Friday, November 14, 2014

The Biggest Con in the Publishing Industry

[Some] Editors and Self-Publishing Companies are Out to Fleece You

So, you've written a book, and now you're trying to decide if you should seek a literary agent to represent your work to the traditional publishing industry, or if you should self publish. As I noted in the previous post, either option has advantages. In some cases, you should go through the arduous task of finding an agent and endure the seemingly endless round of rejection slips. In the end, it will be worth it to be traditionally published. In other cases, you should toss the idea that you need to have an agent, and you should self publish.

But in either case, as I also noted in the previous post, you should have your manuscript evaluated and edited before proceeding with either endeavor.

And this is where professional editors and self publishing companies in many cases are out to bleed you dry. Go to YouTube and search for "book editors." Go to Google and do the same search. On YouTube you will find slick and friendly videos of professional editors who also extol the necessity of getting your manuscript into shape. Some of them warn you of self publishing, and that is because they are products of the traditional publishing industry. They will rightly tell you that before you seek an agent, consider their services:

  • Editorial evaluations
  • Developmental Editing
  • Line Editing
  • Copyediting
  • Query letters
Self-publshing companies (POD) will tell you same thing, except in their case, they provide a one-stop and convenient way to take you all the way to having your book published and soon listed on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookseller sites. You can even have your books turned into ebooks.

POD companies also offer what professional editors offer, but they go a step further and tell you that they will also do this:
  • Typeset your work
  • Provide an ISBN 
  • Copyright your manuscript
  • "Publish" your book
On the surface professional editors and POD companies are offering invaluable services. The problem is that some of them are out to make as much money from their services as they possibly can, and if you go along with seemingly amazing offers, long before your book is ready to even send to an agent, you will have spent thousands and thousands of dollars.

Here is what one independent editor who is a product of the New York publishing world indicates she will charge you for her invaluable services:
  • Providing a book proposal to an agent: $2,000.00
  • Providing you with a 10 to 25 page editorial evaluation (of a manuscript up to 110,000 words): $2,800.00. Up to 140,000 words: $3,150.00
  • Developmental editing also known as advanced editing, heavy editing, line editing: .06/word. This translates to $6,000.00 for a 100,000 word manuscript
  • Copyediting at .045/word. This translates to $4500.00 for a 100,000 word manuscript.
Pod companies charge similar rates, but in addition to take your work all the way to being published (or really just print-ready) they also have levels of services of anywhere from $600.00 to $1200.00 and up.

So, before you see a single copy of your book sold, before you have received a single penny of royalties, you could be out as much as $10,000.00. YouTube it, Google it, add up the services these editors and companies charge. You'll come up with similar numbers.

What editors and POD companies have discovered is that novice authors will spend and spend to see their books in bookstores, displayed in brick and mortar stores, and authors will choose the higher-priced editors and companies thinking that they're getting more professional and better services.

The real truth is that you do need to have your work evaluated, you do need to engage the services of a competent editor, you might need developmental editing services. But the other truth is you don't have to pay these kinds of prices.

And most important, even if you choose a POD company like Amazon's CreateSpace, you can forego all their in-house editing fees and only pay for the book setup (typesetting), getting an ISBN, and being listed on the online bookseller sights. CreateSpace pays authors royalties of 40% and they pay once a month. So by saving money on their in-house editing (and going to a truly independent editor for those services), you can cut down all but the fairly reasonable fees to have them "print your book on demand" (POD).

If you're reading this, you have found one company where the prices are humanely reasonable. You have found a many-times published writer, an award-winning writer, and a professional editor who has worked across the industry spectrum for over thirty years. My company is Two Brothers Press. Or contact me directly with questions. But there are other independent editors out there who offer similar expertise for reasonable prices. My goal is to help writers with their work, to make it the best it can be, before sending it off to an agent if you want or to self publish. I've done both, and I know what to expect.

Yes, just like the editors I have talked about out to fleece you, I also charge for my services, but I'm not out to make a living off of only a few authors, and I have been published traditionally and self published. I know the ropes. I specialize in fiction in a rainbow of genres from murder mysteries to fantasy and science fiction, from biographical fiction to historical romances, from M:M romances to action and adventure, from suspense/thrillers to general fiction. I also do non-fiction in a variety of genres.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

To Publish Traditionally or Print on Demand

The Raging Debate between Two Paradigms

If you're going to publish traditionally, you have to get an agent. The literary agent will be the one to submit your manuscript to a "traditional" publisher. There are probably still small and regional traditional publishers who will accept unsolicited manuscripts, or queries direct from writers. But you have about as much chance of being traditionally published without an agent as you do winning the lottery. Traditional publishers want literary agents to wade through manuscripts and select ones they submit to them for consideration.

That is the first issue you must face head-on if you're going to be published the traditional way.

What is "traditional" publishing? It is getting your book published by a royalty-paying publisher (fat chance at getting an advance), without expecting authors to pay to have their book published, without paying for editing services, without paying for book promotion, without having to pay for cover design, and having their books appear on brick and mortar bookstore shelves. Further, traditionally published books do not have the stigma that is attached to self-published books. Bookstores and libraries look askance at self-published or POD books.

That is the second issue you need to know before considering self-publishing or having your book available through "print on demand" technology. Most publishers and agents believe that a self-published book means that the author is not good enough to be published traditionally. Before print-on-demand "publishing" opened the flood gates to the unwashed masses being able to get their books published (for a fee), there was what was known as "vanity" publishers. And today, POD published books are widely considered to be "vanity" published.

But...if you're going to be published traditionally, here is the downside:

  • New writers will probably not be offered an advance. Forget about buying your parents a new car with your hefty advance. If you do get an advance against royalties, it will probably be less than $5,000. 
  • A traditional publisher only truly promotes best-selling authors. You'll be lucky to have your book sent out to a few review publications, and no, you're not going to be appearing on Oprah, The Today Show, or Good Morning America. These promotions are reserved for well-known writers or infamous people.
  • You will have about six months on bookstore shelves for your book to prove that it will sell well. Bookstores have limited shelf space, and they're not going to waste it on titles that sit there and don't sell.
  • Your book will get no more than a year of life before it is taken "out of print" by the publisher if it doesn't sell well. 
  • When your book is taken out of print, it goes onto the remainder shelves, and no, you don't get any royalties from remaindered books.
The problem with traditional publishers is that they have been aggregated into only five mega companies, and they control the lion's share of published books that appear on bookstore shelves.

Now let's consider being self-published or published through print on demand.

The first issue that you're going to have to face is being accused of having to pay to have your book published. Bookstores won't stock your books; book review magazines won't review your books—unless you pay to have it done. This means that you are going to have to do the promotion yourself.

But there is an even more important consideration with self-publishing. You will have to prove that your book is excellent. If you do not care about sloppy writing, misspelled words, grammatical and other errors in your work, and all you care about is getting your book "published" despite the fact that you have to pay for it, and all you want is to see your title listed on Amazon, lean in a little closer, and I will tell you a secret:

Your book is only going to sell a few copies online, and then readers are going to prove exactly what agents, bookstores, and traditional publishers have been saying. Readers will say that your book is not good. You'll harm yourself as a writer if you do not care about excellence. And you'll harm the POD side of book publishing.

But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, to be a successful self-published writer, you're going to have to make sure that your book is good, really really good. The cover design has to be top-notch, the structure and layout of the body of the book has to compete with traditionally published books. It has to be tightly written, free of egregious errors, typos, misspelled words, and just about everything a traditionally published book is.

If you're going to be self-published and you write an excellent book, here is the upside to non-traditional, POD publishing:

  • When a reader discovers your book on Amazon and gives you a good review, word-of-mouth advertising and a glowing review will encourage new buyers.
  • Your book does not have to break sales records to stay in print. In fact, your book will never go out of print. Over time, you will garner respectable sales numbers.
  • Although you won't get an advance against royalties, you can get much better royalties than a new writer with a traditional publisher. Instead of 6% royalties (or at most 10% royalties) that a traditional publisher pays, you will get at least 40% royalties. Instead of being paid royalties every 90 days (through a traditional publisher), you will get paid royalties every month.
Indeed, it takes a hefty dose of self-confidence to publish your own book, you do have to find independent cover artists, pay to have your book edited, and do your own promotion. But the greatest upside to publishing your own books (as long as they are excellent) is that the more you publish the greater your income.

So, let's say you're a young person. Try to get an agent and go the traditional publishing route.

But let's say that you're somewhat older or retired and you want to set your hand at writing. I strongly suggest self-publishing, especially if you have more than one book inside of you. Don't waste your time getting a bale of rejection slips from agents or publishers as the months and years slip away. Gear up, write your book, hire an editor. (Don't pay the exorbitant fees through a POD company like Authorhouse, CreateSpace, iUniverse, Xfinity, etc.) Hire independent editors and eliminate the middle man. Instead of paying $4500.00 to have your book professionally edited, pay $1200.00 or less through an independent editor. With an independent editor, you will have a one-on-one relationship with the editor that you don't get through a POD company.

Nora Jones (singer/songwriter) and other musical artists have proven that they do not need a recording contract to become well known. What they do, however, is insist that their work is excellent. They do not settle for sloppy production values, and as a writer, neither should you.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

I'm Thinking About Words

Words that Confuse and Confound Us

As I was working on a novel years ago, the word "feckless" came to me. I must have encountered it somewhere in my life, but I had no idea what it meant. I thought it sounded like a kind of cruelty and I wanted to apply it to the phrase "feckless desert" to indicate how the desert can be a passive killing machine: unforgiving heat, lack of water, bone-drying sun, along with vicious plant and animal life.

When I actually looked up "feckless" in the dictionary, I discovered that it meant "lacking initiative or strength of character, irresponsible"...So, I was wrong about the word, confounded by it and have had occasion to use this word only a couple of times since then. I would also add that I think it could be used to mean "ineffective."

Writers should make a consistent practice of looking up words they want to use. Just thinking a word means something (as I had done) is not good enough and can sometimes cause astute readers to break into fits of laughter over the misuse of words. The Internet is a good place to find complete lists of misused words, homonyms that cause confusion, and even words that are often spelled wrong by a single letter that completely change  the meaning. I've thrown out a list of words that come to mind, below in no particular order. These are by no means exhaustive, but they may be instructive.

Temerity/Timidity. Temerity is a kind of overconfidence; whereas timidity displays a lack of confidence.

Conscience/Conscious. Guilt machine vs. awake and aware.

Faint/Feint are occasionally used interchangeably, but their meanings are completely different.

Further/Farther. One means "in addition to" and the other means "a greater distance."

However/how ever. However (one word) and how ever (two words) do not mean the same thing. However cannot be substituted for how ever. However is a coordinating conjunction, an adverb, and means something akin to "but." How ever means something like "by any method" in a sentence like this:
How ever you want to assemble this desk is up to you.
Unfortunately most writers these days use "however" in the above sentence. It is not correct. Many editors do not catch the distinction, either.

Sometimes, over time, two- and three-word phrases first become hyphenated and then become one word. The only example I can think of at the moment is the phrase "none the less," which over time has become "nonetheless," and should always be spelled as one word.

Accept/Except. They're not interchangeable, but many writers try. All applicants will be excepted (which I guess means that no one will be accepted).

Ascend/Descend. These words do not need "up" and "down" to complete their meaning.

Affect/Effect. This is another pair of words that many writers confuse, because "effect" can be used as a verb, but is usually a noun. Affect can sometimes be used as a noun but is usually a verb.
The effect (noun) of the bomb blast was devastating on the building. We will only effect (verb) change if we work together. You can affect (verb) the outcome of the election by voting. It was the affect (noun) of sophistication he assumed that put off most women.

Lose/Loose. The first word means to misplace; the second word means "not tight."

Diner/dinner. A diner is where you have dinner, albeit probably not a very fancy one.

Desert/Dessert. The desert is not a good place to have dessert.

Discreet/discrete. I have difficulty remembering which is which. Please look up these words and let me know, which is which!

Afraid/scared. These are not interchangeable. But people often use "scared" when they mean afraid. I'm scared of snakes. No, actually, you're afraid of snakes, because snakes scare you. You could say, "I'm scared by snakes." Think of the verb "scare" as requiring an actor to do the scaring. On the other hand, "afraid" does not take an actor and is generally an adjective.

Bring/take; come/go. Oh boy, when to use these words is very subtle and actually has to do with where you are in relation to where you are going. It also has to do with who is receiving the action. There are exceptions, but it's fun to try to figure out these differences. Below are some specifically constructed sentences to illustrate when to use bring vs. take or come vs. go.

I'm going to take a casserole to the party.
John asked me to bring a casserole to the party.
Take the files out of the office and bring them to me at the restaurant.
Bring the files with you when you come to the restaurant to see me.
Take the files with you when you go to the restaurant.
I will be going to Spain in the fall.
I will be coming to see you in Spain in the fall.

I would also suggest that writers look up these paired words for a better explanation about their subtle usage.

Less/Fewer. This is one of the most misused word choices in daily speech that we make, and I am guilty of it, too. "Less" indicates an indeterminate or approximate value; whereas "fewer" indicates a determinant amount. "There is less milk than I thought," but "there are fewer ounces". Fewer people stood in line than yesterday. Less milk, fewer eggs. Note that the countable quantities are specific (ounces, people, eggs). The approximations are milk and other liquids that need to be measured, rather than ounces of milk—or less of anything that is not readily quantifiable. It's a toss-up about grains of sand. We'd probably be all right to say less sand on the beach, rather than fewer grains of sand, etc.

Here are a few words with different spellings that sound the same and have different meanings. Careless writers make these mistakes even though I suspect they know the difference.

To, too, and two
There, their, they're, and sometimes there're (this last should never be used)
Were, we're and yes, even where.

The apostrophe is erroneously used in words the writer wishes to make plural, but there are occasions when the apostrophe is used to form plurals. Confused? Don't be. The only time an apostrophe is used to signify a plural is with acronyms, single-letter and numerical plurals: Cross all your t's, dot all your i's, and how many 2's are in 10? In all other cases, only the "s" or "es" is used to pluralize a word. The Donaldsons and the Gibsons are coming for dinner. If there are apostrophe "s" combinations, then it would be possessive. That's the Donaldsons' car in the driveway.

And so, since the Donaldsons are here, I better go.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Revision is the Most Important Part of Writing

Revision of a Work Should Constitute 75 Percent of the Writing Process

The faint of heart might not want to read this post.

When I taught writing at the university level the students and I had a limited amount of time to cover a great deal of material. During the years that I taught writing, it was almost a universal that students (freshmen, sophomores) came to college ill prepared in English and composition. And I had to balance the needs of those students against the older returning students who had been out in the real world and saw that they would never advance very far if they didn't further their education. These students came with much higher expectations about a writing class than the eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds.

But both kinds of students had a difficult time accepting the notion that what you first write is not the finished product. I had a penchant for assigning controversial topics to be covered in their essays. I was amazed that they thought a paragraph on the pros and a paragraph on the cons were enough to fully state their positions and to be convincing. They were amazed when I made them redo the essays. If I had had more time, I would have had them revise the same essays throughout the semester.

Yes, even seasoned writers can get absolutely sick of revising the same work, along about the fifth full revision. On the other hand, I love revision. To me, it's where the true magic of writing takes place. It's where the finished product reads as if writing it was effortless, where it appears that the words just flowed in a bubbling stream from start to finish.

Consider two very different novels and two very different writers: James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Aside from the fact that they have absolutely nothing in common, each illustrates a particular writer's voice and a distinct writing style. I would venture to say that both authors worked very hard and a long time to get the overall structure just right, to make every sentence contribute precisely as intended. They no doubt thoughtfully considered every word, every nuance of those words. They also no doubt revised their description of character and setting until they felt that their characters captured the essence of what they were trying to convey about humans and human nature, about internal and external conflicts, about the way setting and other factors influenced the mood in the story.

But Joyce's work is almost impenetrable to casual readers, while Hemingway's work is cut to the bare bones. Yet both are considered great literature. One's style is challenging in vocabulary and syntax and is intimidating from the very first sentence, while the other's style is deceptively easy to understand and accessible to readers. They did not achieve their goals by writing a single draft. Their style and substance came through precisely because they revised and revised again and again.

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake
“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

Between these two extremes of expression lie most writers. In a sense, one revises a novel to achieve a consistent voice, both for the way in which the story reads and the narrative voice.

Let's come up with an idea for a novel, right now; then let's write a complete first draft...

There. That took about 25 percent of our time.

Coming up with the idea for the novel probably took 10 percent, and writing the first draft took 15 percent. Now we're a quarter of the way through the entire writing process. See the previous post "Editing Comes in Stages" about halfway down, for a detailed list of things we should consider when we set out to revise a novel. In truth, this is only part of the process of revision.

Basically, when we revise a completed work we look at everything, both narrative and technical.

  • Plot/structure
  • Plot flow/subplots (story lines)
  • Character and setting description
  • Dialogue
  • Narrative voice
  • Narrative tense
  • Syntax
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling
  • Word choice
This short list should alert you to what now needs to be done with the novel you have just written and to which you have just appended "The End."

As an editor and one who evaluates other writers' books, I can tell what parts of the novel the writer has worked and reworked and which parts he/she has not addressed as fully. I have a tendency to revise the opening of my novels more than other parts, but eventually I make two or three major sweeps through the entire novel—and then it's off to an editor. I would never consider it finished until an independent set of eyes went over it. And then I revise it again, fine tuning it.

When I evaluate a novel for another writer, and let's say the novel contains graphic sex, I can usually tell just how important such scenes are to the writer over and above the parts between the sex scenes, not only by their frequency, but also by how descriptive they are in comparison, say, to the dinner the suitor has taken the date to prior to getting him  or her into bed. In that case (seeing that the writer's focus was on the graphic sex), I will usually have to point out other parts of the story that need to be revised to balance out the detail and description of the graphic sex scenes.

But seriously, it is through revision of a thousand different considerations where a novel finally begins to take on its final shape. In my early days, I also sent half-baked "finished" novels to friends and family to read and comment on. Even the gentlest of readers had questions, lots of questions that I hadn't even considered, and through time, I incorporated such questions into my own revision strategy. My style is to pair down on the language, to use simple Anglo Saxon words and fewer French-based words that have made their way into English, which makes my style more like Ernest Hemingway and a lot less like James Joyce. But this does not come naturally, I have to work at it through revision.

Revision also takes on a life of its own when we consider historical novels. The author has to appear to write effortlessly about historical facts that imbue the narrative with authenticity. And that takes a great deal of research. The historical facts have to be incorporated into the story in such a way that they are not consciously historical but common and familiar to the characters, even though readers know that the author is a modern-day writer and did not live in the period about which he/she writes. The same can be said about science-fiction novels. The writer no doubt has to do a lot of research to get the science just right, or astute readers will choke on the bad science concepts. But then, almost every genre has its own knowledge base. Police procedural novels have to ring true, and I have read about writers who get themselves assigned to a police department, go out on calls, and observe the processes in a police station.

Because of these requirements to achieve verisimilitude, the adage to write what you know is very good advice. If you've never flown a jet, you have a lot of research to do before your main character is a believable jet pilot.

I have a feeling that this post topic is too important to attempt covering all the aspects of revision in one sitting. be continued...

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Editing Comes in Stages

What is the "Right" Type of Editing for Your Work?

The services offered to new writers at CreateSpace, iUniverse, and other such companies come in a wide range of choices, which can be confusing for new writers. How do you know if you really need to pay high prices for developmental editing, advanced editing, basic copyediting, or simple proofreading? If you do not have a line of competent beta readers before you decide to hire a company to edit your work, the truth is you don't know what kind of editing your work needs.

A "beta" reader can be your Aunt Emmy, who taught English in high school, your friends willing to give your book a good read, or you can consider hiring a professional writer/editor, preferably someone who has also been published and knows what pitfalls lie in the path of self-editing. As a professional writer/editor, I wouldn't dream of publishing a book without also hiring an editor! It's not that writers, but especially new writers, are inherently bad writers, lacking in editing skills, or other weaknesses; rather, it's that all writers don't see what's on the page in front of them when attempting to edit their own work. They see what is in their heads and can easily pass over simple problems like reading "that" when the text clearly says "than." More of a challenge, however, is for the writer to see how a story is put together, rather than what she thinks is written. She doesn't know that she has gone twenty-five pages without giving the main character a name.

Sure she has given the character a name; she just hasn't told the reader what it is.

And she knows what the story is about, what the conflict between two characters is, but she hasn't made that clear to the reader. She knows what the apartment looks like where the main character lives; she just hasn't told the reader what it looks like. Nor has she adequately described the characters. She knows her heroine is a red head, but the readers don't. She knows the scene is taking place at night, but the readers don't.

Answering all such questions and more is precisely what a book evaluation can do for the writer. This is not to imply that many writers are not very astute in keeping readers' needs and expectations in mind as they revise their novels. A book evaluation can affirm the strength of a book, as well as point out weaknesses. In my many years of experience doing book evaluations, I also note that some of the best new writers seek out such detailed evaluations. A book evaluation is useful for pointing the way for a writer to consider revision strategies for her book.

Instead of first sending off your just-finished work to a big company with hundreds of editors on the payroll, where you have many decisions to make on the kind of editing services you think you need (but may not) and paying thousands of dollars, I strongly recommend that new writers hire a book evaluator to perform a thorough read.

Two Brothers Press has just such a service, and here is what we provide at a really minimal cost:

1. Developmental Editing Analysis
  • A detailed analysis of the plot (if it's fiction).
  • A detailed analysis of the subplots (story lines that contribute to plot development).
  • Determining if the plot and story lines are highly original or uncomfortably close to being rather cliched. How many other books out there are interchangeable with this one?
  • An analysis of whether the plot elements and story lines are presented in the best and most effective order. Do chapters need to be rearranged? Is the plot linear or circular?
  • Is there a true narrative arc (plot development), usually echoing a three-act structure, so that it has a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  • What point of view is the story told from: a character/narrator? An omniscient narrator?
  • Is the opening well done, so that readers will be hooked and want to find out what happens, or is it flat and uninteresting and supplying little to make the reader even turn the page?
  • Does the ending really relate to the opening in a meaningful way? Does the ending make sense based on what has happened in the story, or is it unsatisfying in too many ways, so that readers will not see the relationship between what has happened and how the story ends? Is there an ending at all? Are readers left hanging and dissatisfied? Are there hints in the ending that this will be a series?
  • Based on the kind of genre category this work fits into, is the plot pacing and story development done well, or does it drag in places that it shouldn't? Is it paced too fast, thus lacking in adequate plot development?
  • Is dialogue well done and relevant to the story, or is it irrelevant consisting of conversation just for the sake of having dialogue? Does the dialogue contribute to character development? Does the dialogue act as a vital avenue for story development? Does the dialogue take place in a vacuum or in a well-described setting?
  • A detailed analysis of the characters.
  • Is there a clear protagonist?
  • Is there a clear antagonist?
  • Does the work have too many characters, some of which could be combined? Are there too few characters? Can readers really even see the characters in their mind's eye, or are the characters generally nebulous and ill defined?
  • Are the characters' names too confusing to easily remember? (This is usually a problem with fantasy writers who think that characters' names need to be overly exotic, tending to make up names with impossible to pronounce spellings. You might think you've stumbled into Irish legend the names are so odd and forgettable.)
  • Do the characters have similar or different ways of speaking? Is their speech stilted and unnatural? 
  • In scenes involving several characters, is it clear who is speaking?
  • As the story unfolds do the characters seem to grow as a result of their experiences, or do they stay the same throughout? On the other hand, are the characters true to themselves or do they unaccountably change without logical reasons?
  • Are the settings and characters well and adequately described or does the writer seem to expect readers to "fill in the detail"? Is there too much detail?
Copyediting Analysis
  • An analysis (with examples) of issues in grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice.
  • An analysis of the author's writing style, syntax: things that aren't "technically" wrong but which have an impact on readability.
The items listed above are included in what is known as a book evaluation. This is different than the free 10-page copyedit evaluation, which Two Brothers Press also offers.

Editing comes in stages, and really, the very first "edit" should be the book evaluation. Writers might realize that they have some revisions to take care of before taking the next step in the editing process. In the evaluation stage, Two Brothers Press works directly with the author over a short period. If the writer submits his/her work to one of the big companies for basic or advanced copyediting, all personal contact with an editor is strictly limited, and the writer has to work through a company contact, rather than directly with the editor assigned to the project. What the writer ends up getting is artificial-intelligence editing. See the blog post "Editing Factories: A Little More Information."

Writers can also choose to stay with Two Brothers Press for the technical editing of the work and submit a typeset-ready document to a company—and save a bundle without compromising the professional editing. Further, companies are doing away with the initial book evaluation service. Do you know why? Because they can't make much money on book evaluations.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Your Characters Should Talk to You, the Author

Characters Should be Living Beings

I have relatives and friends I haven't seen in many years, but I know they're real, live beings...well, some may no longer be alive but that's another consideration.

The characters who came into being in my various novels are just as real and alive as my relatives and friends...well, except for the ones I killed off in the stories.

When I am writing, my characters talk to me. They argue with me about certain scenes I'm trying to force them to act in.

"That's not me, Ron, you should know that. But if you insist on making me act that way in this scene, you'll see that it won't work."

The characters are always right. I may have spent weeks on a particular scene that I feel needs to be included in the story, but if it never seems to be right, feels flat, disingenuous, or contrived, then I know my characters are telling me something. Eventually, I delete the scene or change it substantially, so that the characters—and not me, the writer—are satisfied.

Your characters should be true to themselves. This means that if you create a character who is supposed to be one way to fit the conflicts in the story, you should never morph these characters into different personalities. Oh, sure, characters are supposed to grow and change, depending on their experiences in a story, but you shouldn't mess with the core being of that character. I want an example.

How about a really bad example?

If you've ever watched daytime or nighttime soap operas for more than a year, you might notice that many of the characters change to fit what the writers want to be new roles for them. Erica was a conniving, selfish person for many years, and yet, when the writers needed her to be sweet and innocent and a kind of heroine on the show, she changed, almost overnight. On Dynasty a character named Steven (I believe) started out as a gay son, had several conflict scenes with his family, his father, and others over this, but when it was time for his role to change, he was no longer other words, don't look to soap operas for consistency of characterization. Unless you're writing a soap opera. I suspect that Mexican Novellas (their version of soap operas) are even more chaotic with their characters.

I haven't addressed the idea of surreal fiction and other forms of storytelling where we really don't expect realism in characterization. The characters can comprise any number of roles, without being realistic.

But in general, once a character has been born (created) and readers have a good idea what this character is like, understand a character's strengths and weaknesses, these should not be messed with. In a sense, I suppose you could say that characters should be predictable to a degree. I remember when I was creating the main character in one of my novels. I created him specifically for his role in the story. He was to be the kind of male who was comfortable with himself, looked inward for validation of his feelings, not outward. And as I got to know him through the various scenes in the story, and as I thought of him when I was at work or driving home from work, I would create scenarios and ask: what would Joel do? How would he react in this traffic jam? How would he have handled the conflict at the office today? On the other hand, in the same story, I created an opposite kind of character, who only looked to others for validation of his feelings, I made him question himself, attempt to get answers from outside himself. Then, in the unfolding of the story, I used these basic character traits and showed, over the course of the story, how each of them learned from the other. This is character "growth" at its most basic.

Now, back to scenes they refused to play as I had written them. I had to allow them their basic character traits, had to learn to let them be who they were in each of the scenes. In that sense, they spoke to me, and as a writer I learned to listen to my characters. Sometimes, I would attempt to give a character a name, but later on, a character's name came to me, even as I was writing them into the story. I sometimes get tickled at new writers who set out to write a story, and they name their characters what obviously sound like stage names, rather than depending on good old stand by names of real people. We just don't have to try that hard to "come up with" names. The characters can be Bill or Connie or Uncle Fred; they don't have to be Allred, Constance, or Uncle Alistair.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Novel Without a Plot

Can a Novel be Written Without a Plot?

When we think of novels and movies, one of the first things we ask is, "What is it about?" We're referring to the novel or movie's plot. And when we think of a plot, we're thinking conflict, development, and resolution. We've often heard it said that without conflict there is no story—and again, when we think of a story, we're thinking about plot.

Seinfeld billed itself as a TV Show about nothing. In that case, the TV series didn't have a gimmick as its frame for the entire, long-running show. If it was about anything, it was about the characters, and for sure, each of the episodes was about something. So, even a TV series about nothing had episodical plots.

During the course of my career as a writer and editor, I've never been inclined to say that "this novel has no plot" but as a book evaluator (some three hundred novels), I've come close a few times. I have had to point out to the writer that there's no "there" there. When a novel starts out with extended character description, background, and no indication of what the story is going to be about, I've usually stopped the writer, right there, and said, "Where's the hook? Where's the conflict? Readers won't continue beyond the first couple of pages, unless there's something 'going on' in this story." But many writers still begin their stories with a lot of detail and no hook, no conflict. Aside from the fact that they might also neglect giving a name to the first character we meet, there can be a saving grace for an opening that doesn't contain a hook, an indication of plot or conflict.

So, am I about to make a one-eighty turn as say that a novel can work without a plot? We need to get away from the idea that every novel has to be "exciting" and non-stop with a breath-taking plot pace. Let's leave that for thriller/suspense stories. Sometimes conflict itself can be a kind of plot. We will want to see how it is resolved for the characters. And sometimes the conflict can be very subtle. An elderly woman is waiting for her social security check. If she doesn't get it that day or the next, her heat is going to be cut off, and it's winter, and a snowstorm is on the way.

What can a writer do to make this niggling kind of conflict interesting? She has to find a way to make the elderly woman interesting, so readers will immediately feel empathy, and they will mentally be sitting on the edge of their seats when the postman arrives and sorts through the mail on the porch. The woman is watching from inside her small living room through a gap in the blinds.

Now, we probably can't build a novel-length plot out of this simple conflict. So we might consider, like Seinfeld's series about nothing, to make each chapter an episodical series of small conflicts, each resolved or not, to cause us to move to the next chapter. For example, let's say that by the end of the opening chapter, the social security check does not come.

This event sets up a new conflict in the elderly woman: now what am I going to do? We could also build tension by revving up the oncoming storm, with the wind picking up and the day turning darker instead of lighter.

Where would a writer take us from there? Maybe the elderly woman has a final piece of artwork or jewelry or some other treasure that she will have to take to the pawn shop, hoping to get enough for the piece to at least stave off having her heat shut off. And now she has to make the journey in the cold and wet to the pawn shop...

You can see that the story could continue such an empathetic mood for a while longer. But readers might not want to engage such a sad story for more than fifty pages or so. Readers need all kinds of "relief" from conflict throughout a story. It can't be downhill from the beginning, so that by the end the elderly woman breathes her last breath and dies—how predictable! Oh, it could end that way, but somewhere in the story we would want a sense of significance to engage us in the woman's struggle.

So, basically, if a novel is written without a strong plot, the writer has to create what we call a character-driven story.

Let's continue with the old woman's dilemma by taking a look at her character. We could use something within her to gather the strength, determination, and fortitude to virtually and literally "weather the storm."

Here are some particular character traits that could well determine the movement of the story, driving the plot. Each bulleted item creates different character traits for our main character.

  • The old woman was a child of the Great Depression. She has raised six children, has fourteen grandchildren (now grown) and has a number of great-grandchildren. Because of her own childhood during the Great Depression, she has always paid cash for everything she owns. She worked many years, had a nest-egg, and even owns her home. The past few years have brought on unexpected reversals. She and her husband were financially devastated by illness, and her husband has been dead now for ten years. Her children are busy with their own lives, as are her grandchildren.
  • The old woman has been dependent her entire life on her husband. She never worked herself and never thought she would have to. She has no skills, and now with her husband's death she is lost and has no way to get a job. 
  • The old woman has always been a risk taker and never thought twice about jumping into quick-money schemes. She never married enjoying her own life and her own destiny, but now that she is older, even though she owns her home, she has no other assets, except for her Social Security.
Readers should be familiar with each of these different kinds of elderly people, and so they should be willing to accept that the old woman could have one or a combination of character traits that will drive the story, based upon her current crisis.

She could decide that she will need to take on a renter. She finds one, and based upon the sort of person who rents a room (with kitchen privileges) her situation could be solved or she might be trading one set of problems for another set of problems. Just use your imagination to think about how the story might unfold at this point. Remember that without an over-arching plot, the story will move along in a rather organic way, based upon the character traits.

She could decide (as a dependent person with no job skills) that she will go to one of her children and ask for help. Again, dependent upon the kind of characters her children are, she might get help from them, she might not, and she might even get taken out of her house and be put in a facility when her children realize that she is no longer able to "take care of herself."

She could decide to rob a bank. This might turn the story into a comedy of errors, and the dismal mood would be lifted as we root for her to get away with this insane idea.

As you can see, any of these possible scenarios that stem from the threat of having her heat turned off,  right in the middle of the oncoming winter, present an almost endless way for the story to unfold.

The point is that when there is not an overarching plot, we are in the realm of general fiction, a kind of nondescript genre. It is a story that is driven by context and character traits more than an event or plot idea presented within the opening pages of a novel. As for the pistol packing grandmotherly type above, I can attest from my own experience that one of my grandmothers could outshoot her three sons, but she never had to rob a bank.