Saturday, 8 September 2007

writer, writing, tips for writers, journal

Scribbling for Fun and Profit

Whenever someone tells me they would like to write, my first question is always, What do you read? Writing is not for you unless you have spent a lifetime reading, a lifetime savoring stories. All too often, the answer I receive to my question is, "Oh, I don't have time to read. I watch TV and movies, but I would like to be a writer." The conversation usually ends there.

Writing is a craft, like playing a musical instrument or painting with oils. Every aspiring writer must acquire this craft, just as every musician must learn his or her instrument. Today some high schools and most colleges offer creative writing courses, and so do various writer's workshops. If you look around you will undoubtedly find one in your area. Some of these folks charge for their services.

Whether you take a formal course or not, most of the craft must be acquired on your own. The best place to begin is the public library, which is full of good books written by people who know how to write. Check out good books by good writers in the genre in which you are interested. Analyze their styles, see how they set up a scene, how they do dialogue, how the characters are introduced and developed, how the writer makes the names memorable or fails to do that, how the story is paced, how the action unfolds, how the conflicts develop, how the subplots are made part of the story, how the climax is handled. Analyze the scenes, find the key words which bring out the emotion of a scene, study how the writer got his effect, how he uses verbs and adverbs, try to decide why he used the key words he did. Why did the writer choose the point-of-view he used, did he shift verb tenses, why are the paragraphs where they are, why did he use action verbs in one place and "to be" verbs in another? What are the rules this good writer follows?

This stuff is not magic: it's all right there in black and white. You must dissect it and study it and think about it. And you must learn.

If you are interested in thrillers, as I am, I suggest you study Alistair MacLean, the guy who taught a generation of thriller writers how to do it. Read When Eight Bells Toll, The Secret Ways, Bear Island, Fear is the Key. Look at John D. MacDonald. Read Ernest Gann. Study Raymond Chandler and Eric Ambler. To study a master of plot construction and characterizations, read Agatha Christie. For atmosphere you might read Georges Simenon and Rex Stout. Of course you must read the perfect stylist, the author whose style influenced everyone who came after, Hemingway. Finally, to study how a real master can mesh rich characterizations with an interesting plot and pace it properly, you might read Larry McMurtry and Amy Tan, two excellent writers doing it in English today.

The flip side of writing about what you know is the publishing reality that originality sells. To break into publishing and establish a major career, you must go boldly where no one has gone before, to steal a phrase. First novelist J.K. Rowling wrote of a boy wizard at an English public school. Original and fresh, her four novels to date have been mega-bestsellers world-wide and made her our first literary billionaire. English housewife Agatha Christie decided to write mysteries, and although she got them published, was an unnoticed pulp mystery writer until she wrote "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," in which the narrator turns out to be the killer. That plot was a stroke of genius; the book was a major bestseller. That idea led to a marvelous forty-plus year career writing mysteries, some of which contain truly dazzling, original plot twists.

The list goes on and on: Arthur Conan Doyle founded the mystery genre with "A Study in Scarlet," in which he introduced Sherlock Holmes. Tom Clancy broke in with a unique tale of a Soviet submarine skipper who decided to defect to America, taking his sub with him. Amy Tan's books about a Chinese family plowed ground left fallow since the death of Pearl Buck. My first novel, "Flight of the Intruder," was the first novel of naval aviation in the modern jet age. The only one remotely similar was "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," by Michener, which was about the Korean War. (It was also one of Michener's worst books.) I wrote about Vietnam. My publisher asked, "How come no one else ever wrote about naval aviation?"

"Guess they never thought of it," I replied.

One last example, which may be more myth than truth: Stephen King was a schoolteacher who wrote manuscripts at night and watched the mail for rejections, which came regularly. One day his wife rescued a manuscript from the trash and sent it to the "horror editor" at a major New York house. An editor rooting in the slush pile, where unsolicited manuscripts go to die, saw the envelope. No publishing house had a "horror editor" on their staff--the genre did not exist. Intrigued, the editor took the manuscript to his desk and began reading. The rest is history.

So the formula is originality and craft, workmanship and sweat. Lots of sweat. I like to go to big bookstores and wander through the fiction section looking at the offerings, trying to figure out what is NOT there. Editors will tell you that the reason a type of story isn't there is because it won't sell, which is a logical fallacy that tells us nothing. When I thought up the plot for "Saucer" I knew I had something. I had never seen anything remotely like it. The novel was initially rejected, of course, but years later I twisted my publishers' arm and they published it to pacify me; it was a nice hit in the states and a big hit in the U.K. I am now busy writing a sequel, for a six-figure advance.

Book Doctors
First time writers, or indeed, any writer struggling with a manuscript, might consider the services of a book doctor. In the past editors at major publishers might labor over a manuscript, writing, rewriting, and if necessary, inserting or eliminating subplots, all in the effort to get a manuscript up to publishing quality. Today editors at publishing houses do not do this—they simply don't have the time. Nor can the publishing houses afford the cost. The manuscript must come in-house polished and ready for the line editor, who merely checks spelling, punctuation, capitalization and the like. The book doctor, paid for by the writer, fills this empty niche.

Here are some sources for professional book doctors. I have never used any of these folks, but if you feel you need professional help with a manuscript, you might check them out. These sources were listed in a November 10, 2003 copyrighted article in THE DENVER POST.

The Rocky Mountain Publishing Professionals Guild (RMPPG) RMPPG is a Colorado-based organization of "Self-employed individuals in the publishing and communication industries." According to the Post, Past PMPPG president Jody Berman says, "the organization is an excellent resource for those looking for book editors."

Consulting Editors Alliance According to the Post, the Consulting Editors Alliance describes its organization on the CEA website as "a group of expert book editors and writers who can help you make your book more publishable and advise you on every aspect of publishing from the editorial process to e-books. We've edited hundreds of acclaimed titles in virtually every category of fiction and non-fiction, including many national best sellers."

Small Publishers Association of North America SPAN) According to the Post, SPAN is a Colorado-based, non-profit trade association of approximately 1,300 self-publishers, small presses and authors.

Start With What You Know
Beginning writers are well advised to write about something they know. Many beginners try to write about people and places and events that they know absolutely nothing about, and consequently expend vast quantities of time and effort but cannot get the story to read right. Do not write about the world of Manhattan high fashion and glamour unless you have been there and seen it from the inside. Do not write about the sins of the Hollywood film industry unless you know this world well. The sole exception to this rule is this: you can write about anything that no one else knows anything about--this category would include science fiction, fantasy, and, perhaps, Jean Auel's caveman novels. Even so, you must always master the rules of the genre in which you wish to work. Sci fi sells to hard core fans who read little else. You have to know this genre inside out if you expect to write and sell books to the Trekkies. Ditto horror, romance, porn, and a few others.

Writing is very hard work. Those folks who try it for any length of time understand that fact. Writing good fiction is so damn tough very few people succeed at it. It seems that those people who do it best are thoughtful, careful readers who study successful writers and learn the techniques. Like glassblowing or painting, writing is a craft that can be learned, but it must be practiced diligently and painstakingly.

Like every craft or art, good writing requires a spark of originality or all the sweat will have been in vain. Talent is an elusive, hard-to-define quality. Yet, like pornography, most of us know it when we see it. Craft compliments talent but is not a substitute for it. Talent needs workmanship and sweat to succeed, but workmanship and sweat are not enough. There are thousands of bricklayers yet only a few artists in stone.

Craft aside, to write successfully you must have something to write about. Every word you write is a distillation of everything you know about life, about how the world works, about how people think and feel, their motivations, their hopes, their dreams, and so on. How do you write a woman in love? Well, if you are not a woman, it would help a lot if you had known one or two who were desperately, hopelessly in love. To write successfully you must understand what it is to be human. Only then can you reduce the human experience to language and put it on paper. Our best writers drank deeply of life. I give you Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway.

One of the common mistakes of aspiring writers is to write about themselves. Some do it to explore their inner emotions, others do so for the simple reason that they know themselves best. Regardless, writing about yourself is a literary dead-end, a place where readers do not care to go.

Students of writing must write about other people, learn to create characters that live within the boundaries of the fictional world created by the writer. This is the very essence of the craft, without which you cannot progress.

At some point every aspiring writer must evaluate his or her work and make a realistic appraisal of its worth. Are you just laying bricks? It helps to have unbiased readers who will give honest criticism. Do not try to write unless you are willing to fail. If you are unwilling to let your friends read your stuff because they might not understand it, it is unpublishable--the book buying public won't understand it either. This leads inexorably to my next point: if you have to explain to a reader what they should have gotten out of a story, it didn't work. Go back and work on it some more. The story must stand on its own. How well it stands is a direct measure of how well you have mastered the craft of writing.

The Courage to Fail
Speaking of the courage to fail, through the years I have noticed a curious phenomenon. People who are experts in literature, who know grammar, who can discuss the intricacies of plotting, characterization, setting, pacing, etc., until hell won't have it, people who seem to have all the equipment necessary to succeed at writing fiction, rarely try it. Although these people sometimes have PhDs in English and literature, they seem quite content watching hacks like me turn out commercial novels. I'm not complaining, you understand, but I have a theory about why this is so. These folks would be satisfied with nothing less than writing a masterpiece, and since they know that is highly unlikely, they write nothing. On the other hand, I have no ambitions about masterpieces--I just want to write fun books that entertain people and make a living doing it. I want to write the kind of books that I like to read. So I write and the experts read. In a way it's sort of sad.

Once the manuscript is well written, done in perfect English, all typos and misspellings removed, you are ready to try to get it published. The manuscript should be double-spaced on plain white paper, one side only, not bound in any way. Your name, address and phone number should be on the first and last pages of the manuscript. Do NOT submit the manuscript anywhere until you are convinced it is the best it can be, because once they reject it, agents and publishers will NOT spend any more time upon it.

Agents today perform the screening process that used to be done by publishing houses. Agents read unsolicited submissions and accept those they think are publishable. The book Writer's Market, published annually, contains a listing of literary agents. The Society of Author Representatives, 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10003, may also be able to help you find an agent to read your manuscript. You may look them up on the web at

I would pass up any agent who wants to charge a "reading" fee. Bona fide literary agents make their money selling manuscripts to publishers, not reading them. However, do not expect a bona fide agent to return your manuscript with a long letter full of incisive literary criticism. If you want literary criticism it is only fair that you pay for it.

Or you might try publishing houses that do the kind of fiction you are trying to write. Although they all say they won't take unsolicited manuscripts, most look anyway. They have to. They might be throwing away the next Tom Clancy.

Breaking In
Publishers and agents all say that they are actively searching for the raw material required to keep the presses running and cartons of books on the way to bookstores. There is no conspiracy to lock out unpublished authors. The real problem is that two hard realities govern the publishing world, and you must overcome them both to break in:

  • Book buyers like to buy brand names. They will buy a new Tom Clancy or Stephen King without even glancing at the dust jacket. They read and enjoyed past books by these authors, so these are the authors they buy today. Consequently, first novels sell an average of less than 5,000 copies. This average includes the occasional, rare, best-selling rocket by a first-time writer, such as Amy Tan, whose first book did extraordinarily well in 1989. But she was one of only two break-in writers on the best-seller list that year, so what does that tell you about the sales of all the other first-timers? (And just how many first novels have you read this year?)

  • Most aspiring writers haven't acquired the craft of writing, so 99% of the stuff agents and publishers see is unpublishable. People can't write English, the scenes are trite, the characters cardboard, the dialogue terrible, there is nothing fresh or original, plots wander like drunken snakes, writers just don't seem to know what the hell a good story is--the list of sins is so long as to be almost infinite. Consequently, while book people are looking for publishable material, finding the jewels is like searching a hog pen for diamonds. (One editor told me that editors see so much trash, sometimes the glitter of the mediocre seems irresistible, which is, he explained, why so much forgettable stuff gets into print. The book-buying public, less jaded, is more fickle.)

The challenge to beginners is this: you must write a book so good, so compelling, the agents and publishers decide that the book can be sold despite the brand-name focus of the book-buying public. Remember, these people are trying to make money publishing books; they must sell books to survive.

My editor at St. Martin's Press publishes fifty books a year. In addition to the books he is publishing, he looks at several hundred manuscripts a year sent to him by literary agents, who presumably have screened out the treacle. He makes offers on those manuscripts he thinks are publishable by his house. He has just two assistants. Since he works in corporate America, he is held accountable for the sales of those books he publishes. He survives by picking more winners than losers, so the question he must answer is, Who will buy this book? Yet even if he believes there is an audience out there, he will not sign a writer unless he is firmly convinced that writer can deliver a commercial manuscript ready for the line editor with a minimum of editorial guidance, or he is holding such a manuscript in his hand.

NEVER forget--publishing is a FOR PROFIT business. Your manuscript must convince everyone all along the line that they can MAKE MONEY by publishing it. Notice that I said "your manuscript," for truly, it must sell itself. Regardless of who you know or how persistent your agent is, the manuscript must be good enough that publishers can see how it can be sold. (One of the reasons you should avoid buying fiction by celebrities is because the author's name may have convinced the publisher that the book will be commercial. Entertainers and rich socialites don't know any more about writing fiction than most beginners, so publishers often hire ghost writers to write the book that will carry the celebrity' s name.)

More people are writing today than ever before in history. Word-processing programs and PCs have freed writers from the clerical drudgery that plagued the craft since the invention of the alphabet. In addition, the booming economy has given huge numbers of people the luxury of time, which many folks are spending at the keyboard of one of those PCs. The result is an unprecedented flood of manuscripts. The market for books, however, continues to grow slowly--while more books are sold today than ever before, the percentage of people reading continues to shrink as technology and lifestyles change. As you might imagine, all these writers searching for agents and publishers have created a bonanza for scam artists.

Be Wary
Anyone can claim to be a literary agent; there are no licensing or knowledge requirements and ethics are strictly optional. Many writers have been rejected so often by the bona fide publishing industry that they become easy prey for the unscrupulous. A few words of praise is the usual hook. Regardless of how the scam starts, eventually the subject of money will come up. The writer is requested to pay reading fees, acceptance fees, all kinds of fees, and promises flow like beer at a biker bar. Some of these people are being actively prosecuted for mail fraud, but jailing scoundrels is a slow business and once your money is gone, it's usually gone forever.

Many writers turn to vanity presses, where you pay to have books published and end up with cartons of the things filling your garage. These books are almost impossible to market through commercial channels. In addition to the hard realities that govern book selling, which I previously discussed, the fact is that most vanity books are poorly plotted or poorly written. There is usually a reason why the commercial publishers weren't interested. Still, every day in America thousands of writers talk themselves into believing that things will be different for them and spend beaucoup bucks printing their own books.

Perhaps it is the rise of the internet, but more and more people these days seem to be paying to have their books published and sold through internet bookstores and websites. I cannot state it strongly enough--Don't. If you can't write a book good enough to get the juices of a bona fide literary agent or commercial publishing house editor flowing, it isn't good enough for the book-buying public. Don't waste your time or money on vanity presses. Spend both learning to write better.

Often folks who decide to self-publish with a publisher who charges them a fee then think of me. They send me an email or even a book, wanting a puff or plug for their tale. At the insistence of both my attorney and my agent, I do not read or plug manuscripts or books that have not been accepted for publication by a commercial--i.e., large, royalty-paying--publishing house, almost all of which are headquartered in New York. I have neither the time nor expertise to read the three or four self-published books that arrive in the mail every week, so I don't read any but those recommended and sent to me by editors I know in the New York publishing industry. And I plug only those which I think my fans will enjoy reading. Sometimes, alas, I guess wrong, and irate readers feel free to tell me so, too.

My final piece of advice is this: Don't begin writing with the goal of getting rich. You will be deluding yourself, wasting your time. A few years ago the Writers Guild did a survey and discovered that the average published writer in America made less that $7,000 a year at the craft, hardly enough to quit the day job. Indeed, the Guild said at the time that only about 900 people in America made their living solely from writing.

The financial picture in the industry has probably improved somewhat in the last few years, but writing has never been a gold mine for most writers and never will be. Over half the people who write fiction professionally write romance novels, the "dime" novels of our generation. Romance can pay well--indeed, some of the highest-paid entertainers on earth write it--but only for daring risk-takers who eschew the standard romance formulas and create their own, then convince a publisher that their formula will sell, and it does.

Years ago publishers paid formula romance writers a flat fee of $5,000 a book. Author Tracy Jones, who writes as Tracy South, informed me that the only series romance authors paid a flat fee today are those who write for Kensington's Precious Gems line. Harlequin/Silhouette, the largest player in this marketplace, is strictly a royalty-paying publisher.

Author Jo Beverley pointed out that Romance Writers of America do periodic surveys of what different types of romances earn. Beverley said, "$20,000 a book is not at all uncommon from any type of romance when the money rolls in (definitely royalty paying!) $50,000 a book isn't rare for lead authors. $100,000 and up isn't startling for authors who don't make the top fifty of the USA TODAY list. Those that do make the list get much more."

You may wish to research the romance genre at Romance Writers of America. The Science Fiction Writers of America have a website that may help too:

This year only three dozen people or so will have novels on the bestseller lists. You have a better chance of becoming a U.S. Senator--we have 100 of those folks. If you want to make money in your spare time, get a job at McDonald's. If you want to get rich, buy a lottery ticket.

Write because it's fun, because you enjoy the creative process. If what you write ever gets published and you make a few bucks, that will be the icing on the cake.

Good Luck!

[Cross From Stephen Coonts Book]

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