Do you write narrow, broad or both?
I’ve been struggling with my work in progress, Chasing the Son, and about 4 in the morning I realized a problem I’m having is I’m writing too narrow and linearly on a story that is actually broad and spread out over place and time.
Here’s what narrow writing is:
Here’s what broad writing is:
-multiple occurrences at the same time
Note both are conflict driven, but in broad writing, the conflict is more character based, while in narrow writing, it’s more action based. (all conflict should actually be both)
Neither are wrong. And a good book usually has both. In fact, I started this book out broadly. I begin by describing the low country around Charleston, then go into some history and by page three get to a character, then finally show character in action. Some would say not the greatest opening, where there needs to be that great hook on the first page and action. But I’ve written plenty of books like that. My subconscious obviously feels differently about this book and I have to trust it. Of course, that was my subconscious. The key is to move it from there to my conscious which is what I think finally happened at 4 in the morning. I’d gone from broad to narrow and it was bothering me.
We’re running a Write on the River workshop this weekend with four people attending and the key to it is focusing on process. What each writers process is and how their minds work. I really focus on this now after a quarter century of writing. I constantly surprise myself by not really understanding my process and having to work on it and refine it. So today I have to dive back in Chasing the Son and expand the story rather than move it forward as I’ve been doing. I need to add more texture and characterization so the reader understands the motives of the characters and why the action is happening.
By the way, Jen has been working on covers as we rebrand the Green Beret series. We’re breaking the books apart. The six original Dave Riley stories are one subset. But the books where Horace Chase comes to the forefront, will now be another subset. Even though Dave Riley is present in Chasing the Lost and Chasing the Son, these books are somewhat different. To brand them differently, we’re redoing covers. What do you think?
Yes, we all say it, but a perusal of blogs, articles, and conference schedules show a focus on eBooks, social media, marketing, promotion, formatting, cover design and much less on learning the craft of writing. Everyone is asking “How, in this flood of content, can I sell books?” And the answer is indeed: Write Better Books.
The key to being discovered is to have readers searching for you. Gather a fan following. That doesn’t happen by having a ton of followers on Twitter or Facebook. It happens by having a ton of readers, eagerly anticipating your next title to come out. Ultimately that is going to be what separates out those who succeed as writers and the vast majority who won’t over the long haul.
In light of that, I’m introducing Craft Tuesday. I will blog about various aspects of writing and also discuss examples from media, both print and screen. I will present a classic form of the novel, but also talk about how I view story telling to be changing. I’ve really seen a change in this in the last decade, especially in terms of narrative structure, timeline, and point of view. I’ve always believed in rule breaking, but I have three rules of rule breaking:
- Know the rule. Breaking a rule we don’t know is just being dumb.
- Have a good reason for breaking the rule. When I run Write On The River workshops here, I never say “You did it wrong.” There is no wrong. What I ask is “Why did you do it that way?” Often I get a blank stare back. It means the person just did it, without a good reason. Have a good reason for breaking a rule.
- Take responsibility for breaking the rule. If it works, you’re a genius. If it doesn’t, you’re a mere mortal. Failure is the start point for future success.
Great writing is an art that comes out of craft. Which can be learned.
Some of the material presented comes out of The Novels Writers Toolkit. I started writing that over 20 years ago and have been updating it ever since. In this blog, I will be updating the excerpts for the next edition of the Toolkit.
Something I’ve picked up in the last several years is that a writer must study, refine and perfect their own process. This is the creative and practical way in which we write. It’s rooted in our psychology. I often tell writers that since we sit in a dark room by ourselves and write, we need therapy. It’s a given. But it’s true. We must understand our own thought process; and how we funnel that into our creative process.
I know a #1 bestselling writer who has the imagination of a rock. That’s not to say she’s dumb. She’s actually very, very smart. Just not imaginative. So part of her process is to compensate for that lack. She spends a lot of time studying her setting, but beyond her setting, she spends a lot of her time interviewing people and listening to their stories. And her story comes out of their stories. I don’t judge the right or wrong of that; it’s her process. It’s worked well enough to propel her to #1 on the NY Times list.
I tell people I can plot anything. What I mean is I can take a bunch of pieces and pull them together into a coherent plot. So I don’t overly worry about knowing exactly what will happen down the line. The longer I’ve written, the more I trust my subconscious. It means putting things in that manuscript that I really don’t know why they’re there. But I leave them. I’ve learned in my process to not edit those things out. Because later, down the line, it’s probably a piece I will need to build my story and make it tighter. So that’s a part of process I’ve taken something out of my subconscious and work with consciously. The more our process becomes conscious, the better we will work.
Process also includes point of view, which we will discuss. Another key to process is knowing what part of writing is our weakness, and then working to make it much stronger; I believe our book is only as good as the weakest part.
So let’s start there. What is your process as a writer? The following questions will help define it:
- When I start a story, what is the moment of conception? I call this the original or kernel idea. Is it a person? A place? A theme? A story?
- Do I understand my theme/intent for what I’m writing?
- Why am I writing about this theme/intent? Why is it important to me?
- Why is it important for me to write a story others will read?
- What point of view do I write in? Is it the POV that supports my best writing? What POV scares me to write in? Might that be the best for me?
- How do I research a story? What does that say about my imagination and my process?
- What’s the weakest part of my writing? How can I make it better? Compensate for it?
- What’s the strongest part of my writing? What is it compensating for and hiding from me? Remember, our greatest strengths are built around our greatest weaknesses.
- How much outlining do I do? Do I outline plot? Character? Both? Neither?
- How much rewriting do I do? What is the focus of my rewriting?
Don’t worry if you can’t answer all of these. I’ll be blogging about all of it as the Tuesday’s go by. And if you’re in a rush, buy the Toolkit and Write It Forward, and they’ll give you insights into the answers to these questions. Feel free to answer some in the comments and I’ll do my best to also comment.
The Write on the River workshop coming up this weekend was sold out a while ago. The next one is 27-28 June; or if you can gather three friends we can schedule a special weekend. Check out Write on the River.
I’m looking forward to this journey with you over the next months! Nothing but good times ahead.
Don’t take anyone else’s monkey as your own! We all are on our unique yellow brick roads to Oz, whatever Oz might be for each of us.
Lately I’ve run into some new writers at conferences who eventually whisper to me they’ve signed a traditional deal, but they’re afraid to mention it to anyone because they get castigated. The attitude seems to be that if the book is good enough to get a book deal, then self-publishing makes more sense.
What a change in just a few years when people would break open a bottle of champagne upon getting a book deal. Now one almost dares not mention it for fear of being ridiculed for not taking the indie route. There are some indie authors saying they will never go back to traditional publishing; the key phrase is “go back”. It’s curious that a lot of us who have been successful as indies actually started in traditional publishing, giving us a distinct leg up; along with a thing called backlist.
I’m a big believer in being flexible and keeping options open. I’ve changed my view on things over the years and will continue to do so. Part of that is my Special Forces background, part of it is having experienced the spectrum of publishing. And part of it is having learned to never say never.
For a new writer, with no backlist, it’s an entirely different event with the first book. It’s easy for me to say “Well, it would be hard for me to go trad now,” when I’ve been traditionally published 42 times. I definitely understand the ups and downs of it. Actually, with the right deal, I would do it. But the odds of that ‘right’ deal happening are iffy at this point in my career—the key being MY career with my particular monkeys, which aren’t anyone else’s (mine are cute). And the other key is I know what would make it right. Or wrong. And I would be realistic about it, not starry-eyed. Actually, I am a hybrid author in that I publish books with 47North, Amazon’s science fiction imprint. I do that for various reasons, giving up a percentage of possible royalties as an indie in exchange for other benefits. I feel it’s the right monkey for me.
I used the term ‘hybrid’ author back in 2011 in a blog post here. It’s probably the most successful way to go, unless you are a top 1% author. But you can’t be hybrid unless you are published traditionally eventually. An interesting thing few talk about is the successful indies who end up going trad.
For a brand new writer, I believe the odds of initial success going the traditional route, if one can successfully negotiate it, are better than going the indie route. Unless, of course, that new writer has mastered all the aspects of indie publishing, which is a Catch-22 right there. How can they master something when they don’t even understand, or have experience in, the basics?
The reality is that there is a reason all these people are employed by publishers: editors, cover designers, publicists, sales force, etc. And agents play a vital role for a new author, helping them negotiate this confusing path. As a small publisher, I understand that because we have to do all this at Cool Gus for an author; on their own they quickly get overwhelmed, which is the reason they want us to handle most of it, while keeping them informed. Would an unpublished author know how to do it, and not just to do it, but do it correctly? And how would they gain an audience in an eBook market that is drowning in content? Most importantly, there is definitely a place for print, and that market is not anywhere near as crowded simply because there is limited shelf space. Right there, the trad author is ahead of the power curve. A trad publisher getting a new author’s book into the bookstore is a very, very important thing.
A caveat is that a book deal is just the start, but for a previously unpublished author, it can be a solid start if they recognize the positive and the pitfalls and use the internet to study the wealth of information about how they should be planning for the future. I’ve gotten several emails from authors who have their first book coming out in the next year from a trad publisher, asking what they should be doing. That’s worrisome because although I have definitely seen a large improvement in marketing by trad publishers, I go back to my question from years ago of how many agents and publishers have an SOP they give to brand new authors, informing them on the process and what they can be doing? I’m sure there are those who do in this technical age, but probably not as many as should. An author needs to develop a career plan, not fall into the ‘sell the next book’ syndrome. It’s one of the reasons I wrote Write It Forward. I took what we did in Special Forces and applied it to making a living as an author. Regardless of path, successful authors must have a career plan!
On the flip side, I do think successful traditional authors should really consider indie publishing some titles. Keep options open for the future. Because the one constant in publishing is there is no constant. The creative freedom of being part-indie can be incredibly freeing for an author who has only experienced traditional publishing. At Cool Gus, authors have the final say on everything to do with the book, from content, to cover, to pub date, to marketing. We advise; they decide.
Bottom line: long-term success on any path of publishing (including the infamous hybrid) is extraordinarily rare and difficult.
It’s like anything else: educate oneself. Be flexible. Take what you need and leave the rest. But there are many, many roads to Oz. And Oz is different for each of us. Each of us must find our own Yellow Brick Road; and we must deal with our particular group of flying monkeys.
There’s always a but.
Not long ago an author loop I am on had a thread titled: “Quitting My Day Job.” Lots of people posted. I found it weird, since the content flood is leveling out sales, but then I thought about it. Most on the loop are indie authors. And indie authors make much more per sale than trad authors (although most of the bigger name trad authors live off advances, thus the relative lack of concern over paltry eBook royalty rates). But for the midlist author, making so much per copy sold equals greater income.
So, cool beans.
Then this past month, a new thread appeared: “Going Back to the Day Job.” How fickle is fate? And how fast the changes in the marketplace. Lot of people are blaming it on Kindle Unlimited. Which knocks down royalty per copy earned. But then you’ve got Authors United (Not) blaming Amazon for everything wrong in the world (yet still selling their books there). But I think the reality is that the content flood is really taking sales away from pretty much everyone as readers have so many more choices. Over 300,000 books uploaded to Kindle last year. Yes, most are schlock, but you know some are pretty good. Your hard core readers who pay our bills, thank you very much, have so many more choices.
So what’s a writer to do in order to keep making a living?
- Study craft so you can become a better writer
- Have mule-like stupidity, aka Terry Gilliam’s advice to film makers
- Understand that everyone else isn’t doing as great as they pretend they’re doing, so stop comparing yourself. You control your career, not anyone else’s
- Stay ahead of changes by studying the business and extrapolating
- Have a catastrophe plan (separate blog post)
- Accept that there will be ups and downs in all aspects; don’t get bogged in the downs; don’t go overboard on the ups
- Listen to, factor in whatever truths might be there, then ignore the naysayers
- Never, ever, think you have it made; the second you do, it’s over