David Kubicek

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New Interview

Smashwords has just posted a new interview with me. Check it out here: https://www.smashwords.com/interview/DavidKubicek

Writing a Dystopian Novel: Balancing World-Building with Character-Building

Occasionally I’ve heard science fiction writers complain that in order to create a future world or alternate reality they have to sacrifice characterization; to create a world and to create characters would take too long, be too wordy, and might bore the readers.

That is crap. It’s an excuse used by 1) lazy writers who don’t want to bother with characterization, and 2) inexperienced writers who haven’t yet learned to “show, don’t tell.”

Ray Bradbury created an unfamiliar world populated with well-defined characters in Fahrenheit 451, as did Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, as have many other science fiction and fantasy writers.

You don’t need to waste lots of words describing your futuristic world; a few well-chosen words will do. In one of his stories, Robert A. Heinlein has doors that operate like camera shutters; they open automatically when someone approaches them and close after the character has passed through. To communicate this concept to his readers, as his character approaches a door, Heinlein writes three words: “The door dilated.”

Similarly, don’t waste words describing your characters; show them in action. The best way to engage your readers is to create characters who are like them, characters who want the same things and who react emotionally in the same ways. This establishes an emotional bond between your characters and your readers.

To create a dystopian world, find something that may be slightly wrong in our contemporary society and exaggerate it so that it is has caused your future society to be seriously out of whack. For example, Ray Bradbury took censorship to the next level in Fahrenheit 451 when he envisioned a future in which firemen seek out illegal collections of books and burn them.

So you have characters to whom your readers can relate, and you have a society in which something is broken. Now combine the two.

Remember that, although the characters have an emotional tie to contemporary readers, their thoughts and actions must be consistent with the society in which they live. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, at the front of the characters’ minds all the time is the knowledge that possessing a book is a serious crime. They know also that speeding 100 miles per hour down the freeway and trying to hit anything that moves is a good, and accepted, form of recreation.

That’s it in a nutshell. Writing a solid dystopian story is as easy as writing a contemporary story if you follow these three guidelines:

  • Create characters of the future to whom contemporary readers can relate
  • Exaggerate a flaw in contemporary society until you’ve created a world that is seriously broken
  • The thoughts and actions of the characters must be consistent with the society in which they live

Good Luck!

The article originally appeared on BEAUTY IN RUINS on April 12, 2012

Ray Bradbury Embarks On His Last Great Adventure

Ray Bradbury once said that there are three great adventures: being born, living, and dying. Last night Bradbury embarked on that last great adventure when he died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 91.

Bradbury not only had a profound influence on my writing style, but his book The Martian Chronicles inspired me to start writing in the first place. We exchanged a few letters in the 80s and early 90s, and I found him to be an approachable and generous man.

The first time I wrote him, I sent him a copy of the college thesis I’d written about him and his early work: Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. In less than a week I received a note of thanks along with galleys for a new book of criticism of his work another author was publishing.

My first inclination when I heard of Bradbury’s passing was to take time off and read some of his stories in honor of his memory. But I immediately realized that the best memorial to a man who got physically sick if he didn’t write at least two pages every day would be to write. So as soon as I post this, I’ll go back to work on my novel. I’ll read some of his stories later.

For more about Ray Bradbury’s life check out his Washington Post obituary and his video Ray Bradbury on Writing.

Learn to Write Novels by Writing Short Stories

When I was in college a well-meaning English professor read one of my short stories and encouraged me to expand it into a novel. I wholeheartedly agreed. I thought it would make a good novel then, and I think so now. But at that time I wasn’t ready to write a novel. I’d only been trying to write professionally for a short time and was just becoming comfortable with the short story form. I didn’t realize that a novel is an entirely different animal, and it takes much longer to write.

So I started pounding the keyboard to transform my 5,000-word short story into a 50,000-word novel. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Just add scenes. Piece of cake. Unfortunately, at that time I had never heard of Elmore Leonard or his one-sentence explanation of the driving force behind his writing: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Long story short, my first novel was mostly made up of parts that even I skipped. I finally put it out of its misery at 47,000 words because I couldn’t stand working on it another minute, not even to reach my goal of 50,000 words. I never submitted it anywhere. I tried to throw it away, but the garbage man rejected it. He suggested I call the hazardous waste people. I put it on a shelf in the closet where it gathered dust and dead flies–who died instantly once they landed on it . . .

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the best thing I can say about my first novel is that it stunk to high heaven, and the worst thing I can say about it cannot be published on a family blog. Mercifully, the thing was lost over the years as I moved from one place to another. I hope it won’t show up to haunt me when I least expect it.

Why should you care about my first novel-writing experience? I’m glad you asked.

Regular readers of this blog know by now that I have a man-crush on Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers is to write short stories to learn their craft. You can write one short story per week, 52 short stories per year, but it will take you months to write a novel. You get more practice, and more chances of getting it right – and you learn more about writing – by writing short stories.

Except for my one deviation described above, I followed Bradbury’s advice. I wrote 200 short stories before I wrote my next novel. Most of them were clinkers, but among the coal were some gems. I finally got it right and was prepared to tackle a longer form.

And judging from comments I’ve gotten from readers and reviewers, I did a much better job with my second novel, In Human Form, than I did with my first.

A Friend of the Family Blog Tour Ends: And the Winners are . . .

At Midnight April 20 – in whatever time zone you’re in; I won’t be anal about it – my virtual book tour for A Friend of the Family ended. It was a fun three weeks, but it was also lots of work, so I’m ready to move on to other things.

Today I conducted the final bit of business for my blog tour, awarding two $25 Amazon gift cards. One card went to J.A. Beard, whose Unnecessary Musings blog received six comments, the most of any blog stop. When deciding on a winner I included my own comments, which consisted of thanking my host and responding to any comments posted by readers, hosts, etc. This wasn’t an unfair advantage; if I took my comments out of the mix, J.A. Beard still would have won.

To award the other card I put the names of everyone who left a comment on the tour into a bowl. I didn’t put in my own name, of course. If a commenter left more than one comment I put his/her name in for each comment he/she left. I thought this was fair for two reasons:

  • I believe the people who left two or more comments should have improved odds, as if they had bought more than one lottery ticket
  • It increased the pool because even with the duplicate names, there were only 17 chances to win

I wrote each name on a piece of paper, folded it, and put it in a bowl. I held the bowl above my head, and my son Sean drew a name. The winner was Louise Wise. Louise is the owner of Wise Words, a stop on my blog tour. She also left two comments – the most comments any one person left was four, so in this case the greater odds weren’t that great of an advantage.

The good thing about doing a virtual blog tour is that the interviews  and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until time itself comes to an end.

Okay, maybe I’m being  melodramatic. The interviews and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until (and if) someone takes them down. So if you missed any of the stops, here is the schedule.

Now I’m taking a break from my novel work long enough to write a short story. We’ll talk again soon.

Ray Bradbury on Writing: Essential Advice for Aspiring Authors

As  most of you who have followed me for very long know, Ray Bradbury was my mentor. After reading a 25-cent copy of The Martian Chronicles that my mother had picked up at a thrift store, I decided to try to write like Bradbury and to get my stories published.

When I was in college I wrote a thesis about the connection of Bradbury’s early life to his stories. I called it Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. Although I never published it, and the only publicly available copy I know of is in the special collections section at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Love Library, somehow Amazon got wind of it and listed it on their site.

I just came across an online video of a commencement address Bradbury gave in 2001. It’s 55 minutes long, so block out a good chunk of time to watch it. As I listened to him speak, I realized that I had followed his advice. I’d never heard him speak while I was learning to write, but while researching the man I’d turned up most of what he talked about in this commencement address.

Ray Bradbury is one of the great storytellers of our time. This video is essential for aspiring writers – for all writers. Watch it, bookmark it, and watch it again from time to time when you need inspiration: Ray Bradbury Commencement Address.

Dear Morality Police, Let Us Choose What We Read

Payment processing giant PayPal recently gave Indie publisher Smashwords an ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape, and incest or have your PayPal account deactivated.

In an email to Smashwords authors, CEO Mark Coker said “PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations.”

PayPal didn’t mention any names, but these “banks and credit card associations” are most likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express.

This is a major assault on free speech. It is an attempt by financial institutions to censor an author’s writing without due process (i.e. – going to court). Basically, the morality police are deciding what they don’t like and refusing to allow others the opportunity to choose to read it. And with the clout the financial companies have authors and publishers – especially Indie Publishers – find themselves between a rock and the proverbial hard place.

One thing you must realize is that books with adult themes or adult material usually are labeled as such so the reader can make a decision whether to read it or not. It’s unlikely that material readers find objectionable will be sprung on them without notice.

If a reader doesn’t want to read erotica, it’s best to stay out of the Erotica section. If a reader doesn’t want to read a book examining pedophilia, the cover copy for Lolita should send up red flags.

In fact, almost every classic novel you can think of, at one time or another,  has been challenged or censored.

What I ask is that the readers – not the credit card companies and banks, not citizens groups with names like The Moral Majority – be allowed to choose what they read and, just as importantly, what they don’t read.

For more information on this topic be sure to read: Legal Censorship: PayPal Makes a Habit of Deciding What Users Can Read and a letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship, and a follow-up letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship.

Net Neutrality: Congressional Panel Votes to Repeal New FCC Rules

A Republican-controlled House panel has voted to repeal the new FCC rules that would prevent cable and phone companies from dominating the Internet by setting priorities for web traffic. This would result in slower load times for competing services and for smaller websites that can’t afford to pay to have their priorities upgraded. It would be a major blow for free speech on the Internet, with a few major communications companies dictating what websites the rest of us are allowed to access. We could, technically, still access any websites we wanted, but we would become frustrated with the long wait times and click on to something more “user-friendly.”

The reason for repealing this rule, according to the Republicans, is that it would prevent the big cable companies from making costly upgrades to their networks. That is not true. We have had net neutrality since the Internet was opened to commercial traffic in the mid-1990s; it hasn’t prevented the big communications companies from upgrading during that time, and it’s unlikely that making net neutrality the law now will prevent them from making future upgrades. If they want to be competitive, they’ll upgrade. That’s the way it’s always been in business, even before the Internet, and that’s the way it will always be.

For a more detailed look at the panel’s decision see the Huffington Post article.

Net Neutrality Update

Yesterday, as was widely expected, the FCC passed the new regulations governing the Internet–the same regs that Sen. Al Franken called “worst than nothing.” Newsweek technology editor Dan Lyons in his article The Internet Splits in Two suggests that we’re entering into Phase Two of  Internet technology, which he compares to the growing pains of television – for example, cable vs. rabbit ears. The new regs probably will be challenged in court, and they may be tweaked – or they may not be, which wouldn’t be good for writers, researchers, or for folks with Websites and blogs who can not afford to buy priority placement in the pecking order. As Lyons suggests in his article, which I encourage you to read in full, expect these costs to be passed on to consumers, who will end up paying more for a crappier product. Sen. Al Franken in his Huffington Post article today, The Internet as we Know it is Still at Risk does offer a ray of  hope for the future of Net Neutrality.

To keep up on the Net Neutrality issue: savetheinternet.com.

Net Neutrality: The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time

I’ve written an overview of the Net Neutrality issue in an earlier post, Net Neutrality: Keeping the Internet Free. Tomorrow the FCC will meet to discuss Internet regulations. Senator Al Franken doesn’t believe the draft regulations go far enough. In fact, he calls them “worse than nothing.” Rather than try to summarize what Sen. Franken says, I urge you to read his Huffington Post article, The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time.

Curtis Brown Writing Course: Not Enough Bang for the Buck

Curtis Brown UK will launch a writing course next year, which the agency touts as “the first and only new writing school to be run by a literary agency.” The course – which will run from May 5 to July 21, 2011 – is designed to help “15 talented writers to produce distinctive, compelling novels.”

Although the agency doesn’t guarantee representation of the student’s completed work, it does guarantee that “every student’s work will be read by a Curtis Brown book agent and every student will receive a detailed critique on their work at the end of the course.”

The price of the course is 1,600 Pounds (approximately $2,533 American).

Although it could be argued that because prospective students must apply and be accepted into the program it is not unlike applying to a college and then paying tuition. My problem with this is that writing a novel is not like taking Geology 101. Writing a good novel comes from practice, lots and lots of practice.

It’s unlikely that a person with little or no writing experience could win one of the coveted 15 spots, and a person who can write well enough to be accepted into the program probably is quite far along the road to becoming a successful novelist. I’m sure this course will impart valuable information, but I’m not sure the students will get enough bang for their bucks.

With all of the resources available on the Web and all of the books about writing (Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook are the best I’ve seen) and the writing groups where members give one another honest feedback,  serious writers probably could learn as much as they would if they spend 1,600 Pounds ($2,533 American) to take this course.

Many agents, probably most agents, will give aspiring writers guidelines for revising their novels – if the agents think the novels promising, and salable – and they will do this for free. An agent asked me for revisions on one of my novels. I made the requested revisions, and she offered representation (she couldn’t sell the novel, but that’s another story).

The point I want to leave you with is: develop your craft, built a network, and – unless you are independently wealthy – think long and hard before you put up the price of a halfway decent used car for a writing course.

Editorial Comments: Keep Them in Perspective

When I was a novice writer I lived for editorial comments. Occasionally they came, scrawled on a standard form rejection slip, just a few words to let me know if I was on the right track, if what I was writing was any good. I would bet that most aspiring writers long for that coveted editorial critique.

Receiving editorial comments is great, but keep them in perspective. Fiction editing is a very subjective business, and what one editor doesn’t like, another might rave about.

I’ll give you a few examples from editorial comments I’ve received over the years.

“New Beginnings”

  • “. . .  a fairly enjoyable story, very simple, but enjoyable. But it was also one of those that comes very close to the borderline for acceptance  . . .  ” – Alpha Adventures Science Fiction and Fantasy.
  • “Your story is interesting – a touch of Bradbury – but it just didn’t grab me.” – The Argonaut.
  • “John was right that I like it; unfortunately, it doesn’t fit what I’m trying to do with the magazine.” – Bifrost.

“Keeper of the Shrine”

  • “This is carefully and persuasively written and keeps a reader intent on what’s going on, but in spite of the existential metaphysic it generates we still find ourselves doubting the inferential conclusions it proposes. And we can’t make it all fit together.” – Kansas Quarterly.
  • “It had three readings here, two of which were praising. The third reader suggested you consider [changing]  the title . . . One reader said the story ‘is a little too heavy on the symbolism’ but I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” – Prairie Schooner.

MY NOTES: I took this story back to my Beta Reader, an English Professor at the University of Nebraska. He re-read it, and we decided that I should change the title (“Of Life, Death, and Spiders” seemed a bit pompous), but I shouldn’t touch the symbolism because we believed it was right for a story like this (and apparently two other readers at Prairie Schooner agreed.)

“That Time of Year”

  • “This is a well-written story, and I enjoyed it. However, we are very selective on fiction as we use only two or three pieces per issue.” – Proof Rock.
  • “‘That Time of Year,’ exhibits a good control of the subject matter, but I have to say that we didn’t find the subject matter particularly engaging.” – Pulpsmith.

“The Moaning Rocks”

  • “. . . The blending of legend and impending doom works nicely. Your imagery ranges from trite to splendid. There are moments where you approached Bradbury’s October Country. . . ” Fantasy Macabre.
  • “…May I suggest, too, that you think about putting the information in Maria’s legend in some other way (if it’s really necessary at all), because this is where what happens later is telegraphed. Up until then the suspense holds.” – Shadows Anthology.
  • “[Although we’ve already met our quota for this year] . . . the title intrigued me enough that I read it anyway. The beginning could be tightened up and shortened a bit, which I believe would strengthen it, but even as it is it is a powerful story and perfect for the magazine. If it should still be available in April, please send it back; I’d love to have it.” – Antithesis.

MY NOTES: Unfortunately, by April Antithesis had ceased publication, so the story went out on the submission trail again. It garnered a wide variety of comments – mostly positive, some not, but most editors to whom I submitted commented on it. I  published it finally in October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. Also, note that Fantasy Macabre liked the “blending of legend and impending doom,” but Shadows wondered if the legend is “really necessary at all” because it “telegraphed” the ending. The part about telegraphing the ending may be true for some readers, but I know of one reader who was so startled by the ending that she threw the book across the room.

Also:

  • My novel In Human Form excited an agent enough that she suggested some rewrites and then offered to represent it [didn’t sell, unfortunately], while the same novel “didn’t grab” other agents.
  • One of my screenplays was optioned recently  [see the News page]. It had been shopped around quite a bit and even received a page-and-a-half critique from the story editor at NBC. One of his concerns was that the dialogue was “somewhat archaic,” which was true, but I had a reason for it, and the screenplay was readable and the dialogue was sayable (yes, I know that’s not a word) and moved the story along, so I didn’t change a word.

The point of all this is that editors are just readers, and stories strike every reader differently. As I hope I’ve illustrated with these editorial comments, one editor may like something about a story while another may dismiss the same thing. It is nice to get editorial comments because they are a window into how others –  particularly, others who read stories for a living – view what you write.

But the best advice was given by the editor of Prairie Schooner in her comments on “Keeper of the Shrine:”  “. . . I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” If you have any questions about your work in view of an editor’s comment, take it back to your readers – and every writer should have a few readers he or she can trust to give honest feedback – and ask them if they think the the story might be improved if you followed the editor’s advice.

Some things you may choose to change, other things you may choose to leave alone. But take editorial comments in the spirit they are given: as one person’s reaction to your story. The next person’s reaction might be completely different.

Banned Books Week 2010 Begins Sept. 25; Plan to Celebrate

Banned Books Week 2010 begins Saturday Sept. 25 and runs through the following Saturday, Oct. 2. I encourage every reader and writer – every citizen, in fact – to celebrate because it gets to the heart of what the First Amendment is all about. To find local events, do a Google search for Banned Books Week in your area, like the events being planned by Indigo Bridge Books in my hometown.

According to BannedBooksWeek.org, “Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities . . . They object to profanity and slang, and they protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups – or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore contemporary issues and controversies to classic and beloved works of American literature.”

Click here to see a map of book bans and challenges in the US from 2007 to 2009.

To be clear about the terminology, “challenged” means that a book has been objected to, but when it goes before the school board or whoever is charged with considering the matter, it is not removed from the shelves. A “banned” book is one that has been challenged, and the powers-that-be have taken it upon themselves to decide that people should not be allowed to read it and have stripped it unceremoniously from whatever shelves said powers-that-be over have jurisdiction over.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I would be willing to bet that every work of literature – titles that you would instantly recognize – has been challenged or banned by some powers-that-be somewhere at some time for the sole reason that it’s impossible to please everyone.

Some books have been challenged for the silliest reasons. The Harry Potter series is repeatedly challenged because it supposedly  indoctrinates its readers in black magic. There are villains, to be sure, and these particular villains can do some seriously nasty things to their enemies. But the main characters are good people, and they celebrate Christmas, by God. But instead of fighting with their fists or guns as in western sagas, they use magic. It’s a fantasy, for crying out loud. The author, J.K. Rowling, has said she doesn’t know of a single ready who has said, “Oooo, I want to be a witch when I grow up!” (Although, I must admit, being able to point a wand and turn someone into a toad is somewhat appealing; I have a list.)

I’ll climb down of my soapbox now and mention that I’ve had a couple brushes with those who wish to make the world safe and bland by limiting our knowledge and oA Need to Kill, by Mark Pettitur imaginations. Can’t have us using our imaginations; that would be BAD. (Okay, so maybe my pant leg got caught on a nail protruding from my soapbox; I’ll pull it free and jump down now.)

One brush I had with the keepers of morality was A Need To Kill, by Mark Pettit, a true crime book about child killer John Joubert who terrorized Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s. I didn’t write this book, but I did some fairly heavy editing on it. A local group thought some of the descriptions were too graphic and tried to have it removed from the shelves of ShopKo. I don’t know if they every succeeded. I thought it was kind of cool that a book I’d been involved with was being challenged, and I never followed up on it. Challenging books may be a bad thing, but having a book challenged can be a guilty pleasure for its writer; it’s like earning a merit badge, like having arrived, because he or she is in the company of giants (not real ones, lest some group should challenge this blog post; when I say giants, I mean writers of literary stature).

The other book that ran into some difficulty was October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, a collection of horror stories by various authOctober Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Masonors, which Jeff Mason and I edited. I don’t know if it was formally challenged or banned anywhere, but there were a few indicators that some people were displeased with it:

  • A local radio station was excited to do an interview – until they actually read the book, and then we never heard from them.
  • One lady returned the two copies she’d bought, along with a letter admonishing me for the colorful language used in some of the stories and expressing her hope that the next book we published would be more wholesome.
  • One of my former co-workers was convinced that I was possessed by the devil.

Anyway, find some Banned Book Week events in your area and celebrate. For more information about BBW, check out the American Library Association’s Website.

Writing Fiction: Be True to Your Inner Voice

On most magazines’ Submission Guidelines page, the editor suggests reading a few issues to see what type of stories they publish. While it’s a good idea to be familiar with the magazine to which you’re submitting, sometimes this can be taken too far.

I’m talking about slanting a story to fit a magazine, an editor, or an audience. Early in my writing career I read lots of articles about how to slant stories to fill editorial needs. Many of them suggested dissecting a magazine, taking note of such things as:

  • Preference for male or female characters
  • Age of characters
  • Genre of fiction preferred
  • Profession of characters
  • Length of stories, etc.

Many even suggested taking notes on the percentage of the  magazine devoted to advertising, and what kind of products are advertised. A writer of one of those how-to-slant articles told about how he dissected Good Housekeeping in this way, wrote a story for the magazine, and they bought it.

But I am reminded of the late Richard McKenna, author of The Sand Pebbles. When he was trying to break into print, he decided that he wanted to write for the Saturday Evening Post. He analyzed several copies and started submitting stories. The Post rejected the stories, so he sent them to other magazines. On rejecting the stories, those editors included notes that were a variation of this: “This is so much like a Post story, we wonder that you haven’t tried them.”

As you probably have gathered by now, I’m not a big fan of slanting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to know a publication well enough so you don’t send a western to a mystery magazine or a science fiction story to a woman’s magazine (unless you know that the woman’s magazine publishes SF). And you do need to take certain things into consideration – don’t send a woman’s romance to a man’s magazine, for instance – but those things are easy enough to see; no heavy analysis required.

One of my objections to slanting is illustrated by the Richard McKenna story. No matter how well you slant a story to a particular magazine, its acceptance is not guaranteed.  There are lots of reasons editors reject stories, and “not being right for us” is only one of them. If your story is rejected you’ll have to substantially revise it before you submit it to the next editor, and the one after that, and the one after that … And that’s a lot of work. It’s also not being true to yourself or your craft.

Which brings me to the most important reason for not slanting – if I jump through hoops to write a story for an editor, I’m ignoring my inner voice, which is screaming: “No! No! That doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to write it this way.” Stories can often be written several ways, but a few of those ways are better than others. You must trust your instinct. The way you write your story must come out of you; it must not come out of an attempt to make it acceptable to a particular editor.

That’s a tough way to go because it may mean that a lot of what you write is not what other writers are writing, so you may collect more than a few rejection slips. But it is how you write your best fiction, by being true to yourself.

Ray Bradbury had an awful time breaking into print. One of the reasons is that he wrote stories his way, which was not the way many editors wanted them. He succeeded because he was a disciplined and prolific writer (he wrote a story a week), and he started selling a story here and there. Soon he developed a following, and readers – and editors – looked for his work. Many of the other pulp writers of the Forties have long since been forgotten, but we remember Bradbury and other writers who were true to their inner voices.

Think of the best stories you’ve ever read. How many of them are standard, run-of-the-mill stuff? I would be willing to bet the stories that stick in your mind have a fresh, a different perspective. And that can only happen when the author is true to himself or herself.

So my advice is to write first, then find a market for what you write. Remain true to your inner voice, and you will be published, and you will write lasting work.

Structuring Your Novel: Lessons from Screenwriting

About fifteen years ago I decided to write a screenplay, mainly because I’d never written one before, and it was a new challenge. I immediately set about learning everything I could about writing screenplays. Over the next few years I wrote three screenplays and one teleplay, for The X-Files (I wrote it  for the America’s Best contest; I wrote it for the challenge and never expected to get it produced ).

None of the screenplays has yet been produced (although I’m currently in contract negotiations for one of them), but they’ve been read by a variety of producers including the NBC story department, Amblin Entertainment, and George Romero (producer of Night of the Living Dead)–Romero wasn’t able to use the screenplay in question, but he passed it on to New Line Cinema. Two of them were quarter finalists in the America’s Best contest (one of those was my X-Files script).

One thing I took away from my brief stint in screenwriting was a better knowledge of how to structure my novels. It’s called the three-act structure. Most published novelists probably use the three-act structure, but at that time–even though I’d written two novels, both unpublished–I hadn’t been aware of it. I simply tried to write novels like the ones I liked to read. I realized that my novels would have been a lot sharper had I known about the three-act structure when I wrote them.

To structure your novel in three acts, draw a line and divide it into fourths. The first 1/4th is the first act, the second 2/4ths is the second act, and the final 1/4th is the third act.

In the first act introduce the characters and set up the story. In the second act develop the story as your protagonist struggles toward his or her goal. In the third act the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion (or, if you prefer, the hero’s showdown with the villain).

The crucial turning points (there are others, but these are the biggies) are at the end of the first act and at the end of the second. Each turning point commits your protagonist to an unavoidable course of action.

For example, in the film Salt, Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who is ready to leave the office when she’s called in to interrogate a Russian spy who insinuates that she also is Russian Spy. This is the first turning point. Instead of going home, Salt must escape the building and evade her pursuers while she tries to find the truth; her life has been changed, and she is committed to this course of action.  The second turning point is when Salt discovers that there is another mole in the CIA and is thrust into a final confrontation with him/her. (Since this is a current movie, I’m doing my best to be vague, and even fudge on some of the details, so as not to spoil the film for any of you who haven’t seen it).

The protagonist winning or losing comes at the climax, after which is the resolution. The resolution ties up loose ends, but make it as brief as you can. If you end the story with the climax, the reader feels like Wylie Coyote–falling off a cliff and smacking face-first into the ground, with an anvil falling on top of him. The resolution should give the reader some breathing time.

I won’t tell you the resolution of Salt; that would give too much away. An example of a resolution that is so long it becomes anticlimactic is Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. The novel is a great read; however, the book goes on for 40 pages beyond the end of the story. Unless you’re a history or a symbology geek, you could stop reading after they catch the bad guy (and they always do in Dan Brown novels, so I”m not giving anything away) and you wouldn’t miss any important story elements.

The second act can be tricky. You’ll notice that it consumes roughly one-half the length of the story. This is where–to put it in the simplest terms–the protagonist strives to reach his goal, but he runs into obstacles, then he has to try something else and have another go at it. Until the second turning point where something happens or something is revealed that pits him in a final battle with the antagonist/villain.

The best way for you to learn this basic structure is to apply it whenever you read a novel or see a movie. Ask yourself when the protagonist’s situation has radically changed, and you’ll have your first and second turning points. Also, watch how writers ease their readers out of their stories after the climax. Dan Brown, I love you, Dude, but don’t use The Lost Symbol as an example of how a story should end.

Net Neutrality: Keeping the Internet Free

I try to avoid politics on this blog, but occasionally I make an exception when it’s a topic of vital importance to writers. The Google-Verizon deal is one of those topics.

In a nutshell, Verizon is agreeing to give Google priority on its systems over all other Internet traffic. According to the New York Times, the agreement  “could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.”

If other corporate giants hammer out similar deals–and the Verizon-Google contract is all the precedent they need–it would be the death knell of Net (network) Neutrality. Net Neutrality means that all Websites are treated equally. No Website–from Google with all of its ramifications down to Uncle Joe’s blog on wheat grass–is deemed more important than any other; the users determine the importance of any particular Website.

According to savetheinternet.com: “The consequences of a world without Net Neutrality would be devastating. Innovation would be stifled, competition limited, and access to information restricted. Consumer choice and the free market would be sacrificed to the interests of a few corporations.”

Josh Silver, President of Free Press, writes in Huffington Post that “the [Verizon-Google] deal marks the beginning of the end of the Internet as you know it.” Later in the same article Silver says:

“A non-neutral Internet means that companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Google can turn the Net into cable TV and pick winners and losers online … Ending Net Neutrality would end the revolutionary potential that any website can act as a television or radio network. It would spell the end of our opportunity to wrest access and distribution of media content away from the handful of massive media corporations that currently control the television and radio dial.”

In a New York Times article Edward Wyatt writes:

“Cable and telephone companies want free rein to sell specialized services like ‘paid prioritization,’ which would speed some content to users more quickly for a fee. Wireless companies, meanwhile, want no restrictions on wireless broadband, which they see as a different technology than Internet service over wires.”

If you think this is all abstract and may not affect you,  let’s bring it a little closer to home. Are you a Twitter or Facebook user? If Net Neutrality goes, those applications most-likely would go as well; Google has similar products which would be given priority. Do you blog on WordPress? Google has Blogger, which would elbow out WordPress.

Why is Net Neutrality in danger? According to Silver: “We have a pro-industry FCC Chairman who is terrified of making a decision …  a president who promised to ‘take a back seat to no one on Net Neutrality’ yet remains silent …  a congress that is nearly completely captured by industry.”

Net Neutrality has been called “the first amendment issue of this generation.” It must be protected.

Every writer, reader, and Internet user has a stake in Net Neutrality. For more information and to find out what you can do to make a difference, read the complete New York Times and Josh Silver articles and visit savetheinternet.com.

Images From A Writing Retreat

From July 16 to 18 I participated in the Nebraska Writers Guild’s annual retreat, Write Across Nebraska (WAN). This year a retreat was held in three locations: Valentine, Grand Island, and Schuyler. I was one of 20 who attended the Schuyler retreat (or the Eastern WAN), which is in the northeastern part of the state, about 68 miles from Lincoln.

The retreat was held at the Saint Benedict Center, a non-profit retreat and conference center, which was established by the Missionary Benedictines of Christ the King Priory. It is primarily used for religious retreats but other groups are welcome.  The mission, which was established in 1934, is built into the side of a hill across the road.

The Center–which is about four miles north of Schuyler–resembles Lincoln’s Southeast Community college but with religious imagery and stained glass windows. There is a lake with a fountain and a statue of St. Benedict in it, benches and tables outside, and a walking path around the lake. Meals were served buffet-style in the cafeteria from 7:30-8:15 a.m., 12:15-1:00 p.m., and 6:15-7:00 p.m., although there was a refreshment area where guests could get coffee and other drinks all day.

There was little to distract us from our writing–no TV or telephones in the rooms, and because of the Center’s location in the hills wireless phone reception was almost impossible from inside the building (although some fellow writers reported being able to make calls from outside). I managed to send a few text messages from my room but that was it.

We didn’t write all weekend. Saturday morning Sally Walker, President of the Guild, and Connie Crow, the Guild’s Secretary, each led a class. I think most of us attended. I’ve been writing for a while (no, I won’t tell you how long, but if you’re motivated you could figure it out by looking at the bibliography on my Website) but I always learn something new from every class I attend, and last weekend was no exception.

Saturday night we had a reading. Everyone who wanted to could read from his or her work-in-progress. Readings ranged from poetry, to memoir, to song lyrics, to fiction. All of it showcased the wide range of talent in the Nebraska Writers Guild. I read approximately the first 750 words of my young adult dystopian novel, working title: Beyond the Wall. It was the first time I read from that novel anywhere.

The rest of the time we spent writing. I wrote 2,310 words more on Beyond the Wall, which actually was toward the lower end of production; some writers wrote several thousand words. But I have an excuse. I wrote in longhand (well, actually I printed because I wanted to be able to read it later), and I don’t write my first drafts at white heat; I am constantly rewriting and revising as I go.

Checkout time was 10:00 a.m. Sunday, but we had the conference room (where we held the classes and the readings) all day. So after we checked out, some of us congregated in the common room for a little final writing.

In all, the retreat was a relaxing and productive experience. If you have an opportunity I encourage you to attend one.

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What the Movies Would be like Without Writers

It has been said–or at least implied–that on Hollywood’s ladder of respect, the screenwriter is one rung below the janitor who cleans the studio. This short video, to paraphrase the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, will give writers a rare gift, a chance to see what the movies would be like without them.

Unconscious Writing: Putting the Subconscious to Work

There are two schools of thought about how writers write:

  • Some writers write complete, detailed scene plans before they put down a single word of first draft; they believe that they are  consciously in charge of every idea and every plot twist in their stories.
  • Others believe that a large part of their work rises up from the subconscious.

I’m a subconscious writer. I believe in letting my subconscious take an active part in my storytelling. This was not always so.

When I first started writing I thought I had total control of my stories. A story I wrote called Be a Man changed all of that. It was a simple story, I thought, about a kid who has an unpleasant experience in swimming class and becomes disillusioned about his teacher. I gave it to one of my former English professors, Bob Bergstrom, to read.

When Bob gave me his critique he launched into an in-depth analysis of the character and what was really happening in the story. I was shocked. I admitted that everything he said was true, but I hadn’t realized it was there. That was a lot of stuff to pack into a 2,300-word story.

I forget how long the idea for Be a Man gestated–tumbled around in my mind–before I put it down on paper. But I do remember that it was about two from idea to writing of Two Coffees. I was at Godfather’s Pizza with a friend. She indicated a table not to far from us and told me about the dude who she’d see when she was in with some of her friends the other night. He’d ordered four glasses of beer, set one in front of himself and the others around the table. Then he proceeded to carry on a conversation with the invisible buddies who, apparently, possessed the other three beers.

As you can see from the story a lot changed from conception to execution. This 900-word story is on my Website because it’s my favorite, particularly because my subconscious was deeply involved in the writing. I discovered this on re-reading the story a few years after I wrote it. I submitted the story three times, and it has been published twice–excluding its online publications.

I believe that even writers who believe in strictly outlining and scene-planning everything are influenced by their unconscious minds whether they know it–or like it–or not. But I don’t think they take full advantage of the powers of their subconscious.

The subconscious needs time to work. It cannot be forced, but it can be nudged. Here are some ways to nudge it:

  • If you’re working on a story problem, sleep on it. Turn it over in your mind, and your subconscious will work on while you’re sleeping.
  • Take a break, sometimes a long break. Your subconscious will continue working even while you are awake, engaged in other activities.
  • Be patient.

How do you know your subconscious is working? Because suddenly, out of nowhere, an idea will pop into your mind, and often it will be better than what you had been thinking of.

The patience part is the most annoying to me because things may not come together as quickly as I’d like, but when the ideas do come they are inevitably much cooler than if I had wracked my conscious mind for solutions. For example, I’m working on a young adult dystopian novel with the working title of Beyond the Wall. The story has changed dramatically in the last couple of months, so dramatically that the title will definitely have to be changed because the wall probably will not exist in a physical sense.

This also is why I have several projects going at the same time; if I need to prime my subconscious to work on one story, I switch to another while my subconscious takes its own sweet time, and I check back regularly to see if some new ideas are coming. I don’t have any trouble switching back and forth between projects. It’s not a bad ability for a writer  to try to develop.

I have always wanted to write a novel or short story fast, in white heat, like some writers (in his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he writes the first draft of every novel, no matter how long, in three months). That would be seriously cool. I’ve tried it on many occasions, but all I succeeded in doing was creating extra work for the garbage collector (or these days, to be politically correct, the recycling dudes).

If that works for you, great. But if you find yourself constantly getting stuck on story problems, instead of whacking at your conscious mind with a sledge-hammer, try gently consigning the challenges to your subconscious for a few days.

Writing Short Stories Teaches Discipline

During the first decade of my writing career I wrote short stories as if I had a patent on the form, about 200 of them, and that’s only the ones I have a record of. There were many more that I deemed unworthy of being submitted and took a direct route to obscurity–the trash can.

After that fairly prolific period, I moved into other areas, and my short story writing slowed to a trickle. I wrote two novels (unpublished), three screenplays (not produced), started a publishing company (published five books), and finally became a photojournalist (published more than 3 million words). When I again focused on fiction writing, I concentrated on the novel.

But the other day I came across an interview with a fellow named Stephen King, who is not only a prolific novelist but a prolific short story writer. King said that when writers concentrate too much on novels, they tend to lose interest in writing short fiction. I would add that the short story is a good laboratory for learning discipline.

Every story has a perfect length. College students often want to know how long their assignments are required to be. I had a writing teacher in college who, when asked what length a story must be, said “As long as it needs to be.” A story could be 1,000 words or 100,000 words, as long as it does what you intended it to do. That’s pretty much what King said.

If you are focusing only on novels, you may be missing lots of good ideas for shorter fiction.

For me there are a couple of obvious advantages, not in any particular order,  for writing novels over short fiction:

  • The pay is potentially better, and you will be paid a royalty per copy sold, whereas selling a short story to a magazine is a flat fee (although you may be able to pick up an occasional reprint fee if someone likes your tale well enough to include it in an anthology).
  • You can develop memorable characters in novels; this is the part I like–developing characters with depth and reading stories about characters with depth. In a 5,000-word short story this is an almost impossible task.
  • A novel may be easier to sell, and there are more markets for novels–although this is an arguable point.

Plenty of magazines (including some online mags) buy short stories. Start with Writer’s Digest, which publishes several Writer’s Market directories. You can even subscribe to Writer’s Market online. If you write in a particular category–science fiction, mystery/crime, literary, etc.–there are many magazines that publish those types of fiction. Glimmer Train is one magazine that not only pays well for fiction, but also has several contests each year.

Writing short fiction is more difficult  than writing novels.  You must focus on a single, defining event, and any wasted words or other mistakes will jump off the page. But for those of you who are starting out–and even for seasoned novel-writing pros–writing in the short form will teach you discipline.

In the past ten years I’ve written a total of three short stories, even though I’ve had plenty of ideas that I jotted down for future use. But  the Stephen King interview has inspired me to start writing some of those stories, although I certainly will not neglect my current novel.

To watch the Stephen King interview as well as comments from a couple of other prolific short story writers:

Stephen King

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Ray Bradbury

When You Should be Paid for Your Writing, and When it’s okay Not to be Paid

In the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, in a nearly three and a half minute segment–laced with, as Spock said in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, many “colorful metaphors”–writer Harlan Ellison rants that writers must be paid for everything they write. Everything.

In general, I agree with him. People–sometimes even editors, who should know better–undervalue writers. Isn’t there an old joke in Hollywood that when it comes to power and respect the screenwriter is one step below the janitor who cleans up the studio?

Back in the days when I was doing writing-for-hire work, a fellow wanted me to write his book, for which he magnanimously offered to pay me $100. To write the whole book. That’s one of the reasons I no longer seek writing-for-hire jobs.

Ellison scoffs at the idea of giving away his writing for publicity; publicity, he says, will not do him as much good as cold, hard cash. He’s probably right. Ellison has been writing for more than fifty years and has a respectable track record across several genres, including television. So the publicity value of working for free is negligible, but the cash would buy some groceries.

But for writers at certain stages in their careers, giving away freebies may be helpful. These stages include:

  • Beginners who are trying to become noticed.
  • Writers who are known locally or regionally and are trying to broaden their appeal.
  • Writers who are trying to create platforms, to brand themselves, to become known as an experts of particular subjects.
  • Writers who already have platforms but want to promote their expertise in other areas.

All of the above can be done most effectively on the Web where writers can create their own Websites and blogs, can be guest writers on other blogs, and can comment on blog posts they read. This is a seriously cool time to be a writer; creating a platform is much quicker and easier than before the advent of the Internet. The networking possibilities are virtually limitless.

As I wrote in an earlier post, one of the Four Steps to Building a Successful Writing Career is marketing. When I write for my blog or other blogs or post articles at other sites around the Web, I’m working in the marketing/PR area; the free work I do will eventually pay off in a growing audience for my work.  Writing is an art, and I would write even if I never made a dime, but when I move on to the production step, I’m writing fiction and nonfiction for which I eventually expect to be paid.

For another perspective on being paid for your writing see the blog of novelist Allison Winn Scotch.

Day Jobs of Famous Writers Before They Were Famous

Most writers have been faced with the challenge of making a living while waiting for that big break. Day jobs I’ve held included dishwasher, custodian, film processing lab technician, copy-editor, advertising copywriter, publisher, and print shop stripper (it’s nothing dirty; I “stripped” negatives into paper frames which were used to “burn” offset printing plates–with today’s direct-to-plate technology, printers may not even need strippers anymore).

Here’s a look at jobs held by a few famous writers before they were famous. Some of them eventually were able to write full-time, others never sold enough books and had to keep their day jobs, and others like Scott Turow (who continues to practice law) and John Grisham (who remains interested in politics and considered running for U.S. Senator from Virginia in 2006) maintain their non-writing career interests.

  • Dashiel Hammet: The author of hard-boiled detective stories and novels started out as a private detective. His first case?  To track down a thief who had stolen a Ferris Wheel.
  • John Grisham: Author of such legal thrillers as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, is an attorney who, from 1983 to 1990, served as a Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
  • Jack London: The author of White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and The Sea Wolf had a variety of experiences, including oyster pirate, gold prospector, and rail-riding hobo .
  • Langston Hughes: One of the first African American authors who was able to support himself by writing, he was, according to legend, discovered by poet Vachel Lindsay while working as a  busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Hughes had dropped his poems beside Lindsay’s plate. In his poetry reading Lindsay included several of Hughes’s poems, which resulted in journalists clamoring to interview the “busboy poet.”
  • William Carlos Williams: The poet and fiction writer was an excellent pediatrician and general practitioner, although he worked harder at his writing than he did at medicine.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: The American poet, philosopher, and essayist assisted his brother William in a school for young women they ran out of their mother’s house.  He later was a minister and lecturer.
  • Henry David Thoreau: He began as Emerson’s handyman, moved on to selling vegetables, returned to the family pencil business, was a tutor and a teacher.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: The author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables was a weighter and a gauger at the Boston Custom House, which housed government offices for processing paperwork for the import and export of goods. Later he was Surveyor for the districts  of Salem and Beverly as well as Inspector of Revenue for the Port of Salem. He also wrote a campaign biography of his friend, Franklin Pierce, in which he left out some key information, such as Pierce’s drinking.  On his election, Pierce rewarded Hawthorne with the position of United States consul in Liverpool.
  • Dan Brown: Before striking gold with Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol , he was a high school English teacher.
  • Zane Grey: Early 20th century author of such popular novels as Riders of the Purple Sage, he would eventually publish nearly 90 books and sell more than 50 million copies worldwide. After years of rejection, he sold his first book at age 40 and was able to give up his day job as a dentist, a job that he hated.
  • J. K. Rowling: After her daughter was born and she separated from her husband, the author of the Harry Potter series left her job in Portugal, where she taught English as a second language, and returned to school to study for her postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE) so she could teach in Scotland. She completed her first novel while on welfare.
  • Mary Higgins Clark: After graduating from high school, she was secretary to the head of the creative department in the internal advertising division of Remington-Rand, a business machines manufacturer. She took evening classes in advertising and promotion and was promoted to writing catalog copy–future novelist Joseph Heller was a coworker. She also modeled for company brochures with aspiring actress Grace Kelly. Her thirst for adventure led her to become a stewardess for Pan American Airlines where she was on the last flight allowed into Czechoslovakia before the Iron curtain cut off east from west.
  • Harlan Ellison: The man who would later distinguish himself as a preeminent speculative fiction and mystery writer held many jobs before he was 20 years old, including tuna fisherman, itinerant crop-picker, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver, short order cook, cab driver, lithographer, book salesman, department store floorwalker, and door-to-door brush salesman.
  • Scott Turow: The author of such best selling novels as Presumed Innocent and Reversible Errors, still practices law as a partner of the Chicago firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, although on most of his cases he works pro bono.
  • Nicholas Sparks: After graduating from college the author of such best sellers as The Notebook, Dear John, and The Last Song tried to find work in the publishing industry and applied to law school but had no luck in either area. So he embarked on other careers, including real estate appraisal, waiting tables, selling dental products by phone, and starting a manufacturing business.

This post is dedicated to my cousin, Unitarian minister and scholar Dr. Wesley Hromatko, who inspired me to look into the day jobs of some famous authors.

Signing in the Waldenbooks by Parnell Hall

In this video, mystery writer Parnell Hall takes a humorous look at many authors’ worst nightmare: showing up at their book signing, but nobody comes. Diehard writers–and country music fans–can’t help but chuckle.

Visit Parnell Hall’s Website.

Four Steps to Building a Successful Writing Career

For a business to succeed, four things are necessary:

  • Financing
  • Research and development
  • Production
  • Marketing

To build a successful writing career, you must use the same principles.

  1. Financing. What this means is: don’t quit your day job. You will need money to support yourself and your family while you are struggling to break in. The financing may come from your job, your spouse’s job, a trust fund, or the lottery, but it must be there until you’ve established yourself. A WORD OF CAUTION: Don’t quit your job as soon as you get an advance for a novel, unless it”s for a million bucks or so; a first novel usually won’t bring an advance anywhere near that, but it’s not unheard of (i.e.-Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook).
  2. Research and Development. Applied to novel writing, R & D is thinking up story ideas and developing plots and characters. Many success gurus recommend setting aside an hour a day to think about how to improve your work. Lots of writers use this method to plan stories. Sit at your computer or with a notebook and write down everything that comes into your head about the story you’re working on. Everything. There will be lots of garbage, but you can eliminate that later. For that hour, don’t reject anything. Write it all down.
  3. Production. Writing the novel. Sit at the keyboard and type and revise and polish your manuscript. Although some writers claim that you’ll know your novel is finished when you’ve revised it so much you’re sick of it, I maintain that you will know when it’s completed, and you won’t be sick of it. There’s a thin line between doing the best you can and being a perfectionist; at some point you must let go. Perfectionism may seem like a good thing, but it’s not. Perfectionism can stall a budding career because the writer is trying to make his or her novel perfect, and that is impossible. You’ll only be tinkering with it–tinkering that won’t make any difference in the long run–when you could be trying to sell it. You must sharpen your ability to sense when you have crossed the border from revising to tinkering. After all that work, you’ll be too close to your novel and your judgment may be impaired. Send out 10 queries, and if you get 10 rejections, your manuscript will have cooled off enough for you to take another look at it (also take another look at the query letter; that could be the problem, not the story).
  4. Marketing. Send out queries. Send them out to 10 or more agents at a time. If you have a good story and have written a good query, chances are good a few of the agents will ask for partials or the complete manuscript. If none of the first 10 agents offers representation, send out 10 more queries–possibly rewriting the query slightly. Repeat this process until you sell your novel. Don’t dash off your query; take your time, make it as good as you possibly can. A query that grabs an agent’s attention may be all that stands between your novel being published  or being shoved to the back of your closet where it gathers dust. For some good insight into writing queries, go to agent Kristen Nelson’s blog and scroll down the right side of the screen for everything you need to know about submitting to agents.

For your writing career to prosper you must not neglect any of these areas. And don’t stop. After you’ve gone through the process with one novel, begin again with another. Keep repeating the process. And never give up. The first novel you write probably will not be the one that is published.

To see how one best selling author did it, read Nicholas Sparks’ account of how he found an agent and a publisher for The Notebook.

One Writer’s Process for Writing a Novel

I’m at the end of what, to me, is the most annoying part of the writing process: planning the story.

When I started writing, I wrote short stories, tons of them. My process of writing a short story is much like Ray Bradbury’s. Bradbury said: “My stories run up and bite me on the leg–I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.”

A novel is a different beast. It is generally 50,000 to 100,000 words. Most of us couldn’t write one of them in an afternoon. Not even the prolific writer Isaac Asimov managed that. The story tension must be maintained throughout. There are usually many characters that must be kept straight and a few subplots that must interact in just the right ways.

Unlike a short story, which grabs my leg and hangs on until I write it down, a novel to me is more like hit and run. Then I have to catch it and wrestle it to the ground and try to tame it. At first, I have fun thinking of the possibilities. But as I get down to specifics the irritation sets in.

This is the period during which passersby accuse me of sitting around doing nothing or even sleeping. Well, sometimes I am sleeping, but sleeping is the best time to work on your story. It really is. You prime the pump, so to speak, by thinking hard about your story, then you drift off to sleep and let your subconscious do the work. You’d be surprised what kinds of revelations pop into your mind the next time you’re working on your story–while you’re awake, I mean.

Sometimes during the planning process I get a lot figured out. Sometimes not. That’s when I get impatient and start writing. I’ve never been good at just starting to write and letting the story flow–unless I have a solid idea of what the story’s about. If I don’t have the characters and their purpose in the story well delineated, if I don’t have a solid conflict, if I don’t have some idea of where I’m going, I usually wind up with hundreds of pages of junk.

When I wrote my second novel (which, alas, still is unpublished) it took me six months to get it started. I wrote, then threw away what I had written and started over. I did this several times. I’m not alone in using this method. Mark Twain wrote 400 pages of Huckleberry Finn, then tossed it and began again.

NOTE: I don’t mention my first novel simply because it was so bad that the garbage collector refused to touch it–he suggested I call the hazardous waste people.

I’ve been working on my current novel, a young adult dystopian story, for weeks (all right, months), and I still haven’t quite got it figured out. I have, however, just written a clear, concise paragraph in which my heroine states precisely what she wants and the major obstacle standing in her way of reaching her goal.

The paragraph has a character, a setting, a conflict, and a nemesis–although we don’t know from reading the paragraph that one of the other characters mentioned is the nemesis. That’s a surprise I’m saving for later.

Although I usually see a short story in its entirety and follow a familiar path to a foreseen conclusion, I usually begin my longer works without knowing what’s going to happen along the way. Sometimes I know how they will end, but sometimes I don’t. This is one of those times.

A famous sculptor, I forget who, said that he sees his finished work in a block of stone. He just chips away everything that isn’t part of his final sculpture. I look at writing the same way: the story is there, the writer just has to reveal it.

I’m ready to start the next phase, the less annoying phase, and start expanding on the paragraph. I’m ready to start revealing my story. I have a heroine and a nemesis, a setting, and a conflict. I want to find out what’s going to happen to these characters. My typing fingers are itching.

That’s a sketch of my writing process. What is your process?

Why You Need An Agent

Do you really need a literary agent to sell your novel?

Probably not; however, you should have one. The reason is simple–writers write. If writers also try to sell their work and handle the business deals, they have less time to write.

There are several reasons you should stick to writing and let the agents handle the sales and business deals:

  • Selling a manuscript is a specialized skill. You would have to  do extensive research on the types of fiction publishers are buying and which editors are reading which categories of fiction. And you’d have to keep up-to-date–editors move around, and their needs change.
  • Agents have made contacts in the publishing industry–doing the research and keeping up-to-date is their job.
  • Agents can often get your work read more quickly than you can if you submit it yourself; the editor may not know you, but he knows the agent and trusts her judgment, so he’s more likely to put your novel on the front burner.
  • Agents sometimes can set up an auction situation where several publishers bid on a manuscript; this would be difficult, if not impossible, for an unknown writer to do himself.
  • Agents know the ins and outs of contracts. They try to get their clients the best deals they can and hold on to subsidiary rights (film, TV, foreign, etc.)–the inexperienced author might inadvertently sign away some of these rights to the publisher. Being able to navigate contracts is more important than ever now that  eBooks are at the center of a controversy about what royalties should be paid, how earnings should be reported, and the rights that will be retained by the author or sold to the publisher.
  • Agents interpret the royalty statements, which can be a pain if you’re not familiar with publishers’ accounting procedures.

It’s not as difficult to get an agent as you might think. Do the following two things, and you should be able to find one :

  • Write a good novel, one that people will want to read.
  • Write a good query letter, one that will inspire the agent to ask for a partial or the complete manuscript.

To write a good novel, there is no substitute for practice, lots of practice. An excellent guide to writing a novel that people will want to read is literary agent Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and its companion, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Those books not only have good information on how to write a novel that people will want to read, but they also offer some insight into what agents and publishers look for in a manuscript.

To write a good query letter, here are a few things to remember:

  • Keep your letter to one page.
  • Try to make a connection with the agent. Keep it brief, like “I met you at such and such conference.” If you haven’t met or corresponded with the agent, do some research about her to see if there is something you can work in, such as a similarity between your novel and another she has represented. But don’t try to force a connection; if you don’t have one it’s better not to say anything. Say something like, “I’ve just completed an 85,000-word literary novel entitled [you novel’s title].”
  • The next paragraph should be your “hook,” a one-line summary of your novel’s conflict, what makes it unique. Then write a few sentences expanding on the hook. Include the main characters and the setting.
  • Next write a short paragraph about you. Keep it short. If you’ve had fiction published, mention it. If you have some special knowledge or experience that is relevant to your novel, put that down. If you’re a beginner with no published works or special experience, leave this part out. It won’t hurt you. The agent probably will have decided to ask for a partial on the basis of your hook and description. If he has decided not to ask for a partial, he probably won’t finish reading the query.
  • End by asking the agent if she would like to see the complete manuscript, and thank her for taking the time to read your letter. Very important. Don’t leave that last part out, the thanking her part. The agent will then ask for a partial, the complete manuscript, or will pass on your novel.

It’s okay to send queries to several agents simultaneously. Most agents expect this, but if you receive an offer of representation it is common courtesy to inform the other agents to whom you have submitted.

It’s as important to craft your query letter as carefully as you crafted your novel. The query is your main sales tool; too many writers spend most of their time an energy writing their novels, then dash off a slipshod query and expect agents to be trampling one another to get their hands on what is surely to be a hot best seller.

I’ve only sketched in the process finding an agent. For for information in much more depth, check out Guide To Literary Agents and Pub Rants. Not only do those two Websites tell you how to do it, they give you samples of queries that worked. Also, do some Web surfing yourself. You’ll find more information on writing queries than you’ll need.

Happy writing!

Rejections of Famous Authors Before they were Famous

I heard a speaker at a writing conference remark recently that many talented writers remain unpublished while the works of many marginal or bad writers find their way into print. Writers who keep sending their work out will eventually be published.

Among the rejection slips I’ve  received, my favorite was from a science fiction anthology: a full-page drawing of a dragon dabbing at his eyes with a kleenex as its tears flowed down.  It was much funnier than these meager words can describe. I once showed it to a friend, also a science fiction writer, who didn’t find it quite as amusing. It’s a matter of attitude; I couldn’t do anything about the rejection, and it was a change of pace from the usual, uninspired  form letter.

If you have trouble staying motivated in the face of an expanding  file of rejections, perhaps this list of the receptions of some famous authors and their work will help.

  • Crash by J.G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
  • Dr. Seuss: “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
  • Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway: “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish this.”
  • The San Francisco Examiner, rejecting Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
  • Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh: “A long, dull novel about an artist.” Sixteen publishers rejected the novel. When it finally saw print it sold more than 25 million copies.
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback.” The novel eventually sold to Avon Books and racked up sales of more than 7.25 million copies.
  • Tony Hillerman, best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels was advised by publishers to “Get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells: “An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would ‘take’ … I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.'”
  • Although Emily Dickinson published only seven poems in her lifetime, an early rejection advised her: “(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
  • So many publishers rejected The Tale of Peter Rabbit that Beatrix Potter published it herself.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
  • One publisher to another  on John le  Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: “You’re welcome to le Carre–he hasn’t got any future.”
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel: “We are very impressed with the depth and scope of your research and the quality of your prose. Nevertheless … we don’t think we could distribute enough copies to satisfy you or ourselves.”
  • The Deer Park by Norman Mailer: “This will set publishing back 25 years.”
  • Carrie by Stephen King: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

And my favorite:

  • Sanctuary by William Faulkner: “Good God, I can’t publish this!”

Fiction editing is a subjective process. There will always be editors who think your writing is crap, but there are also editors who will be enthusiastic about it. You just have to find them. And the only way to find them is to keep sending out your work.

Researching Your Stories: Write What You Know, Even When You Haven’t Experienced It

“I disagree with the advice ‘Write about what you know.’ Write about what you need to know, in an effort to understand.” – Donald Windham

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably been advised once or twice by a well-meaning writing teacher or Beta Reader, to write about what you know. Usually they mean to write about things you’ve experienced. While it is good to write what you know, you don’t have to experience it to know it.

When I was attending the University of Nebraska I knew a science fiction writer named Cindy who’d had two stories published in Analog. One of those stories had been critiqued by a writing Professor from whom I was currently taking a class. The Professor had admonished her to “write what she knows,” and apparently he was skeptical that an alternate reality was something that Cindy understood. That story went on to become her first published fiction.

Although some writers have  written excellent fiction that has grown out of their experiences, for most of us there is research. The research can range from a little to extensive.

While in college, I wrote a story for a writing workshop about a custodian cleaning the morgue during the graveyard shift. He has a habit of drinking on the job and is a little tipsy, so he believes that one of the bodies dropped off for an early morning autopsy is really alive but is in a coma. I had never been in a morgue so I called Lincoln General Hospital and asked if I could come over and take a look. A nice fellow showed me around the morgue (the first thing I learned is they didn’t like to call it the morgue; on the door was a sign that said “Clinical Evaluation”), and I went home and wrote the story.

It turned out that one of my classmates actually had been a custodian on the graveyard shift at Lincoln General. He thought I’d worked there at one time myself. When I told him I’d just done research, he said I’d nailed it. He asked if they still had that barrel of brains … I said no, just the jars containing bits of organs in the closet.

“Clinical Evaluation” became my first published story, appearing in Pig Iron Press’s 1983 anthology The New Surrealists.

Arthur Hailey was an example of a writer whose backgrounds were almost entirely researched. The author of such bestselling novels as Airport, Hotel, and The Moneychangers, Hailey would choose an industry, spend months researching it in-depth, and then set a story in that industry.

Although Hailey was a pilot, he didn’t have much personal experience (and most of the time he had no personal experience) of the things about which he wrote. But no one could ever accuse Arthur Hailey of writing about things he did not know.

Whatever you write about you can fill in the parts you don’t know with research. Sometimes what you haven’t experienced can be a major part of the story.

When you research, use “live” rather than “dead” sources as much as you can, or as much as you need to. A dead source is anything you find in a book, magazine article, a document, online, or any other place it is written down or recorded. A live source is when you get your information by talking to people who have had the experience you’re writing about. In the examples above, Cindy used dead sources–and her imagination–to get her science fiction story right; Arthur Hailey and I used live sources for our research.

Use “live” sources whenever you can because they’ll be able to tell you things you usually won’t find in books. You’ll be able to ask them questions that will help give your story the touch of verisimilitude that it needs. For instance, you’ll be able to ask a person who grew up in New York City what it feels like to window shop on  Sunday morning, what the traffic’s like at that time, and how many pedestrians are out.

You probably would search long and hard for that information in a book, and you may not be able to find precisely what you want by surfing the Web.

The Internet, however, is a good tool to use for contacting “live” sources around the world and getting almost instantaneous answers. For example, the Australian writer Steph Bowe–whose first novel, Girl Saves Boy, will be published in Australia this September and the summer of 2011 in the U.S.–recently posed several questions to her American followers on Twitter about how an American character would react in certain situations.

Make sure that your research is thorough. Dean Koontz is another example of a writer who does extensive research. He cautions writers to be sure to get the tiniest details right–for one of his novels he had to find out the color of taxicabs in a certain Japanese city.

Don’t assume that you know something; find out. I thought the slang “blow away” was descriptive of what happens when someone gets shot; the force of the bullet knocks the victim over. Then I researched it for a novel I was writing. As it turns out you’d have to use a pretty big gun for that to happen. I mean a seriously big gun. If you shot someone with a .357 Magnum or a shotgun, for instance, he would just drop like a sack of potatoes, not go flying off his feet like he did in one movie that shall remain nameless.

That’s the sort of thing that somebody, somewhere will know, and it’s annoying to be at a book signing and–to paraphrase Ray Bradbury–have one of your readers say, “Dude, on page 227 where Joe gets shot and it flings him over the back of the couch …” and you say, “Yeah,” and he says, “Nah.”

So write what you know, but you don’t have to personally experience it to know it. You know what I mean?

Voice in Fiction: What it is and How to Develop it

Voice is important to a piece of writing. Most agents will tell you that voice is a key factor in whether they accept or reject a novel. Hearing that sends many new writers into a panic–OMG, what is a voice, and how do I develop one?

I can’t give you much advice on voice, other than to assure you that you have one.

Voice is, simply, how you write. Some folks might call it your style. Your voice will develop as you learn to write. Your main literary influences will have some input into your voice. You will borrow things from them but you won’t copy them—or you shouldn’t; that would end in disaster. But you will meld these influences into your own style, your own voice.

For example, my major influences when I started writing were Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway. I got my love for creating imagery from Bradbury and Steinbeck, and I strive to keep my prose simple like Hemingway. I borrowed dialogue techniques and narrative techniques from all three.

But I didn’t copy those dudes. My imagery is down to earth (more like Steinbeck than Bradbury, whose imagery gets a little flowery at times), and I tend to mix longer sentences into my prose than Hemingway. The result was my own style, my own voice, that was different from my literary mentors.

Since then I’ve learned from lots of other writers. I learn something from almost every good novel or short story I read. I even learn from the bad ones (i.e.—don’t use that technique or the story might stink to high heaven).

Your voice doesn’t have to stand out like Bradbury’s. It may be more subtle, but it will develop and become more distinctive the more you write.

One thing I do know about voice is that you can’t consciously develop it. If you try to create a voice you will meet with a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. Your writing will sound phony, and that’s a bad thing if you’re trying to get your work published.

The best advice I can give you concerning voice is: don’t worry about it. Work on your craft, write the kinds of stories you like to read, and your voice will take care of itself.

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