapter that I have picked up along the way.

Cliffhanger ending

Most readers find books that end on a cliffhanger to be irritating, particularly if they have a long wait in store for the next book in the series. However, ending a chapter on a cliffhanger can be a great way to keep the reader interested. The advantages are obvious — your reader needs to keep reading in order to find out what happens. However, if your chapters consistently end on cliffhangers you risk irritating your reader, who will soon catch onto your (let’s face it, rather cheap) trick. The other problem with a cliffhanger ending is that you do not necessarily end the narrative arc of the chapter, meaning that you will have to begin the next chapter where the first one left off. Personally, I prefer to treat each chapter like a short story, making sure that I see it through to the end. There can be exceptions to this rule, and at times a cliffhanger chapter is exactly what is needed for maximum tension, but use it sparingly.

Ambiguous ending

A close kin to the cliffhanger ending is the ambiguous ending. The ambiguous ending has a slight advantage over the cliffhanger ending in that the author can end ambiguously while also having wrapped up the narrative arc of the chapter. In one of my chapters of my current manuscript, at the end of all of the chapter’s action the main character has to have an conversation with her husband. She is going to tell him something that will not make him very happy, but rather than show the conversation, I end the chapter with the first words of the conversation. Later on, in the next chapter, we learn what his reaction had been. This isn’t exactly a cliffhanger — it is reasonably clear from context that the husband won’t like what the wife has to say. However, we leave on that slight note of ambiguity, leaving the reader curious about how everything ended up between the couple. You can create ambiguity by introducing a puzzling line of dialogue. I find the ambiguous ending to be a compromise between a cliffhanger and what I call a neat ending. You can wrap up the threads of the chapter, but still introduce question that needs to be answered next chapter.

Introduce a new conflict or question

Sometimes the very end of a chapter is a great place to introduce a new problem or conflict for your characters. In one of my early chapters, in the last few paragraphs my main character learns that her mother was murdered but she does not know who did it. This complicates things, obviously, for my character, and creates a mystery that must be solved. On a lower stakes note, in a later chapter, in the final sentence my main character invites her cousin to stay at her home, despite knowing that her husband strongly dislikes the cousin. This sets up a potential conflict between the husband and the cousin as well as between husband and wife. The conflict that you introduce does not have to be a high stakes game changer. It can be any kind of fly in the ointment, something that will vex your character in the coming chapters.

Introduce a new character or setting

While quite the same thing as introducing a new conflict or problem, introducing a new character or a new setting can have a similar effect. It creates a question in your reader’s mind: who is this person? How will they effect the story? What is this place? How will being here be different from being elsewhere. Aside from arrivals often being a good natural stopping point, arrivals which introduce a new setting give the reader something to anticipate. Ending which introduce a new character into the mix likewise can be intriguing to the reader. This can be a particularly effective way of introducing both love interests and antagonists, people who will change things for the main character in a big way. Introducing new elements at the end of the story draws attention to them, and signals importance, so do not use this technique on inconsequential characters or places. In one of my chapters my character meets her cousin, who she has not seen in more than a decade, at the end of the chapter. His appearance at the end of the chapter is a signal to the reader that this person is important, and will play a major role in the narrative. Introduce a new character at the end of a chapter and your reader will automatically take note.

The neat ending

This is the chapter that ends on a satisfying note. It completes the narrative arc of the chapter, and signifies a point in the narrative where all is well. The neat ending is more likely to be found in the first half of the story than the second. This could be the point in the story where the characters have what they think they want, when they are moments from losing everything. This could be the moment before everything changes, or, it could be a moment later in the narrative, building towards a happy ending. If your story involves romance, this could be the chapter ending where the characters are happy and together. This could be the moment when your characters defeat a major foe on the battlefield. The neat ending could also be simply the natural stopping point for those particular scenes. Maybe your characters are on a journey, and they’ve stopped and made camp for the night. That’s going to be a fairly natural place to stop a chapter, and if they get ambushed in the middle of the night, well, you’ve got the perfect beginning to the next chapter. A note of warning however: readers will get bored if every chapter ends with your character going to bed, and begins with them waking up. Once in awhile is alright, but vary things a bit.

The philosophical ending

Every chapter should have a central theme, the message that the chapter is conveying, in addition to the overall theme of the novel. Strengthening the theme of your chapter or novel is one of you duties as the author. You may not incorporate the theme into every sentence, and some chapters will have a clearer theme than others. Deeply thematic chapters often call for a philosophical ending in which the final words of the chapter reflect upon the theme in some way. I have a chapter in my manuscript that reflects upon the relationship between bravery and pride — what pride makes us do, why it is important to some, and why it is ultimately unimportant, and how true bravery often means giving up one’s pride. Towards the end of the chapter the narrative is mostly within the mind of the main character as she reflects upon what pride has cost her, and decides the truly brave people in her life are not the proudest ones. A chapter that comes to a sort of thematic conclusion can be very satisfying to read, and both gives us greater insight into the inner minds of the characters and adds overall depth to the narrative.

One last note about chapter endings

Remember, the way that you end the chapter will have a direct effect on the way that your next chapter starts. Starting or ending at the wrong place in the narrative can have a disastrous effect on the narrative. Occasionally, I have become so enamored with a final image or final line that I have forced myself to end a chapter at an inappropriate place, leaving unfinished action to carry over into the next chapter. This can create a thematic disconnect between the beginning of a chapter and the end. Overall, the main job of the author in crafting a chapter is to create narrative that is cohesive and satisfying to read. A disjointed chapter, or a chapter that seems to end too soon, too abruptly, or, on the other end, one that seems to drag on for too long, can disrupt the overall pacing of your novel in a major way, so choose your ending point with care.

 

 

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Using Prompts for Character Development: An Experiment

For me, drafting a novel is only partly about getting words down. It’s also a chance to experiment with writing habits. Recently, for example, I experimented with using existing prompts, like photos or music CDs, to help create characters. It is a new technique for me, and I was curious what the results might be.

My usual approach is begin with the needs of a plot, and keep asking questions. What kind of character might fill the necessary role? What relevant back story does the new character have? And, in some ways, most important of all, what other roles might the character play so I don’t have to invent another one? Many of the answers only come as I write, sometimes after several rewrites. From my feedback, this technique can produce colorful characters, but it’s not quick or efficient. If an alternative technique could save time, I was ready to try it.

In this experiment, I wanted a love relation for a heroic figure. More – I wanted a lover who could stand up to him, and was maybe heroic herself. Immediately, I thought of a tentative character for my next novel attempt, an older woman, a widow, who is a major figure in the Sisters, a group of vigilante women who punish predatory and abusive men. I based this character on a publicity shot of folksinger June Tabor:

https://i0.wp.com/www.expose.org/assets/img/artists/tabor-june-eng.jpg

In this picture, Tabor has a “don’t mess with me” look. She looks sardonic, with a flare for the dramatic in her black. She may be in her sixties or thereabout, but she is someone who can take care of herself. The only difficulty is that she is thirty years too old for the character I want. I easily found pictures of a younger Tabor, but none of them had the same look (these are, after all publicity shots, and may have little connection with Tabor herself). So I set about the task of imagining the Tabor of the original photo as a younger woman.

Tabor herself has traces of a North Country accent, and I might have given my character the same voice. However, while I developed the character, I came across a documentary about the folksinger Kate Rusby. I was especially interested to learn that Rusby lives in a village near where my father grew up – and before I knew it, my character had a Yorkshire accent. Not a thick one – I wanted to have mercy on readers – but some of the cadence and a few of the words.

Having a good sense of what the character looked and sounded like, I went to work on her back story. While I already knew she had been in the militia, I wanted some heroic proportions in her. Inspiration came in the form of “Thomas the Rhymer,” a song I first heard at fourteen. The song tells of how Thomas of Ercildoune accompanies the Queen of Elfland to her realm. The song was my introduction to medieval ballads, and what has always fascinated me is that its hero was a historical figure. Go to Scotland, and people will show you the tree Thomas stood beneath when he met the Queen of Elfland, centuries ago.

During the trip to Elfland, Thomas is given “the tongue that will never lie,” although he begs the elf queen to take it back. Upon returning home, he becomes a prophet – and some of his alleged prophecies still exist. Perfect, I thought. With such a gift (or curse), my character would speak carefully. Like Cassandra of Troy, prophecy has warped her life, except that, instead of never being believed, my character would have suffered because she tried to keep a prophecy or two from coming true.

At this point, I had enough to start writing the character. When I completed the chapter in which she first appears, I was pleased with the result, and the first critique was reasonably positive. In terms of results, the experiment of finding prompts worked.

However in terms of efficiency, I am not so sure. I did not save any time, and if I had not already had a photo as a starting point, I could have spent much longer developing the character. More disturbingly, my critique partner warned me that I seemed to have become obsessed with the character, which was quite true for a few days, and in a way that couldn’t be justified by the character’s relatively minor role.

So, a mixed result overall. While I might use prompts if my usual plot-driven character development fails, I can’t see any reason to switch to it exclusively. You might have different results.

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Pffft, I Could Totally Do That: Five Misconceptions About Writing

Have you ever told someone in your life that you’re a writer? Did you immediately regret it? As with any other profession, there is no lack of misconceptions about what it is like to be a writer. Some of these misconceptions are simply annoying, but others can be downright harmful. Here are a few of the most common misconceptions about life as a writer.

You’re rich and famous (and if you’re not, you will be soon)

In 2020 one sad truth is that for many people, average people with average educations, writers are only notable if they’re famous household names. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin are names that the average person over the age of say 20 would be able to recognize (even if they couldn’t come up with the title of one of their books). It should come as no surprise then, that most people have no real conception of the thousands upon thousands of full time writers who are not rich and famous, but who make modest incomes more comparable to that of a teacher or a nurse than that of a NFL player. This misconception seems harmless on first glance, but it does lead to some dangerous assumptions — such as the belief that pirating books only hurts the rich and that writers who object to piracy are greedy, rather than worried about how they might pay the rent. And if you’re considering writing a book as a fast track to fame and fortune, understand that you might have better luck just buying lotto tickets.

Writing isn’t a real job

Has a friend or a family member ever said something to you along the lines of “wow, it must be nice to not have to work!” Most non-writers imagine you sitting at your computer after a leisurely lie-in, a nice cup of coffee in hand, sitting down to a relaxing few hours at the keyboard, doing that a few days a week for a few months, and then boom, you’ve got a book. Very few people have any idea how much work goes into producing a novel — the multiple rounds of revisions, the re-writes, the editing, the frustrations of the query process. Then, if you are lucky enough to get an agent, comes more editing, sending your book out on submission, waiting anxiously and hoping someone buys your book. Once you have a book deal, then come the pressures of marketing, knowing that if your book doesn’t sell well you might not be given the chance to publish another. All in all the process of writing a book involves several years of intense and stressful work. Is it the same as an office job? A teaching job? No. Writers have more control over their own schedules, it is true, but they tend to have less control over their income, and a lot more uncertainty, especially when they are just starting out.

Everyone has at least one book in them

Tell someone you’re writing a book and there’s a good chance that person will tell you they’ve always wanted to write a novel too.  One of these days, they say, they’re going to do it. After all, don’t they say everyone has at least one book in them? Peek your head into any amateur Facebook writing group and you’ll see plenty of people in those groups who harbor big dreams of big book deals but have absolutely zero sense of how much skill, practice, talent, and hard work goes into writing a book. Perhaps because writing itself is a basic skill — we are all taught in grade school how to string words together to form sentences, even to write essays. “I got an A in English,” they might think, “how hard could it be?” Some of them may even have dabbled in fan fiction even, receiving accolades from fans so hungry for content that they’re willing to overlook the occasional lapse in voice or shifting POV. However, the truth is that writing isn’t easy, and not everyone can do it. Even if most educated people do understand the mechanics of writing, actually crafting a novel requires more than just an idea and the ability to write coherent sentences. A writer must understand how to create tension, how to craft believable dialogue, how to write interesting characters. Simply the act of actually completing a full length novel takes more patience than many people.

Ideas are a writer’s most important currency

This misconception seems to be particularly common among people who have had one good idea that they think would make a great book (or sometimes movie). Once I saw a wannabe writer unironically ask a group of fellow writers “how much do you think my idea is worth?” as if an idea alone has inherent value and that authors should be paying top dollar for such quality inspiration. I’ve seen amateur writers ask, in writing groups, “how do you all protect your ideas?” and other equally amateur writers suggest, in all seriousness, that you should guard your ideas tight, never let them see the light of day, lest someone steal them. These sorts of comments are a sure sign of someone who has no real understanding of what goes into making an idea into a book. Most writers will gladly tell you that the ideas are not the hard part. I have at least a dozen book ideas rambling around inside my head, and have no need to steal anyone else’s ideas. The ideas are easy — what’s difficult about writing is taking that idea and molding it into roughly 100,000 words with characters, description, dialogue, conflict, the works. In fact, give the same idea to two writers and the end result might be two entirely different books, one might be a Nobel prize winner, the other one garbage. The idea doesn’t make the book, the execution does.

All writers do is write

While it is true that the bulk of a writer’s job involves the physical act of putting words to the page, there is actually a lot more to writing than that. If I am writing historical fiction, for instance, I have to spend hours upon hours doing research, almost as if I were doing a dissertation for a PhD rather than writing a novel, and that’s before I ever write the first word. I will need to find pictures of the places I’m depicting, know the dates and timelines and people involved, and know all of the details about life in that era. If I get even one detail wrong, you better believe my readers will be ready to pounce: “This writer clearly didn’t do her research. Actually, in medieval France the type of head covering worn in 1345 would have been an escoffion and not a gable hood.” Don’t think readers are this petty? Read some of the reviews of popular historical fiction authors, and focus on the one and two star reviews. Historical accuracy will no doubt figure heavily. And research isn’t just for historical fiction writers — fantasy writers have to do research, as do contemporary writers, thriller writers, horror writers, and well, practically all writers. Say you’re writing a book set in a British boarding school, yet you’ve never attended a British boarding school yourself. Good writers don’t just “make things up,” they make sure that the details of their story are as realistic as possible, which requires a tremendous amount of preparation work.

There’s no doubt that writing is a very misunderstood profession, and one that, like many artistic pursuits, inspires at the same time both envy and derision.  The next time you find yourself making generalizations or assumptions about the profession of writing, keep these things in mind. The writers in your life will thank you for it.

 

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Looking for a way around piracy

Like many writers, I am concerned about piracy. I hope to see my own novel released one day, and worry about whether piracy will cost me income. However, I don’t see any point in complaining about the problem. When you publish, whether traditionally or privately, you choose a method of distribution that has been plagued by piracy long before the Internet. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if you run into the same problems as countless writers before you. Instead of complaining, you are probably better off exploring other distribution models. While you may not eliminate piracy, you might at least dodge any effects on your income.

Granted, if you are a new writer, finding that model is likely to be hard. Neil Gaiman can point out that in countries where he is most pirated, he also has the most sales, but first-time writers seem less likely to see the same benefits — their sales are small already, and so are most likely to be more affected by piracy than Gaiman’s. Piracy may help to build reputation, but that argument sounds too close to an invitation to write for the exposure, even should it prove true.

Still, if you want to avoid the losses due to piracy, look for a way around it. One place to look for alternatives is free and open source software (FOSS), which has shut down piracy by the simple expedience of giving software away for free. In fact, FOSS often allows others to alter the software for themselves. Instead of selling software, FOSS creators may depend on support from companies with the foresight to realize that limited cooperation with others — including competitors — is cheaper than reinventing everything themselves. Some companies even give the software away while selling support and custom development. The result has been wildly successful, so much so that if you use the Internet, you have used FOSS without knowing it.

I can vouch for the validity of the FOSS approach myself. In March 2016, a non-profit called Friends of Open Document gave me an advance to write Designing with LibreOffice. The book was released under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License, meaning that people could use it as they wanted, publishing their own version or even making it part of a larger work, so long as they gave me credit and released their changes under the same license. Because I had been paid in advance, the book was available as a free download, and people could tip or pay for a hardcopy. The result was over 30,000 downloads, and an income that was probably not that different than if I had published traditionally. And if I am not overjoyed to see people selling my book on Amazon, the license has also resulted in Chinese and French versions that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. Moreover, I ended up adequately compensated, so I really have no reason to complain.

A similar model has been tried by SF writer Cory Doctrow. Patreon, too, is full of writers who release their work in segments for supporters. And when I see how indie bands sell their own merchandise, I have to wonder why writers do not routinely do the same, selling t-shirts and other gear and special editions of their work. Alternatively, writers could imitate Dean Wesley Smith, who publishes Smith’s Monthly, a magazine of his own work.

Or why not enlist the power of crowdfunding? Used for technology, crowdfunding has helped numerous small companies launch successfully and create innovations. In fact, I am typing this blog on an ideal keyboard created with the help of crowdfunding. Some art books and comics are already using crowdfunding, but, so far, not much fiction.

Crowdfunding could even create a popup publisher, by analogy to the popup restaurants that appear briefly in an attempt to raise the reputation of an emerging chef or entrepreneur. Writers would be encouraged to submit their works, and contributors would have the right to vote on which work to publish. The writers would be paid up front, and any piracy would be irrelevant. As with my book, the writers would be adequately compensated regardless of any piracy.

Such efforts would not be easy. No doubt, many would fail, because what works is still mostly unknown. Still, trying them seems better than complaining. Sure, piracy is annoying. Personal financial loss always is. However, short of finding a way to eliminate piracy — which is unlikely to happen before the sun explodes — finding a way to minimize any effects from piracy is a more practical way to go.

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Why I Won’t Pirate Books

As a leftist, I’m meant to take a stand against profit driven enterprises. Many people on my end of the political spectrum decry copyright law as inherently exploitative, keeping art and literature in the hands of the privileged class and denying the working class access to content. To some extent, this is true. We’ve all heard stories about giant movie studies going after small YouTube creators for using movie clips, or HBO suing individuals who downloaded one episode of Game of Thrones. When multi-billion dollar industries, and the corporations behind them, take on individuals, people who usually have limited resources with which to fight these companies for small copyright infractions, it is hard to side with the creators. Those of us who were downloading music on Napster in the early 00s remember how much ridicule Metallica endured for suing Napster and asking the company to ban users who downloaded Metallica’s music (which they did). When piracy is seen as a conflict between the big guy and the little guy, we tend to side with the little guy.

The problem with book piracy is that often the piracy of books is not about the little guy versus the big guy, it is about the little guy versus the other little guy. Authors may be under contract with publishers, who are indeed large companies with a lot of resources, but the authors themselves have little control over what these companies do with their money. Authors themselves, contrary to what many people think, are not rich. Those six figure advances that the public hears about are the exception, not the rule, and for every J.K. Rowling there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who struggle to make even the equivalent of minimum wage for their work. While you may think that by pirating a book you’re sticking it to a big corporation, a publisher like Random House or a bookseller like Barnes and Noble, you’re also directly impacting authors.  Every book that you download is a sale the author does not make, and money that the author does not earn. Are the large corporations impacted? Yes and no. Because large publishing companies publish thousands of books a year, including bestsellers guaranteed to sell regardless of whether or not pirated versions are available, downloading one pirated book is unlikely to make the same impact upon say, Random House, as it would upon the author of that book.

Nor is book piracy similar to the piracy of television shows or movies. If you download an episode of Game of Thrones you can rest assured that the directors, actors, and writers will be paid regardless (and paid well). Downloading an episode of a television show means that you did not pay for the subscription service or view the advertising that funds these shows. Still, these shows are massively successful and piracy does not generally jeopardize their existence.  Book sales operate on an entirely different premise. An author is paid an advance for a book, and must make the amount of that advance in sales before they see a penny in royalties. Most advances are modest, and rarely amount to more than what would be a year’s salary for most people, say $30,000-$50,000, even though books represent sometimes two or three years worth of work on the part of the writer. Sometimes advances are even less. Again, an author does not start earning royalties until their books have earned back the advance. At that point, the author earns money, or royalties, on every book sold.

Authors, by and large, do not have many other ways to make money aside from book sales. While bands might sell merchandise and play to packed stadiums, or sell the rights to their songs to movies, TV shows and films, writers, for the most part, must rely book sales to make money. There is the slight possibility that a writer might sell the television or movie rights, this doesn’t happen to all, or even most authors. Some authors like J.K. Rowling may create an entire intellectual property based upon their works, with toys, posters, and t-shirts, these authors represent a tiny minority of the whole. The vast majority of writers rely on book sales and the occasional paid appearance to earn a living.

Many people who complain about greedy authors who oppose piracy seem to imagine the author as a figure of immense privilege, when in fact writers often work several jobs in addition to writing because writing alone rarely pays the bills. And while being able to write at all certainly implies a degree of inherent privilege — an education, perhaps, enough time each day to set aside for writing — writers are not, by and large, wealthy people. They struggle to pay the rent. They’re paying off college loans. They’ve got kids to support. Writers are not sitting in castles counting their stacks of cash, they’re people, just like you and I. Authors are not trying to deprive people of reading material out of greed, they simply want to be properly compensated for work that represents years of time and effort.

While it can certainly be argued that the entire capitalist system of modern publication is something that needs to be revamped, leftist thought has never involved denying workers the right to make a living. Writers provide an essential service, creating stories that entertain, educate, and inspire us. If writers cannot make a living, these stories will cease to exist. And in our current society, if publishers deem certain books unprofitable, those authors will lose their contracts, those books will cease to be published. Writer Maggie Stiefvater most famously planted a fake pirated copy of the fourth book in her Raven Boys series after piracy took its toll on the sales of the third book. When would-be pirates downloaded the fourth book and found it incomplete (with a message at the end the portion regarding the impact of piracy), they were forced to purchase the book outright, and sales of that book far outpaced those of the third. When we download books illegally, not only do our favorite authors lose the ability to make a living, we may lose the ability to read these authors’ books at all.

So, you understand that authors are not rich, and you don’t want them to lose money, but you still can’t afford books. What can you do? In the year 2020, if you live in the English speaking world, there are a great number of ways to access books online without violating authors’ copyrights or interfering with their ability to make a living. If your town doesn’t have a good old fashioned brick and mortar library, or your library’s selection is limited, most libraries now allow for the borrowing of e-books. Libby, for instance, is an app that lets you connect to libraries all over the country and will give you access to potentially millions of e-books for free. You are not limited to simply one library either — you can sign into multiple libraries with one device. Again, Libby is entirely free (I’m not being paid to plug Libby, I promise, I am just a big fan!), and because libraries have contracts with publishers that grant them legal licenses for the books that are in their systems, authors get paid when you use the service. Aside from Libby there are services such as Scribd which are relatively low cost — a subscription to Scribd costs $9.99 a month and grants access to thousands of e-books and audiobooks. And of course, any books that are already in the public domain are freely available on a multitude of sites.

Perhaps one day society will be remade and artists will be supported by state funding or endowments for the arts, and books, artwork, movies, and music will all be available to everyone at no cost. Certainly writers and artists would be the first ones to rejoice if there were a way to ensure that  not only would they be fairly compensated for their work, their work could reach an even broader audience. In the meantime though, we do not yet live in that society. It is cruel to argue that writers should have no control over the products of their own labor. And while there are some writers today who are willing to write for the sake of it (I’m receiving no money for writing this blog, after all), and who will freely disseminate their work, it is unfair to expect writers to do this on a regular basis while maintaining consistent output and professional standards. If we think of authors as workers, writing as labor, and books as the fruits of that labor, then taking books away from the writers who created them and giving them nothing in return, is hardly a progressive stance. What’s even more shameful is treating authors as the enemy because they have the audacity to ask that people not pirate. Authors are simply people trying to make a living. Speak out against an unjust system, against publishers, Amazon, big box stores, but authors? All authors want is some small compensation for their labor, and if that makes them the enemy, then so is anyone else who refuses to work for free.