Arithmetic for writers, part 2: publishing equations

numbers

Silk’s Post #88 — Confession time. I have read much about, listened to experts on, contemplated, discussed and agonized over the lifeblood topic of getting published (a.k.a. what’s supposed to happen after your book is written). Nevertheless, if I had to take an exam on the subject, I’d flunk the course.

It’s complicated. The traditional versus the independent (self-published) routes. The large and small publishing houses, the agents, the editors, the book doctors, the vanity presses, the e-books, the online marketing channels, the promotion. All of it doesn’t sound like much fun, frankly. So I’ve been putting off any truly serious study of this topic on the theory that I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an account by a writer whose digital publishing dream turned into something of a nightmare. It finally pushed me out of my warm, feather-lined, fledgling writer’s nest and into the wild blue yonder called Today’s Publishing Reality.

So, reluctantly, I started flapping – in preference to going splat on the ground before I even have a manuscript ready for publishing consideration. That day will come. I’d like to have at least a rudimentary flight plan before it does.

The digitally disappointed writer is journalist and successful book author Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic and other non-fiction titles), and his plaint, “I Was a Digital Bestseller”, was published in the NY Times op-ed pages this month. Okay, don’t get too freaked out. There are a lot of caveats, buts, qualifications and exceptions to this story as it might apply to you and me, the unpublished novelists of the world. First, his book on the Keystone Pipeline titled Boom was a topical, long-form journalistic work, not a novel. Second, after all sorts of disappointing complications such as his digital publisher going belly up, he still managed to get paid $15,000 to write itI assume he also got paid something by the NY Times to write about writing it. I know. What’s he whining about?

For me, the point was that an experienced, “name brand”, published author (with an agent, even) found himself lost in space when it came to the realities – the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls – of today’s increasingly complex and fragmented publishing industry. What does that mean for a nameless little baby chick like me? Or maybe you?

So after being shook up by one author who has sworn off publishing e-books and has resumed his love affair with traditional print and traditional publishers, I checked out the other side of the story. You can too in the blog post by author Brenna Aubrey, “Why I Turned Down a Three-Book New York Print Deal to Self-Publish”, which makes a compelling argument for just the opposite. How to judge who’s right, if either?

So I started doing some basic research, and of course quickly got lost in a thicket of information and perspectives. Paula, our 5writers Research Queen, initially came to my rescue with an excellent report on the website Author Earnings by Hugh Howey, titled “The 7k Report”, which neatly sorts through a ton of data regarding the financial side of various publishing channels (Independent, Amazon, Small-Medium Publishers, Big 5 Publishers, Single Author Publishers). The report’s conclusions favour Indie publishing over other routes, in terms of benefits to authors.

But the eyebrow-raising numbers, including the apparent explosion in the number of published authors and books – now that just about anyone can do it for themselves – only served to raise more questions for me. Like: how many books really are published every year? How many authors are out there? How many of them make a living at it? What are the chances of “making it” and what factors really differentiate those who do from those who don’t?

The first thing I discovered is that “official” numbers, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are useless. Writers of novels are grouped in with a whole bunch of other kinds of writers, including advertising copywriters. Also, such counts are based on people’s self-reported primary jobs, so everyone who isn’t a full-time writer who makes their primary income from writing (but may have published some novels, or perhaps has secreted 27 unpublished manuscripts under the bed) likely doesn’t get counted.

The second thing I discovered is that in seeking the answers these questions, I was travelling down a well-worn path. What one might guess would be easily obtainable facts turned out to be quite hard to nail down. And many have tried. For a highly entertaining account of one Austin, TX writer’s rigorous pursuit of the answer to the question “How Many Novelists are at Work in America?”, see Dominic Smith’s terrific essay on the website The Millions.

But what of the writer’s chances of success? Are there no statistics that can shed some light on that burning question? Again, yes … and no. Novelist and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist William Dietrich took a stab at this in his essay on Huffington Post titled “The Writer’s Odds of Success” in 2013. It was a good stab, but he failed to even draw blood, and the question escaped unanswered (sorry, no Pulitzer for this post, William). It’s still a good read, though, with lots of gossipy bits about the earnings of bestselling writers. Probably the essay on numbers and success that tickled me most was a post on Kirsten Lamb’s Blog titled “Are Successful Writers Just Lucky?” (one of her observations was that the harder a writer worked the luckier he/she got).

All these essays and blog posts are worthwhile reads. If you’re like me, they will enlighten and confuse you at the same time. However they offer many insights and interpretations that go beyond mere numbers. I especially recommend “The 7k Report” for its rigorous use of statistical data to clarify trends, complete with eye-popping charts and graphs.

But to cut to the chase (and without spoiling the recommended articles for you), here is some arithmetic for writers gleaned from various and sundry sources. I make no promises about their accuracy or reliability whatsoever, and caution the reader to recall the quip sometimes attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and made famous by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  • James Patterson made $94 million in 2012 (might as well start off with the good news) — Horowitz, citing Forbes magazine
  • More than 80% of Americans would like to be an author — Dietrich, citing polls
  • Only 5% of the millions of people who say they want to write actually do it. — Lamb
  • Only 5% of this who start writing a book will actually finish it. — Lamb
  • According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 145,900 American writers and authors in 2012, a quarter of them part time and two-thirds of them self-employed, with median earnings of $55,420 (but remember they include a ton of non-novelists) — Dietrich
  • Between 1990 and 2005, there was a 39% increase in the number of self-reported authors in the US. — Smith
  • In 2011, there were 329,259 books published in the US — Dietrich
  • In 2012, the number of adult fiction titles published with ISBN numbers in the US was 67, 254 — Smith, citing sources
  • 2.2 million books were published worldwide in 2011 — Dietrich
  • Self-published books make up 25% of the top 100 list on Amazon — Howey
  • Of 1.2 million books tracked by Neilson Bookscan, only 25,000 (just over 2%) sold more than 5,000 copies — Dietrich
  • A #1 ranking in “page turning narratives” on Amazon Kindle Singles is possible to achieve with as few as 700-800 sales — Horowitz, citing statistics for his book “Boom”
  • The average book in 2006 sold less than 500 copies — Dietrich, citing Publishers Weekly
  • The highest percentage of genre e-books on the bestseller lists (more than one third) are indie-published — Howey
  • Indie-published authors outsell Big-5 (traditional large publishing house) published authors on Amazon. — Howey
  • 76% of all books released in 2008 were self-published — Smith, citing sources
  • While the often-cited “rule of thumb” proportion of overall book sales represented by e-books is 25%, this figure accounts for only e-books through major publishers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBookstore, Google Play) and does not include self-published books or those e-published by small presses. — Howey
  • 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the overall Amazon bookstore are e-books. — Howey
  • While Big 5 publishers typically pay 25% of net revenue to authors for e-book sales, self-published authors usually keep 70% of the total purchase price. — Howey

That should give you a lot to think about, and hopefully some further reading that may toss you back and forth between elation and despair. But let me end by quoting some encouraging words from Kirsten Lamb, which bring some much-needed wisdom to this crazy writing and publishing game:

” … the odds are actually better than we might believe when we really take an honest look. This job is like one giant funnel. Toss in a few million people with a dream and only a handful will shake out at the end. Is it because fortune smiled on them? A few, yes. But, for most, the harder they worked, the “luckier” they got. They stuck it out and made the tough choices.”

 

Killer titles that don’t

Helga’s Post # 84: We’ve all been there: someone, a friend, your critique group, beta readers or an editor tells you, ‘Honestly, can’t you think up a better one? I wouldn’t think of picking up a book with that title.’

You are crushed. You have spent countless hours and sleepless night to come up with a killer title to match your equally brilliant book. You thought you found it.

It got nixed.

Take heart. You are not alone. A quick title search of famous novels yielded some rather amusing stories – the original title the author created and the final, published one. It made me think just how important this often overlooked part of writing a novel is. The old saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ may not be good advice after all. Because readers *are* judging.

Think about it: As you stroll down the aisles of your local bookstore, would you pick up a book with the title ‘Atticus’? That’s what Harper Lee named her book, the one we all came to love. It’s not clear who came up with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but it’s nothing short of brilliant.

I started to look for more. There are lots of examples and anecdotes you can find with the click of your mouse. Talking of which, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was supposedly titled First Impression until a clever editor renamed it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was first called Bugles Sang True.

Or how about this hilarious example: Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was originally going to be The Jewboy, Wacking Off.

I just realized how much fun I am having with this blog post!

They should award prizes for the most ridiculous book titles ever. In fact, they do. It’s called the ‘Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year’. The prize was originally conceived in 1978 by the publishing firm The Diagram Group, as a way of avoiding boredom at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. It has been administered every year by The Bookseller.Saiyuud Diwong's Cooking with Poo, winner of the Diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year

The first winner of the prize was Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Other winners throughout the years have included How to Avoid Huge Ships, Cooking with Poo, and last year’s Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop.

My search didn’t stop there. I dug deeper and discovered a ‘veritable treasure trove of trash’. Do books actually get published with such titles? Apparently, they do:

The Joy of Uncircumcising’

“Games You Can Play With Your Pussy – And Lots of Other Stuff Cat Owners Should Know’

Why do Men have Nipples?

If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs – A Guide to Understanding Men

Fart Proudly: Writings of Benjamin Franklin You Never Read in School

How to Sharpen Pencils (David Rees)

How Tea Cosies Changed the World (Laoni Prior)

totally_absurd_book_titles_640_high_23But enough of poking fun. Back to writing, or I may end up with a book titled 1001 nights of story ideas that never got written.

Turning to the more serious side of writing, the last few posts of our blog offered some truly excellent writing tips. From all of my writing buddies. They are keepers (yes, the the writing buddies too). As good as any you will get at writing classes and workshops.

Take Joe’s discussion on shaking up your characters with the 5 stages of grief; Paula’s advice on just asking experts to write with authority; Silk’s 10 strategies to get your big Mo back; and Karalee’s musings on how to listen for story ideas. These are morsels worth pinning on your wall.

Lastly, I want to share another anecdote in keeping with the theme of how to write a great story. This one from famous author and lecturer Kurt Vonnegut to his students:

  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

With so much good advice, your summer writing should be smooth and seamless. Just avoid killer titles that don’t.

afterlife

Shake it, baby, shake it

Joe’s Post #102

Shake It, Baby, Shake It.

Or rather, ‘Shake it up.’

gwdtPaula’s post this week hit on an important thing. Shaking it up. She used The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as a great example of a character that’s about as far from vanilla as rocky-road mixed with cherry-garcia.

Wait, hold on, I suddenly need to grab some ice cream for some reason.

Ok, I’m back.

Here’s the thing. As new writers, we simply have to find a way to be better. Practice alone isn’t enough. Not in this day and age. Maybe in any day and age.

So it got me a-thinkin’. And when I gets me a-thinkin’, I start looking around on the interweb to find me some good ideas and maybe somethun’ that’s kinda cool.

And this is what I found. It’s an interesting idea. A way of rethinking how to do a character’s journey.

5 Stages of Grief.

five-stages-of-grief

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ok, it’s for scripts, but the idea is sound.

Who would have thought to take your characters through the 5 stages of grief?

The first stage – Denial. This is not something I need to work on. Not ever. I’m that good … and yet when I applied it to my character it kicked up a scene to a whole different level. Ok, I haven’t written the scene, yet, but I have changed my outline and it packs a lot more of a whallop!

Especially the idea that the bigger the stakes, the more the character has to deny it.

Hmmm. That’s pretty cool, actually.

Second Stage – Anger. Again, something I am personally quite familiar with, especially when some person freaking slows down in the freaking fast lane to less than the freaking speed limit so they can check a freaking text they got from their freaking boyfriend that showed a freaking cat freaking sitting in a freaking bowl.

But for writers, I think this stage is about the big emotional payoff to whatever got them started on their adventure. Anger works, but so do other emotions. In my case, though, yup, kicking the anger up really made it seem like it mattered more. Like mattered a whole hell of a lot!

Why oh why do I persist in writing characters who are afraid of emotion? Hello, Dr. Freud, paging Dr. Freud.

Third Stage – Bargaining. If I don’t have to do this one, will it be ok? Probably not, but I had this in the outline so I’ll just think how I can kick it up a notch.

Fourth is Depression – or the protagonist’s darkest moment. Hey, if your story doesn’t have that, add it in. I saw another book that asked, what is your antagonist’s greatest moment? They can be, and usually are, the same thing.

d and hNot always, though. To me, Harry Potter’s darkest moment (spoiler alert, spoiler alert) was when he found out that Dumbledore knew Harry’s fate all along, a moment of personal betrayal so great it hollowed out my chest.

But if you can find a way to shake up that dark moment, when despair threatens to overwhelm a character, when all seems hopeless and you just found out your dad is Darth Vadar and your friends have been captured and will likely be tortured to death, yeah, find a way to do that.

Lastly – Acceptance. At the end, in the middle, even in the beginning. That catharsis of letting go can be powerful. I mean, hey, Luke Skywalker literally lets go.

Like the article says, all of these stages can be in any order or can occur over and over, again. It’s just a really clever way of shaking up a character in your story a bit.

Any other insights on how to shake it up, baby?

Listen for story ideas

Karalee’s Post #81

Last Friday my husband and I had dinner with two couples that we had first “met” online. It wasn’t with the intention of increasing our social circle, but rather we connected through doing what we enjoy doing.

Dick and Marian (sitting on the right), got in touch with us through our common interest in boating, especially since all our children wanted other kids to hang out with. Initially we found each other through a Vancouver club newsletter and then kept in touch through a new technology back then called email.

At the time Dick and Marian were living in Saudi Arabia where they raised their children while Dick worked with an oil company, and David and I were on a two year homeschooling and sailing adventure with our three children in the Mediterranean. That was a dozen years ago and our families met on our sailboats in Turkey.

It is easier to get together in person now that Dick and Marian have retired and moved back to Vancouver. We do cool stuff together, like trek in Nepal (Marian guides the treks) or around the local mountains. Especially in the winter we play the board game Settlers of Catan after dinner and visiting.

The second couple (on the left above) is Alison and Don. If you follow this blog and glance at people that like our posts, you will frequently see Alison and Don. They are a very adventurous couple that sold their material wealth (and let go of their fear of letting it all go) to embrace traveling and discovering the world. They started their own blog Adventures in Wonderland and somehow found the 5Writer’s blog.

And, by some great alignment of what is meant to be, Alison and Don are from Vancouver too, and are back for a few months. Certainly the invitation for us to meet in person was not to be missed.

The six of us had a wonderful evening and were never short of stories to tell. We could have continued for days I’m sure.

Which brings up the point that most of us have stories to tell. Listen to the ones that your family and friends go on and on about. In general they have a beginning, a middle and an end, and probably a whole lot of back story. Are they worth writing about? Some are, absolutely.

Here’s the fun in listening to what’s happened in other people’s lives:

  • any one of their stories can ignite the fuse to a story idea for writers. Then in fiction writing, it is up to us to develop characters with goals and conflicts that can carry the premise idea through a myriad of connecting plot points to a great conclusion!
  • being around other storytellers feeds a writer’s soul and not only fills the void of loneliness (writing is a lonely business) it also encourages more writing that in some way doesn’t seem as lonely since there are real persons at the source of our ideas.
  • making friends and being present with other people is one of life’s true joys and it takes eating and drinking to a whole new level.

So, as Paula encourages writers to go forth and ask experts questions in order to allow our writing to sound authentic regarding the subject we are writing about, I also say go forth and listen to friends and family and strangers in the park or in coffee shops and discover some of their stories.

Take some notes too. We all know that some truths are far stranger than any fiction story we can ever imagine. Who knows what you will discover!

Happy writing!

 

Shake it up!

Paula’s Post #78 –

Dateline: Tallinn, Estonia

This week, some of my 5writer colleagues are reflecting on the need to ‘kill your darlings’. To ruthlessly toss old manuscripts, or chapters or paragraphs. To callously rid one’s closet of dusty old unpublished manuscripts of that which is lacklustre, trite and perhaps even amateurish. See for example Joe’s post on ‘To toss or not to toss’ and Helga’s variation on a theme: If you’ve always done it that way, it is probably wrong.

One of the sticky webs in which we writers are oft caught is the old trap of falling into the world of the ‘predictable’. Repeating stale old stereotypes without a sufficient examination or understanding of how these may be outdated anachronisms from another time, another place.

One sees this in particular in the realm of detective and crime fiction where, particularly with a male protagonist, we frequently encounter the stereotypical burnt out, hard-drinking world-weary cop. Often a loner who rebels against authority figures, has a string of failed marriages and a penchant for obscure jazz musicians. Seriously, how many times have you encountered this character in fiction?

Last week, in my post ‘Just Ask‘, I urged fledgling writers not to ‘make things up’ out of their imagination or from books, but to also “get out there” in the real world and ask experts in the field for background information that might enrich their novel with the ring of authenticity.

Since I’ve been travelling in the Baltic region, I can’t help thinking about the worldwide success of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.

What made these books so popular, I wondered?

If you’ve read the first in the series, you’ll know that it starts out breaking all the rules. As fledgling writers, we’re told that if we don’t start ‘right with the action’ our manuscripts are doomed to end up on the slush pile. Yet the first 100 pages of Larsson’s story are, in my humble opinion, deadly dull. Full of backstory about a now concluded Swedish libel trial and the system that created it. To make matters worse, readers are also treated to the introduction of many new minor characters and their intricate web of family relationships. They all have unmemorable, complicated Swedish names, that are difficult to sort out and the story’s two main characters, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisabeth Salander, don’t even appear on stage together until well into the book.

Yet despite all this, Larsson’s Millennium trilogy turned into a world wide phenomenon.

Why?

Why, despite these flaws, does this book suceed?

Many, reviewers, critics and fellow writers say the answer can be found in Larsson’s characters. For example,  Avril Joy, in a 2010 post entitled ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, – Breaking the Rules: suggests the answer lies in the author’s fresh and compelling protagonists, especially LIsbeth Salander:

But what really makes the whole thing work are the protagonists, compelling and complex characters, in particular the eponymous heroine – Lisbeth Salander – a damaged and vulnerable individual.We care about her, we want to know what happens to this twenty four year old, anorexic, computer hacker, with a photographic memory, a goth like appearance, multiple piercings, tattoos and an unexplained past… need I say more?

Now, think back and compare Larsson’s offbeat and unpredictable Lisabeth Salander with that stereotypical hard-drinking, world weary cop prototype we’ve seen so often in detective fiction. No wonder readers found Larsson’s heroine such a breath of fresh air. 

So today, I’m mulling how we 5writers can ‘shake things up’ a bit.

How we can kill all those trite and unoriginal storylines, those flat, predictable and too oft-seen stereotypes. One of the things I think is so very important in a writer’s life is to get out of your study, or kitchen or garret, or whatever cubbyhole you feel most comfortable in and get ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ with the goal of killing these old stereotypes.

Travel is, of course, the ultimate expressway to new ideas and experiences, but even a trip around your own home town or the nearest large city can suffice to help you ‘shake up’ old stereotypes and garner fresh ideas for making your protagonists, villains and supporting characters more compelling.

To illustrate the ‘shake it up’ principle, here are a few examples:

Weather:

Today, my cruise ship is docked in Estonia. I don’t know what I expected of Estonia, certainly not the relentless drizzle that we’ve encountered. But then again, most people don’t fantasize about the wonderful, rainy midsummer’s cruise they’re going to take to the Baltic. Blue skies and sun shimmering off the water is what we see in the travel brochures, dammit!

But today, it is raining and my fellow passengers are straggling down the pier and into tour buses armoured in unfashionable rain-repellent ponchos and windbreakers. None of them look particularly happy. If anything, I’d charitably call their collective mood, ‘subdued’. Perhaps less charitably, ‘grumpy’.

This is not, as they say, quite what they expected. Weather is interesting. Long descriptive passages, particularly in contemporary commercial fiction can be deadly dull. But weather is a catalyst. It can cause unexpected things to happen and cause predictable characters to do something unpredictable. So, think about weather, and how it might impact your plot, and shake things up a bit.

Setting:

According to my pre-cruise research, Tallinn, Estonia is famous for its walled medieval town center. Of course, the description in the guidebooks left me unprepared for the rather unsettling discovery that the first commercial establishment we encountered as we entered the gates of the old city was the ubiquitous ‘golden arches’ of McDonalds. Again, not quite what I expected.

Most of the inhabitants of the old city seem to be engaged in what may ultimately be the only industry left in the world: tourism. Young men and women dressed in cheaply made facsimiles of medieval burgher’s dress hawk restaurant handbills and attempt to entice the hoards of cruise ship passengers into their cafes for a coffee or a glass of wine. Of course, not many passengers have much interest in sitting in an outdoor cafe, basking in the rain, nor in a glass of wine at 9:30 in the morning when the ambient temperature is hovering around 54 degrees F or 12 C. So, those who have not signed up for a group tour trudge up and down the streets, looking for the ‘real’ Tallinn and we do the same.

Until suddenly it strikes me: This is the real Tallinn now.

Unless you’re writing a historical novel, this crazy mixture of cheap t-shirts, souvenir shops all selling the same mass-manufactured goods and ubiquitous pizza cafe’s comprise the ‘real Talinn’ as it is now.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are authentic streets, occupied by real people going about their every day lives and struggling with everyday problems in Tallinn. But these aren’t immediately visible on the rough, cobblestoned streets of the old medieval walled city. If anything, I feel like I’m trapped in some Disneylandesque experience.

Not exactly what I expected.

But this, of course, is good.

Now, if I were writing a novel about present day Estonia (instead of about 19th C Scotland and Australia) I’d at least have new insight in how to ‘shake things up’ a bit.

Character:

So, while my husband decided to stay in town and walk the old medieval ramparts in search of the ‘real Tallinn’, I hopped the shuttle bus back to the ship and sprinted the 400 yards or so back down the pier. (Oh, who am I kidding, you know I barely managed a ‘run-walk’, but, in comparison to the hobbling pace of my somewhat older fellow passengers, I looked good, baby). As I sat down to lunch in the elegant Terrace Cafe, my mind was bubbling with plot ideas, though in truth most of them along all too familiar story-lines: ‘intrepid young heroine returns to her cruise ship, leaving husband to explore the old town alone when he mysteriously disappears without a trace. Panicked, she returns to look for him, only to be caught up in a web of intrigue and deceit…’

Well, you get the idea. But that, as they say, is the expected. What was not expected is that I might suddenly find myself sitting at a window table in an Estonian port, on an Italian built ship, registered in the Marshall Islands with corporate headquarters in Miami enjoying a ‘Mexican Day’ lunch prepared by an international crew. I enjoyed a tortilla soup, a quesadilla and a Corona served by my Indian waiter from Goa by the name of Bosco. He tells me his parents names are Rita and Alex, his brother’s name Blase. Originally, they were of Portuguese descent, and their surname, at least to my ears,  sounded Hispanic. He tells me they are now very anglicized.

Of course, I asked him all these crazy questions, because that is what I do, and he happily (I think) answered them, mostly because I was  a) alone, b) the only person under 80 in the immediate vicinity and, c) not whining about the weather.

So, my point?

I could not make this stuff up. If I made it all up, I fear that my tendency would be to fall into trite and familiar characterizations, flat settings straight from guidebooks, far from the ‘reality’ of today’s multi-national, inter-connectedness of all things world.

So, to avoid these pitfalls, go get some inspiration for some original settings and characters, Just push yourself out of that comfy chair and ‘Get out there!’

Do your own, “real world” original research. Leave the safety and security of your comfortable writing room and roam the streets a bit. Look for the quirky and unexpected. Let your mind run free and start dreaming up some new plot, character and settings. Something ‘unexpected’.

Do it every chance you get.

Shake it up!

Oh, some of the pool staff just went by wearing hooded, knee-length snow parkas, (the kind lifties wear in ski resorts) rolling stacks of deck chairs down the deck to be put away. Another not quite what I expected ‘shake it up’ image that I’m sure will stick with me and re-appear, in some form or other, in a future novel.

But I guess that means that the rain is predicted to continue for the foreseeable future.

Drat!

Good for my writing though. Maybe I’ll manage more than one post this week and ‘shake it up’ a bit.

If you have always done it that way, it’s probably wrong

Changing-Directions-900x288

Helga’s Post #83: (So said inventor Charles Kettering)

It appears as if some of the 5 writers are in the midst of serious housecleaning – of their writing that is. I am one of them. Heading for the shredder are piles of manuscripts started, manuscripts critiqued by my writers’ group buddies, notes to self, and significant volumes of research for aforementioned manuscripts. I hasten to say that these tomes would be even higher had I continued the practice of printing out every page I ever wrote, every research article I ever came across.

Lucky for me – and infinitesimally for our forests – at some point I started to realize I was a paper junkie. Let’s face it, there is something gratifying about holding a piece of paper in our hands with strings of words printed that we, and only we, have created. To read it a few more times before returning it to its designated binder or other storage venue.It was an easy enough transition to make after the initial withdrawal pains. What? Don’t print it out? But easy once you go on a long trip. You want to continue writing. On your laptop. Everything you need is there with you, and you don’t need a single scrap of paper, even if you’re going to the farthest reaches of the planet. All there at the click of the mouse – every word you already wrote and all the research you were brainy enough to save on your hard drive.

But this post is not really about the transition from paper to hard drive. I was just rambling for a bit. It’s one example about the counter-productive habit of holding on to tradition. To be enslaved by it. To resist change. How it extends to everything we do in live. How tradition has a firm place in our brain and refuses to yield to our efforts to change. And yes, this includes writing.

I always thought of myself as forward thinking, as someone who is embracing change. Having conversations with my mother about her old-fashioned furniture, her fondness of displaying every keepsake she ever collected or received as a gift. Trying to convince her to de-clutter, to get rid of decade-old towels, of dishes and bowls I remember eating from as a teenager. But to no avail. Mom likes her dozens of framed and by now faded family photos, and the tiny vases with dried flowers, and she won’t ever part with the potted philodendron whose voracious growing habit is taking over the living room.

But then I reflected on my own habits. Am I really so different? I started to wonder if resistance to change influences our writing, both its content as well as our writing process. (As a footnote, is it possible that writers’ block is somehow linked to our habits and reluctance to change, to part with tradition?)

Joe’s recent post urged us to ‘kill your darlings’. Snip and snip some more. Toss out your writing if something isn’t working. You can start something new. Something better.ScaryScissors

It’s hard to do. Especially with writing that has all those lovely phrases that we are so proud of, that everyone said they just love. I believe that too is linked to our aversion to change. I know this applies to me, because when I read some old manuscripts startups, I can see the vanity in my own writing. OMG, what have I done? How could I have written such trash?

But I did. Over and over, because I refused to change. Those were my darlings. My writing was wordy. Flowery. Ineffective. Descriptive instead of showing my protagonist in action. I came across an interesting article on the website ‘Writing Commons’ about concision. Although meant for screenplay writing, it applies to all writing. Here is an excerpt:

Concision—saying more with less—is an undervalued but critical writing skill, especially when writing a screenplay.  Part of the reason that concision is so undervalued is that it seems easy but is actually quite difficult and takes skill, intellectual effort and ruthlessness (as a well-known bit of writing advice goes, you must “kill all your darlings”).

It offers an example of how to improve a scene about a man entering a bar, which illustrates the value of concision quite well. Here is the traditional version (which is how I may have written the scene some years ago):

‘SHANE, a 20 something babe with ice blue eyes and a nonchalant manner, walks into the bar, which is a cross between a TGIFridays and a dive.  He enters the room slowly, taking it all in.  He pauses before approaching the bar, where he orders a cheap domestic beer.  The bartender, almost as sad as the bar itself, fills the scratched plastic mug and hands it over.  Shane’s stance is casual, but his eyes are alert.  He looks around; assessing.  His eyes stop on a young woman.’

This would be better if Shane’s character was revealed through action rather than straight description.  The sentence about his stance just describes him standing there; a better choice would be to describe him doing something specific.  Also, unless his ice blue eyes figure into the plot, it would probably be better to describe his attitude or bearing rather than a specific physical feature that may or may not be part of the actor actually cast for the part.  The verbs used here are bland and general: “walks,” “enters,” “pauses,” “approaching.”  How different this would be if Shane stomped into the bar, accosted the bartender, and demanded a beer; the tone of the scene would be much clearer.

Finally, this descriptive passage is quite wordy. In fact, several of these sentences could be shortened, combined, or turned into fragments.  For example, “He enters the room slowly, taking it all in” could be shortened to “He slowly enters.  Observes carefully.”  Likewise, the final sentences, “Shane’s stance is casual, but his eyes are alert.  He looks around; assessing.  His eyes stop on a young woman” could be combined into “Shane’s casual stance belies his roving, assessing eyes, which stop on a young woman.”

I love this example of how to improve a simple scene. I certainly would continue reading. And I will keep it in mind when I am mired in drafting something boring or lackluster.

Do you too struggle with resisting change in your writing?

 

To toss or not to toss

Joe’s Post #101

Throwing Sh*t Away

hoardersI have a problem with this. A big time problem. I can always think of a use for something or something is tied to a memory or something is put away for so long that it just becomes a part of the landscape. Like the broken wheelbarrel rusting in my backyard. I greatly fear that one day I’ll be featured on the hoarders, a 500 lb lumpy writer surrounded by tattered writing books, empty Cheetos bags and crumpled up rejection letters.

But, as in life, in writing you have to throw stuff away. Sometimes it’s a word. Sometimes it’s a chapter. Sometimes a whole novel.

That’s what I spent my writing time doing this week. Tossing out what doesn’t work and writing lovely new words.

As a new writer, long ago, when the world was new and crusty-looking crabs ruled the world, I couldn’t throw away anything. A chapter? Get real! A whole novel? Are you insane?

Now, older, creakier, greyer, I know that I can toss stuff out and – are you ready for this – come up with new stuff. Even good stuff. It’s not a small glass I sip from, it’s a well tied to an aquifer, tied to monsoon, tied to a planet that’s 2/3rds water.

Now I’m not saying that I’m David Sedaris or Stephen King or that lady who wrote that book about that thing, no, I’m not any of them. They all have massive talent. I’m more of a workhorse writer. I couldn’t come up with a purdy phrase if my life depended on it. But what I hope I do, like Patterson, is craft a good story. Or, let me put that another way, I want to be like Patterson and craft a great story.

To do that, you have to kill your darlings.

It’s a phrase we hear a lot in writing workshops or read on writing blogs and writer’s tombs.

So here are some of the signs you have to look for if you’re going to find those darlings (or broken, rusty wheelbarrows in your yard).

ryanDo you have a minor character that you fell in love with and who took the story in a whole different direction than planned? Hey, it’s ok. Maybe they’ll become your main character. Or, like GRR Martin, you just write 100 books with 1000 pages each. But if you have a story to tell and that handsome rogue hijacked it, stake him to the ground, and bring him out only to serve the plot.

Too many pretty phrases or long descriptions? The hardest things to cut out sometimes. Why? Because by and large our critique groups like them and other writers like them and, like, we often don’t get compliments so when someone says, omg, that’s so beautiful, you’re gonna want to keep it. If you’re writing a literary book, hey, keep it, but we all have to remember it’s the readers, not college creative writing professors who’ll be reading it. Know your target audience and apply descriptions according. A romance? Avoid detailed, but brilliantly written descriptions of torture and dismemberment. Focus on the hero’s pecs, how his body shimmered in the moonlight and how his eyes looked at the girl.

Something’s not working and you just can’t put your finger on it? You know what I’m talking about. It’s that inner voice telling you something’s off. Sure you can try to fix it, make it better, somehow, maybe move a comma here or delete a word there, but if it’s a struggle, come at it, again. Start new. I’m talking paragraphs, scenes, chapters, whatever. Listen to that inner voice. Not the Gollum one that says everything you write is crap, no, spank that one and stake it to the ground beside the rogue, no the voice that says, hmmm, yeah, not working. Change location, change POV, change starting or ending point, change style, change anything and everything and see what shakes loose.

dogsIf you find yourself skipping, then what are your readers going to do? It could be a whole chapter about the hero’s dog taking a poo. It meant something to you when you wrote it, but now it’s just a dog taking a poo. It’s a neat little story, maybe, but if you skip over it when you read your manuscript, cut it out. Lean it out. You want to keep yourself entertained.

The main thing is, don’t be afraid of tossing something out. You actually get better and better the more you write.

Don’t believe me?

Go back and look at writing you did years ago. Writing that you thought was super awesome and full of such brilliant words that they should not only buy the book but sell it with a gold cover and fireworks. I bet you you’ll find a lot of stuff you could do improve upon. There might be some lovely descriptions, some penetrating insights into the human condition, a handsome rogue somewhere and a side story about a dog taking a poo, but if you tossed out the whole thing, you could do it all again, and maybe even better.

At least that’s what I’ve learned.

Now, I have to go deal with that wheelbarrow.

Exploring characters in short stories

Karalee’s Post #80

I’m going to dedicate some time on writing short stories as this seems to be where my mind set is lately. With all the self-work and personal growth I have been pursuing over the the last year or so, keeping a whole novel story going seems to be too much for my brain at the moment.

Life has had its challenges, and believe me, one’s childhood, one’s back story, plays a very strong role that is difficult to overcome. Building trust and belief in new ways of thinking about the world is hard work and emotionally draining. My insight into one’s past though, will be great fodder for future character development in my stories I’m sure.

That said, character development is where I struggle. I want complex characters with challenges as well as expertise, intelligence and fears and successes and regrets. Why do I have such difficulty in creating such people in my writing?

Paula in her last post Just Ask hit my fear button. Paula is a great thinker and talker and seems fearless in asking anyone anything.

Just ask her!

Not me. Not all of us 5Writers are fearless interviewers. That’s where my own back story comes in and plays a role I wish it didn’t. I’m a smart person and once-upon-a-time was eager to participate in classes and groups and didn’t mind speaking up and be noticed. That is, until one of my teachers humiliated me in front of her class for being, well, ahead of the class so-to-speak, and she didn’t handle the situation professionally. Looking back at other childhood experiences before then, this was the last straw, and my courage to put myself “out there” has never returned.

So to me even the thought of just asking is daunting.

But Paula is right, and I’m glad she has challenged us writers to sit down with real people and learn about real life so we can write more realistically. I know that if I can do it, most of you can too. This is an area that I need to push myself to participate in in order to improve my writing, and my confidence in my writing.

In general I’m a good talker in small groups. Asking someone about something you know nothing about doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t cause real pain. Besides it’s a great way to get to know other people, which is a good thing as writing is a lonely job.

Most people are more than willing to give of their time and expertise and divulge what they know. Who doesn’t like talking about what they love doing? And generally people don’t smell or bite either, and they won’t laugh at you for asking questions they may think are weird or not-so-intelligent because they don’t expect you to know what it’s really like to be a fire-eater, or dog whisperer, or trapeze artist, or forensic psychologist, or sniper, or any other profession that takes years to learn or become expert at.

So just ask. After preparing your questions of course, which means that you need to have some idea of what your story is about, and therefore what you need to learn about. Do some research, or do a lot if you are like me and nervous about asking relevant questions or the “right” questions.

I will take Paula’s suggestion to heart and break into my discomfort zone and push myself to just ask. For the next few months, especially with travelling for a month in Europe this summer without my computer, I’ve decided to write a few short stories and explore a few characters to see if one compels me to bring him/her along into a full length novel story.

I will make a point of meeting real people and interview them, after all I do enjoy talking. It could be fun too!

Characters I’ve liked in previous books I’ve written seem to be my secondary characters, as often happens with writers. I may bring one or two into new light, maybe even together and see what develops. I’m looking forward to exploring a few story ideas too.

I’m wondering if other writers have written short stories as a way to explore their characters?

Happy writing!

 

Just ask

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Paula’s Post #77 –  Dateline, London.

Checking in from London City Airport, waiting for a departing flight for Stockholm.

If you’ve followed our 5writers blog, you’ll know my favourite place for power writing is the many international airport departure lounges I’ve frequented since we first started this blog in September 2012. Free wi fi and I’m set. It’s all I need.

I’ve just discovered London City Airport, a great alternative to Gatwick or Heathrow for quick hops to the continent. Free wi fi too. Only problem is they don’t call the flights, which in our case led to a rather perilous 7 minutes when I temporarily misplaced my husband once our flight had been posted as ‘boarding’, only to discover he’d become metaphorically ‘lost’ in a bookstore.

Anyway, something about travelling incites my creative muse, too, because while I admit I sometimes struggle to find something interesting and relevant to contribute to our 5writers blog, this never seems to be the case when I’m writing from the departure lounge.

I’ve just checked my email and see that my fellow 5writers are all abuzz about registering once again for the excellent Surrey International Writers’ Conference, set for October 2014. If you’ve followed our 5writers journey, you’ll know that this is the common link, the place where we all originally met.

For me, it is also the place where I’ve picked up some of the best tips on the art and craft of writing.  I hope you’ll check out the conference website and consider registering:

siwc.ca

I’m most grateful to SIWC for the wonderful presenters who’ve shared a thing or two about research. With a degree in International Affairs, a minor in History, and two Law degrees behind me, I’m no stranger to research. But I’m not talking just about the kind of research that comes from books. For any writer, one of the best and perhaps most overlooked skill is ‘people skills’. Specifically, the skill of interviewing people to acquire much needed information to embark on writing your novel.

Now, I admit I have a wee leg up here, too.

As a retired Crown Prosecutor, (the Canadian equivalent of the US Assistant District Attorney), I not only had the opportunity during my career for an inside glimpse inside the world of ‘Crime and Punishment’,  I also learned some very good interviewing skills.

Decades ago, as young law students, we practiced artificial ‘simulated’ interviews with our fellow students acting the part of pretend ‘clients’. Looking back now, I laugh as I remember how we were carefully coached to ask open-ended, non-leading questions, as opposed to the kind of pointed, direct, focused questions we tried out in practice sessions for ‘cross-examination’. But to be truthful, although these sessions had their flaws, they at least gave us a rudimentary understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of asking the right and wrong question.

Nothing though prepared me for the real life adventure of conducting interviews of witnesses in criminal prosecutions. Let me give you an idea of the crazy process that exists in the Canadian Judicial System (and I suspect, the US system and likely the English system  as well). A just-hired prosecutor, fresh out of law school is lucky if he or she receives a week’s training, ‘shadowing’ a more senior colleague before being ‘thrown’ to the wolves’ and assigned a courtroom and trials of one’s own.

Scary, right?

Being assigned a courtroom means you are responsible for all the minor matters set in that courtroom on any given day. Shopliftings, Thefts, Common Assaults… all yours baby. If a more serious or technical matter is scheduled to be tried on the same day, such as an Impaired Driving case causing injury or a Robbery, it is generally assigned to a more senior colleague as a ‘special assignment’, which means they get more notice of the case and can schedule advance interviews of the witnesses, rather than the usual half hour allotted to interview every witness, in every case, the morning before court.

Seriously. This is how it works.

On any given day, we young prosecutors might find anywhere from 2 or 15 witnesses waiting to be interviewed for the three or four trials we are expected to prepare for that court day. Of course, many of these witnesses don’t show at all, or turn up late. Invariably, they don’t all arrive at once.

In cosmopolitan Vancouver, they also don’t always speck English.

That means one also needs to coordinate the interview with the availability of an interpreter: Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Polish, or Swahili, all are available, assuming the person who set up the trial remembered to book an interpreter to be notified for the interview and the trial.

Now, as you can imagine, simply communicating is not the only problem.

Not all witnesses are ‘willing’ to spend time with the Prosecutor before court, going over their witness statement to the police. Some are frightened. Some are ignorant of the process of law and misunderstand what is going on. Some are more likely to have been on the other side of ‘the law’ on occasion, and plain reluctant to do anything to assist the crown prosecution service, or even be seen as cooperating.

Some lie.

Some try to be too helpful, making up things they think we want to hear. Some barely can express themselves in their own language, much less English. Most interpreters are excellent, but can you guess how many times I’ve listened to a witness speak for about 3 minutes in Vietnamese, or Farsi, or Tagalog, or Cantonese, gesticulating wildly all the time, only to have the interpreter turn to me and say “she says no”.

On the worst occasion I can remember, I once was scheduled to see 23 witnesses in 25 minutes.  I’d been a Crown Prosecutor for just under four weeks. Fortunately, about 18 of the witnesses were police officers, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP. Unfortunately, many of them were so new they’d never given evidence in court.

I lined them up in a corridor, handed them all their pages from the Report to Crown Counsel (the official ‘police report’ prepared when charges are recommended by the police) and told them to read their bit again, and their notes, and that I’d get back to them before I called them to give evidence. (I hoped). I then went on to the next one, and so on down the line, until I had them all sorted. With minutes to go, I started on the civilian witnesses, whom of course, I’d never laid eyes on before, but just decided to start with the cops first and try to find time to interview the civilians at the morning break. Cool under pressure. Not really, but what can you do, bluffing is an excellent skill to learn.

Admittedly, this is an extreme case of being overwhelmed by witnesses. But it well illustrates how quickly I was forced to hone my interviewing skills. This ‘ordeal by trial’ prepared me for many awkward occasions when I had to pick up a trial at the last minute. Incredibly, you’d be surprised to learn how frequently this occurs. You carefully prepare for your spousal assault trial, scheduling advance interviews with the now reluctant battered wife (or sometimes husband) weeks in advance. On the trial date, not unexpectedly, she is a no-show. They’ve made up and she no longer wants to testify. What do you do? Without the ‘victim’ you have no case. You can either seek an adjournment of the trial and try to get the missing witness to court by cajoling or threat (sometimes even the very real threat of a material witness warrant to have them arrested) or you can ‘stay’ the prosecution, effectively putting it at an end to the case unlikely to ever be revived. Hard choices, but ones that are made everyday in any busy criminal court.

But wait a minute. What happens to that valuable court time? Either way, the scheduled trial, (set for two hours), is not going ahead. But the Judge is there waiting, a prosecutor is there (you), and just like airplanes waiting to land, in other courtrooms, where three or four minor trials may be scheduled, trials are waiting to ‘get on’.  You find yourself walking out of your courtroom and back down the corridor to your office, only to be met by the familiar figures of the trial coordinator and your supervisor.

Guess what?

Your getting some new cases. Cases with reports you’ve never read. With witness statements you’ve never read. With criminal records you’ve never perused.

You’re starting at zero and the trial is starting in 5 minutes.

Seriously, this is how it works.

Hopefully, you’ve got great colleagues and they’ve tabbed the witness statements with yellow stickies. Highlighted a copy of the Report to Crown Counsel with a yellow highlighter, illuminated all the important bits. Hopefully the witnesses are ready, willing and able to testify (police witnesses are usually like wind-up dolls, put them up there on the stand and they just talk, talk talk. But if you’ve got any issue of police misconduct, watch out).

Now, usually if you get a ‘golf job’ as we used to call these orphan files prepared by another prosecutor, the Judge will be understanding. He’ll know you’ve never read the damn thing and are introducing yourself to the witnesses in the corridor outside court. He’ll know you’re doing you’re best to get a handle on the facts and familiarize yourself with the evidence.

Usually.

But, just as you might imagine, sometimes judges are cantankerous. A good number of them were once prosecutors too. They’ve walked in your shoes. Invariably, they don’t have much sympathy for your plight. Just get on with it.

But that’s enough reminiscing about the good old days. I wanted to tell you about this crazy world of mine because it illustrates how I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I learned to interview witnesses under the toughest of circumstances. (I’ve even had to have them arrested and put them in a jail cell, and have the sheriffs take me down  to the cells so I can get one last crack at some kind of cooperation, before throwing them on the stand).

As you can imagine, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. At least my public skin. Find me at home later, after a particularly hard day and it’s another story. The kind of hard day’s night when only a gin and tonic, hot bath and three pounds of high test, extra cream, fettucine Alfredo will do. Pass the parmesan please.

But it is experiences like this that have made me a good interviewer. Experiences that have also made me fearless. I’m not afraid to ask.

Anything.

Anything I need to know to move forward with my research. I’m one of the ‘lucky ones’.

We writers are often an introspective lot. Some might call us ‘introverted’. Let’s face it. We all spend a lot of time living inside our heads, talking to our “imaginary friends”. The heroes and villains that fill a good portion of our subconscious. But sometimes, this can be a mistake. Sometimes, we just have to get out there and ‘just ask’ some questions.

I see this frequently when I read the work of fellow writers struggling to find an authentic voice for their protagonists. For characters caught up in crimes and misdemeanours. Invariably, the scenes they’re crafting require them to put themselves inside the heads of a detective or fast talking lawyer. I’ve seen my fellow writers struggle here. Just as I would struggle if I were trying to put myself into the head (and into the world) of a Doctor or Physio, an EMT or even a banker or advertising executive.

Obviously, I don’t know much about their worlds. But guess what? I’m not afraid to ask.

Neither are my 5writer colleagues.

Although I’m the only lawyer in the group, they’ve all come to writing from pasts that have toughened their hides too. And made them good interviewers. I recall that last year about this time, my 5writer colleague Helga found herself conveniently ensconced on a cruise ship for about 10 days, happily aboard the same ship as a retired FBI agent. Now, would that be an opportunity you’d squander, out of reticence or shyness?

I sincerely hope not.

In my humble opinion, most people are, by human nature, generous with their time. If they have special expertise, and no restrictions on sharing it (such as an oath of secrecy, or concerns of breach of confidentiality) they will happily share with you what they have learned. Sometimes, it helps to re-live a happy time in their life. Sometimes, it reminds them of how much they have learned and can share with others. Sometimes, it is just therapeutic, unburdening oneself of the crap one’s been through in life. Whatever, in my experience, people are generous with their time and don’t mind sharing special knowledge and expertise.

So why, I ask, would you try to make it all up?

Why would you risk ‘getting it wrong’? Creating an imaginary world so lacking in any authenticity that readers may find your efforts amateurish or even laughable.

Instead, ‘Just Ask’.

Everyone.

Start with your writing colleagues. Ask them if they know a cop or a lawyer or a doctor who might be willing to provide some insights. Ask your friends and your family. Ask your co-workers. You’d be surprised what six degrees of separation can turn up.

I have the perfect illustration of this simple concept. Once, I had it in my head that I wanted to write a novel about a bright but unlucky young prosecutor, who had the misfortune to make a small mistake. A deadly mistake. A mistake that released a suspected terrorist back on the streets. On the very first day on the job. A good story line. One that would take my intrepid heroine eventually to the conflict torn poppy fields of Afghanistan.

Now, I hope you can see the problem straight up. While I knew lots about the hapless existence of inexperienced young prosecutors, I didn’t know two shakes about the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the war waging there, except from the news and some books I’d read.

I knew this wasn’t enough. But how to start?

Well, in one of those incredible coincidences, I happened to be working with some community health workers at the time. One day, over lunch, we were chatting about non-work things like writing and knitting and holidays and I admitted I was trying to write a novel set in Afghanistan. My co-worker across the table looked up at me with a peculiar expression on her face and said:

“Well, you’d have no way of knowing this, but it just so happens that my ex-husband is the defence attache in Kabul”.

She very kindly put me in touch with him, and he very kindly put me in touch with a wonderful officer in the RCMP who was stationed for very many months in Afghanistan. My ‘source’ with boots on the ground proved invaluable. Over the next several months, he helped me with logistical issues, background information and provided special expertise about weaponry and equipment, (including the very helpful reminder that Sat phones don’t work in caves). He never shared anything he was not permitted to share, but he proved immensely valuable in helping me create an authentic setting.

I am still in touch with my ’source’, and although I never got to the point that I felt that novel of Afghanistan was ready to submit to agents and editors, it wasn’t because it was plagued with a lack of technical authenticity. Rather, I just didn’t think the protagonist I created was strong enough to carry the book. But, that’s a different problem, one I’m still grappling with to this day, but that’s the subject for another blog post.

But that happy coincidence of finding my ‘Afghanistan’ source has made me even more fearless about sharing what I’m working on and what I need help with. I don’t know how many times I’ve started a sentence with ‘You don’t happen to know anyone who works as a _________ (fill in the blank here). If you’re writing a scene with a librarian, talk to a librarian. If you’re writing a scene with a fireman or an arson investigator, interview some firemen or retired firemen). Don’t be shy. They’re all out there: cowboys, proctologists, private investigators, insurance salespeople, bankers, bakers, bikers…

Well, you get the idea. All you’ve got to do is ‘just ask’.

PS: I dashed off this post from the London Airport. Somewhere over the North Sea I suddenly was gripped by the uncomfortable thought that I may have actually posted on this topic before. At first, I was crestfallen, determined to double check all my past posts to find out if I was, as aging persons sometimes do, starting to repeat myself. By the time we touched down in Stockholm though, I decided ‘what the heck’. From the time we started this blog, we’ve picked up quite a few new followers. Even if I did post something similar before, I’m sure we’ve many new readers who may not have seen my original post. So, since I’m posting from the land of limited Wi Fi, I think I’ll fly with it for now, with apologies for those that might have heard some of these stories before. 

Oh, and I’m now in the Sheraton Stockholm Club Lounge, chatting with a couple of nice guys from Dallas and Ottawa. Guess what, they’re software engineers, – does anyone have any questions for my new friends. I’d be happy to ask. 

How to get the Big Mo on a small scale

momentum

Silk’s Post #87 — See if this sounds familiar. You’re pushing the shopping cart down the supermarket aisle when a friend sidles up to you and gives you a hug.

“So how’s the book coming?” Your friend is smiling, genuinely interested, maybe even proud to have a friend who’s writing a book. This isn’t a challenge. It’s an affirmation.

“Um … good, good.” You grin and shrug. “Not quite as far along as I’d like to be, but … you know.” It feels like a challenge.

“I can’t even imagine,” your friend says. “Where do you find the time? It would take me a year!” Your friend obviously thinks this sounds like an extravagant (and maybe ridiculous) time commitment, little knowing that many writers would kill to turn out a finished book in a year.

“Well, you just have to chain yourself to the desk and grind out that thousand words a day,” you say. At this point you’re hating yourself. A thousand words a day? When was the last time you did that for a week straight?

“Hey, I’m dying to read it,” your friend says. “When do you think it will be published?”

Aaaaarrrrrrrgh!

Since there’s no answer to that well-meaning – but loaded – question, you find yourself suddenly attracted to the two-for-one sale on industrial size cans of plum tomatoes at the end of the aisle. Better to rush off with apparent purpose than to get yourself deeper in this charade, or slink away ignominiously like the fraud that you are.

And you know that your encounter is not likely to prompt a wildly productive writing session when you get home with the groceries. It’s more likely to prompt the consumption of an entire tray of brownies. You skip the plum tomatoes and head for the bakery section.

Every writer, I assume, has had such moments at one time or another. You’re in a trough. Forward progress on your current project has slowed, or stopped altogether. Your partly-finished manuscript sits expectantly on your computer drive, awaiting your return and giving off what looks like a faint radioactive glow every time you walk past the door of your dark office.

You’ve lost the Big Mo – the elusive and magical momentum that feeds on itself and keeps the words flowing.

How do you get it back?

I’d love to tell you I have a sure-fire recipe. If I did, I’d have at least three finished third drafts out there hunting for glory in agent land – instead of one sprawling first draft that needs a lot of work, one half-finished first draft that might have some promise, and one new story concept with a (pretty good) opening chapter. Oh yeah, and approximately 85,000 words of blog posts.

But since this is a problem I’m trying to wrestle to the ground myself right now, I’ll throw out some ideas anyway. Maybe some of them will work.

The first thing is to try to understand what the Big Mo really is, and where it comes from. Originally a sports term, it refers to “behavioural momentum” that comes from victories or other affirmative experiences, and confers an advantage on the team (or political party, or economic cycle, or social movement) that has apparently “caught fire”.

The Big Mo is both real (delivering actual results) and ephemeral (in that it seems to be sustained by nothing more than confidence, hope and belief). It can be a powerful force one day, and the next day collapse into a pile of ash when it burns through all its oxygen. But sometimes it persists for a long cycle and, if continually reinforced, momentum can become resistant to change.

Newton's Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Newton’s Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Like Newton’s Cradle, it can appear to become perpetual.

Generally, the phenomenon of Big Mo has been thought of as a large scale mechanism, something that applies to collective behaviour. Psychologists have studied it, even developing a methodology for calculating its impact. Economists have based market theories on it. Politicians have built campaigns around it. Technology has created the social media tools to both stimulate and record Big Mo. Even physicists have gotten into the act, likening it to aspects of quantum field theory. And some of the most hilarious and quirky superstitions in the world of big-league sports arise from players’ attempts to keep their Big Mo streaks alive (never more charmingly portrayed than in the movie Bull Durham).

The question is: can this “networked” phenomenon be achieved on a small scale? Like for an individual writer? Well, why not? “Behavioural persistence” theory is apparently now being used in the development of drug rehabilitation programs, harnessing momentum to counter the prospects of relapse. (Okay, it’s not a pretty thought, but there are probably some uncomfortable parallels between addicts and writers that I won’t go into right now.)

So … since writers seem to love putting things in lists, here are my completely unproven but patently reasonable suggestions for writers who need some momentum. Warning: some of this is harsh. But you want to finish that book, don’t you?

Silk’s Top 10 Strategies for Getting Your Big Mo Back

1. Purge the filler. Examine what you actually do every day (besides writing) and make a list of your personal time wasters. I know you have them. Everyone does. Angry Birds. Television. Web surfing. Anything even slightly obsessive, even cleaning. Find ’em and just stop doing them. Or put yourself on a time-waster diet. An hour or two a day, tops. Wow! Now you suddenly have all the time you need to write!

2. Try, try, try to write on a regular schedule. This, for many of us, is the hardest thing to achieve. But most of us work (or once worked) at something that required us to be somewhere every day at a certain time and place to do a certain thing. This is no different. If we’re honest, there are three main reasons it’s hard to schedule writing. First, we put other’s needs and demands ahead of our own; we let everything in the world crash our writing schedule. Second, we don’t really think writing is an imperative, or at least not more important than, say, washing the windows or catching the latest Anthony Bourdain. Third, we use every possible excuse to avoid writing when we feel secretly afraid of failure. Okay, maybe this is just me. But you have your own hang-ups, I bet. Writing on a regular schedule is not a cure for them. But it’s a trigger for momentum, purely through discipline.

3. Every time you get a good chunk of writing (or outlining or research) done, reward yourself. If you’re able to get into the habit of writing on a regular schedule, that means you deserve at least one reward per day. This isn’t a game. We all need that positive reinforcement. It’s what builds Big Mo. Make it something that counts. Today I rewarded myself by registering for the Surrey International Writers Conference in October. Tomorrow, maybe all I’ll get is a brownie, but that’s okay. I love brownies. (I recommend against rewarding yourself with a full bottle of wine every day; see earlier reference to parallels between addicts and writers.)

4. Amplify your momentum by being part of a larger group. Big Mo is described as a group phenomenon for a reason: we get energy, positive reinforcement and contact highs from other people on our team. (Isn’t this what sports, politics and religion is all about?) Writing is an isolating profession. Even if you’re an introvert, even if you think your work is “not good enough”, even if there are all kinds of obstacles to doing it, you need to commune with other writers. Find a writers group. Can’t find one? Start one. (If it weren’t for my 5/5/5 friends, I probably would have given up long ago.) Go to workshops or classes or seminars and rub elbows. Go to writers conferences. Yes, they’re basically trade fairs that sell books and advice (and hope) to writers. Go anyway. (Surrey International Writers Conference, here I come for the 7th time!) You’ll meet people like you. You’ll come home energized. I guarantee it. Writing requires faith. Become part of a writing congregation.

5. Read, read, read, read, read. Reading is never on the list of time-wasters. Reading is learning. Reading is like drinking water for a writer: you can’t live without it. Read about writing. There is so much in print and online it isn’t funny. Even if you don’t always learn something new, you may see something you already “know” differently, and reading about writing will keep your head into writing, simple as that. When you’re not reading about writing, just read good stuff. Your favourite authors. Different genres. Fiction. Non-fiction. Everything. Learn from it all, good and bad. When you just can’t face writing your own stuff during your “scheduled” writing time, read instead. It might inspire you.

6. Cultivate your curiosity. Curiosity is an attitude of openness and engagement. It feeds imagination. It keeps your senses constantly on the lookout for novelty, insights, revelations and surprises. It stimulates the brain and the heart. It keeps you from getting bored, and boredom is a momentum killer. Incurious people are dull, and dull people don’t write interesting things.

7. Practice flexibility and adaptation. If you have to have a certain chair and a certain coffee mug and all your pencils and pens lined up north to south before you can settle down to write, you’re in big trouble. Many books encourage writers to set up their writing space to suit their work style on the theory that this leads to higher productivity. Can’t argue with that. But then there’s what I call the “bomb shelter problem”. If you’re not home when the bomb drops, your shelter is useless. People have busier, more mobile lives than ever. Keeping a regular writing schedule is harder – sometimes much harder – when you’re away from your own domain and daily routine. So you have to learn to adapt without fuss. Write in the hotel room or the airport or on the boat. Don’t wait for things to get back to “normal” to resume your writing schedule, because by then the Big Mo will be down the drain, like your tan.

8. If you really hit a wall with your main project, write something else. Writer’s block is real. So is burn-out. Sometimes your brain just needs to fall back and re-group before it’s ready to scale that particular wall. But keep writing anyway. Do a blog post. Write an essay. Try a poem or a short story. Write in your journal. Just keep writing. Attack the book again after a rest from it. A short rest.

9. Make your peace with your non-writing friends and family. Some people who are close to a writer are incredibly supportive, both in word and deed. Then there are the more normal people who want to be supportive … as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them too much. Living with a writer can get lonely. People understandably get a bit testy about missing meals, say, or having to build their own schedule around your work. Maybe they’d like a little more of your attention, or would appreciate your calling more if it resulted in some published books and income. It’s hard for a non-writer to understand what drives us, and to share our solitary writing life. Everyone’s situation is different, but two goals are pretty universal: that the people closest to you feel they have some personal stake in your writing, and that you don’t neglect their needs and wants. Fair’s fair.

10. Stay healthy. Be happy.  All that advice they give you about a healthy lifestyle applies double to people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer thinking their brains out. Eating right, keeping your body moving, spending time outdoors, getting some R&R, sleeping well, having some fun, maintaining your relationships and social life with emotional intelligence. You’ve heard it all. Take it to heart. I can’t remember which writer it was who claimed he wrote every single day of every single year, except his birthday. Somebody successful, rich and famous. I’m in awe of that level of obsession. But most of us need to have an actual life to keep up our Big Mo as writers. So, besides being good to the people around you, be good to yourself.