A Poor Sell

You’re talking to someone about books, they mention something that you haven’t read, and when you say as such their eyes suddenly light up and the next fifteen minutes are filled with them gushing about what a magnificent must-read this is. By the time they’re done this book sounds like an amazing life changing experience.

You go home, get your hands on a copy ASAP, settle in to read and…everything is incredibly flat. The main character, the setting, the prose, nothing clicks. It can make you wonder if this is even the same book they were telling you about.

There might be a strong enough urge that you tough it out to see if it gets better, and maybe it does, but most people put the book down and write it off. That’s fine, that’s normal. You’re not wrong for not wanting to read a book you’re not enjoying and they weren’t wrong for enjoying a book you don’t. Odds are you just overestimated how much overlap there was in that person’s taste and yours.

However, if you’re a writer, then by and large you are wanting to write books that you and people like you would like to read. So the jarring dissonance of a recommended book falling flat presents a gilded opportunity to pin down why and how the book failed to hook you, what the book was missing for you, to raise your awareness of what your own book needs to become a book you would love to read yourself. When you recognize a technique or element you’re sick of seeing, that informs you that you, as a reader, would like your book more if you, as an author, made sure to avoid or even oppose that.

I’ve mentioned the importance of beginnings before, but this has more to do with identifying and appealing to your target audience. What, by your design, are the selling points of your book, and are they presented in such a way that people looking for that kind of content are able to identify your book as ‘for them’ from the get go? Beyond such broad labels as ‘genre’, at the core of your book there is a certain niche craving you want it to satisfy. What that craving is deserves the spotlight, even if its not for everyone.

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Beware Strangers Bearing Books ‘Written By A Friend’

Well I feel like a right rube. What I thought what the pimping of an indie published author was just the pretense of a local Christian cult conning me into reading their rapture fanfic.

He told me it was an apocalypse story. Should have googled the author’s real name sooner. It was obviously about the Rapture from page 1, but I figured I’d give it the benefit of the doubt. It was when a lesbian decided that her lifelong defense of her sexuality was in the same boat of stubbornness as those prejudiced against her that I realized it was off. That and complaining about the ‘Jewish controlled world banks’ a page or two later. Like most proselytizing fiction it gave up on presenting any kind of persuasive rhetoric about a quarter of the way in and resorted to the ‘because I said so’ position.

Turns out the group formally disbanded six years ago too, so I don’t know where this guy got recruited from.

Either way, if you’re in Sydney and get approached by someone offering a book ‘written by a friend’ and asking for ‘just a few cents to cover printing costs’, be advised.

The Power of Lists for the Methodical Writer

An itinerary is a great thing. A lot of authors talk about how they just write as they go along with not much plan, how you just have to keep writing, but that advice isn’t very useful for people who need a plan, the methodical writer. That’s where an itinerary comes in.

Start off with a simple dot list outlining what you ideas are so far. The beginning, end, important scenes, main themes, characters, any recurring imagery, whatever you have.

Once  everything you do have is written up in front of you it’s easier to identify what you’re missing. Do you know what your character arcs will be? Do you need to come up with some red herrings? What research do you still need? How familiar are you with your genre and are there any ‘must reads’ you need to have read before diving into it? How about some writing exercises to get a better grip on your character’s voices or to flesh out your setting? Work out a to-do list and expand your notes as you go through it.

Remember that most of your notes neither need to nor are likely to become explicit in the text, but having a solid grasp of how everything works beneath a surface makes for much more vibrant characters and settings.

Once you’ve gone through most of your to-do list, whip up a summary for all your chapters. Three to seven sentences outlining what will happen in each chapter, as well as what the overall tone, theme, or mood each chapter should reflect. Be it paranoia, newfound trust, thrill of adventure, betrayal of expectations— something to keep in mind to avoid mood dissonance. If you’re not sure exactly what will happen in a chapter, just a vague result or action, that’s fine for now. Put down what you have so far like ‘the hero is framed and ends up imprisoned’ or ‘the sidekick’s trust in authority is shaken’. You can come back and flesh it out later.

If you haven’t already, this is probably the best point to begin working on your first draft— or resume work on your current draft as the case may be— and remember that you don’t have to write in order. If you have a stronger conceptualization of some scene than others, go ahead and write them first. If your story has flashbacks, is about uncovering a mystery of the past, jumps around the timeline, or is otherwise told in a different order, then consider writing everything in chronological order first then rearranging it during your editing.

When you do get to editing, further itinerary does help. List everything you want to avoid or remedy. Ways to condense sentences without losing meaning, places where you can add more meaning by using a synonym with more applicable connotations, reduction of passive voice, consistency in descriptions and symbolism, said-isms, clichés, double checking that a word means what you think it means, all kinds of stuff. If you’re not sure what you should be looking for, it’s pretty easy to look up the common pitfalls to be wary of. You can also show some of your work to a friend or a writing community and ask them to identify what they feel is your prominent weaknesses.

Often editing doesn’t come until even later. There’s no limit to how many drafts are flat practice runs to be thrown out and rewritten from scratch, but with both full overhauls and plain editing you need to be careful of not falling into a perfectionist cycle. You can always do better but sooner or later you need to put a lid on your project and declare ‘it’s done’ (and then make a few sneaky fixes over the following two weeks because you suddenly realized mistakes you’d somehow only just considered during your shower) but ultimately, editing can only go so far before you start to see diminishing returns on the work’s improvement.

And if you get stuck, make a list of why you’re stuck so you can isolate the problem and figure out how to fix it. In the end, remember that you’re setting your own course. If some part of your plan just isn’t working, or you wanna try something else, go right ahead and change it.

Funny thing happened on the way to the rave

Last night I was subject to one of the most peculiar forms of aggressive marketing I’ve ever known. Coming up to the Elevens Club, a young man approached me, demanded I read his book, then thrust a fistful of torn out pages into my hand and left.

A bit of research once I got home indicated that the young man was not the author, since the text proved to be from Merde Actually written by Stephen Clarke who is well into his fifties, I believe. I guess ‘my book’ in this case just meant ‘book I possess’.

I have no idea what the motive behind the act was but it got my attention.