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Advice to a Young Writer

Advice to a Young Writer

This message from a young writer arrived last week via my website:

I am interested in writing teen fiction light novels. The genre I would like to work with is fantasy, adventure, and space. What does it take to become a fiction writer? What steps did you take? and How did you accomplish your work? I am still working on my fiction story. I created a link [omitted]. Just to get a head start.

A few days later, when I had time to provide a lucid reply after sleeping hours and hours, I wrote back:

Welcome to the land of stories! We writers are an odd bunch, living so often as we do in worlds of myth and make-believe.

How does one become a writer? One writes.

A lot.

Like all crafts, writing takes time and practice. Often, the first book written will not be the first book published. Many writers have manuscripts that will never see publication, because those were their practice books. Maybe book three or book five is the one finally published, the one readers might think is the author’s first book ever.

Dragon’s Rook took twenty years from concept to publication. Most writers don’t take that long. I was busy making a living while writing short stories and poems, submitting them to contests or magazines, and then — at long last — finishing a novel.

However, there are many unfinished novels. Some I threw away, because the time to write them had long past. Some I kept, because I still have a passion to complete them.

I can’t give you any rules or checklists to guide your journey. It’s unique to you. However, all writers become writers by — drum roll, please! — writing.

Learn all you can about constructing compelling storylines, creating intriguing characters, writing dynamic dialogue, and even learn proper grammar and sentence construction. Good paragraphs are structured like good jokes: not that they are all funny, but that they build toward a strong ending. Write a strong sentence, write a strong paragraph, write a strong scene. Repeat until you have a chapter, until you have another chapter, until you finally have a book.

Avoid cliched phrases or trite characters. Avoid lazy writing. There may be only a limited number of stories in the world, but find a way to tell your story in a fresh way.

Be open to constructive criticism. Not nasty put-downs, but honest feedback meant to help your work improve. Be humble and teachable. Be ready to stand up for your story choices, if necessary, but also be ready to consider other options. Be willing to look at the story honestly, and to see its flaws as well as its strengths.

I saw on your website that you have some of your story posted. A word of caution: Avoid offering too much of your work for free, or too soon. A chapter or a scene might be okay, or a short story related to the novel not included in the book itself. (Many writers are offering free short stories or deleted scenes as bonus material for readers.)

I wish you all the best on your journey, and I hope to hear good things about you in the future.

Sincerely,
KB

Any other advice you’d give a young writer?

 

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A Brief Word About Beta Readers

A Brief Word About Beta Readers

In a discussion on Facebook, someone asked the difference between a beta reader and an editor, and the cost one might expect to pay for the services of either. When I said that one should not pay for beta readers, there was disagreement. However, I still maintain that one need not pay for beta readers.

Consider them your product testers. They’re the focus group who tries out the new invention, samples a new product, gives feedback on an upcoming ad campaign, views an early cut of a movie, or tests a new video game to see if it plays as it should.

If you (or a close, trusted individual) are the alpha reader of your manuscript, then beta readers are the folks who see the final, pre-publication draft. That version can still be a manuscript, or it can take the form of a galley or proof copy of the book.*

In return for their effort on your behalf, give beta readers a signed copy of the published book, or offer to read or test something they’ve created.

But don’t hire beta readers as you would hire an editor. And while editors can provide a similar service in the form of a manuscript critique,** there’s nothing like getting feedback directly from readers — who are, of course, a writer’s intended audience.


UPDATE (8-7-16): The paragraphs below are from a reader’s comments in a Facebook discussion sparked by this blog post. They expand upon and better explain what I attempted above.

A beta tester for a video game or other piece of software enters into an agreement wherein he receives a free or discounted early release of the software to use, and in return, the tester will tell the company what he thinks about the software — what does or doesn’t work, what is or isn’t intuitive, what he would like to see changed or further developed, etc. The beta tester is not paid for his work. He is asked, as an average user, to give the company his average-user opinion of the product. At best, he gets a free copy of the software, but it is both understood and accepted (and generally stated in some Terms and Conditions document somewhere, for legal reasons) in the IT community that beta testers are not compensated.

Testers who are hired on for their services are not hired to come at the software from the average user’s perspective; they are hired to make sure that the software functions appropriately (e.g. program doesn’t crash on loading, save function actually functions, etc.). They are hired to seek out and fix problems with the software, not to provide the average user’s perspective. These testers are not referred to as beta testers, because that’s not the job they do.

A beta reader receives a free or discounted early release of a book to read, and in exchange, the reader will tell the author what he thinks of the book — what does or doesn’t seem to fit or flow well in the story, what does or doesn’t make sense, what he would like to see further explained or developed, etc. This makes a beta reader the exact literary equivalent to a software beta tester. Traditionally, beta readers are treated the same as beta testers — that is, they are not paid for their services. And there is nothing wrong with that.

For clarification, if any reader, compensated or otherwise, provides any services outside what I listed above (other services include but are not limited to any form of editing, proofreading, etc.), then he has ceased to be a beta reader and strayed into editor/manuscript critic territory.


* It’s best if beta readers are honest with you about what works or doesn’t, what they like or don’t like, and are willing to give specific feedback (not merely generic “I hate it” or “I like it” statements, but detailed responses).

Prepare a list of questions for them to answer, so they know what kind of feedback you need. Example: “In the scene where Tara is driving Sven to the airport and they encounter an overturned ambulance, is the dialogue and action believable? Why or why not?”

Keep the questions simple and straightforward, and keep the list short. Try not to make the readers feel they’re doing homework, but make it easy for them to help you.

Also provide readers with a simple way of reporting any typos or grammar issues they find. It’s handy when they provide you a page number, and maybe even a paragraph and a line number — “page 35, paragraph 3, line 7” — as well as a description of what’s wrong (“dipsolve” should be “dissolve”). 

** Manuscript critiques may cover such issues as continuity, characterization, worldbuilding, etc. Regular editing may also touch on those issues, but will also focus on the writing itself.

 

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Fake Elvis, the Zombie Hunter

Fake Elvis, the Zombie Hunter

I enjoy impromptu writing exercises, and when they’re part of writers meetings, they can be especially fun.

At the most recent such meeting, our prompt came from an excellent, often hilariously funny resource: The Amazing Story Generator by Jason Sacher. For about fifteen minutes of furious writing, we all composed vastly different stories, each expanding on “Forced to join the family business, an Elvis impersonator leads the charge against a zombie army.”

Two writers created funny, tight, complete stories, while the rest of us merely composed beginnings.

My offering is nowhere near the cleverest or funniest, but it might be useful for a minutes’ entertainment.

_______________________

“Aint’ nothin’ but a–”

I interrupted checking my pompadour in the glass of the turret to aim the cannon at a lone zombie lurching out of the dust. The brain-eater disintegrated into ash and bone.

I radioed to the rest of the squadron. We backed our machines into a ragged circle, cannon pointing out, and let the billowing brown-orange dust clouds blow away.

I flicked a handkerchief over the rhinestones on my fringed jacket. No white jumpsuits for battle, but black leather made one look cool and Presley-ish at once. I curled my lip at my reflection. Even though Dad had hidden all my costumes and told the event managers I lip-synced all the songs, forcing me to join the family monster-slaying enterprise, I need to stay in practice for my return to the stage.

Meantime, the gang and I needed to obliterate these mountain zombies before dark. Otherwise, they’d shuffle off to their caves and we’d be stuck here for another week, picking ’em off one at a time.

The thing about zombies, though, is they’re still aware enough to avoid charging our cannon en masse. Someone needed to volunteer as a human lure, but I wasn’t about to risk the hair.

c2016, KB

_______________________

If you’re in need of a story idea or simply a good laugh — “Longing for a simpler life, a sassy nun steals a baby” or “Vowing not to bathe for an entire year, a North Korean scientist meets the ghost of Ernest Hemingway” — grab a copy of Sacher’s book. You won’t be disappointed. 🙂

 

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Working, Writing: Parallel Pursuits

Working, Writing: Parallel Pursuits

Fellow writers whose royalties are not yet sufficient to pay the bills, or other folk who spend waaaaay too much time at the computer and not enough time actually moving (we’re artists, and we exercise our brains; that’s enough right? 😉 ) here’s a great way to get in shape:

1) Invest in a good pair of gloves, good shoes, and your favorite OTC pain reliever. (You’ll need less of the pain reliever as time passes.)

2) Apply to work part-time at a large store, one with lots of inventory that must be moved and stocked pronto; or work on a construction site, at a repair garage, or anyplace else that might be considered blue-collar and non-intellectual. (As kids, my brother and I worked with Dad in his construction and remodel business. I learned more good work ethics and life skills there than any job since has taught me.)

3) At first, whenever arriving home from your assigned shift, you may be too tired to write or think or even wiggle. You may curse your age, your out-of-shape-ness, your alarm clock, your creaky joints, etc. Let it all out. 😉 Your days off may be spent sleeping rather than writing. Let it happen.

4) One day, not too long after you’ve begun this new, body-pummeling endeavor, you’ll realize your brain is awake with new ideas. You’ve mingled a bit with real people. You might even have made new friends. The sunlight is your friend, not your enemy. Your food choices or cravings will change: more water, less coffee, and more meat and veggies, fewer instant noodles. Your clothes are now too big, but your posture and stamina at the writing desk have improved.* Your fingers, once so nimble on the keyboard, are thicker now due to hard work, but give them a minute or two to limber up, and they remember how to type.

For months, until finances reached a crisis, I resisted returning to ‘real’ job, because 1) it felt like selling out, 2) I didn’t want another full-time job to overwhelm my mind and my time to the point that I couldn’t write, and 3) I didn’t want to be among people. Mingling with my characters and taking the occasional trip to writers meetings were all the socializing I needed.

And I was afraid of the pain. After injuring and re-injuring the same set of muscles and joints (car accident, a fall from a step ladder, and a few other falls), I didn’t want to aggravate the site and invite more debilitating pain. However, although there have been days like today when the pain of last night’s work leaves my shoulder stiff and unwilling, the aggressive activity has been therapy, forcing muscles and joints to work at full capacity and in their proper function. Chiropractic issues are resolving themselves as muscles gain strength to keep bones in alignment.

The doctor told me once that, if I refused the physical therapy exercises, my shoulder would freeze. I’d have no mobility unless I faced the pain. I kinda sorta followed his instructions, and at home I used the chart and performed most of the necessary exercises. But with no one else to  me, to encourage me through the pain, I didn’t do the hardest ones.

The part-time job as a stocker has solved that issue. Sure, I’m typing this in pain, but I’m typing. The pain is merely at a discomfort threshold, far from the Oh-God-make-it-stop level it was after the car accident and the fall from the ladder. Both left me breathless, staring out the windshield or at the wall and wondering if I’d damaged myself this time to the point of no recovery.

We writers, our dream may be to shut out the world and tell our tales, but we need pain, I think, in order to write pain. We need troubles in order to write troubles. Those we write may not be the same as those we experience, but we know the emotions: the worry, the fear, the grief, the despair, the agony, the recovery, the planning for a new future, the hope.

I won’t be a stocker forever. I know this. Just as in nature, life has seasons, and this is merely one of them. For now, though, as strange as it may seem, keeping the shelves stocked with canned veggies, with dog food, with hairspray, with toilet paper, is also keeping me fit for writing.

Working or writing: We don’t have to choose one or the other. There are times when the writing lags, or when the day job must be abandoned, but those are mere seasons, and the two pursuits need not be anathema to one another. Just as winter’s snows feed summer’s streams, and sping’s buds lead to autumn’s leaves, so too does work inform writing and writing lighten work.


* Bought a new, smaller pair of jeans for work, washed ’em, wore a few days later, and they were already too big. Working in the stock room is better than going to the gym — and I get paid! 😉


Just for kicks, April 29-May 6, 2016, there’s a Countdown deal for the Kindle version of Dragon’s Rook. Today it’s .99, but the price will increase incrementally until it returns to it’s usual $4.99.

 

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Where Are You Going?

Where Are You Going?

“Progress” is merely motion in a certain direction, as in advancement toward a goal. Depending on the goal, your motives, or your methods, that progression can be positive or negative.

People say, “Hold on! It’ll get better!” but sometimes we need to let go. As much as we admire people who trudge onward toward their goals, there is, indeed, a time to give up.

Sometimes we persevere in the wrong direction. We may not know it. We may know it but not know how to change it. Our effort, skill, hope, endurance, loyalty, courage, and strength of will are expended in vain.

Step back. Examine goals, motives, methods, relationships, results. Is this truly the path you want to tread? Is this the end result you desire?

Don’t be discouraged by how much road — or how much life — lies behind you. It’s never too late for a course correction.

east on a Wyoming highway (c2013, KB)

east on a Wyoming highway (c2013, KB)

 

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Finding the End

Finding the End

After waking in a strange funk, likely caused by falling asleep while watching a Scottish crime series and hearing shouts and gunshots in my sleep, I have the rough outline for the unwritten remainder of Thieves Honor.*

This novel was supposed to be completed in December 2015, but life has its own plans and stories take their own time.

I wanted to advance, but a voice nagged at the back of my mind, so I returned to the beginning of the story and revised or cut passages that had never quite satisfied. Something was missing, too. Like the forgotten spice for the soup, a minor plot element had been left out — and its absence, while not making the story unpalatable, certainly made it less interesting.

When Ray Gun Revival magazine went into hiatus, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I’d planned for three “seasons” of the Thieves Honor serial; for the novel, however, time and material had to be condensed, and the story itself needed to change.

As of this morning, about three years or so later, I know roughly how to do that.**

There’s much to be said for outlines, but I don’t think or create in linear fashion. My mind needs time to hike over wide wide tracts of unconnected wildernesses and brings back ideas I would never have considered but for the wandering. And if I don’t start writing something, a story may never actually be written before it is forgotten.

I plod when I’d rather soar, although some of my best short story work has occurred under a looming deadline. That’s usually after I already know the characters and story goal well enough to fit the puzzle together at the last minute.

It’s good business to produce books quickly so one can build a paying audience and solid readership. There are exceptions to that, of course; a certain famous fantasy writer is known for his slow production rate, but he hasn’t lost his audience.

I wish I wrote faster. My mind is teeming with untold stories.

 

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* If this is the result, maybe I should fall asleep to noisy Scottish crime dramas every night. 😉 After all, in the novel, there’s a dead character with a Scottish burr who “haunts” Finney, the ship’s pilot.

** For readers in the know, Carson Quinn, son of a famous pirate, and Rebeka Bat’Alon, the rebellious daughter of a port governor, are making a comeback in the story, turning their bit parts into pivotal roles. The mystery of the ghost ship Elsinore will be solved, and there’ll be another visit to the outcast colony living in the abandoned mines of the Devil’s Eye.

Readers were first introduced to the colony in “Shooting the Devil’s Eye”, a short story in Raygun Chronicles, a space opera anthology.

 

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Gotcha Covered

Last night’s writer’s meeting was ill-attended; only three of us showed up. However, that allowed me to seek advice from the librarian who leads the group, and ask her how the exteriors of books affect 1) inclusion in the library’s collection, and 2) reader choice.

Concerned about my preference for simplicity in artwork or design, I was surprised — and yet not — by her responses. Sure, if the artwork is cheesy and/or seems at odds with the subject matter, the staff might have a laugh, but what’s most annoying to them are book covers so minimalistic they reveal nothing about the content. She mentioned one publisher that tends toward such spareness there’s no artwork or even a description of the plot. Just the title and the author’s name.

So simplicity of decoration is fine, but tell readers about the story. Give ’em some reason to choose your book.

“If the reader flips to the back to read the blurb, you’re almost guaranteed they’ll check out the book.”

Then she looked at my rough draft for the cover of Thieves Honor. It looked like a thriller, not science fiction, but the fix was easy: She suggested I flip the background image, so the front became the back, and vice versa. The color gradiant and the angle of the light changed, giving the illusion of outer space rather than what the photo actually portrays — a table, a wooden chair, and the light from my computer screen all running together into a tie-dye abstraction of formless color.

The current draft of the front cover:

in-progress cover (c2016, KB)

in-progress cover (c2016, KB)

So, can I get away with no focal image on the cover, or is some artwork still needed? And is the look too “homemade” to be taken seriously?

For reference, the original image in its original orientation:

Abstraction (c2016, KB)

Abstraction (c2016, KB)

 

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