To the non-initiated, it might appear that creative souls (whether writers, musicians, painters, etc.) explode onto the scene fully formed. But, alas, it isn’t so. We learn and grow and discover our own uniqueness and vision by the smallest of increments. It takes years, sometimes a decade, to really see someone’s potential (or even to begin to mine our own). And there are always setbacks, disappointments, and soul-shearing moments of doubt, no matter how far we’ve come or how much success we’ve had. The following tips are things I’ve learned for myself, and issues I’ve heard other writer friends discuss. Dig it.
1. Stay Inspired: A serious writer (say me, or maybe you) has collected thousands of rejections. And even after we’re making a name for ourselves, there will still be markets and readers we want to reach, and there will be more rejections along the way. For me, staying inspired despite the slow-learning curve, the seemingly endless rain of rejections, goes back to soaking up, and being excited about, other writers’ books. I have dozens of writing heroes and find inspiration there. I have favorite films, favorite musicians, favorite painters. They have made it, they’re doing exactly what I want to do, which is to entertain and raise questions and amaze and inspire. They have taught me so much and keep the flames bright when that rain is working so hard to extinguish my, our, your dreams.
2. Dream Big: And when we’re inspired we tend to dream big, which is good because it engages some of the faculties we need to reach those dreams and pull them down from the firmament and clutch them so tightly they can’t fly away. But we also have to face reality: that more than likely it’s going to be a long slog and there will always be peaks and valleys. And sometimes, after we’ve worked hard for a decade without seeing much fruit for our labor, it’s easy to want to quit, or surrender, or acknowledge the looks our family is giving us. We’ll be tempted at times to agree with them (that we’re insane, that we should try something else) and maybe some of us must do that, but I think a part of us dies when we quit searching. So, keep dreaming big, just accept that it will more than likely take longer than you’d like to reach the place in the literary world that you want to claim.
3. Accept: You might not be ready yet… Accept that you have to find your own path… Accept that as you become more successful you’re only going to get busier…
4. Strive: To always learn more… Strive to experience life, which feeds the story and adds an authenticity only experience can give you… Strive to acknowledge the parts of yourself and the world you live in that you don’t like, as well as the parts that put a silly grin on your face…
5. Realize: If you’re learning and growing every year, your writing will change with you…
6. Give: Back to others… Time to your family… A reward to yourself to celebrate every success… The pieces of you that you can only put into your fiction… give to your pre-readers, who prevent you from looking like a fool in little goofs you failed to catch, or in a good story you had that their advice helped make great.
7. Assess: What you’ve done that works… Assess what you’ve done that hasn’t worked… Assess your own motivations… Assess your writing system and where it doesn’t feel natural, or where it simply falters…
What have you learned, and what are you willing to share, that will help someone else?
Beginning writers are told to avoid creating one-dimensional characters, but I believe it’s just as detrimental (and possibly more common for a beginner) to construct a one-dimensional plot.
Raising the stakes is such an important part of the craft. When it’s not mastered you end up with a novel that reads at the same emotional depth the whole way through and the challenges never get tougher and the protagonist isn’t tested enough.
Novels like that have a ‘flat’ feel to them. It’s like giving someone a flat soda to drink. Bah. Don’t do that.
The good news is that once you learn to raise the stakes it’ll make your plot more gripping and the changes the characters undergo will be more powerful.
So, let’s begin, yeah?
I’m not sure if you do any prep work or not when it comes to plot. Totally up to you. But here are some things to think about/consider at least while composing–though I strongly encourage considering these things ‘before’ and ‘during’ the composition of your magnum opus…
There are more than physical stakes.
There is social ridicule, embarrassment, familial complications, isolation (whether forced upon the protag, or of his own choosing out of stubbornness, or wanting to protect those close to him), professional/work trouble (such as backstabbing, small-scale espionage, double crosses, loss of said financial security… which makes me think this all boils down to a loss of security. Remember that: Loss of security and the character working to regain it), and there is the emotional damage that arises from all of the above. The emotional damage of failing to be who they want to be, or who others think they should be. Brainstorm. Figure out what will hurt them most and why it will hurt them (because everybody handles things differently.) You want to make things worse on your character, to make the reader (and hero) wonder what will happen next. You really have to test their wit, ingenuity, and understanding of themselves and the world they live in.
The simplest way to see where stakes are raised is by looking at the Doorways in your story. The story opens up once a character crosses–or is forced to cross–a threshold.
Doorways are easily identifiable in most stories. My best learning experience came from making note of where they fell in old Twilight Zone episodes. Doorways are points when things become irreversible, and they also drive the characters toward the climax. At first the protagonist’s ordinary world is upset directly and it won’t return to normal until they do something about it. Then come complications (some brought on by their choices, some brought by outside influences). It’s not my job to show that to you. Go grab some of your favorite books and see where the protag’s world has gone from normal to not-normal. That’s the first doorway. How does your favorite writer achieve/present the dilemma? Go look at five more of your favorite novels. Take notes. See where things take a turn for the worse, how the character reacts, how things grow worse still. Highlight them.
If you need a craft-style book to understand it, I suggest Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. I’ve read it countless times (okay, four times) and believe it lays things out plainly enough with examples for anybody to grasp.
Raising the stakes also requires understanding what your character wants. If you don’t know what they want, and can’t present it clearly and succinctly, you’ll want to figure it out. Not only will it help you write your novel, it will be essential in writing a query letter and synopsis.
What your character wants is the driving force alongside what prevents them from getting what they want.
For me, the best way to see if my protagonist’s stakes are raised is to do a chapter-by-chapter outline. I summarize each chapter in a paragraph. Is the character spinning their wheels chapter after chapter? Do they make decisions and do those decisions complicate how to get what they want?
Like most other skills, it takes being aware of how the professionals do it, and learning how to apply it to your own work. So read a lot. Read more now than you’ve ever read before. Soak it up. Be a sponge. Ask why? a lot. Then search for the answers.
Next week we’ll look at Showing vs. Telling. For more thoughts on writing craft go here.
You’ve worked months or years on the first draft of your novel. You’re excited and burned out from living in your imagination more intensely than you’ve been living your normal life. But you do this because you want to make your imaginary life an intricate part of your everyday gig, to entertain readers, to do more than follow your dream. There are no hard and fast rules for success or self-expression. All you can do is write the best novel you can manage during that point of your life, revise it, sell it, revise it some more, and let people know it’s there while you’re hard at work on repeating the process.
Depending on the writer and their experience, the first draft of a new novel can be a horrible mess studded with some gems, or a nearly ready manuscript that just takes some tweaking. I’ll share what works for me on a second draft, just some questions and how I approach tackling the rewrite/revisions. You may not agree with all of it, but try some of the suggestions to see if they help or not.
I like to run while the book is burning hot. As soon as the first draft is finished I’m starting at the beginning and making notes in the manuscript using a “#” to mark where I may need to consider making changes.
For me, addressing the big issues first, is paramount. Then I can take care of the small stuff like spell checking, repetitive words, etc.
#1. Does the end tie into the beginning?
#2. How can I work the setting against the characters more?
#3. Is every paragraph clear?
#4. Is the climax big enough and have an emotional payoff?
#5. Is there anything that can be held back until further in the novel?
#6. Is the novel’s tone consistent?
#7. Why will the reader empathize with these characters?
#8. Is the antagonist demonstrating any redeeming qualities?
#9. Is every scene necessary? If one is removed will it destroy the plot?
#10. Are the biggest moments big enough? Are the small moments quiet enough?
#11. Does every scene propel the protagonists deeper into the story?
#12. Are the stakes raised higher the further the reader gets into the novel?
#13. Do actions and reactions happen logically?
#14. Does every scene end with a reason for the reader to start the next chapter?
#15. What “out-of-character’ things happen because a character is terrified, relieved, or desperate?
#16. What places am I being vague and lazy instead of being specific and creative?
Once I address those big questions and tweak the manuscript, I can tackle the little stuff.
#1. Are there any word choices that seem forced?
#2. Is the description clear and lively from the POV of the character’?
#3. Use the search function to find words seen too many times in this genre: For example: “Dark,” “Look (ed, ing),” “Dread,” “Black,” “Forced,” “Angry,” “Gun,” etc.
#4. Are the similes and metaphors clear and original?
#5. Proofread for typos.
I keep the big questions in mind as I’m writing the first draft, so when it’s finished and I come back to give them my full attention, I have less work to do.
What has worked in tightening second drafts for you?
“As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.” ― Ernest Hemingway
A lot of beginning writers worry about finding their voice. They spend money on courses and exert an incredible amount of energy thinking about it. I think it is within us from the beginning. It’s not hiding at all. Our voice is our experience, our biases, our pains, our joys, our passions, the themes of our own lives. We just need to learn and practice our craft so the expression and execution of those things that are ours and of us come across as powerfully as possible.
I believe, at least in my own case, that there is a duality that has to be acknowledged and embraced. My duality is a deep-seated wonder of life and people in contrast to the other side of my nature which is hip-deep in melancholy. I can write with authority in a certain area because I know them, feel them, and they’re of my essence.
I believe favorite writers–like Dennis Lehane, Stephen King, John Connolly, William Faulkner, Hemingway, Michael Connelly–all have a unique voice. Their writing is an extension of them is my bet.
You want to discover your voice? Know thyself. Your voice comes from honesty, reflection, acknowledgment, craft and confidence.
What holds people back from letting their voice out? Fear is probably number one. We don’t want people to hear what resonates in our hearts, what makes us us, and not accept it, or worse, make fun of it/judge it, and in turn judge us. But that’s part of connecting, and we can’t please everybody, so write from your deepest self. I get it, our egos our fragile. Yet I believe that if we’re spending a ton of energy protecting who we really are then we’re NOT expressing who we really are.
It’s also fun to explore the things we squirm away from. The ‘hot buttons’ for us. I think it’s a quick way to challenge ourselves, by creating a character who shares an opposing core belief different from one of our own, and instead of showing the reader how the character is wrong, let the character show why he’s right from his perspective. It’s an important skill learned to grow as a person and a writer. To gain new perspective and tear down the walls we build to protect ourselves from the world.
What do you really want to write, more than anything else in the world? What story are you scared to tell because you’re afraid of what those around you might think of you?
What do you think you need to become a great writer that you lack now? Once you can identify it, you can learn it. You can learn what is important to say and what is wasted breath. You learn what you fear is not insurmountable, even if every fiber of your being cries out that you can’t do it, or think it, or say it. You learn to understand yourself, the good and the horrible. And you learn to understand other people and show their lives honestly, beauty and blemish.
Everything you need voice-wise is already intact. You just have to trust yourself. Refine it. Learn how to express yourself masterly. Expect that not only will you discover the voice already inside you, but it will morph as you experience more, assimilate it, reflect upon it, and share it.
For more writing advice visit this page. If you find any of it helpful, share it with someone else.
While at Bouchercon 2012 in Cleveland last weekend I attended a fun panel about the pleasures and perils of writing a series character. Since series are such a hot commodity, and we as creators are prone to believe our characters are big enough to sustain several books, I figured I’d share a little of what I learned from the panelists (Karin Slaughter, Ben Coes, Michael Sears, Reed Farrill Coleman, and Robin Burcell.) I’m paraphrasing what they said and have possibly misinterpreted some of their comments (if so, my apologies.)
Some of this may be obvious at first glance but how are these things pulled off? That’s what we need to discover.
Some of the writers believe that readers read series because they come to love the character and that the plots are the more forgettable part of the equation. I tend to fall into that camp in belief as well.
Plot serves the story (which is created by the character’s choices.)
Thanks to Karin, Reed, Michael, Robin, and Ben for the great panel at Bouchercon!
Say something new about a character in every book…
When this is done right we come to know the characters better than we know most of our family and friends. This creates an incredible bond between fictional character and reader. Plus it’s just plain fun for the writer to discover things about their story’s hero. Everybody has their secrets, their families secrets, things they’re embarrassed of, uncomfortable around, tastes that have changed, failed relationship partners that haunt them, etc.
Karin also believes that the “Mystery of the Character and What Will This Character do Next?” is a driving force that keeps readers coming back for more…
I agree. A character that will fight for what they want (even if what they want is only for their world to return to normal), and one given certain qualities (like a strong moral compass that can be slightly skewed in certain situations) will surprise us. One of the reasons we read is to be surprised by a character’s actions and what those actions and their consequences teach us. Plus we just like a hero that will stand like we wish we could stand if only we weren’t so busy, or such cowards.
Get under the skin of the crime…
I’m not sure exactly what she meant by this, but I assume (I know, that could be a mistake) that she meant the affects the crime has on the main players involved. Exploring a character’s emotions and how they grapple with something like a serious crime, and the complications they may face in finding justice, open up all kinds of possibilities for the hero’s journey.
You have to put stuff in the book that is only for you…
I like this because I do it in my work too. Things that will mean nothing to nobody else, but they’re a part of me, or part of someone I have loved and who’s gone from my life, fall naturally into certain sections. A song that strikes a certain emotional chord from a pivotal moment in my life. Personal regrets. Even more personal Joys.
Don’t contradict yourself too much because it annoys readers…
Michael Koryta had mentioned this on a panel with Michael Connelly. In one story he had a football field where the end-zones faced north, south, east and west in different sections of the novel. It’s something to ask your first readers to watch for.
If you put everything about the character in the first book you’re left with very little to reveal in subsequent books.
Robin Burcell, being a former police officer, believes that authenticity in location, and on the job, are essential ingredients in forming a solid and believable series…
Get your facts right and learn to show them in a manner that moves the story forward even as it reveals something about your character.
She also believes it helps to have a road map…
If you’ve built the rules of your story world you’ll know when you’re straying outside them.
You have to make it work logically…
It’s incredibly important for your story to unfold logically. If not, you’re insulting your reader’s intelligence and the story will lose steam, become fragmented, and the focus–your character, their motivation, and their plight–become murky.
According to Reed Farrill Coleman, series protags are like “Nuns fret not…”
He spoke of the Wadsworth poem and explained how nuns live a very structured life and how they learn to find satisfaction in that, as well as learning how to find their greatest strengths in the confines of those limitations. And so it goes for your series protagonist… He or she is locked firmly into the books they were in before, and must find ways to get the job done within the limits of those boundaries (history, personality, values, morals, etc.) This also creates a believable character with true inner strength.
Avoid static characters…
There doesn’t have to be growth, it can go the other way. But strong characters do things. They propel the story forward instead of letting things just happen to them.
Keep it fresh for the writing and the reader…
It’s up to you to find ways to keep the characters, and the stories they’re involved in, fresh for you and your readers.
When asked about when to end a series…
Reed said it’s best to allow for a natural progression and to quit when it stops being fresh for you: A good time to quit is when you have nowhere else to take the protagonist and they have nowhere else to take you.
When asked about a protagonist’s family being endangered…
Reed said, If you can make it work, it works. If not, forget it. Don’t force something into the story that doesn’t belong there.
The Whole Point of P.I. Fiction…
Reed said, “The whole point of P.I. fiction is to give the protagonist a tough moral choice.”
Of his protagonist, he said, “Not exactly a good guy, but he has a good heart…“
I think that most well-known protagonists can be summed up the same. They walk that line between dark and light, but they want the light to win because they know somebody has to do something about it.
On keeping track of events and facts in your series…
Ben said that it’s pretty easy for him since each book is related to the one that came before it and the one that will come after it.
On the subject of the protagonist’s family being endangered…
Ben said that it is unrealistic if nobody important dies. He mentioned the Game of Thrones, and how you come to care so much about these characters and then your heart breaks when one of them is murdered. (I’m a big fan of that type of fiction and think it’s very realistic as well. To me that is real life. None of us are as safe as we’d like to think we are.)
Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat… Theodore Roosevelt
I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying… Michael Jordan
Most of the first half of my life (I hope it’s only the first half) has been riddled with mistakes, setbacks and failures. Every successful lunge forward is the result of some mistake I learned from previously. Some people have taken great delight in the failing side of the equation as I’m sure you have people around you who love to see you fail. But that’s only because they like to make it about them, how they would have done it smarter, or faster, or better. Only they never seem to take a risk with anything. Cowards are the first to laugh and criticize.
Being aware of what went wrong helps us learn and move toward the life we want (though even that life will never be perfect. What is?)
My first novel came out one year and four months ago. I’ve written and sold a lot of fiction since then and I’ve made some mistakes along the way that I’ll share with you here. The things I learned I couldn’t have learned without fumbling the ball, without falling from the wall I was climbing to see what lay on the other side. No regrets here. This is life. We only get one (that we can verify.)
Mistake #1: I started with the Division Mythos, a thirteen-book story. This could be the biggest mistake I made as a new author. Most people start with a standalone book, or at most, a trilogy. I’d written three books that were part of a thirteen book epic journey. The books were not in order: Before Leonora Wakes is the first in the first trilogy, Red Piccirilli’s. Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children is the first in the second trilogy, John McDonnell’s. Iron Butterflies Rust is the first Frank Gunn story. But I hadn’t known when writing each that they were all pieces of a puzzle until I’d finished them. My subconscious is always way ahead of me and makes me feel like a laggard so often. So I hurried to write others in the series, but I didn’t write them in chronological order. I know I should have but the stories didn’t come to me in that order. And instead of stopping and writing some standalone novels to build my fanbase, I pressed on with the Division Mythos because it continued to burn inside me, and still does. And luckily I’ve written the other stories in the last year and four months to fill in the gaps so that when my next two books are released the first eight books will be out there and can be read in order. Phew. Big mistake.
What I learned: I learned several things from that big mistake. One is that I am prolific. I can write a few hundred thousand words, and write them well, in a year and a half. And I can do it only writing a half hour a day, sometimes even skipping writing days because I just want to read or have other people’s stuff to critique. The second thing I learned is that I don’t control my muse, my muse controls me. I can’t write whatever I want. I have to write whatever project is constantly on my mind and I can’t move on to anything until I finish said work. I don’t see that as a bad thing though. The third thing I learned from the big mistake, and linked directly to being prolific, was that I can do like some of my heroes and write under a pen name. I’m going to up my game to write in the morning and at night (one hour a day total) and write four novels a year under four different names. Partly because I want to write in multiple genres, partly because by the time I’ve finished a WIP I already have ideas for a few more novels. I want to write as many of them as I can before I die, which could be tomorrow if I have a real bad day. So, with the pen names I’ll write each novel as a standalone, shoot for a broad and epic and moving story in 100,000 words. Piece of cake. Plus the muse can take me wherever it will because writing under four names in four genres I’ll never get bored. (I hate getting bored.)
Mistake #2: When I started I made the mistake of believing that writing is easy, even though I’d been a horrible student who didn’t know the difference between to, too and two, who then became a frustrated, uneducated and devout worshiper of Jack Daniels. Writing in my late twenties I thought you just write a story and then you sell it and hey, people are going to see your genius. I’ll tell ya, I’ve hung around a lot of creative types and we can easily think we’re Shakespeare or Hendrix or van Goh without ever creating anything that genuinely moves someone else on a physiological, let alone, a spiritual level.
What I learned: Eventually, after you’re writing and subbing stories for years without selling anything for cash, you have to face the facts that you’re not that good. So, I said, “What the hell am I doing wrong besides thinking I’m already good?” So I went out and studied the craft, hand-copied favorite novels, met some great friends who read all my work, asked questions of pros, read tons and tons of novels, read all kinds of genres, looked at my own life and the lives of those around me for material and emotions to draw from, did all kinds of things except sell my soul to the devil on layaway (hey, there’s a short story I’ll be writing this week). All of this searching and striving helped me a lot. I realized that even as much as I learned in a couple years of cramming was still only the tip of the iceberg. I think the greatest lesson I learned from it was that writing isn’t easy, that there is so much to learn and understand, and that there comes a point with each book where I have to set myself aside and bring my whole life and everybody I’ve ever known, and everything I’ve ever seen and splash it against the page. And then I learned to shape it with the craft, the What Makes Good Writing: which is this… get out of the way of your characters if they’re interesting.
Mistake #3: To aim high. I wanted to make a living at writing. That was my idea of aiming high. It’s really not that ambitious. With work and dedication and a little talent I think anybody can do this after they’ve put in ten or fifteen years.
What I learned: Wanting to make a living as a writer isn’t that important to me anymore. I already know I’ll be able to do that, and even if I couldn’t I have a more important goal now, and one that would make my living through writing mute. Now what have I learned? I want to write something that will move thousands upon thousands of people. I think I pulled it off with the novel I just finished. I think it is literature and more human than anything I could have ever written. I learned that I didn’t aim high enough to begin with but that was probably because I doubted any talent I had.
Mistake #4: I am antisocial.
What I learned: Try to be less antisocial.
The great things about mistakes is that they teach you about yourself.
As all things Real Life, this applies to the characters we create, too. Story itself is a moving picture of failures and a striving for wrongs righted. What is a story without a character making a choice and facing the repercussions of a bad move? Or someone else making a choice that affects them and our character having to make a choice in turn to return things to normal?
Simple. It’s all so complexly simple.
What mistakes have you made and what have you learned from them?
P.s.– Did you hear that the super awesome Jack Ketchum read my latest standalone from Darkfuse? Here’s what he said. Go grab a copy already. And go grab a copy of one of his books.
Tons of famous writers have used pen names for various reasons. Some writers’ who have used pen names, or these are their pen names: Dr. Suess, Ayn Rand, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Stan Lee, Stephen King, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake, Dean Koontz, Douglas Clegg, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Robert Jordan, Lee Thomas, Max Brand, Benjamin Black, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, John Le Carre, Anne Rice, James Joyce, Joyce Carol Oates, Nora Roberts, Lawrence Block, Harlan Ellison, Michael Chrichton…
You may be for or against pen names for whatever reason. I didn’t like the idea of them until recently. I felt that we should have our name on all of our work, but the more I learn the more I see why pen names are useful. I’ll list several of the reasons I’ll be using a few pen names…
#1. I’m very prolific…
I only have to write about a half hour a day to knock out two novels and two novellas a year. Easily. Some days I don’t write at all because I’m tired or lazy or life gets busy or I just want to read. But when I get back to the keyboard I’m flying. Could be because of all the dexterity I developed through years of guitar playing but I am an extremely fast typer. Plus I have about the next eight book ideas lined up, with some of the pivotal moments for each, so I can just bridge the gaps between those pivotal moments and have a new novel done in no time. In the last two years I’ve written and sold the following novels (Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children, The Dampness of Mourning, The Collected Songs of Sonnelion) and novellas (Iron Butterflies Rust, Immersion, Down Here in the Dark, When We Join Jesus in Hell, As I Embrace My Jagged Edges, and Within This Garden Weeping). See, I need more names. That’s too much for one person to do. And the more I write and the more my name gets out there the more time I’ll have to write. I can’t fathom writing three hours a day every day. I know I’d knock out a library of books in a decade. But hell, that’s what will probably happen since writing is therapy, and it’s a compulsion, and it’s a challenge, and it’s fun.
#2. I want to write in more than one genre…
I read widely and want to write widely. If somebody reads one of my more touching novels that I plan to write and then they went and read one of my Dark Fantasy novels they’d be upset. And I couldn’t blame them. We’re automatically tattooed with certain emotions by a writer and their work. For example, I’m nearly finished with a Historical/Family Saga/Thriller novel called The Lesser People. I know that it won’t sit well under the Darkfuse (or any other small press roof, though I’m going to let my publisher read it to see what he thinks), so more than likely I’ll be looking for an agent for that book, and I’ll be selling it under a pen name. I also have a sad and touching novel I’m going to write called Shine Your Light on Me that isn’t Horror or Crime, again more in a Family Saga/Price-of-Fame scope. And I have a few YA novels that I want to write that will be kinda edgy, gritty, and very realistic. Plus I want to pen some straight-up Crime fiction like some of my heroes. And I have a Western trilogy called Past Hard Seasons that I’m going to tinker with and modernize to see what I can make of it.
#3. Well, I don’t have a third reason. But those first two reasons are enough to warrant some fake names to write under.
Reasons other professionals have used pen names (besides using one for the same reasons I am):
They didn’t like the sound of their real name…
They didn’t want their family to know what they were writing…
They were paranoid and didn’t want people to know their real name…
They use a lot of real-life material in their novels and want to protect themselves from judgment…
To disguise their sex…
The list goes on.
It’s up to you to decide if you need or want a pen name. I’d follow the more ‘need’ side of it. My reasons show me I need a few. Follow your heart and trust your gut.
My standalone novella WHEN WE JOIN JESUS IN HELL was just released on Kindle(other digital formats out Sept. 25th). Go snag a copy! It’s a dark and harrowing tale of love, loss, revenge, and over-compensation. My hero Tom Piccirrilli read it and said, “Lee Thompson knows his horror-noir. He fuses both genres together in the turmoil of terror, tragedy, blood, guilt, and lost chances at redemption.”–Tom Piccirilli, author of THE LAST KIND WORDS
Ah, the beauty of wonderful tones. We dig them by our favorite guitarist, in the timbre and resonance of our favorite vocalists, in the bright relief of late autumn, and unsurprisingly in the books by our favorite authors.
We do not want bland, run-of-the-mill music, scenery or characters. We want something that stirs our very spirits. And as creators I think it’s important to dig deep and find our tone for each story as early as possible. There are definitely wrong tones for a piece, and a great story can be made mediocre by something so fundamental. Who would have thunk it, right? But imagine a classic like The Grapes of Wrath being written in the tone of a whiny narrator. It would get old quick. Imagine Edgar Poe’s classics written with the tone of a frustrated and bored father. It wouldn’t be right focus-wise or in building atmosphere and conflict for what he set out to do.
I think that is a revelation. Don’t write every story from wherever you are in that stage of your life–a frustrated and bored father, an overworked wife and mom, a happy drone, a rising force in your corporation, a beloved family comedian–write each story from the place that best suits the character’s attitude, goals, frustrations and convictions.
What exactly is tone? It’s a huge part of an author’s voice and approach to a specific story. It, like many aspects of well-written story, is directly linked to an author’s word choice and how specific they are, what details they share and those they don’t. And most of all, I believe it’s the consistent voice of the narrator’s view of the story he’s telling for the length of the work. The character’s attitudes sets tone, which can also help you judge how interesting of a character you have created.
If we’re writing something very personal, that has recently happened, our tone can be bitchy or whiny or angry. You might think that it adds fire to the fiction, but writing from an open wound about something that just happened without any objectivity is dangerous and a lot more boring than you’d think.
Best to let yourself cool for a while, to gain some distance and perspective, before bringing the fiery stuff to your work. Don’t write as an embittered victim. Write from the place where you’ve acknowledged and accepted your part of any painful experience, and write from above and outside the experience itself, perhaps as if it had happened to one of your best friends. Yeah, do that.
Likewise, hardly anybody wants to be preached at. Learn some stuff, possibly, but not be beat in the head with your agenda. If you’re in the story more than the story is in the story… Cut! Step back. Reassess. Keep the story moving at its natural gait, don’t make it syrup with your tacky personal injections every other paragraph.
I had a talk recently with my publisher that made me think about tone in climatic moments as well. Not all characters will view those intense emotional actions/reactions the same way. Some will move without thinking, some will overthink, to some there isn’t a brisk, snappy play of events (displayed as shorter sentences) but a speeding-up of time, a running together of everything that came before that moment and the chaos that swirls violently around the axis of said climatic moment. Let your character dictate the tone and you’ll be all right. Try to force a tone on a character that doesn’t jive well and you’re in for trouble.
This all really goes back to what I believe is the backbone of great fiction: a character who feels strongly about something surrounded by other people who feel strongly about stuff; inner and outer conflicts. Pretty simple. If your character doesn’t feel strongly about himself, where they grew up, how their parents raised them, about their job, about their wife or husband or kids, or religion, or politics, or how their dreams never manifested into reality, I’d lay money the tone of your novel will be all over the place. And when something is all over the place in tone, it diffuses the main thread (your main character’s story) into something scattered and vague. Don’t be vague. Vague is not a good tone.
Go study how the professionals establish tone through characterization.
Contracts are super important since they serve to protect both parties (writer and publisher). Make sure you understand yours before you sign it, even if you have to hire an attorney! And if anybody tells you that you can’t take a legal document to an attorney to have him explain something to you in layman’s terms then tell that person to go screw themselves.
The green stuff. We all love it. It’s hard to eat without it. As an aspiring writer you may have dreams of building houses made of money based on nothing but your sheer talent and your staggering genius, and although it’s okay to dream big, it’s also good to be realistic because it is a fact that the farther our expectations are off from reality, the more upsetting the results will be.
A lesson I learned a few years ago from my hero Tom Piccirilli was “Don’t just publish, publish well.”
In other words, sell your work to professionally paying markets, and sell to publications that have a solid reputation. Sell to markets you love to read, that has a readership, etc. You can give your work away if you want to and count it as a sale, but how is that really any different from putting your story up on your blog for free? It’s not any different. But most everybody has done the for-the-love thing starting out, I’m sure. It gives us that little bit of validation we need to keep going (so we tell ourselves) but that validation is also pretty fleeting. Hell, validation is pretty fleeting even when you sell for actual money (though the money is nice because then you can go buy books! Or take a vacation! Or pay your bills!)
So, publish well, grasshopper. Be grateful and proud of yourself, but realize the journey is never-ending when you have the chops to sell to magazines and book publishers you respect.
Money comes to the writer. Who said that? James D. MacDonald. Money flows towards the writer. You don’t pay a publisher. You don’t pay an agent to represent you. You don’t pay some magazine to publish your short story. You don’t pay a production studio to make a movie adapted from your novel. You get paid for your creation. Basically leasing the rights to the work in some form (Hardcover, paperback, audio, digital, film) for a specific amount of time. And you get paid.
The indie author’s journey makes this a bit different. Because you do have money going out before you ever make a dime. As an indie author you have to pay for editing, covers, formatting, and all that. But that is an investment in your work so it’s different. Not much different than paying for good advertising on Goodreads or in a very popular magazine. And the money is still coming to you, its just you have to soak up the bills that a traditional publisher takes care of first.
As you approach writing full time you also have to learn how to manage your money better. This can be a big shocker. Have you ever worked one of those jobs where you get paid every two weeks and sometimes it’s difficult to make the money stretch until your next paycheck? Okay, now imagine getting a paycheck every three months. Think about that for a minute. Sure, you’ll get some short story sales that pop in here and there for 250 bucks a pop, but it’s not like you’re selling a story every week, week after week, at pro rates. And the payments for those short stories will also be a long time off. It’s not typical to be paid ‘upon acceptance’ but ‘upon publication’. And sometimes you have to wait six months or a year before the story you sold comes out and you collect on that piece of work, so think long term now. Learn to manage your money now, in your everyday life, before the illusion of rolling in wealth is shattered. Learning to budget will save you stress. Again, it’s a hard truth that the further our expectations are from reality the more upsetting it is when our expectations aren’t met. Don’t worry about getting rich, worry about writing the best story you can and improving your craft and being a professional and everything else will fall into place.
In traditional publishing you get paid an advance against royalties to help you live as you write the next book. But you’re not making a dime until your book earns back that advance, which sometimes never happens. And sometimes, if sales are abysmal, your publisher might not give you a contract on another book. Though it’s partly art, it’s also partly business. That’s why it’s important to keep writing, to manage your cash flow and not get all crazy like you’re going to be the next Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling. You’re probably not. I’m probably not either and that’s okay since we know how few people get ‘rich’ in any profession.
Sometimes, especially starting out, there just isn’t much money coming in from our first book. We can augment that income by gaining experience and branching off into other areas.
You learn to save receipts (for internet bills, living space, research trips, conventions, paper, ink, etc.) to help come tax time.
You learn to make extra cash from other skills as well as from non-fiction.
You line up editing gigs to make extra dough so you can do what you love most and write fiction.
You can make extra money from ghostwriting.
You can make extra cash from writing under a pen name in another genre.
You learn that it can be fun, enlightening and profitable, to span mediums: Novels, Novellas, Short stories, Screenplays, Audio books, Hardcovers, Paperbacks, Graphic novels, Games, Songs, Non-fiction, etc.
We’ll never make enough money just like we’ll never have enough readers or kickass reviews. It’s human nature to always want more. But we can find balance, create it like we do stories, if we’re aware of what it’s like to write for a living. Not the dream, but the reality. Stay disciplined. Study your craft. Listen to your mentors and heroes. Be humble. Be honest with your readers.
Since we’ve talked about money here we’ll follow up next week with what you want and don’t want in a book contract.
Note: This Friday (August 31st) marks the final chapter of my FREE serial novel The Collected Songs of Sonnelion! It’s an important puzzle piece in my Division Mythos and the last book in the first trilogy. It’ll be up for a few weeks after that and then my publisher will be taking it down. Catch up while you can! Find out more on my Division Mytho’s website.
“Gossamer” is a mythical, almost philosophical book that strips the reader naked and forces us to challenge our assumptions about love with passages that will touch you in places inside yourself you forgot exist. - Anita Siraki/HellNotes
Lee takes the unlovely parts of real life and sets it in a setting so deliciously bizarre that you think you’re simply reading a story, when in fact you’re listening to a man sitting across from you and telling you all about pain. - Mercedes Yardley/Shock Totem
"10 out of 10 Stars... GOSSAMER: A STORY OF LOVE AND TRAGEDY will blow you away my friends. It is that good." -- Peter Schwotzer/Famous Monsters of Filmland.
"WHEN WE JOIN JESUS IN HELL is as crazy as its tormented protagonist. Hard as nails." -- Jack Ketchum, author of The Woman.
"Lee Thompson knows his horror-noir. He fuses both genres together in the turmoil of terror, tragedy, blood, guilt, and lost chances at redemption."--Tom Piccirilli, author of THE LAST KIND WORDS
"The Dampness Of Mourning is taut, tough, and terrifying..." -- Brian Hodge, author of Picking The Bones
“The Dampness of Mourning is a riveting thriller." --Midwest Book Review
"Thompson’s voice is his own — strong, hypnotic, and unsettling--grabs you by the balls and rips them right off, breaking your heart and your psyche in the process.” -- Brian Keene, author of Ghoul, Dark Hollow and The Rising
"Brooding, soulful, haunted." -- Robert Dunbar, author of Willy and Martyrs & Monsters