The age of the hybrid


Silk’s Post #91 — Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “hybrid”?

Cars that run on gas and electric power? You’re probably ecologically-minded.

More productive strains of corn and tomatoes? You’re probably a farmer or a gardener.

Alien lifeforms arising from cosmic cross-breeding? You’re probably a sci-fi fan.

Your next book? Wait a minute. What do hybrids have to do with books and authors?

Possibly everything.

As part of my preparation for our next crazy 5writers challenge (launching September 5, 2014 … watch for it!), I’ve been doing yet more research on the publishing industry. This may seem redundant, since the five of us – as wannabe-published authors – have tried to  proactively inform ourselves about what it takes to get in print. Many books, many articles, many blogs, many discussions with published authors, many scans of online writers’ groups, many workshops, and many writers’ conferences later, we thought we were on top of it.

Think again.

What my latest web scan revealed is that publishing opportunities yesterday are already very different from publishing opportunities today, and I mean that literally, not figuratively. Whatever received wisdom you believed about publishing, say, six months ago, it’s probably wrong now.

Because we’ve now entered a new age: the age of the hybrid author.

Here’s how Chuck Wendig, in his February 2014 Writer’s Digest Magazine article “Case Study: Becoming a Hybrid Author”, describes this new creature we are all probably going to morph into:

“A hybrid author is one who refuses to accept that there exists One True Way up the Publishing Mountain and who embraces all the methods available. The hybrid author prefers a diverse approach to getting her work out there, which means utilizing both the traditional system of publishing and also acting as an author-publisher in order to retain control and self-publish her own work.”

This may not sound new to you. Self-publishing has been going on forever. But here’s what’s different in the new hybrid world:

#1 – There ain’t no taint to self-publishing

The headwinds buffeting the traditional book publishing industry are blowing away some old musty ideas. Historically, self-published authors who resorted to “vanity presses” to see their own words in print were presumed to be – forgive the expression – permanent rejects. Tainted. Writers whose work was never going to be good enough to get out of the slush pile. Budding authors were warned that self-publishing was the kiss of death with agents and “real” publishers.

Now, let’s be realistic. Is there some real sh*t out there among self-published works? Yep. Lots of it. (Of course, it’s self-evident to the discerning reader that traditional publishing is not exactly sh*t free, either). But self-publishing a book is no longer considered a literary felony, sentencing the author to automatic disqualification from working within the traditional publishing system on other projects.

Writers who evolve to this new hybrid author state may be the survivors in this new publishing environment.

#2 – In today’s marketplace, all writers need to be entrepreneurial

I don’t think I’ll stir up a lot of disagreement when I suggest that the publishing industry is undergoing massive change. I’m no economist, but it’s easy to see industry after industry becoming revolutionized in our newly networked, globalized world.

These factors have accelerated the free-market cycle, where businesses spring up, compete and grow in the lush times, then consolidate when things get leaner and meaner. The strong swallow the weak, gaining control of the marketplace (for instance, only a handful of publishing empires now control most imprints you’ve ever heard of). Ouch. There are so many reasons to worry about powerful monopolies that are bottom-line by nature, serving shareholders first, customers second, and suppliers/producers (often) last. This is especially sensitive in industries that sell creative products.

Monopolies that calcify can become vulnerable – more fragile than they seem. Enter the independent challengers: the Amazons and Apples of the world who move fast, break the rules, and build new business models (and monopolies of their own) on a large scale. But this upheaval also leaves space for many new players: the smaller-scale indies. They’re like economic phytoplankton, the profusion of life at the bottom of the food chain that keeps the whole ecosystem alive.

This pattern is already well underway in the music industry, in the movie industry, in magazines and newspapers, in radio and television. Virtually everything that has to do with news and entertainment is in flux.

The book industry is following suit. Where once there were clear rules, standards and pathways to success, now virtually anything goes. Anything that works. There will, of course, be winners and losers (and I truly mourn the decline of the comforting, beautiful, traditional bookstore). There will be good and bad outcomes. The deserving will not always be rewarded. And the roadmaps that will help authors find their way to the goal of publication and success are still being drawn.

Hybrid authors will need to become creative opportunists.

#3 – There are more reasons to self-publish than rejection

Increasingly, writers with their ears to the ground will hear strange tales of bestselling authors choosing to self-publish a project. Of new authors turning down traditional publishing contracts in favour of going the indie route. Of agents working with hybrid authors in new ways, and seeking new talent among the latest crop of successful self-published writers.


Where will you find these weird anomalies in the books of advice for writers on your groaning bookshelf? You probably won’t, unless the book was published very recently. You may begin to hear hints and rumours at a writers’ conference workshop. But if you look in the right places online – where trends now show up first – you’ll discover that the hybrid author is already alive and well. And comes in every shape and size.

So why would any author actually choose self-publication over the traditional route – except rejection? Isn’t traditional publishing the holy grail we’re all seeking? Here are just a few possible reasons:

Creative freedom — An established writer may want to do a project her traditional publisher is not interested in. Maybe it’s outside the writer’s usual genre, or it’s experimental, or for some other reason the publisher doesn’t think it will fit their list or profit expectations. What choice does the writer have but to follow the creative dictates of her publisher? Yep. Become her own publisher.

Money — A writer, whether previously published or not, may put on his business hat and take a close look at the numbers. Shockingly, he discovers that he can make more money – sometimes a lot more – if he self-publishes than if he signs a contract with a traditional publisher, based on realistic estimates of sales and author revenue likely to be generated by the two different routes. Careful, though. Risk-reward ratio is not an easy calculation to do, even for the experienced. Better rattle some chicken bones and throw in some eye of newt for good luck. Welcome to entrepreneurship.

Choice and control — A writer may want to keep certain publishing rights – such as e-book rights – and sell other rights to a traditional publisher. The author may have already self-published electronically, but now has an opportunity to take her book to market with an interested publisher. Or she may have been traditionally published and now wants more control of a new project and an opportunity to share more of the profits. This is where the new hybrid agent and the new hybrid author may need to have a meeting of the minds. Tricky new territory, but early pioneers could be creating the pathways and precedents for many hybrid authors to follow.

Career direction — A published mid-list writer may be dropped by his traditional publishing house, and now must either self-publish, or find another publisher (and not many traditional publishers are dying to sign up lots of new mid-list authors who have been dropped elsewhere). Of course, she could always take up another career such as brain surgery, which might be less daunting. Getting back on the horse may require becoming a hybrid author.

So that’s what I’ve learned from my research to date. I know just enough to know that I need to learn a lot more about hybrid authorship. It’s a brave new world out there.

What do you think about it? Was any of this news to you?

Does it fill you with excitement and hope … or does it seem fearfully overwhelming?

We’d love to hear your comments.




Mixed media can challenge your writing

Karalee’s Post #74

I’ve had the pleasure of going to a couple of live performances in the last month. One was a theater production called Helen Lawrence at the Stanley Theater in Vancouver. The second was Pixar in Concert by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Both used mixed medias.

For me, one was more successful than the other. When I considered why the reason came down to the level of concentration required to understand what was happening. I go to live performances to be entertained and expect to concentrate and pay attention, but I don’t want to have to think (or concentrate) so hard I get a headache.

8556714237 Chad Cooper Flickr


Of course this made me aware of how much information and how complex my characters and setting can be before overwhelming or confusing readers to the point of disinterest or giving up.



Helen Lawrence (screenwriter Chris Haddock) was, quote, “an intoxicating mixed media spectacle set in the Vancouver of 1948.”

This theater performance had actors on stage with a black and white “old” movie of exactly what was being performed on stage being projected through the actors onto the screen behind. For me it was very difficult to decide what to focus on. My attention kept going between the screen and the actors to the point that I lost the jist of the plot.

I became confused and frankly, not entertained. My husband tends to get seasick and next to me he was feeling nauseous.  For both of us, this experiment with mixed media didn’t work.

On the other hand, Pixar in Concert had the Vancouver Symphony playing on stage while at the same time (silent) excerpts from the animated movies lit up a huge screen behind. At first my attention was pulled between the concert players and the running movie, but because the two complimented each other I was able to take in both, or concentrate on either one or the other, and still understand what was happening.

I was entertained.

This mixed media took more concentration than just listening to a symphony performance, but not so much I became confused or had to concentrate so hard I gave up.

This is a great lesson for my writing. There is nothing wrong with pushing my writing beyond my comfort zone and trying out complicated plots and characters, or adding multiple subplots, or pushing conventional morals and attitudes. I can go ahead and challenge the conventions.

But at the end of the first draft, I know to have a good look and make sure the story hasn’t become too complicated to make sense without having to concentrate to the point of giving up.

No matter what, a story needs to be entertaining.

Happy writing!

My love letter to writers


Silk’s Post #72 — Writers are Beautiful Dreamers. That’s one of the things I love best about them, and I’m coming to realize that it’s probably my key motivator in choosing the writing life. So this is my love letter to kindred spirits.

This special species of human being – the Beautiful Dreamer – has always been relatively rare, except among children. We are supposed to grow out of this mentality when we hit adulthood, as though there’s obviously something more important to achieve in life than being curious, imaginative, empathetic, creative and hopeful. As though ‘dreaming’ and ‘working’ are two different planets that inhabit separate galaxies, never to come within a million light-years of each other’s orbits.

It’s no surprise that Beautiful Dreamers tend to cluster in the arts. Or that their primary motivation, and reward, is not really about making money. How many creative people were discouraged in their youth from pursuing their dream to be a novelist, a singer, a painter, a playwright, a sculptor, an actor, a dancer, an inventor? The talents for which children are lavishly praised (“What a beautiful painting, pumpkin”) somehow become re-cast as irrelevant hobbies when it’s time to choose a real profession (“But sweetheart, you can’t really expect to make a living as a painter”).

When I ran my agency, I employed many very talented fine artists who, in order to pay the rent, re-channeled their creativity into what was originally called ‘commercial art’ (later to be known as the disciplines of graphic design and illustration). Fortunately, most of them remained Beautiful Dreamers.

What especially confuses the pursuit of writing for Beautiful Dreamers is that it’s so pervasive in everyday life – a river fed by so many disparate streams.

“Everyone’s a writer,” we used to lament with a roll of our eyes in the agency business. Meaning: every client thinks they (or their office assistant or their sales associate) can write a headline, a slogan, a TV commercial. And they can. But most of the results are laughably dreadful and hackneyed (sorry, former clients, I exaggerate of course).

The fact is that everyone who’s literate does write – even if it doesn’t go much beyond emails or reports or business letters. Not everybody paints or sculpts – or even sings or dances – but pretty well everybody writes. And the special disciplines of professional writing (technical, journalistic, business, academic, scientific, promotional and other commercial writing forms) all demand high skill levels, offer some level of personal reward, and often even pay well. Lots of writers who dream of being novelists wind up in these niches.

I did.

But when I made the shift from my make-a-living career to my make-a-life career as a novelist, I had to resuscitate my slumbering Beautiful Dreamer. Believe me, it wasn’t just asleep, it was virtually in a coma after all those years of dreamless commercial writing.

My realist left brain told me that writing a novel would be nothing more than a hobby, an affectation. An amusing retirement time-filler now that my important (i.e., commercially valued) writing career was behind me. But that was just a cynic’s hangover from my many years of jaded adulthood.

After the rejuvenating therapy of attending writers conferences, working with my cherished 5writers colleagues/friends, and tentatively stumbling my way through my first novel and halfway through my second, my Beautiful Dreamer right brain has finally regained full consciousness. It took about three years. (Who expected that?)

Beautiful Dreamers believe in possibilities, even remote ones. When they’re told something is impossible, it doesn’t fling them into despair – it spurs them on. When popular wisdom dismisses freewheeling imagination and creativity as unserious indulgences, Beautiful Dreamers thumb their noses and push themselves farther out into uncharted territory, looking for—something. They don’t know what yet, but it’s out there …

… Some kind of truth, something that matters. Some different revelatory perspective. Some story that can be told in visuals, or sounds, or words – a story that will show us what it is to be human. A story with the power to make people care, laugh, think, cry, understand, love.

What sort of crazy pursuit is this? Well, not the kind many people really bother with after the age of, say, 18 or so. It violates the left-brained, adult notion that setting off without knowing your destination is folly. This ‘rule’ confuses purposeful, open-minded exploration with wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Beautiful Dreamers may seek their holy grails, but also accept that the journey, in itself, can be a kind of destination.

What prompted all this introspection? By chance, I tuned in yesterday to “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To the Beatles,” which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the night the Fab Four first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1964 and set off a mania.

Okay, I hear you saying “Cool,” but if you have even one skeptical brain cell, you may be automatically classifying this as nostalgic trivia. Another cheesy tribute show where all the obligatory stars come out in their spangles and pretend to be each others’ BFFs with phoney air kisses. An entertainment package aimed at baby boomers longing for their glory days, designed to sell air time to pharmaceutical companies eager to sell their target audience all manner of products to perk up their aging bodies. I’ll admit it, that’s where my mind went first.

But as I quieted my inner party pooper and listened to the music again – for the first time in a long time, truth be told – my Beautiful Dreamer got up and started dancing in my head. Not out of nostalgia for my youth. Not out of sentimentality for the flowering of my generation. Just simply because of the music itself. The art of it. The hopeful, wise, uplifting, anything’s-possible, Beautiful Dreamer quality of the tunes that made the Beatles one of the greatest bands in history.

I hadn’t realized until that night the degree to which I had dismissed them as a pop-culture artifact of the sixties. In the process of ‘maturing’ into a responsible adult, I had distanced myself from their optimistic, idealistic, yet irreverent music. Kids’ music. As I marched into the future with the rest of the gigantic (some might say robotic) baby boom cohort, I didn’t want to be ‘dated’ – stuck in what Bruce Springsteen slyly called “boring stories of glory days.” Oldies stations were for oldies. Masters (and Mistresses) of the Universe look ahead, not back.

But here I sat, listening to the old music with new ears, tears streaming down my face. Why? Because it felt so good to immerse myself in a soundtrack written by and for Beautiful Dreamers. Just as they did back when, the Beatles’ songs filled me full of hope and joy. The melodies and words still felt fresh. Timeless, in the same way that dreams always belong to the present and never get ‘dated’.

It was like waking up from a years-long sleep, and thinking – Where was I? Oh yeah, I remember. This is what I was supposed to be doing. Dreaming. Not sleeping.

Perhaps not all writers are Beautiful Dreamers. But a lot of them are, and I love them for it. As seekers, they elevate the world. They prize freedom. They are mindful. They help counteract the dead weight of skepticism, expediency, selfishness, fear, intolerance, corruption and other forms of negativity that drag humanity down to the level of our baser instincts.

In other words, we need as many of this breed as we can cultivate.

So, following the prescription that ‘All You Need Is Love’, I want to tell all you writers and other hopeful, curious, caring, creative souls out there that you are Beautiful Dreamers, and you’re close to my heart.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The most amazing YA book insight of all time

Joe’s Post #71

dr hoAre you ready for such an insight? Something so amazing it will be like Dr. Ho’s secret for weight-loss, migraines and dementia combined with Monty Python’s meaning of life?

It came to me last night as I lay in bed, eye still twitching from a day spent dealing with used car salesmen. I was reading Quarantine, a terrific book that is basically Lord of the Flies on steroids. (See, why can’t I think of a quick pitch like that?!?!) It’s not like a lot of the YA books I’ve read recently and that got me to thinking.

What makes a good YA book?

The answer? The amazing insight I had?

It varies.

Ok, I know that’s not an answer, but yet it is. Here’s the thing. A good YA book doesn’t always have to have a dystopian theme. It doesn’t have to have a female character as the protagonist. With or without a bow. It doesn’t have to be 64,000 words. Or 120,000 words. It doesn’t even have to be all light and airy.

That’s not to say there aren’t some guidelines. See the Dummies’ guide. But the more I read, the more I realize that a good story is a good story. No rules. No have-to’s. No restrictions.

city of bonesYou want sex. There’s books out there like that, some pretty hard core. You want violence, well, no big surprise, but they are out there as well. You want books about abuse and drugs, or about angel spawn and demons, or about loss and love? All there.

The key, at least for me as a reader, an old, kinda wrinkly reader, is that I have to have a few things that work. I chose all YA books off the best-seller lists (I mean, why not, all those authors are doing something right) and so clearly these books speak to them young’uns as well.

So, it varies what makes a good YA book. Like any book. But if anyone wanted to know my opinion, based on nothing more than reading a few books and having an ego that thinks everyone wants to hear my opinion, here are a few suggestions for anyone writing for that segment.

1) Big ideas help. Hunger Games. Huge. Kids killing kids so they can feed their districts. Oh, how I would have loved to see how that one was pitched.

2) Things have to happen fast.  Quarantine. Hunger Games. Read them both. Take a look. Plenty of other great examples out there but these rock. I think that more than adult fiction, YA fiction needs to grab it’s readers by the throat and not let them go.

imagesCAUTN5WE3) Character matters. Of course it does. How could it not? Take a look at Celaena Sardothien (I know, I know, that’s not an easy name to get your mouth around) from Throne of Glass. Or if you want to go all old-school, look no farther than Harry Potter (a mid-grade novel that stole the hearts of YA readers as well).

4) Voice, my friends, voice, voicie-voice McVoicie. All good novels have it. YA needs it even more. Voice is attitude. Voice is character. Voice is what sets one novel apart from another (and usually a best seller from one that gets rejections).

5) Anything goes. Oh, you doubt me? Read the Book Thief. Yes, it’s YA and one of the most beautiful and haunting books I’ve ever read. But boy oh boy, does it break the rules. Or look at Divergent. It starts with a character looking in the mirror (and who amongst us has to be told to NEVER do that?). Or even the other books I’ve cited. Harry Potter, a midgrade book that sold billions. Hunger Games, a book about children killing children. The list goes on and on.

So, as I prepare to send off my queries and pages, I have to keep this in mind. It shouldn’t matter that there isn’t a book like mine for that market. In fact, I think THAT should be a selling point. It shouldn’t matter that I’ve broken some rules. It shouldn’t even matter that it’s a wee bit longer than most.

All that matters is story – and I hope that I’ve written a good enough one.

To grab any reader.

Second thoughts on secondary characters

Joe’s Post #44

puss and bootsOh, how we all struggle with this one, falling in love with our secondary characters and why they are so much easier to write.

Karalee and Silk both have good observations and I would like to add Charlie Jane Anders, who had some great advice on creating them. But, at least for me, they are easier for one simple reason.

They are fun.

They can do things my main characters could never do, say things they could never do, think things unthinkable. They don’t have to worry about carrying a whole story on their back. They don’t have to be politically correct. They don’t have to fear people hating them. They can live larger lives, outrageous lives, if necessary, and they can have fun.

And they know it.

It’s easy for them. All they have to do is show up, help or hinder the main character, make the reader laugh or cry a few times, perhaps even die if needed.  It’s a dream job. No pressure. No real expectations. It’s all wide open for them.

imagesCA4VT6TJHence, the writer can have fun with them. Sure they can have arcs, sure they can have a backstory, sure they can influence the outcome of the novel, but they are accessories. Like nice boots. Nice black leather, knee high boots that… oops sorry, nearly went off into la-la land there. Where was I? Right. Boots.

So, I ask you, what’s more fun? Writing about boots or writing about complex characters who have to shoulder the load of a whole book? I know my answer.

The real trick, I think, is not that secondary characters are sometimes easier to write, certainly more fun, sometimes even more interesting than our main characters, the trick is to kick up your main character to that level.

I mean, why not have some think something unthinkable? Why not have them say something terrible? Why not risk them doing something that may get them hated? As one of my writer friends once asked me, what if your main character misbehaves?

So, rather than fearing the secondary character, they are, after all, just there for fun, what can we do to enhance our main character, and (by doing so) make the story EVEN better?

Ask your secondary characters.

They know.

5 things I learned from Game of Thrones

grr got

Joe’s Post #38 — A few of the people on this planet have not watched HBO’s “Game of Thrones”. To my mind, it is the best show on TV, an epic, character-driven story set in GRR Martin’s fantasy world. It’s made me laugh. It’s certainly made me cry. It’s made me miss supper and believe me, that’s a big one!

And that got me thinking.

How has it affected the way I write? So, 5 things I’ve learned.

1) Do not be afraid to kill off your characters. Oh, I will go back to my own novel with a knife, now. Watch out cute bears! Be warned handsome hunters wooing my protagonist. I’m coming for you. (It’s far too easy to fall in love with your creations. Hey, you’ve birthed them, spent time with them, struggled with them, but sometimes they have to die.)

Many with disagree with what was done on the second to last episode of season 3. Some are even very angry. But here’s my thinking. It got everyone talking. Has anyone given up watching that show based on the last episode? Probably not. But oh momma, has it ever fired up the viewers. Who could not want to find out what happens next?

What more could a writer want?

2) Setting: Gloriously shown on TV, the settings breathe life into the story. The bleak and frozen land beyond the wall. The stark throne room in King’s Landing, complete with a throne made out of swords. The haunted ruins of Harrenhall.

The settings are so well done, both in the books and on-screen, that they become characters unto themselves. When I go to do my rewrite, I will look at kicking up all my settings. I will make them sing. I will make them shine. I will make a world that is both grand in scope and glorious in its details.

3)  How to make a villain likeable 101: Oh my goodness does this show do that in spades. The transformation of Jamie Lannister from ‘oh I want that guy dead and dead now’ to ‘oh isn’t he heroic?’ is nothing short of a masterpiece of writing. And here’s the kicker … he’s the same guy he was in the beginning as the man we hated as he is when he becomes a man we like. That’s the genius of the writing.

When you’re watching the show for the 9th time, take a look at how it’s done, at how the layers are peeled back to reveal not a two dimensional douche but a man who loves, perhaps not wisely, but passionately, a man who’s had to make some very hard choices and a man who is in serious need of a good PR department.

I know my villain’s backstory and why he so desperately desires to bugger up my heroes’ lives. I do. But I need more of that in my story. I need to flesh him out. Dig him out of his hole. Expose him to light. And, who knows, maybe like JL, you’ll find him a little more compelling.

4) Details matter: From the crests of all the houses, from the harpy above the free cities, from the curved swords of the Dothraki, it’s not enough to have grand settings, the little things matter, too.

I’ve got a few cool details in my world but what if I had more? What if I looked at every character, every scene, every moment in the story and asked, how could I make this better?

grr books5) There are no rules for writing: That second to last episode proved that, but look at the story as a whole. He wrote a fantasy story, a brave choice in and of itself. (I mean, who wants to walk into a party and explain that you do THAT for a living!) He has a bazillion characters we follow. He’s not afraid to kill people we love. He’s got a HUGE story that may very well take a hundred books/shows to finish and yet with all the rules that he breaks, we simply HAVE to watch the show, have to find out what happens next.

It’s because George Martin knows how to tell a good story and damn the rules. Not damn all the rules, you understand, but damn those that get in the way of him telling a great story.

He knows how to inspire the readers/audience, but he also inspires me.

He inspires me to do better. To write that amazing story that everyone will want to read.

That’s the most important lesson we can all learn as beginning writers. Write the story you want to tell. Write that story that everyone will love.

Now, back to my critiquing. Only one novel left.

Writing Advice – 5¢


Credit: iStock licensed image

Silk’s Post #38 — Helga always comes up with the best advice on writing from her beloved ‘masters’. She has enlightened us recently with her exploration of le Carré, and the fabulous quotes she found from Hemingway and Atwood. Can you tell she loves to research?

When I glance at my groaning writer’s bookshelf, I see advice from writers P.D. James, Bill Bryson, Kingsley Amis, Janet Evanovich, Ray Bradbury, Elizabeth George, Jack Hodgins, Hallie Ephron, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, William Safire, and of course everyone’s favourite man-of-few-words, Elmore Leonard (who nevertheless managed to stretch his famous 10 Rules of Writing out into an 89-page hardcover book, although, to be fair, it does have pictures).

That list doesn’t even include the dozens of books I’ve happily purchased at writers’ conferences and online that are full of writing advice from experts who are better known as writing teachers, editors, literary agents, writing coaches, publishers and others who write about writing (although some of them also write, well, regular writing too).

This all got me thinking about advice writers give other writers. Let’s face it, we are awash in it. In fact, there are times I feel I could actually drown in writing advice. Like so many other things we struggle to learn, it all makes sense … it’s all so easy … once we already know the thing from our own experience. Oh, conceptually it’s not difficult to wrap your mind around. We’ve all read the many, many lists of rules. (Most of them say much the same thing, so don’t bother reading all of them hoping to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). And, just to make matters a bit trickier, there’s lots of equally sensible sounding advice that tells us there are no rules.

But don’t think for a minute that I don’t appreciate all this advice. Believe me, I do. I lap it up. A prolonged bout of writer’s block – say anything over 15 or 20 minutes (yes, I’m kidding) – sends me straight to the bookshelf for a dose of it. An hour or two wallowing in advice usually brings my blood pressure down without need for further medication, after which I can calmly return to my blank page with a very clear idea of what not to do.

What’s so much harder than grasping the concept, of course, is applying all this good advice to your own work right there on that actual blank page. It’s a little like trying to learn to play a sport by watching it on TV.  I don’t care how many times you see Tiger Woods swing a golf club or read books or study videos by golf pros, it’s not going to automatically get you into the cup in three strokes. Really, you just have to whack away until you ‘get it’ intuitively, physically, right in your bones.

Still, I’m grateful when I read advice from a great writer who once, like me, wasn’t. It’s a comfort.

Was there ever a profession more generous with its trade secrets? So full of mentors, coaches, evangelists? Writers seem to love to write for each other and about each other. After all, it’s what we do and who we are. I can’t imagine the same sort of soul connection between, say, chemists or bankers. Writers all have a common cause, a shared belief in the power of words and ideas, a passion for stories. We’re in love with them. Why else would most of us invest the insane amount of time, effort and heart into our work for so long with so little recognition or recompense to show for it?

Perhaps that’s one reason writers are so absolutely tribal, such a mutual aid society. Or maybe our willing embrace of each other comes from working alone so much.

Seriously, if you’re ever sitting by yourself in a strange airport or a crowded restaurant and you feel the need for human contact, just ask around and find yourself another writer. There’s bound to be one close by, if you believe the (now hoary but never really refuted) research finding that 80 percent of Americans want to write a book. When you locate this other writer (or wannabe writer), I guarantee you will have a lively conversation partner until your plane takes off or your dinner arrives. No secret handshakes required.

safire-bookBut back to Good Advice on Writing, which just happens to the title of a book by William Safire and his brother, Leonard Safir, on the topic. This is probably the best anthology of quotes on good writing ever collected – a whole bookshelf between two covers.

(I always had a bit of a crush on William Safire, the crusty, crafty columnist for the New York Times for 30 plus years. While I found his libertarian political views appalling, though always expressed with seductive charm, his columns on language were some of the best entertainment in print. Safire, in fact, wrote in just about every format imaginable; by his own account he was a: “reporter, press agent, lexicographer, speechwriter, novelist, pundit, anthologist and language maven.”)

Even in the preface to the book, impatient perhaps to get to the point, Safire immediately begins doling out good advice. When I read him, I feel like we’re sitting together in a good bar in New York City, chatting writer-to-writer over some kind of cocktails they haven’t mixed since the 1940s. Here’s a sample:

“This anthology is for the reading writer; specifically, the writer interested in good advice from successful practitioners in the art of transmitting original ideas. Although you are at the moment in the role of a reader, I presume you are a writer, or would like to be a writer, or get a kick out of hanging around writers and would not be averse to having them consider you a valuable associate.

“For me – the one doing the writing in this writer-reader symbiosis – that happily defines this book’s primary audience, but to you – the reading writer – it should raise the question: Is it a good idea for a writer to try to define an audience? More broadly, whom is the writer writing for? William Zinsser, quoted herein, has this answer: ‘You are writing for yourself … Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it.’

“Writing for yourself is not as arrogant as it seems … in the big writing decisions, from the selection of theme to the evocation of character, the good writer thinks only of an audience of Number One. Self-indulgent? Sure; that’s one of the pleasures that come with the pain of pulling a real purpose out of your mind. Creative authenticity comes from seeking to suit oneself and rarely springs from a desire to please others.”

Safire even advises us about the advice to be found in his book. He encourages skepticism.

“When writers read, they read with narrowed eyes, knowing that their emotions or thought processes are being manipulated and subtly directed by a fellow member of the scribe tribe … Writers read skeptically, often doubtfully … Reading writers are never mere receptacles. Read the sometimes conflicting advice of other writers [in this anthology] to help sharpen [your] purpose, but read with those narrowed eyes.”

To illustrate, he quotes one of his favourite pieces of advice from Somerset Maugham:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

But should that seem to throw a pall on our writers’ tête à tête (remember, we’re still sitting in that New York bar), Safire just orders another round of Sidecars, or Rusty Nails or whatever our poison might be and reminds us why we’re all in this crazy world together:

“Many of us have been in varying lines of work, but insist that first and last we are writers. That’s because writing is less a profession than a professing – a way of stimulating, organizing and affirming thoughts to give meaning to some slice of life.

“When you’re tired of writing, you’re tired of life.”

Dark and Dangerous

Image courtesy Pando Hall Magnus

Image courtesy Pando Hall Magnus

Helga’s Post #31 — Today, I spent my time on something naughty: I buried my nose in EROTICA.

Inspiration came via email from Kobo. They recommended two new titles for me. The first, which I am looking forward to read, is Khaled Husseini’s new novel And the Mountains Echoed. If it’s as good as The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, then his legions of fans, including me, will be in for a treat.

The second title Kobo recommended for me (for reasons unknown) was ‘Entwined With You’ by Erotica queen Sylvia Day. Never heard of her? Take note of her accomplishments:

#1 New York Times and #1 international bestselling author of more than a dozen award-winning novels sold in thirty-nine countries. A reader favorite across several genres, there are millions of copies of her books in print worldwide. She has been nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Author, has won the RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award, and has been nominated for Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA award twice.

I was intrigued. I was also in search of a topic for today’s post. So I started reading those ‘Look Inside’ freebie sample pages that Amazon offers.


When I got to the end, I sat back, trying to decide if I should take a cold shower or get seriously depressed. Or start laughing out loud. The shower would be the obvious option if I wouldn’t be a writer. Seriously depressed is not my personality, so that left ROFL (‘rolling on the floor laughing’ for people of my generation).

Because, if you are a writer in a genre other than Erotica, reading the stuff will amuse you  no end (unless you are a fan of the genre, in which case writing style is irrelevant).

Think about it. We are trained, brainwashed, indoctrinated, beaten into submission, whatever, to follow some pretty universal writing rules. Such as, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Or ‘Avoid adjectives and adverbs’. Reason being, they are your interpretation of the facts. You, the writer, should not have to do that if you present the right facts.

We pay good money to learn that stuff. It’s drilled into us from the day we start writing fiction.

It seems though that breaking the rules is quite okay for publishers of Erotica. In no way am I passing judgment on the genre. It’s good fun to read now and then if you’re able to suspend judgment on style. But I am intrigued as to how many books are published that break those rules we’ve been taught to avoid like the plague.

Not surprisingly, men are often big supporters of their wives reading the stuff. As some Erotica websites claim, husbands may be cowering under the sheets while others are writing thank you letters to these authors who have inspired their wives to turn into veritable pussycats in bed. Or tigresses. (Shades of the the fifties and sixties?)

E L James’ Fifty Shades Trilogy has sold more copies to date than the Harry Potter series (and counting). Even people who had no previous interest in contemporary romance have jumped upon (or are thinking about it) this runaway train and delving into the naughty tale of BDSM.

Help me out here, please. What does that tell us about the book publishing industry? Or (I really, really hate to pose this question), about readers? Wished I knew. What I do know is this: If I would submit chapters of my work similar to some of the books published in the genre to my critique group, they would shoot me down without so much as an apology. Instant death. Go hide below your desk and shame on you. If you survive your justified suicide attempt, go back and fix your garbage. And re-submit again without your boisterous shit and your adjectives and adverbs, and your characters no one can relate to, because they may as well live on some distant planet.

We can’t argue with success, though. I concede that I may be naïve (privilege of a certain age). Perhaps Erotica gets a ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’ when it comes to writing rules. Whatever. It does make me ponder a fundamental question though, which one of my favorite bloggers I follow has raised:

‘Is publishing a book more important than writing the story I want to tell?’

Ah, oh. Not an either/or question. Because if we want to tell a story, by its nature, we want people to read it. And if it’s not published, that ain’t happening. But that’s a topic for another post. So in closing, for your titillating pleasure, here are some Erotica excerpts from Reflected In You (they refer to the same man):

– His glorious shoulder-length mane of inky black hair

– He was a testament to leashed power. There was no need for him to shout when he could get people to quake in their shoes with just a look or a tersely spoken word.

– At the ridiculous age of twenty-eight, he was one of the top twenty-five richest people in the world.

– I was positive he was the hottest man on the planet. And he kept photos of me everywhere he worked.

– He turned, pivoting gracefully to catch me with his icy blue gaze.

– Dark and Dangerous. And all mine.

– Those sculpted cheekbones and dark winged brows, the thickly lashed blue eyes, and those lips… perfectly etched to be both sensual and wicked.

– That look conveyed how hard and deep he wanted to fuck me – which he did every chance he got – and it also afforded me a glimpse of his raw, unrelenting force of will.

– The soft rasp in his smooth cultured voice was nearly capable of making me orgasm just listening to it.

– Confronted with that breathtaking face framed by that lustrous dark hair, I felt my knees weaken just a little.

– I was pretty sure he owned a significant chunk of Manhattan.

– He was outrageously gifted in bed. And he knew it.

– The paparazzi followed his every move.

– With a soft groan he sealed his chiseled mouth over mine.

– He straightened, shrugging off his brooding sensuality and instantly capturing me with his severe intensity. So mercurial – like me.

– His luxurious living room; his private elevator; his black Bentley SUV; a quick glance at my Rolex (all in one paragraph)

– Long enough for his brow to arch over his piercing blue eyes.

– He caught me in his fierce blue gaze.

– He purred, sprawled against the seat with the predatory insouciance of a sleek panther who’d neatly trapped a mouse in his den.

Excited yet? Take a cold shower. Or ROFL. Whatever your inclination. Either way, this genre is the ticket to riches if that’s what you’re aiming for. And you won’t have to worry about adjectives and adverbs. LOL.

How to get rejected in 5 easy pages


Silk’s Post #31 — Are you ready to face your greatest fear? The monster under the bed? The thing that makes you break out in a cold sweat?

Okay. Let’s talk about rejection. You’ll feel better, I promise.

When the 5 writers convene our retreat to do our whole-book critiques (which I’ve taken to calling “5 writers critter week”), we will be commenting on all aspects of each other’s books. Characters. Setting. Plot and structure. Style. Ending.

But one of the most important things we’ll be talking about – from the perspective of as-yet unpublished writers who need to (literally) break into the business – is the beginning of each book. Those first few pages that an agent or editor will evaluate to determine whether to immediately discard the manuscript … or read on.

To give the most useful feedback possible on the magic first five pages, we will have to put ourselves in the shoes of an agent or editor. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We 5 writers care about each other, and about each other’s books. The agent or editor does not.

Imagine slogging through dozens, hundreds, thousands of manuscripts. One after another after another. Looking for that rarest of prizes: the potential bestseller written by somebody that no one’s ever heard of. This is what agents and editors do every day. It must be like sifting through a bale of hay … or a whole barn full of hay … searching for a diamond ring. One thing you’d quickly learn is that you can vastly increase your chances of finding that diamond if you can sift through more hay faster.

first-5-pagesIt’s that mindset we writers have to understand. Fortunately, there are a number of good references to help us do that – agents’ websites that give great query tips, hints from successful authors, and books by agents that are rich with advice. One of the most useful of these is The First Five Pages by New York literary agent Noah Lukeman. Here’s what he says about the gatekeepers’ mindset:

“Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript – and believe me, they’ll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.”

It’s that simple, and that brutal. Yikes.

To someone who’s struggled through the process of writing – and rewriting, and re-rewriting  – a 400-page novel, it may seem unfair that it will be judged worthy or unworthy on the basis of just the first one percent of those pages. It makes the process seem like a lottery. Yet Lukeman insists that it is “not a wild assumption” to conclude that:

“… if you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page 1, you will likely find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come.”

Isn’t this like getting flunked on a technicality? What about our incredibly engaging plot? Our vivid, complex characters? Our haunting, unforgettable setting? Surely these things can’t be assessed on the basis of the first five pages. No. They can’t. That’s exactly the point. These strengths we think our book possesses will never be discovered if we can’t convince the agent or editor to turn to page 6.

But before you give up and switch from writing to something easier, like brain surgery or rocket science, consider that these gatekeepers’ “snap” judgements may not be as arbitrary and petty as they sound. Lukeman says:

“… I’ve read thousands of manuscripts, all, unbelievably, with the exact same types of mistakes. From Texas to Oklahoma to California to England to Japan, writers are doing the exact same things wrong.”

So the key, according to him, is to avoid early and obvious errors that give the agent or editor an excuse to stop reading before they get to the good part.

But what exactly are these errors? After studying the advice of Lukeman and others, I have been inspired to follow in the tradition of literary advice-givers by preparing a list of rules. I offer the following helpful prescription for failure, which I urge you not to follow.

Silk’s “Sweet 16” Rules for Almost Guaranteed Rejection

  1. When submitting a query, don’t follow presentation and submission guidelines exactly. Do you really want your manuscript to seem like every other manuscript? Make it stand out and show your individuality and creativity by breaking a few rules.
  2. In your presentation, be sure to impress the agent or editor with your mastery of big words and clever use of foreign phrases. This makes you seem smart and worldly. Extra points if you can force the agent to consult a dictionary.
  3. Pay no mind to the old wives’ tales about clichés. Clichés are the spice of life. Make sure to work some into the first five pages.
  4. Don’t forget to make liberal use of adverbs and adjectives. These clearly and engagingly make your writing all the richer and more enticingly, deliciously entertaining. Remember, every plain verb or noun is just crying out for colourful, descriptive decoration.
  5. Be sure to include sufficient backstory early in the book. You might as well get the painfully boring part over with as quickly as possible, like pulling off a Band-Aid. A few paragraphs of straight narrative is one efficient way to get the reader up to speed. Or stick it in a Prologue.
  6. Nothing makes a first impression more dramatically than an opening scene with lots of blood and gore, blue language and explicit sex. If you can work all these into the first five pages, you’ve hit the Trifecta! Why save the exciting parts for later?
  7. If you want the reader to really pay attention to a sentence, be sure to end it with an exclamation point! Or two!! How are they supposed to know you’re telling them something important?!
  8. Want to introduce doubt, mystery and intrigue into your story right from the beginning? Writers often wonder about this? Here’s a simple and effective way to do it: insert lots of question marks. This really makes readers think.
  9. Don’t waste your time, fussing with punctuation nor spelling; and other archaic grammer rules; as their probably all just going to get changed by some editor after you get you’re book contract, anyway so let the editor’s do there jobs!
  10. An apt metaphor is a sparkling diamond lying supine in the belly button of your novel. A novel without enough metaphors and similes is like a cold, empty Walmart warehouse where the golden links of the supply chain have tragically broken and the shelves are bereft of toys and rubber flip flops.
  11. It’s your book and you should make the reader aware of your presence as a writer right from the get go. This is your place to show off your talent, so indulge yourself and don’t let the story get in the way of your creativity with words. You want your special “voice” to be noticed, so don’t be shy about drawing attention to yourself.
  12. Don’t take the risk of an important concept or plot point getting lost. Make sure the reader “gets” it by saying it several times in slightly different words.
  13. Creative use of dialogue is one of the easiest ways to impress an agent or editor. Several pages of uninterrupted, rapid-fire dialogue, using short sentences and fragments, for instance, is sure to be noticed, especially in the first five pages.
  14. When using attributors in dialogue, choose a variety of verbs and evocative adverbs – such as “she tearfully exclaimed” or “he angrily ejaculated” – in preference to the dull volley of “he said-she said.”
  15. Dialogue is an entertaining way to deliver large chunks of backstory, or tell other facts that are hard to “show.” By disguising the information as “natural” conversation, you can cleverly use your characters to speak for you by proxy.
  16. Use of dialect and slang in dialogue adds spice and authenticity. “Thass cane, innit? A and B the C of D!” is far more colourful, for example, than “That’s excessive, don’t you think? Above and beyond the call of duty!” This kind of dialogue keeps readers and agents right where you want them: guessing.

I wish you the best of luck in boosting your approval ratings by not doing any of this!

Breaking the rules

rule bookSilk’s Post #26 — Everybody ‘writes’. (Let’s leave the very real literacy problem aside for the moment and concede that writing is a pretty commonplace activity.)

We all express ourselves in written words, somewhere, somehow, for some reason.

But becoming a ‘writer’ is quite a different matter. The decision to take up writing as a profession, even when (or maybe especially when) it’s a second career, takes a mole hill and turns it into a mountain. The simple, familiar, natural act of putting words on paper (or on screen) becomes a sometimes bewildering challenge.

You read a book – probably many books – and you become seduced. You think: I can do that, how hard can it be to tell a story?

Of course, very few would admit to thinking that naive thought, especially somewhere around chapter five of their first book. But surely most of us must have privately entertained a similar notion at some point. Otherwise, would we have set out on the Writer’s Journey at all?

Would-be novelists do not get very far down this road before they find themselves anxiously looking for road signs to tell them where they are and how to get to where they want to go. As soon as we realize we’re probably lost, we hunt for a friendly filling station where we can find a map, and maybe buy a guide book. We grab what help we can find, and top it off with a large coffee to go.

Once you understand that knowing how to put words on paper is not the same as knowing how to tell a story, what you really want to know are the rules of play. You have an idea for a novel, but where do you start? How do you move the plot forward? What do you do at the end? It all seemed so obvious before you faced that blank page. Now you cast your eyes skyward and beg for some reliable commandments that will get you to writer’s heaven.

Fear not. Apart from tax accounting, there is probably no field of endeavour so richly endowed with rules as the enterprise of novel writing. Many centuries of English etymology have yielded a whole universe of rules on usage, vocabulary and grammar, with such a mind-boggling array of exceptions to every rule that just navigating the language is an epic quest in itself.

But that pales in comparison with the rules of storytelling that must be followed if you want to turn your idea into a bestselling novel. Let’s start with the rule that there are only Seven Basic Plots. Or perhaps there are five. Or twenty. There is no real general agreement on this rule.

In fact, right away you discover that you’re going to have to choose among competing rules.

And there are many prescriptions for what a writer must, or must not, do. The aspiring writer, eager to learn, is given to understand that the penalty for breaking the rules is a rejection notice. Career suicide. Eternal obscurity. Among the most conventional of these rules (listed from memory after a couple of years of seeing them over and over and over) are:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Write what you know
  3. Avoid too many adjectives, and all adverbs
  4. Write in active, not passive, voice
  5. Don’t go on and on and on and on and on
  6. Put conflict on every page
  7. Banish boring backstory
  8. Mind your POV
  9. Keep the writer’s presence invisible
  10. Don’t use exclamation points (for much more than you ever wanted to know about this topic, see my earlier post, “I miss the exclamation point!”)

Did you notice how I made a neat list of 10 rules? I’m following a literary tradition here. The gurus who give writing advice, many of them writers themselves, like to come up with pithy lists of rules.

Elmore Leonard has Ten Rules for Writing, as Paula noted in her post “Deja vu all over again”. So does Etgar Keret (plus a few hints about nose-picking). Neil Gaiman managed to edit his list down to Eight Rules for Writing. The great Robert Heinlein’s Six Rules for Writing are some of the tersest and wisest.

But that’s just a tiny sampling. There are pages and pages full of rules to learn. Books full. Seriously, there is no end to this overflow of wisdom. It’s an industry.

But there’s a catch. And it’s a big one.

Nobody ever wrote a great book by following rules. 

I’m not suggesting all this rulemaking and advice is not helpful. Rules encapsulate broader lessons that writers need to learn, and provide useful (if sometimes confusing) signposts along the road to from “Once Upon a Time” to “The End.” However, I’ve been forced to the conclusion that following rules is certainly no guarantee of success, nor is breaking them a guarantee of failure.

I offer evidence from two very different points in the literary spectrum.

Exhibit 1: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

girl-with-the-dragon-tattooThe blockbuster book. The hollywood movie. The phenomenon. Together with the two other titles that make up Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, this series racked up 65 million sales worldwide in a little over five years, and spawned three darkly dramatic Swedish films and a star-studded Hollywood remake.

I have yet to talk to anyone who started the series and did not get sucked into it. I also have yet to talk to a reader who doesn’t claim they almost abandoned it as they laboured through the slow-moving, backstory-riddled, unexciting first few chapters.

“Why the hell is everybody raving about this thing?” was my first reaction. But I stuck with it. Millions did. And we were rewarded with an original and daring saga, driven by unforgettable characters.

Flawed? Certainly. Perhaps if Larsson hadn’t dropped dead at 50 and had polished it further with the help of a good editor, it would have been a better book. Or maybe it would have been “fixed” by rewriting it into a forgettable formula suspense-thriller, or never have been published at all.

If Larsson has a biographer, I hope they’ll name the book The Man Who Broke the Rules.

Exhibit 2: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

midnight's-childrenThe Booker Prize. The art film. The critics’ darling. This 1981 saga of India is an enduring work of literature that became a movie 31 years after it was published. Critics lavished praise on Rushdie’s second novel, the sale of which prompted the author to quit his part-time job as an advertising copywriter and become a full-time novelist.

“An extraordinary novel … one of the most important to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation.”      — The New York Review of Books

“Huge, vital, engrossing … in all senses a fantastic book.”   — The Sunday Times

What most people know Rushdie for is his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, which earned him a different type of notoriety: a 1989 fatwa calling for his execution issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for what was judged to be the book’s irreverence in its portrayal of the prophet Muhammad.

But while Rushdie’s work made him an outlaw in the Islamic world, it made him a superstar in the literary world. Midnight’s Children was awarded the “Booker of Bookers” prize in 1993 for the best novel among Booker Prize winners for fiction over the prize’s first 25 years. In 2008 it went on to win the “Best of the Booker” by popular vote.

I defy anyone to dive into the rich, thick soup of Midnight’s Children with anybody’s list of writing rules in hand. You will be overwhelmed with the wanton breakage of virtually all of them. There’s tell-tell-telling that doesn’t at all feel like telling. Bizarre, lurching changes in POV, concurrent with dizzying shifts in time and space. The book is littered with odd punctuation, so that it often feels like you’re reading a song with some hidden rhythm rather than a piece of prose. It’s difficult. A book to give an agent ulcers. Yet the whole thing is utterly engulfing.

What to say about an author so given to rule breaking and prize winning? He’s a survivor. A creative voice that has persisted despite death threats, assassination attempts, multiple marriages, the commercial obsession of the publishing industry, and every writing rule book. Oh, and the advertising business.

So let me ask Colson Whitehead, New York Times Sunday Book Reviewer to wrap up this rule-breaking point for me:

“There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?”