Guesstimating length

A lot of writers I follow blithely spout how this story is going to run 70 thousand words, or 100 or 120, as if they can somehow see the eventual number of pages laid out before them in a crystal ball or something. Me, I have no idea how long a given work is going to be until I’ve finished the last edit. (For that matter, I don’t know at the beginning whether I’m writing flash fiction, a short-short, novella, or multi-book series.)

 I’d like to see a post addressing how one decides–if that’s the right word–how long a piece is going to be—other than having a contract that specifies length.

 This is a very good question. The problem is that the word-count of a given piece depends on multiple variables, including the author’s style, the type of story he/she intends to write, the genre and subgenre the author intends for said story, and a bunch of other things…none of which includes the characters or actual plotline, which is what most writers are thinking about when they ask this kind of question.

(OK, if you have a set of twenty characters, all of whom are exceedingly talkative, you probably aren’t writing a 3,000 word short story. Ditto if your story involves a quest for fifteen different magical gizmos, each of which is located in a different country and guarded by different magical traps. But really, that ought to be obvious, and most of the time, even those sorts of ideas can work quite well over a surprisingly large spread of word counts.)

Basically, how one predicts the length of a manuscript ends up being a matter of experience and instinct. Some writers are good at it; others are very bad at it. That said, it helps to be looking at the right factors. Most of the people I know who have trouble guesstimating the length of their mss. seem to focus on plot elements rather than things like writing style. The hero’s fencing lesson will, they think, take one scene and be about three pages; finding the rightful heir to the throne will be about a novel’s worth of plot. And for some writers, they’d be correct; the trouble is, they aren’t one of those writers.

These folks often know the plot elements that come next: Our Hero has a fencing lesson, beats the instructor, and as a result is given a rapier that will be of great plot importance later. What they don’t think so much about is the way they write – usually with lots of in-depth characterization, setting details, conversation, and implied backstory. The little three-page fencing lesson becomes a twenty-page chapter that includes a detailed description of the architecture of the building where the fencing salon is located, along with several salient points about the reasons behind certain features; Our Hero’s emotional reaction to a vase in the entry hall that reminds him of his deceased brother (and which distracts him enough that he nearly loses his first match); descriptions of the instructor and other students and the Hero’s reaction to each of them, whether that’s mistrust based on previous interactions or curiosity/interest because this is their first meeting, along with little details that convey things about each person’s background, status, experience, and skill at fencing; probably a sidebar about the clothes people are wearing, whether they are appropriate to a fencing lesson and why, and how they reflect different personalities, status, etc; descriptions of the different styles of fencing each participant favors (and somewhere along the way, the fencing lesson has morphed into an end-of-class elimination tournament, so different bouts have to be at least summarized, and some will have to be described in exacting detail); and the description of the rapier that’s the prize, along with something about its history and maybe some details about the importance of forging swords and the symbolism of different types of swords in this culture. And of course the final bout in which Our Hero wins the sword needs to be described in detail, both the physical moves and Our Hero’s emotions and reactions, along with a few memories of prior lessons, his relationship with the instructor, and why he thinks winning the sword will be so important (some of which may become whole flashback scenes of their own, if they are important enough).

Actually, that might very well end up taking two chapters instead of just one.

The plot elements haven’t changed much: Our Hero still goes to his last fencing lesson, wins the tournament by beating the instructor, and gets a rapier as his prize. It’s all the other stuff the writer puts in – the emotions, reactions, background, backstory, description, history, culture – that a) make the scene much, much richer, and b) add a lot of unanticipated word count. And this is true at multiple levels – how many sentences it takes to describe a room, how many words or pages in a scene, how many words or pages or scenes in a chapter.

It isn’t a property of the story. Plots can be told in multiple different ways that result in multiple different possible lengths; see Cinderella at the Rock ConcertIt depends on how the writer writes. Some, like Hemingway, write spare prose with only a few very specific details; others, like Faulkner, write lush prose with nearly overwhelming amounts of background and detail. If you want to improve your guesses about your manuscript length, it helps to be aware of your writing and of what is actually taking up space/word count.

If you notice that you always provide a six-page infodump about every detail of your imaginary spaceflight technology, right down to where they got the dilithium crystals and the imaginary company that mined them, then you have to allow for that when you are estimating. If you tend to skate by most action with “It took him ten minutes to fight his way past the city guards and escape out the postern gate,” you have to allow for that, too – obviously, your action plot just won’t take up the space it would if you were a writer who adores writing six-page set pieces.

And really, being able to estimate the length of your ms. in advance is more a convenience than a necessity, most of the time. It is almost always possible to adjust word count during revision – in fact, a change is nearly inevitable at that stage, even if one isn’t deliberately trying to increase or decrease it. If it helps to have something to aim at, set yourself something arbitrary and aim at it. If it gets in the way, ignore it and just write.

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Messing Around with Post-Its

As I mentioned last post, I’m three chapters into the WIP with a not-too-urgent but nonetheless looming deadline and have discovered a need for some more development before I continue. There are two sorts of work I need to do: macro-level and micro-level.

The macro-level stuff is the sort of thing I was talking about last week – looking at what I’ve written to see what’s there and what isn’t and where it’s all leading, and then projecting it out to see what I still need to make up or figure out for the overall story and plot arc. In this case, I had three overlapping plotlines: an emotional/character-growth plotline, a comedic plotline, and a more serious central-problem plotline. Unfortunately, the first and last were seriously under-developed, and that’s what I’ve been working on. I didn’t have a villain, or even a good candidate for one, and a good hard look at the much-too-fuzzy idea for the plot revealed that I had far too much ground to cover – I was trying to get my characters from A to Q, when one book would cover A to C, maybe D or E if I could condense things enough.

So the plot needed major surgery and revamping at the macro level. That meant redefining the end point for this book, so that my main character wasn’t trying to sort out her personal life, straighten out the immediate mess she’d been handed, build an Empire, deal with diplomatic overtures and/or war, and Save The World, all at the same time and in the same book. Straightening out the immediate mess and Saving The Village is probably quite enough for her to be going on with.

Having pared the main plot down to something more achievable in 100,000 words, I am still left looking at Chapter 3. Knowing where my heroine is going to get to eventually does not actually tell me what she is going to do tomorrow morning.

I do, however, have a pile of things that need to happen early on, like introducing a boatload more characters and setting up some more background. I also have a number of different ways those things can happen. So I start a shorthand list of the scenes/incidents/events I have in my head:

  • -find “How to be a Dark Lord” book in library
  • -meet castle maids
  • -realize everyone expects to follow Tradition
  • -decide not to follow Tradition
  • -first challenger arrives
  • -defeat first challenger
  • -discover secret passage
  • -meet half-sister, librarian, steward, cousin
  • -hold first council meeting
  • -consult with family about next step
  • -tour of castle

I put each of those on a Post-It Note, and I sort them. First I look at which things must happen before something else. Right now, there are really only two: She has to realize that everyone expects her to follow Tradition first, and then decide not to (because if she doesn’t know, it’s not a decision worth mentioning), and the first challenger has to arrive before she can defeat him. I stick those pairs of Post-Its together in the order they have to happen and continue.

Next, I look at where things happen, or could happen. If I start with the heroine waking up in her bedroom, I’ve got Bedroom, Library, Council Room, and Castle Courtyard (for the challenger) for sure, plus a variety of possible locations around the castle (the tour). Some things are obvious: “Find how-to book in library” happens in the library…or maybe not. She could find it in the bedroom, or a storage room somewhere during her castle tour. I cross out “in library” on that Post-It note. “Meet maids” could go under Bedroom, or happen in Other Random Castle Locations as she takes the tour. “Realize expectations” could happen over breakfast, or at the council meeting, or while reading the how-to-book in the Library. I add a Post-it for “have breakfast?” and put “Dining Room” on my list of possible locations.

Then I start looking at the order things could happen, kind of walking my main character through her day. She wakes up in a strange room and has her first encounter with one of the maids; that makes sense. She sends the maid to find the rest of the family; they have a consultation about next step. They go to breakfast where she meets the cousin and half-sister, then start the castle tour, meet the librarian and more maids, find the book in the library, meet the steward who mentions the council meeting. They go to the council meeting and she realizes they expect Tradition, but she tells them no. The challenger arrives and she defeats him. There’s no room for “discover secret passage,” so I put that Post-It aside for now.

I find this order deeply unsatisfying. Yes, it covers the bases and gets everything in, but it’s too straightforward and boring. It has no general tension building. How do I move things around to fix that?

The first thing I do is move finding the book from the library to the bedroom. So she finds the book and gets a chance to look at it a little before her family arrives; that will give them more to discuss. The only thing that happens at breakfast is meeting the cousin and half-sister; that can happen later. I take those Post-Its out. The castle tour is also not that important; I move that Post-It aside, too. Now I have finding the book, consulting the family, council meeting where she has the realization about Tradition and rejects it, challenger’s arrival and defeat.

That’s better, but still not what I want. I stare for a while and realize part of the problem: defeating a challenger is part of the Tradition that she just said she wasn’t going to follow. I swap the Post-It pairs. Now I’m going from action to council scene explaining the action. That’s backwards…but if I split the council scene…that works much better. Now I have “Realize expectations during first half of council scene,” “Arrival of Challenger interrupts Council,” followed by “defeat of Challenger” and then “Resumes Council and tells them No More Tradition.” Much better.

Now events are developing so that by the end of this sequence, my heroine is rejecting the Tradition. So I want to build that up even more. How? It’ll have to be in the early part of the day, between getting up and holding the council meeting. I can put a little into the family consultation, but they’re really going to be focused on other things. I look over at my discarded Post-Its and spot two possibilities: Breakfast, where they can meet the cousin and half-sister and get more hints about what is expected (before it really becomes clear at the council meeting), or the library, where they could head after breakfast in order to find out more about the book. I probably don’t need both; that will slow things down too much.

After thinking for a while, I decide that I can’t pick one or the other until I’ve written the early scene with the family, but that’s OK – I have a series of definite events that are leading up to a clear decision point for my heroine, and a definite place to start next. Which is all I need to do the next couple of chapters.

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Later developments

The ideas I was talking about in the last post are seldom ready-to-write when they arrive. Even the ones that look ready to go often turn out not to be when one gets right down to it. I’ve talked before about the pre-writing story development, so this time I thought I’d talk about the other sort. Especially as I am currently at exactly that stage in the WIP – I have been stuck three chapters in for a couple of months now, because things need more development than they got at the pre-writing stage.

Some of the reason I’ve been stuck has been exogenous and environmental – taxes due, a series of trips and workshops and other obligations – so it’s been easy to ignore the manuscript, despite the looming deadline. I knew that it was going to take some serious skull-work to straighten it out, and the first three chapters weren’t entirely satisfactory anyway, so I poked at them and made some progress and poked at them and didn’t push much more than that for lack of time. But really, what I was sure I needed was to sit down and figure out in more detail how to get from where I am to where I thought I was going, and that sort of figuring out takes a chunk of time I didn’t have.

I was right about the sit down and think part.

When I finally got around to one of my standard let’s-have-dinner-and-plot-noodle sessions with one of my writer friends, what she said (after half an hour of me rehearsing where the plot was and where I thought it was going) was “You have three plotlines here, and I think you need to start by untangling them so you can see what each of them needs.”

She was absolutely right, and it was clear in not-very-much time that two of my three plotlines – including the primary action plot – were seriously under-developed. This is the sort of thing a really good plot-noodler does: They give you a lot more work to do.

The thing is, I thought I was in good shape. I had a plot outline; it filled a reasonable number of pages. I’d done my usual pre-writing work. By three chapters in, things should have either begun coming together, or else stalled in that peculiar way that every manuscript seems to stall somewhere between Chapter Three and Chapter Ten (which is both annoying and promising, because after thirty years at this, I am confident that when I hit that first veil, it will eventually break loose in extremely useful and more interesting ways).

This story, though, turns out to be the sort that needs additional development once I have enough of it down to get a sense of the thing. It’s not the same kind of developing I do during the prewriting stage. When I’m going from idea to story-developed-enough-to-start-writing, I’m adding things: characters, background, plot twists, all manner of incidents and dialog and other bits and pieces that could happen on the road from Chapter The First to Chapter The Last. I know they won’t all make it into the finished book – lots of them don’t even make it into the plot outline – but at that stage, almost anything is possible. The process is one of collecting the odds and ends that are floating around and checking various bits against my fuzzy overall vision of the story, to see what fits and what doesn’t, what makes the vision sharper and what muddies it up.

When I’m three chapters in, and it becomes obvious that the story needs more development, I don’t start by looking outward at the idea-stew, or forward toward the ending I’m expecting. I look at what I have.

By three chapters in, I have generally introduced several of the main characters and at least a few of the secondary ones. I’ve established the time and place and described them to a certain extent. I may not have laid out the central story-problem just yet, but if I haven’t, I’ve at least pointed in its general direction and set up enough minor problems to keep the reader interested and lead in the direction of the main one. Unless the first three chapters are totally throw-them-away impossible, looking at them will therefore tell me one of the following things:

1) Something critical is missing. The main character has no stake in the story, no reason to head off to drop the One Ring into Mount Doom. Or there’s a character hole – I forgot to give the Hero a needed Sidekick, or the Villain a Minion. Or the murder-mystery can’t get started because the Murderer seems to have no inclination to actually murder anyone. Or the story doesn’t seem to be set in any particular place or time – it could be Victorian England or Tang Dynasty China, for all the description and cultural background that’s there. Or the main character has no past (and I’m not doing a Clint Eastwood Man With No Name).

2) The fuzzy story vision is still way too fuzzy. “The Heroine has some adventures and then succeeds in her Quest” is not enough if I don’t know whether the Quest is to find a magical doohicky, rescue a dragon, graduate from college, or steal the plans for the atom bomb. The plot outline, when examined, has lots of great incidents – that bit where she argues with the vampire about the best way to diagnose anemia, for instance – but they don’t connect to the three chapters I have written. The story doesn’t know whether it’s trying to get to San Francisco or New York, much less what route to take.

3) There is too much story. The plot outline takes our Main Character not just to San Francisco, but all the way to Beijing, with stops in Anchorage, Hawaii, and Sydney. And it’s supposed to be a road trip.

4) I’m writing a completely different story than I intended. The first three chapters are clearly leading up to everybody going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but the plot outline says it’s supposed to be July and they’re supposed to be planning to spend August at Disneyland.

5) I’ve mis-identified the main story. I thought it was going to be a dramatic action-adventure, but the characters want it to be comedy-of-manners. Or I have a great romantic comedy plot outline, but the story wants to focus on an angsty man-learns-lesson near-tragedy.

For me, in almost every one of these cases, fixing the problem means tossing out my original plot outline (and often the specifics of the plot-idea that started it) in order to let the story go in the direction that the actual first-three-chapters are taking it. Once I have my head pointed south instead of west, then I can dig through all my possible plot-twists and incidents for the right ones to make the story work. Sometimes, I can salvage bits of my original plot outline, but more often not. Whether I can or no, it won’t start happening until I let go of all my original plans and just look at what I have written – what is there and what isn’t, what it implies about the characters and their problems and their future. Because my backbrain is much smarter than I am, and whatever it has stuck into those first few actual chapters is almost certain to take me to much more interesting places than my plans and outlines.

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Meeting the Muse

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Every writer I know is sick of being asked this question. Many writers have developed snappy non-answers: from a post office box in Schenectady, from a secret subscription service, from an idea-fairy who leaves them on the desk whenever I leave out a saucer of whiskey. Others struggle to explain that ideas are the easy part, that they are all over, that it’s a matter of how you look at and think about everyday stuff, that it’s about stopping and paying attention.

People keep on asking, though. Obviously, this is an aspect of writing that a lot of people want to know about. Equally obviously, people aren’t satisfied with the (entirely true) answers that ideas are the easy part, they’re all over, etc. So I thought I’d take a crack at it from a different angle.

“Getting ideas” is a fuzzy, changeable concept. Every writer gets ideas in a different way; most of us seldom “get an idea” in the same way, or from the same kind of source for two stories in a row. Nevertheless, if one looks long enough, one can spot patterns in the ways different people come up with ideas for their books.

One of the most common beginning points is other stories, especially other stories that the writer loves. A lot of highly imitative books that get sneered at as rip-offs were actually not written as money-makers; they’re a labor of love on the part of the author that’s a bit too obvious about the source material. (A lot of others are, quite obviously, fan fiction.) Whole genres have developed because multiple authors read and were sufficiently inspired by a particular book (the modern category fantasy is a direct descendent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as Westerns developed from The Great Train Robbery.)

Often, the writer is attracted to a specific aspect of the story. It is very common for a writer to be very taken with a character (usually a secondary or even a minor one) who, in the writer’s opinion, merits more attention than the existing story gives him/her. These characters often end up being nearly unrecognizable by the time the new writer has changed the setting and given them their own story to be hero of. Other times the writer can’t help wondering how the story might have gone if the main character had done something different, like waiting for the city guards instead of charging off after the villain alone (or vice versa). Sometimes, the existing story has a throwaway line that catches the writer’s interest – they want to know just what the Incendiary Cat Plot was and whether it worked, and the existing story doesn’t say. At least two writers of my acquaintance have gotten acclaimed trilogies out of wondering about specific backstory incidents mentioned as throwaways in Lord of the Rings…and by the time they were finished with their own versions, almost nobody recognized the source material unless they were told.

Another place that writers get ideas is from stories that are based on a great idea that is handled clumsily or that just doesn’t reach its full potential. Almost nobody besides scholars remembers who Shakespeare’s sources were, because Shakespeare did far better things with their ideas and plots and characters than they did. Watching someone else butcher a great idea can incite other writers to spend many hours at their computers, demonstrating how they think it should have been done.

Which brings me to Really Bad Fiction. B movies, hackwriting, old pulp fiction, soap operas, second-rate cartoons and TV series…all have been catalysts for writers who have looked at them and said to themselves, “Well, I can certainly write something better than that.”

Writers get ideas more directly from each other. We talk about writing and our works-in-progress; sometimes, that means that Writer A takes a suggestion made by Writer B, while other times, it means that Writer A says “No, that idea won’t work” and Writer B then says, “Well, if you aren’t going to use it, can I have it?” Sometimes writers throw off comments in conversation that kickstart someone’s backbrain. Talking to Dragons started because of a discussion about book titles at a party, for instance.

Real-life events provide ideas, too, but usually not in the way most non-writers think they do. OK, some writers do go trolling for ideas in “News of the Weird,” but more often a writer hears about some perfectly ordinary event – the kid from down the block having a bad allergy attack, or the grocery store running out of peanuts – and they think “Nobody in fantasy fiction ever has allergies” or “Lots of people are allergic to peanuts; I wonder if somebody bought out the store in order to murder a bunch of people?” and they’re off. Or they catch a glimpse of a person and think “They would be a great character.”

Writers who are very visual frequently get ideas from pictures – photographs, paintings, particular stills or scenes from movies – or from places or objects they see in person, like a silver teapot or a car with a dented fender. And there are the writers who make stories out of the way they felt watching a lightning storm or a sunset – not trying to recreate the images in words (though that may happen), but maneuvering their characters into situations where the characters will feel like that.

Ideas also show up nearly every time a writer asks someone in exasperation, “Why would anybody do that?” It doesn’t matter whether “that” is spending time solving Sudoku puzzles, running marathons, or robbing banks; what matters is the follow up internal dialog that goes something like, “Yeah, why would somebody do that? I wonder if I could come up with a satisfactory explanation…”

And then there is the idea-trigger that is possibly the most common of all: the moment when the writer looks at his/her bookshelf and says, “I really, really want to read another novel like X, but there aren’t any more! I’m going to have to write one myself.

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Conferences and conventions

Writing conferences are something that I think deserve their own post. There are quite a lot of them, and they are sufficiently dissimilar that one really shouldn’t just pick one at random to attend. Like everything else, each type works well for some things (and writers) and poorly for other things (and writers), so before you decide whether to spring for a membership, you really ought to do some homework and some thinking.

The first and most fundamental question you need to think about is “What do I need, want, or hope to accomplish by attending this conference or workshop?” Are you hoping to do some networking? Make some new friends? Get yourself and/or your work out in front of professionals in the field? Sharpen your writing skills? Have a lot of fun? Master some specific techniques? Promote your current novel? Learn production skills so you can self-publish? Get some tips on marketing and/or professional submission etiquette? Meet your favorite writing idol who is the keynote speaker? Tick off the “Goes to conferences” box on your “Things Professional Writers Do” list?

(Hint: if that last one is all you are trying to do, save your time and money. Or rent a cheap hotel room for a weekend and spend three days holed up there writing. It’ll do you a lot more good than ticking off the checkbox, trust me.)

If you can’t quite figure out what you want to get out of going to a conference or workshop, but you also still have the nagging feeling that you really want to, if only to see what they’re like and find out if they might be useful, that’s OK. Just be open to the possibility of changing your mind in either direction.

The next step is to look at what kinds of conferences and workshops are out there, what they do, and what the goal of the conference is. Also the cost, which includes travel expenses and hotel, as well as the actual membership fee, and the amount of time they take up.

What most people mean when they talk about “writing conferences” range from targeted one- or two-day workshops, to weekend conventions (which can last up to four or five days, if they are scheduled over a holiday weekend), to intensive courses that run full-time for up to three months straight. Some are professionally managed; some are put on by colleges, universities, or other educational institutions; some are provided by writer’s organizations like the Romance Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators; and some are organized by a dedicated group of independent volunteers.

Assuming you have some idea of why you want to go to a conference (and there are usually multiple reasons), and that you know what your budget, time constraints, and other resources are, you then have to pick the conference that fits what you want. A large part of choosing is asking around. Bigger is not always better; professionally managed or college-run does not necessarily mean higher quality than the ones put on by amateurs. In the SF field, for instance, of the top workshops/conferences put on specifically for writers, only one is affiliated with a university; the others are all run by independent non-profit groups of dedicated volunteers, some of whom are themselves established writers and/or editors doing this in their spare time.

Pretty much any convention, conference, or workshop that is aimed directly at writers (as opposed to teachers, librarians, booksellers, or other members of the literary community) will give you the opportunity to meet and talk to other writers, simply because that’s who else is attending.

If one of your goals is to do networking, keep this in mind: Some of the clueless newbies will turn out, in five or ten years, to be award-winning bestsellers or senior editors. Some of the rising stars that everyone crowds around in adulation will be a flash in the pan. Nobody knows which is which (if they did, there would be crowds around the nervous young woman in the corner who will, eight years in the future, have her small-press novel go viral and become a bestseller in twenty countries). Also, one of the best ways of networking is to volunteer to help put on a conference or convention. Again, you may not meet the Big Names this way, but you will meet and work with people, some of whom will be Big Names by the time you need them. It doesn’t do you any good to suck up to Super Big Name Editor and then find out that he retired the year before you finished your manuscript.

Skill-building workshops can be useful for nearly any writer at any level, as long as one is careful to choose a workshop that isn’t too far ahead of one’s current abilities. If a writer is still struggling with basic grammar and clarity, they may want to wait a few years before signing up for a workshop on managing subtext and subverting expectations in multi-genre-crossovers intended for a “high literary” audience.

The big trade shows – the ALA, the ABA, the NCTE, the IRA (and if you don’t know what the acronyms mean, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about going anyway*) – are mostly not things you can go to if you aren’t a member, unless you can get onto one of their panels. This requires you to either be an expert on something, or to have a book out that the group wants you to talk about (which means you have a publisher and/or publicist behind you). Regional and local conferences are often a little looser about their requirements for panelists, but they’re still not going to be terribly interested if you haven’t got an actual book actually available.

Writers’ professional organizations, like the Author’s Guild, RWA, SFFWA, MWA, and SCBWI, have their own conferences**. They are, again, usually limited to members, which for the SFWA and MWA means that you have to meet a minimum requirement of professional sales. The RWA and SCBWI both, to the best of my knowledge, allow unpublished writers to join.

The science fiction and fantasy field is kind of a special case when it comes to conventions. There is a whole community of people out there putting on fan-run conventions, many of which have a track of programming for would-be writers or which hold workshops or professional critique sessions in conjunction with the con. You could go to one of these every weekend, if you had the time, money, and stamina. They are a lot of fun, and they are a good way to meet and get to know local professional writers (and often a few out-of-towners). And there is almost certain to be one somewhere near wherever you live. [I spent last weekend at 4th Street Fantasy Convention 2015 http://www.4thstreetfantasy.com/2015/ and it was great…]

I do want to conclude by reiterating that none of this stuff is required. Different writers manage their careers in different ways. And this is especially not required if you haven’t finished a book yet. (In fact, there is a thing in the trade referred to as “workshop burn” – the manuscript that some nervous new writer has taken to 46 different workshops and re-polished every single time, until it’s been polished down to the dull steel under the copper and silver plate and every bit of shine and sparkle is long gone. Do not do this…)

* American Library Association, the American Bookseller’s Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association.

**Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

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Pre-promotion or not?

I was at a book signing recently and admitted to the person in line behind me that I was about a quarter of the way through writing my book. I should note here, she is also a writer. She immediately asked me what writing conferences I had attended, if I was on Facebook, if I had a blog, etc., and began overwhelming me with all the things I was not doing to sell myself that I ‘should be doing’ in her opinion….

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of pre-promoting yourself in the manner this person suggested?

First off, let me point out that when I was getting started, computers were room-sized boxes of blinking lights that required lots of esoteric knowledge before you could persuade them to add two numbers together. The Internet didn’t exist at all. I wrote my first novel on a typewriter. Consequently, I don’t exactly have much experience in “pre-promotion” of the sort you describe.

This does not, however, stop me from having opinions. Quite strong opinions, in fact.

I will begin with a question: What, exactly, is it that you hope to sell? Yourself? Or your books?

While you think about that, I will point out that every writing career is different. Not only that, but the way into a writing career is different for every writer. If you want some control over it (you will never have total control, but you can have some), it is worth thinking about different possibilities. You can then decide what you want to do, what you don’t want to do but are willing to put up with, and what you will never do under any circumstances whatsoever. This large-picture thinking gives you a framework for making specific small-picture decisions, like whether and when to start a blog or attend a conference.

But fundamentally, the only thing that every writer has to do is write.

There is no one best route to the top. Furthermore, “the top” has almost as many definitions as there are writers, and every definition has a multitude of different ways to reach it. The successful writers I know are successful by their own definitions, not someone else’s, and have gotten to that success by routes that suit them, not somebody else.

Back to that first question. I can name several writers for whom their writing is in large degree secondary; what they are selling is themselves. They make as much (and in some cases a lot more) money from their blogs, courses, speeches, workshops, movie rights, radio programs, podcasts, and so on, as they do from their actual writing. There is nothing wrong with this. They are all having a blast doing stuff they love doing. Most of them took to social media like dolphins take to water. They are in their element. Their definition of “the top” has to do with personal appearances and being out there in public and well-known and respected, whether or not their books are bestsellers (some are; others have only modest sales).

For this sort of writer, diving into social media straight off is very likely to be important and useful. Someone who can develop a strong following, whether on Twitter, a blog, Facebook, or any of the other outlets, will theoretically have a ready-made audience when they finally finish a book, and they can use those initial sales as a stepping stone to all the appearances and so on that they love doing so much.

There may also be some use to “pre-promoting” yourself if you are planning to skip the world of traditional publishing and go straight to self-published ebooks. To make this worth doing, though, you have to catch a large audience and maintain it until you finish your book. Given how quickly Internet buzz comes and goes, this is often best left until a week before the book goes live, even if one is planning to self-publish.

In both cases, far too many would-be writers end up promising far more than they can deliver. I know a couple of folks who have been writing about their writing for a couple of decades now, without ever producing an actual story. Their social media accounts don’t attract as much attention as they expected, because they don’t have anything to talk about but themselves (and frankly, they aren’t all that interesting). And their desperate struggles to “build an audience” soak up whatever time and energy they might have used to actually write fiction.

If what you want is to write and/or to sell your books rather than yourself, then there’s not a lot of point in doing social media until you have something to sell. There may be some value in playing around with some outlets enough to get comfortable with them, so you don’t have a learning curve when the time comes that you want to use them professionally. One does not have to do this sort of experimentation by promoting oneself as a writer, however. There are plenty of forums where you can go and just talk about your favorite books as part of the crowd. Ditto sites (and blogs like this one) where you can talk writing techniques and problems with other people. Better yet, find some groups that talk about your mutual passion for gardening, or chess, or your favorite TV show.

Publishers these days do expect writers to have some web presence, and to do some web-based promotion of their books. However, they are deeply unlikely to be impressed by empty posturing. If you have a popular web site and a lot of Twitter followers, it may be a plus for some publishers, but it won’t sell your book to them or even move it up the slush pile. Unless, that is, your popular web site and Twitter feed have multiple hundreds of thousands of hits or followers, which is essentially saying “unless you have made yourself a nationally recognized Internet celebrity.”

Conferences…well, that’s kind of a different question. I’ll talk more on that next week, since this is getting kind of long already.

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What kind of business are you?

My tax guy said I should create a business identity that the money will go to (if I ever sell a book) rather than just my name. I don’t know whether that means I have to sign the agent contract with my “business” name or not.

 Generally speaking, when it comes to tax advice, I advise listening to experts, especially since they presumably know your tax situation in far more detail than I ever would. However, there are considerations besides taxes in this sort of case, and not all tax guys are familiar with the ins and outs of this particular business. There are, for instance, copyright implications under U.S. law if you register your copyrights in the name of a corporation or pen name (or transfer them to a corporation after your career is established).

I’m also not sure I know what he means by a “business identity.” Does that mean a separate bank account, a subchapter-S corporation, an LLC, a full-fledged corporation, or something else? Or does he just mean “decide on a pen name”? And exactly why does he think you need it? (Tax guys are not immune to the notion that all writers make big $$; he may well change his tune if you tell him that first-novel advance payments are still averaging only around $4,ooo-6,000, spread over three to five years.) Does he think you’re going to need a separate tax I.D.? Why?

 For example, take the simplest possibility, a separate bank account for writing funds. Why would you need to segregate those funds? There may be personal reasons, like, oh, a pending divorce, but the most usual reason has to do with record-keeping. I have a couple of friends who simply cannot keep track of their writing income and expenses except by having a dedicated writing account into which all writing income goes, and from which all writing expenses (including estimated tax payments) come. They basically depend on the bank to keep their tax records for them.

 Myself, I’ve never done it that way. I have a separate account for taxes, but all that goes into it is the money I think I’m going to want for estimated tax payments, and all that comes out are those payments. Juggling two different checking accounts that I’m using on a daily or weekly basis to buy groceries and notepads and computer software and yarn and cat food and research materials is just not something that works for me. When I make any given book purchase, half of them may be research and the other half reading for fun or my hobbies; I am not about to place two orders just so I can pay for each half from the right account. I also know myself well enough to know that if I am in a hurry and the only checkbook I can find is the “business” one, I will use it to pay the pizza delivery guy anyway, which kind of destroys the reasoning behind keeping separate checkbooks. Then again, I don’t have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the very concept of keeping tax records during the year. (I do get behind, but that’s a different problem.)

 The really important thing is keeping good tax records, so that if the IRS decides to look at your returns, you can show that you have a business and not just a hobby. You don’t have to keep the actual money separate, as long as you have good records. If you can’t do it on your own, maybe a separate bank account is a good idea, provided you can be strict about using it just for writing expenses and nothing else.

 The question of setting up a sub-S corporation (or a full-fledged corporation) is a whole ‘nother matter. Very few of the writers I have known have done this, and all of them have been at a level where their annual writing income is in the mid-six-figures. Most of them also did it back when corporate tax rates were a lot less than individual tax rates, which has not been the case for quite a few years. Absent some serious and obscure legal reasons, setting up a corporation is overkill for the rest of us, especially since it costs in money to keep it registered and in time to keep the required records and file the required paperwork. I haven’t heard of an accountant recommending it to a writer for at least six or seven years now (though of course, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Also, different rules apply outside the U.S.)

 My writing business is a sole proprietorship, meaning that there is no particular “business identity” separate from mine. OK, my friends call me Pat and the name on the books is “Patricia C. Wrede,” but I consider it all still me. The checks go into my personal checking account and show up on my personal income taxes (Schedule C). My accountant charges a small amount more for doing my taxes because she has more forms to fill out, but it’s nothing compared to the pages and filings I’d have to do for a partnership, sub-S, LLC, or full-fledged corporation. I don’t need a separate tax I.D. I use Quicken to sort my expenses into writing-related and everything-else. I do not even have a separate credit card “for writing,” as it would have the same problem as a checking account (having to split purchases, and the temptation to use it for non-writing stuff).

 The vast majority of writing businesses I know of are sole proprietorships.

The various alternatives to sole proprietorships are worth looking into, but there should not ever be an automatic assumption that if you are starting a writing business, you have to set up a sub-S or LLC or whatever. They are emphatically not right or useful for everyone. Also, it is a lot easier to change your mind and set up a subchapter-S corp later on if you decide it will be useful, than it is to wind one up and get out of it if you decide it’s too much of a pain to bother with.

As for signing up with an agent…that depends on what kind of business you are running. If you are a sole proprietorship, you sign the contracts and get the income under your Social Security number (that’s both the contract with the agent and the ones with a publisher). If you’ve assigned your copyrights to your corporation, which has a separate tax I.D., then I believe you have to sign the contracts in your capacity as representative of the corporation and use that tax I.D. If you’re writing under a pen name, you still sign the contract as yourself, with your own tax I.D., but the contract specifies the name that goes on the book and whether or not the copyright will get registered in your real name or as your pen name.

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Business

We now reach the third leg of the professional-writing stool: Business.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the writing part of writing-as-a-profession. Business is all about the profession part, right? And logically, that means that writers who don’t care about “having a writing career” don’t have to pay any attention to the business stuff.

The problem with that logic is that the business end of writing includes stuff like copyright law, which affects you whether or not you are selling your writing. It also includes things like “generating buzz” for that story you are giving away free, because “generating buzz” (and any other way of getting new, unfamiliar readers to read your stories) is functionally the same as doing publicity and marketing for a book that someone else is selling.

In other words, even a writers who are not in any way part of “the writing business” have a business leg on their three-legged stool. It’s just a really short leg. If you’re giving everything away for free, you probably should be aware of copyright laws and the existence of the Creative Commons  and their license agreements, at the very least. Because unless you are planning to be Emily Dickinson and not show your work to anybody, but just leave it for your heirs to deal with, ignoring the business leg of the stool can run you into a fairly wide variety of possible troubles (as most of you probably figured out the minute you saw “copyright laws” in that second sentence).

It ought to be obvious that once you start planning to get paid for your writing, though, you need to pay attention to the business leg. (Note that I said “planning to get paid,” not “get paid.” A lot of useful business-type stuff starts happening long before you actually sell anything. Like keeping submission records and tracking expenses.) Unfortunately, this is not at all obvious to some people, and right there, we run into the first batch of writers who run into trouble because they ignore this leg of the stool.

The first group is composed of writers who don’t think they have to pay attention to business until they reach some threshold level, usually either selling their first novel or getting paid a certain amount. For the first set, selling short stories or poetry “doesn’t count;” for the second set, anything under some arbitrary personal limit, like $25 per story or $100 per year, “doesn’t count.” I met one author who even arranged to take the advance on her first novel in copies, in the mistaken belief that as long as she didn’t get an actual check, it wasn’t income and “didn’t count.” The trouble is that while the IRS is unlikely to notice that you sold a short story to a semiprozine for $10 last year, it actually does count as part of your income. (And that writer who took her entire advance in copies was really annoyed when her publisher quite rightly sent her a 1099 stating that they had reported the advance to the IRS, even though the writer “hadn’t gotten that money at all.” I spent some time explaining to her that the tax people didn’t care whether she spent her advance on copies of her book or on chocolate; it was still income and she still owed taxes.)

Then there are the writers who don’t pay attention to the business leg of things because it “interferes with their creativity” or because they think that keeping tax records will somehow taint their artistic purity. Some of these writers are just confused about the length they need this particular leg of their stool to be – the business end of the business doesn’t have to take precedence over everything else unless that’s the way you choose to run things. A good many other writers who claim these reasons are, so far as I can see, just making excuses. Either they hate paperwork and think that “it will mess up my creativity” is an acceptable public excuse for skiving off that particular job, or they haven’t sold yet and they’re grumpy about it, so they use these to simultaneously imply that they are heroically protecting their creative genius by ignoring business stuff (and not selling) and that anyone who has sold (and who must perforce deal with business stuff) must be far less creative than they are. Which may be a help to their tender egos, but really doesn’t do much for their writing or potential writing careers.

There are plenty of professional, published, selling writers who hate paperwork, record-keeping, doing publicity, and all the other business-related aspects of having a writing career. A few have a helpful spouse or other family member who handles the business part for them (if I didn’t have that darned M.B.A., maybe I could convince one of my sisters to take it over for me…). Some hire a business manager the minute they get to a place where they can afford it. Most of us, though, have to bite the bullet and just do it ourselves. No job is 100% fun, 24/7.

What one can do, as I mentioned before, is to consider just how long this leg of the stool has to be, given what you want to do and where you hope to go in your writing career. There are a few things, like keeping tax records, that are really non-negotiable. A lot of administrative and publicity stuff, though, can be pared down to a bare minimum if one has a day job (or supportive spouse/partner) that pays the bills and/or one doesn’t really care how much money one’s writing makes (or how fast). If, on the other hand, one wants to milk every last possible dime out of each publication, one may prefer to devote more time and energy to non-writing stuff like giving seminars or speaking at libraries (which, by the way, frequently pay, sometimes quite well. I know at least three writers who make a very good mid-five-figure-or-more annual income from speaking engagements, in addition to what their writing brings in).

Which brings me to the writers who place too much emphasis on the business part of writing. Generally, these are beginners desperate to break in somehow, anyhow; some are nervous newly published professional who haven’t quite processed the fact yet. These are the folks who haunt bookstores, trying to analyze the market for “hot trends” that they then go home and try to write, regardless of whether their interests or talents lie in that direction (and ignoring the fact that what’s on bookstore shelves isn’t what editors are buying now. It’s what they bought two to five years ago.) These are the folks who neglect the Art and the Craft legs in favor of grabbing frantically at each and every professional opportunity that floats by, without stopping to consider whether it suits their interests or where it is likely to take their career. Five years later, they wake up and realize that they’re exhausted from ghostwriting three novels and working on two series for different “house names” every year, and writing is no fun any more.

There are, of course, writers who make similar choices with eyes wide open. Some of them make significant incomes, but you’ve never heard of them, because very little of their work is published under their own names…and they like it that way. They are not “doing it wrong.” They are not twisting what they want to write into something else in hopes of selling it. They are putting exactly as much emphasis on the money-and-business leg of their particular writing stool as they want and need to in order to do the kind of writing they want.

And that is the point of this little series of posts. There Is No One True Way. That writing stool always has three legs, but each writer gets to pick the length (importance, amount of time and energy spent) for each leg. As long as the career has the balance the particular writer wants, it’s fine. And unlike real furniture, the metaphorical stool is easily adaptable – if, at some point, one realizes that one is dissatisfied with the current balance, one has only to work a bit more on one leg and a bit less on another until one finds a new equilibrium.

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Craft

Craft, to me, is the skill part of writing, the part you can analyze and learn. It’s techniques, viewpoint, grammar, and style. It includes the mechanics of characterization, dialog, description, and action, as well as highly macro-level things like plot and pacing, worldbuilding, backstory, and characterization. It involves practically every angle from which one can look at and evaluate a piece of writing with any objectivity. It is, after all, fairly easy to determine whether someone has slipped from first person to third person, mis-tagged their dialog, or written grammatically correct sentences.

Craft is so endemic to writing, and so fundamental, that it is easy to confuse it with the Art part. This leads to two related problems: first, people trying to find a more objective definition
of “good art” latch on to elements of craft as a way to measure artistic merit; second, people who want a recipe for writing focus on craft (because they can learn it) and think that the craft part of writing is all they need to get right.

The elements of craft are easy to talk about, though not necessarily easy to define or implement. They are, after all, the skill set that writers need to at least partially master. One can argue endlessly over exactly where the line goes between an omniscient viewpoint and limited omniscient, or what makes “transparent prose” transparent, or how much and how often to vary one’s speech tags. It’s also easy (and often very tempting) to count the number of adverbs-per-page and assign an arbitrary limit, thus plunging headlong down the slippery slope of making rules and recipes for “good writing” that are a lot harder to quantify when the subject is how much beauty or creativity one needs per chapter.

Unfortunately, it is quite possible for a story to be technically excellent without being artistically so. A novel can be well-constructed in every measurable aspect and still be boring – and a boring story is definitely not good art, and probably not good craft, either, however well-made it may be in its other aspects.

Similarly, a story may contain many horrible technical mistakes and still be considered “good art.” I recently read a memoir that, judging from the reviews, was fantastic Art … but by my standards, it was terrible in certain key elements of craft, most notably consistency, pacing, and structure. I lost interest halfway through. I doubt that this was the effect the author intended his book to have.

Technical writing skills alone are thus manifestly not enough to create a successful piece of writing (unless the writer has their own idiosyncratic definition of “successful” and doesn’t much care whether their work gets read or sells). Strong writing skills can, however, compensate to some extent for weak artistry, just as strongly artistic work can cover a certain amount of weak skill levels. Ideally, of course, one would have both strong technical skills and strong artistic ability in equal measure, but even among experienced writers at the height of their careers, this is rare. For beginners … well, there are geniuses who are gifted with both skill and artistry right from the start, but they are rare. Don’t count on being one.

Skills of any sort generally have to be learned, usually through much practice, and writing is no exception. This is where the common wisdom about writing “a million words of crap” comes from – the necessity of practice. However, getting a million words worth of practice at writing crap does not automatically improve your skills. One has to work at improving, not merely at producing words.

“Work at improving” does not mean that one allows one’s Internal Editor free rein at all times; that will, more than likely, slow one’s production (and therefore rate of improvement) to nearly zero, as well as being intensely frustrating. It does mean that at some point one has to evaluate what one has produced, figure out what the flaws are, and attempt to correct them on the next try. In some cases, “the next try” means the second draft; in other cases, it means the next scene of that type that one happens to write. It’s another one of those places where every writer has to figure out for themselves what the best way of learning is for them, whether that ends up being writing entire stories, doing highly structured exercises, reviewing each scene as it is written, or something else.

There is a subset of beginning writers who take the opposite tack from the one described above. Instead of deciding to create a bunch of skills-based rules with which to quantify “good Art,” they decide that only Art matters and skills are unimportant (or perhaps that skills will be acquired automatically, without their having to do any work beyond writing whatever comes into their head). This rarely ends well. A blacksmith who has a marvelous concept for a wrought-iron railing, but who is unskilled with their tools, will likely have a lot of difficulty in realizing their vision, if indeed they succeed in doing so at all. A blacksmith who knows exactly what they can do with their tools, and just how far they can push their limits, may well start with the same marvelous concept and see ways to elaborate on it and improve it that the unskilled smith doesn’t realize are even possible. There is a reason why writing is often called “wordsmithing.”

Also, as I mentioned before, skills don’t arrive automatically and without effort. They especially don’t arrive automatically in the lap of someone who thinks they are unimportant and pays no attention to improving them. (Which is particularly short-sighted, since skills are learnable and Art … not so much.)

For writers who, like Emily Dickinson, are perfectly happy to write something and then stick it in a drawer for their heirs to deal with, or who are fine with posting their work on a free web site where six people will read it (five of them friends and relatives), the art and the craft are all they really need to pay attention to. Those of us who wish to write professionally, however, have to keep an eye on the third leg of the three-legged stool: the business. Which comes up next week.

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Art

Art is the first leg of the three-legged stool that is writing, and possibly the most difficult to talk about because it is abstract. All of the definitions I could find talk about expression, creativity, beauty, emotion, and imagination – all of which are ideas rather than anything that can be seen or touched. This means that there is no absolute physical reference that one can use to decide if one’s notion of beauty, creativity, etc. is accurate or not. One can look at a table and say “This table wobbles,” and anyone else who looks at the wobbly table will agree. If one says “That painting is ugly” or “That statue isn’t creative,” though, it is highly likely that at least some of the other people who look at it will disagree.

People still try to make definitive statements about art, of course. “That isn’t creative” is one of the common criticisms one hears about works of art, followed closely by “There’s no emotion in it” and “It’s unimaginative.” What all these things mean, though, isn’t the same as “That rock is flat on one side” or “There is no water in that bucket.” They mean that the critic has seen enough similar works that he/she thinks this one isn’t particularly creative, that the subject or execution of the work didn’t raise emotion in the particular viewer, or that the work isn’t showing the critic anything new or startling. Which may be perfectly true…for that particular commentator. To other people, it may be unique, heartbreaking or uplifting, and a revelation.

Another problem is that you can’t tell by looking at a painting or reading a novel exactly what went into it from the artist’s perspective. A reader who has read hundreds of space operas may look at the latest one and think it is imitative and unimaginative, not realizing that the writer has never read even one other space opera and is by any objective standard being amazingly inventive and creative, even though what they’re doing is re-inventing the wheel. Conversely, a writer may be deemed fresh and new and creative for inventing characters or plot twists that he/she actually borrowed from somewhere the reader or critic isn’t familiar with – a different genre the person doesn’t read, for instance, or a set of obscure myths.
One result of all this is that people try to set rules for what makes a piece of art into Art with a capital “A.” This tends not to work very well for very long, even when somebody can get a large enough group of people to agree about what the rules are, because sooner or later – usually sooner – somebody will point out that Shakespeare or Homer or Titian or Rodin didn’t do X (or did do Y that “Art” isn’t supposed to do), and they are certainly Art.

Another result of the desire to codify “good art” is that people turn to things that can be measured – is the viewpoint consistent? Does the writer misuse passive voice or overuse adverbs? – and try to make these into rules. This is slightly more successful than trying to measure things like beauty, creativity, or emotion, because often one can look at a piece of writing and say “That viewpoint wobbles” and have most people agree, just as they would about a wobbly table. The trouble is, this stuff falls under my definition of craft, rather than art.

In my personal and idiosyncratic opinion, art – and, perforce, Art – is a very personal thing. This makes it incredibly hard to come up with a clear definition that is accepted by even a narrow majority. The lack of a clear definition, in turn, makes it pretty much impossible to tell people what should be considered good art or explain to them how to make it.

The fact that this frustrates pretty much everyone doesn’t make it any less true. The “art” part of writing is, therefore, the least teachable. Even for the most analytical of writers, the “art” leg of the stool ends up being intuitive and largely a matter of feel. It’s one of those things one learns by experience – lots of experience, of both reading and writing – and then can’t really articulate clearly once one has learned it (which is especially frustrating to writers, because putting things into words is supposed to be our stock in trade.

About the only advice I can provide about the Art leg of the stool is attitudinal. If artistic merit is one of those “we know it when we see it” things that are next to impossible to identify in one’s own work – and I really do think it is – and if it is likewise something that one learns from experience, then the only thing one can do is focus on getting that experience (by reading and writing a lot).

Fretting about one’s work as art will, more than likely, just get in the way.
Craft, the second leg of the stool, is a completely different matter. I’ll talk about that next time.

 

NB: Patricia C. Wrede wrote this post. CS only posted it. Pay no attention to the blog byline.

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