You need to strengthen your voice.
This obnoxious sentence makes writers want to poke their own eyes out with an unsharpened pencil. An unassuming, simple sounding criticism, the words frustrate us, and for good reason. The obvious response, “okay, how do I fix that?” is invariably met with a shrug and an ambiguous, useless retort.
“It’s a matter of experience,” they tell us. Or “you just have to write until your voice emerges.” My personal favorite is “I can’t define it, but I know it when I read it.”
Yeah. Super helpful. Thanks so much.
As writers, we’re eager sponges, with a desperate urge to hone our skills. We rarely approve of our best efforts, and when we encounter criticism, we take it seriously. But what hope do we have when the people who point out the problem can’t even define it, let alone tell us how to fix it?
I’ve read plenty of blog posts, articles, and books on voice. Most fill the pages with endless contrasting examples of ‘good voice’ and ‘bad voice’. “See?” they proclaim. “Do it like this. Not like this.”
I’ll take it on faith that I’m dense, but this approach did nothing for me. The burning desire to improve remained, and seeing examples of ‘good voice’ was akin to showing a starving squirrel an oak tree surrounded by an electric fence.
What I needed was for someone to connect the dots, and no one could pull it off.
That’s when I decided to stop looking for other people to solve my problems, and do it myself.
To start, I had to set aside my frustration and admit that the vague advice I’d read on the subject of voice wasn’t without clues. The most important of these was “good voice is confident.” I started with that.
Unfortunately, the solemn wisdom didn’t extend much further than that. When offering advice on how to achieve this magical confidence, the ensuing suggestion was “you have to believe what your character is saying. It’s like method acting.”
Yeah. Writer here. Not an actor.
Nevertheless, I thought about it for a while and decided that maybe there was more there than what I saw at first glance. I turned to my favorite device: identifying a suitable model to compare it against. I asked myself “Who is confident?”
Well, leaders for starters. So why not look into leadership techniques, and see where that goes?
We’ve all read that the primary quality of intuitive leaders is a decisive, unshakeable belief in what they’re saying. Much like the advice offered above, the leader believes what they say.
With that as my starting point, I dove headfirst into the challenge, and happily, it took very little time to discover quite a few pearls of wisdom at the bottom of the uncertain sea called the Internet.
Luckily, there have been quite a few studies regarding the speaking style of leaders. Numerous articles pointed out that if one parses a leader’s words, a number of specific, quantifiable tactics emerge.
Don’t Equivocate. It’s okay to be judgmental
It’s shocking how often writers convince themselves that their protagonist is “only human”, and that it’s perfectly reasonable that they would experience moments of uncertainty. The problem is that readers don’t want this in their heroes. We all know that.
But do we, as writers, remain true to that premise? Look at your narrative. How often do you fill your writing with equivocations like:
must have, sort of, that kind of, a little, probably, he guessed, sometimes, she believed, she thought, perhaps, as far as he was concerned, most, a lot, might, can, could be, she assumed, reminded him of, tends to?
It’s all too easy to thoughtlessly sprinkle phrases like these into the narrative, introducing doubt and uncertainty through the eyes of the POV character. You need to jettison the caveats.
Imagine your character is a scientist researching a cure for cancer. Her peers are hot on the trail of a new form of gene therapy, but our erstwhile heroine is convinced they are chasing a red herring. In the narrative, you might write:
She didn’t think they had it right.
It’s a simple, direct sentence, and it reflects her genuine uncertainty, so what’s wrong with it? Well, everything if our readers want confidence. Heroic protagonists are manifestly sure of themselves, and the sentence above is far from decisive. Stronger would be:
They knew nothing, and people would die while they wasted their time.
The difference is stark. The narrator is confident, maybe even judgmental and arrogant. The bold statement, presented as fact, may prove right or wrong, but the narrator took a stand, and that’s what readers want. They want the hero who surges defiantly into the face of adversity and dissent.
The list of equivocation phrases above isn’t exhaustive, but if viewed through the lens of under-confidence, a clear pattern emerges, and armed thus, examples take on actual meaning.
Most reasonable people understood that what she was doing – walking outside during a hurricane – was dangerous.
We watched her sauntering up the street into the teeth of the storm, wondering how long it would take for a falling branch to crush her skull.
The little boat bobbed on the waves, reminding him of a child’s toy.
The little boat bobbed on the waves, a bathtub toy in a dangerous ocean.
In these examples, the narrator shifts from making reasonable assumptions to stating bold, judgmental truths. From equivocation to decisiveness. From the caveat-laden language of reasonable people to the unshakeable declarations of a person with convictions. The changes are relatively subtle, but nonetheless important.
Comparing them, the former are the phrasings of uncertain followers, while the latter are the confident judgments of leaders.
Don’t Babble or Justify
Leaders are also succinct. They understand that excess words take longer to process and invite critics to pick at the details, and these things undermine the faith that followers have in them.
If you think about it, long explanations or justifications sound as if the speaker is unsure of themselves, and trying to talk themselves into something. Followers always want to believe that leaders know what they’re doing. That’s why people follow them.
Leaders speak in short, punchy, memorable chunks. They state simple truths and reach quick conclusions.
Writers often embed constant justifications into the narrative. They justify this by claiming that it is necessary in order for the reader to understand the character’s motivations.
Give your readers a little credit.
As an example of both babble and justification in one paragraph, consider:
Harvey’s finger hovered over the ‘buy’ button. There was a lot riding on this. Fifty thousand was only half of the total he’d embezzled from the company’s retirement account, but if Optronics split at the opening bell, he could slide the profits in through operating cash budget. No one needed to know. In less than a day, he could erase his crime. There would be no need to explain that the insurance hadn’t covered Lorraine’s medical bills. No need to explain his responsibilities as a husband and father. The risk had been worth it, and he’d do it again if he had to. But none of that mattered now. The worst was over, and all he had to do was take this one last risk.
I know a lot of writers who’d go much farther than that, endlessly rehashing information that had doubtless been provided in previous scenes, dragging out Harvey’s agonized decision. They wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to sum it all up, like a lawyer’s closing statement.
But this kind of information dump is nearly always unnecessary. Even as an opening paragraph, when none of this is known to the reader, the pre-action babble serves no other purpose than to drag out the decisive moment. I’d much rather see:
Harvey stabbed the flashing green ‘buy’ button on his laptop’s touch screen, then wiped his hands on his pants and closed the lid. Accounts receivable was fifty thousand dollars lighter now, but if Optronics split tomorrow, he could replace the stolen funds without anyone noticing. And if it didn’t, well, no matter. Either way, Lorraine was out of danger now, recovering in St. Theresa’s Intensive Care Unit. If that cost him a few years in jail, he could live with it.
In the first example (125 words), there’s no action at all, but there’s a lot of navel-gazing babble. Harvey agonizes over the decision that he had no choice but to make, and the narrator pointlessly justifies it with back-story before pulling the trigger.
In the second example (81 words), the trigger is pulled in the first sentence. Harvey takes immediate, decisive action, and then concisely and matter-of-factly, the narration fills in the gaps.
Yes, sometimes a chain of logic is called for, but unless it’s absolutely necessary, kill the justifications. Your character should be certain. They should state plain, uncomplicated truths. The reader will keep up.
And frankly, we often enjoy those epiphany moments, when the hero’s actions strike us with one of those “Oh wow, that’s why she did that” moments. Don’t ruin your reader’s opportunity for discovery. Don’t undermine their faith in your protagonist. Give the readers a clear, decisive, simple image. Simple truths are viewed as self-evident, more believable by default.
Avoid Delayed Decisions
Much like indecision in word choice, there exists a kind of indecisiveness of action. Often, this takes the form of adverbs.
Hovering outside his hotel room, she reached tentatively for the doorknob.
Examples like this are tricky. Writers can come up with countless reasons why the POV character hesitates before opening any metaphorical door. And to be clear, many of these reasons are valid.
But as is often the case, too much of anything is a bad thing. You don’t want your characters constantly hesitating. Constantly agonizing over every tiny decision. When it’s necessary for dramatic tension, let them pause. But be vigilant. If you find your character doing this more than once every few chapters, you’re creating the same kind of uncertainty that poisons the narrative.
Heroes throw caution to the wind. They casually surge forward, ever ready to meet challenges head on. Don’t casually allow them to hesitate. Ever. When a character pauses before leaping into conflict, it should be a defining moment, nothing less.
Ignoring the flutter in her stomach, she willed a smirk onto her lips and swept into the room.
The woman in the first example is a timid school girl, afraid to commit to a decision. That’s a victim waiting to happen. Fine if it’s a secondary character, but only compelling in a protagonist in unusual circumstances.
The second example shows a decisive woman who won’t let nervousness get between her and whatever she’s after. That’s a heroine, and she forces readers to turn the page.
Understand that there’s a difference between the character and how the writer frames them. In both cases, the woman is nervous before entering the room. But the first example renders a character in uncertain, ambiguous language. The second shows much more clearly her state of mind. Voice isn’t the strength of character. It’s the strength of the description.
Root Out Verbs of Being
This is standard advice for writing and it’s also a component of voice. Verbs of being (is, are, was, were, be, been, being) are verbs that perform little function except to state the existence of a thing.
There’s nothing remotely interesting about simple existence. It conveys no nuance, no texture.
Consider a sentence like:
She was in the middle of the street, ignoring the rush hour traffic
A simple verb change and accompanying affect introduces much more interesting texture, and with it, a stronger voice.
She danced in the middle of the street, oblivious to the angry shouts and honking horns.
She planted herself in the middle of the street, shaking a fist at the rush hour traffic.
I won’t belabor this one, as there are countless good books and articles on passive voice, but I point it out because it’s clearly an impediment to strong voice.
Use Imagery, Metaphors, and Similes
Again, this is standard advice, but again I include it because it is also a component of voice.
Readers like to imagine. Everyone does. And nothing assists imagination more than a good metaphor. Metaphors and similes are a kind of shorthand. They not only provide a visualization for action, making it easier to understand, they also perform a more important function. They bring associations with them.
The point of a metaphor or simile is to use a small number of words to add a large amount of information.
Let’s say we compare an inquisitive person to a ferret.
Twitching his nose like an oversized ferret, he pounced into the room, rooting through the pile of clothes on the floor.
If you’ve ever owned a ferret, you know all about their insatiable, relentless curiosity. When a ferret sets its mind to locating and stealing a shiny object, almost nothing can stand in its way. By providing this association to the reader, we need only four extra words to add all of the instinctive, relentless attitude of nature’s most tenacious rodent into the character’s personality.
This type of imagery makes characters more recognizable. More memorable. And it is ineffably tied to voice.
Writers inevitably get much too wrapped up around the notion of plausibility and reality. In their zeal to represent realism, they forget that readers don’t actually want realism. They don’t. Readers want things that are larger than life. They want to live vicariously through characters that are driven and decisive. Readers want to know what it feels like to confidently stride into conflict, self-assured and prepared to brave the unknown.
As a writer, your language can either add to that goal or undermine it. When you undermine it, that’s what critics mean by a weak voice. Your writing doesn’t match the heroism of your character.
When you render a confident character with weak words, (or even when you render an under confident character with weak words), the result simply feels wrong. There are no grammatical errors. The language may be lyrical and poetic, but voice is more than that. It is the confident, almost heroic way that the writer decisively paints the character.
So in the end, the writer does need to be confident, just as the advice said. Paint your characters with a decisive brush, boldly stating what they are. Don’t hedge. Don’t equivocate. Don’t apologize.
Shamelessly tell us who they are.
Susan Crandall and the Path Home
Dysfunctional families, though they might be enticing and dramatic subjects for countless books and movies out there, bring much more woe than most authors account for or can convey. As a matter of fact, it seems it's become the common trait given to characters writers want to give a tragic background to, a small addition to a mass of elements, ultimately to be cheaply glossed over.
However, there is always the other side of the coin, and today Susan Crandall stands on it with her novel titled The Myth of Perpetual Summer. Where most stories would pay little mind to the family dynamics or create portrayals seeking only to shock the reader, this one approaches the subject with all the honesty and dignity it deserves.
The story opens up in 1972 as we are introduced to Tallulah James, living on her own in San Francisco, having escaped the tragedy which is her family nine years ago. However, she gets word her brother Walden has just been arrested for murder in New Orleans... the brother she once left behind. She doesn't know much, but she is certain she must come back home and try to save him, even if it means getting back in the touch with the family she left so long ago. From there on out the story branches between the past and the present, following Tallulah's upbringing and her current fight to save her brother as well as perhaps salvage what little remains of her family.
A Nonexistent Childhood
On some level it feels as if this book is made from two shorter novels blended together into one. While they do correlate with each other on various levels, for the most part it feels as if you're reading through two independent tales with their own unique characteristics. While I believe many authors would be incapable of adopting this sort of model and making the story feel realistic and organic, Susan Crandall succeeds at it much better than most. The jumps between the timelines as you switch from one chapter to the next never feel too rushed or abrupt, always having some sort of connection for you to hold on to and get into the zone of the incoming pages. Additionally, both stories, despite being quite different, end up complementing each other with their varying qualities.
The storyline dedicated to exploring Tallulah's childhood is particularly fascinating, depicting in great detail the inner workings of a family falling apart at the seams. We walk with her through her childhood largely marked by the absence of her parents and the duty of raising her two siblings which inadvertently fell on her shoulders. We bear witness to the destructive maelstrom of her parents' relationship, how it wreaks havoc on the entire family. Amidst it all, there is the strong and stern grandmother, the dedicated keeper of family secrets. Crandall ensures we feel the full psychological burden of this setting on Tallulah every step of the way, constantly reminded about how every single second of her existence devolved into struggle. The path taken by the family in its unravelling feels very logical, deliberate and realistic... almost to the point where I have the impression it might be based on something concrete, and for that I applaud the author.
Old Demons Never Rest
The expositions into the past provide many interesting plot points and explanations in regards to the characters, but the present day is where, in my opinion, the more exciting and hopeful parts of the book lie. The whole story surrounding Walden and the murder he is accused of makes for a compelling mystery as we always feel there is something amiss, preventing us from seeing the complete picture. As you might imagine, there are more than a few twists and turns to contend with, and while I would characterize some of them as being relatively tame, on the whole I felt satisfied with where the story took me. After all, this isn't an outright thriller and thus it would be unfair to judge it as one.
At the same time it is equally fascinating to see Tallulah reunite with the family she abandoned long ago and watch as she tentatively tries to mend some connections here and there. There are definitely some moments of shining hope to be found in these parts which heavily contrast with the rest of the book, and I believe they are quite necessary in making the story work as a whole. Naturally, with Crandall going for realism above all else, not every story leads to a happy ending, nor do any miracles appear out of thin air to save the day... and I take very kindly to this philosophy. The reminder of the cruelty which real life might bring always looms in the air, to the point where we ourselves are tempted to glance at our own demons waiting to be confronted.
The Final Verdict
In the end, The Myth of Perpetual Summer by Susan Crandall is a powerful novel about family, tragedy, loss, love, hope and redemption, with an entertaining story to boot driven by sympathetic characters. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys family dramas with tragic overtones.
David ben Efraim (https://bookwormex.com)
It might surprise some of my readers to discover that my end-game for a writing career has nothing to do with writing the next great American novel, or even hitting number one on the bestseller list. I'd like those things. I love it when a new reader finds one of my books and enjoys it, but I have much bigger plans in mind, and I've begun the process of executing that plan.
Opening the Doors to a new kind of Publishing House
Gecko Print was never meant to be only a self-publishing imprint. In fact, I dreamed up what I wanted the company to be years ago, and I've been sitting on the website URL for quite a while, just to ensure that nobody else could snatch it up. I wanted to offer something new. Fewer writers, at least at first, but more books. More than a contract. I wanted serious writers, those obsessed with living off their words, to have the options that weren't granted to myself and so many others.
After two years of freelancing, mostly writing copy, I realized one morning that I could cut right through the red tape and get my products directly on the marketplace. Since I already have the publishing company established (including a business license in Missouri), all I needed to do was pivot.
The plan for the company all along has been a writer-centric vision. The big 6, and many, many other publishing houses have gone the one-off route. They take on a book, after it's passed through several rounds of vetting by agents and acquisitions, and they place a bet. The book will either be a success or a flop. That success or failure is based on only one thing, whether the book "earns out." This means it needs to sell enough copies in a limited amount of time to pay for the author advance, advertising, store placement, and of course the usual costs of running a business.
If the book fails, then it's the book's fault. Nevermind that the author wasn't helped in cultivating an audience. Nevermind that very little is usually done to help the debut author flash in the spotlight, even for a moment. Simply the same old "roll out some red carpet and launch the book" attitude which has dominated this market for well over seventy years. Books are becoming Hollywood productions. They either go blockbuster hit, or they're duds. The hits pay for the duds, and the market has modeled itself around that philosophy. The big sellers need to cover the costs of the risky projects.
As an author, this means that the odds are always stacked against you. Having your book flop is also like getting a black eye, especially if you took a large advance against sales.
Pioneering a New Way
There are some normal start-up fundraising things that need to be gotten out of the way with any business. With Gecko Print Publishing, I want that whole process to convert directly to author benefit down the road. In short, I'm drumming up my little writing mill again, but this time I'll be the one in charge of the final products and projects, writing copy for small businesses and even indie authors looking to grow their audiences. While this may not seem beneficial to authors, here's the benefit:
I don't know about every author, but I was desperate to make a living off my words only for a while, and for 2 years I struggled to find content clients that would keep me afloat and pay me a fair salary. For GPP authors, they will ALWAYS have a place to make some extra cash, writing fun and engaging short works about their various areas of expertise. Most authors tend to have a bunch of hobbies.
It will also work the other way round. If I start hiring some content creators for full-time work, and they write a novel, we'll work closely with them to cultivate their story to the point of publish-ability, and at the very worst, we'll give them pointers for their next book. The only vetting process will be the strength of the story, everything else can be fixed, and audiences can be grown.
Another back-channel strategy involves the people who purchase our marketing projects. Since these are businesses that thrive on selling content and copy, any connections made in this arena will have the benefit of large platforms that aren't accessible to other publishers.
The GPP Family Experience
We don't see readers as targets to be sold to, or wallets with no soul attached. We see them as champions for our books, and they deserve something in return.
We don't see other authors as competition, and we know there are plenty of indies out there producing good work that needs a chance to shine also. They're probably writing stuff that our readers are interested in as well.
After finding a little glitch in the way Amazon does business for freebie promotions, GPP is currently constructing an algorithm that will find the best books from indies and smaller houses. The big houses can't afford to do freebie promos, but the little guys can, and the books that make it to the top are almost always of high quality.
This will level the playing field, excluding those unwilling to sacrifice a few unit sales to build an audience for their work, and at the same time, books can only appear on most of these lists for a maximum of four weeks out of the year, which means carousel content for readers looking for new authors and new books. The readers win, and as our influence grows, we'll be helping those indies who hit our lists by directing voracious readers their way. No charge. In fact, the basic idea behind the list is for it to be as incorruptible as possible. Writers will never be able to "buy" their way onto our hit list. We may or may not provide an advertising slot or two later down the road, but these will be labeled appropriately.
The free book list is in its first iteration, and live on the GPP website right now. This is only the minimum viable product, using Amazon's API to generate free books after you click on the page. Carousel content, good books, and of course everything on the list is FREE on Kindle, at least when you see it.
Join the List
There are numerous places around the website to sign up for our email list, in which we'll be sending out some of the best books in each category every Sunday, but also posting updates about cool stuff that we're doing to change the industry, and of course once we open our doors to a few freelancers or authors to submit work for review. The email doubles as a weekly reminder that we're still here, with up to 50 free books sitting on our page at any given time, just in case you want to read something on Sunday and aren't sure where to look, or don't want to drop a lot of cash.
I'm building this mostly on my own, though I do have a few good editors and cover designers in mind once we are up and rolling. Till then, I'll keep my nose to the grindstone, and see what kind of flour comes out of the mill.
In the meantime, enjoy all the free books :)
Martin McConnell, author of Finish the Damn Book!, holds a Physics degree from SIUE, and when he isn't writing speculative fiction, he's motivating other authors, stargazing, reading, or playing Kerbal Space Program. He avidly encourages everyone he meets to seize control of their dreams by driving their own plot. You can find him at his website writefarmlive.com.
My approach to writing has always been to start at the most strategic level and work my way down to the details. For me, it's easier to focus on the words if I've already solidified the main concepts that direct those words. That's why things like audience expectations, story structure, and outlines are so well suited for me. They free up my writing brain to focus more on craft. With that in mind, I'd like to bring a pretty cool concept to your attention: The Soul Triptych.
This is a somewhat obscure technique that I stumbled across a few years ago, and I was so enamored with it that I used it during the writing of Gnosis. Put simply, a soul triptych is a model that facilitates the intelligent crafting of a trio of main characters in a way that is surprisingly organic and also appeals to some fundamental human traits.
For some of you, a triptych might be a familiar concept in the world of art. It refers to one of those three-in-one fold-out panel paintings. An example of one is Hans Memling's Triptych of the Resurrection, shown here. Depending on the artist, the triptych often depicts three different facets of the same subject matter.
In a similar way, we can think of a trio of main characters as three facets of a complete human personality, with each character representing one of the three basic drives.
The three most commonly used facets are: Body, Mind, and Spirit. You can define each of these in a variety of ways, but for the most part, your definitions will be similar to:
The Body – This character is usually, but not always, physically strong. They are driven by passions and desires. They are earthlike, grounded in physicality. They are typically very practical and concerned with reality, rather than abstractions. They don't often dive too deeply into mysteries, and tend to react spontaneously. Their passions run strong, and they are often deeply loyal and unconditional.
The Mind – This is the brain of the trio. They are the one who devises the plans most often. Detail oriented and intellectual, they strive for logic. They are driven by clear, rational thinking, and the inevitability that this creates. They can be abstract, often skeptical, and sometimes cold and aloof.
The Spirit – The Spirit is driven by compassion when making decisions. They are all about feeling. They can be inflexible. Having once made up their minds, they can be driven by desire to see things through to the end. They are the spiritual leader of the trio (which doesn't necessarily translate to the actual leader).
Now, before you go all crazy and suggest that this creates fractional, two-dimensional characters, relax. That's not the intent. The purpose is to allow each character to focus on a different aspect, not to be constrained by it. Characters should have depth and the ability to deviate from their role from time to time. The soul triptych role simply points at their dominant traits.
Looked at in this light, the soul triptych is a story representation of the three powers of humanity. And because you have three characters each representing a different one, then together they make a complete unit. This provides an interconnectedness. An intrinsic need for each other. The triptych is often a very tight, indissoluble team.
Whether intentionally or not, we see this model in successful fiction, television, and movies. A LOT. Here are a few examples:
Body Mind Soul Book/Movie
Ron Hermione Harry Harry Potter
Han Leia Luke Star Wars
Buttercup Blossom Bubbles Powerpuff Girls
Kirk Spock McCoy Star Trek
Gale Katniss Peeta Hunger Games
Montoya Wesley Buttercup The Princess Bride
Samwise Gandalf Frodo The Lord of the Rings
Dmitri Ivan Alyosha The Brothers Karamazov
Porthos Athos Aramis The Three Musketeers
Take a moment and consider any of the above trios. Let's consider Ron, Hermione, and Harry from the Harry Potter series. Go back and review the definitions of Body, Mind, and Soul above. It's abundantly clear which role each character serves. These are not shallow, two-dimensional characters. They each have lots of things going on and they each maintain a level of individuality and uniqueness. They are a very tight, loyal group, and they need each other. In any given book in the series, each one is vital to some element of the overall quest. Together, they form a complete unit, with all of the necessary traits to overcome adversity.
And knowing what their intended role is makes it easier as a writer to devise challenges that are suited to one character over the others, thus rendering all of them useful and necessary to the story.
As readers, when we are presented with a triptych, we identify with the experience of the characters being portrayed. The triptych represents universal human characteristics that we are all familiar with. We need wit, determination, and strength to exist day-to-day. By magnifying these qualities and embodying them in individuals, writers then provide these qualities with the necessary exaggeration to make them heroic.
It's possible that there is an even deeper connection between humans and the triptych. Plato spoke of the concept millennia ago. We might even see it reflected in Christianity, in the form of the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus. One could provide a chicken-and-the-egg argument about the ultimate source of the concept, but regardless of one's belief's, it has been around for a very long time. Long enough to have become ingrained in our basic expectations of humanity.
And that's why it works so well.
There are variants on the concept as well. We've all heard the phrase body and soul as a reference to a complete human. This pair can also be used as a soul diptych, with similar results. (Oh, and notice in the above list that any one of the three can be the actual leader of the group. In Harry Potter, the Soul leads. In Star Trek, the body leads. In Hunger Games, the mind leads. There is no requirement that any particular facet must be dominant. And that's good, because it allows the writer to retain maximum flexibility during the character creation process.)
The Body and Soul definitions from above can still apply, but the dynamic between them changes. The triptych often creates a tight, harmonious trio, where the three forces have an almost democratic means of resolving internal conflict. With a diptych, conflict is more common, since there is no third party to turn to in the event of disputes.
Diptych duos are often tense. Although allies in some sense, they are constantly at odds, working against each other while pursuing some overarching goal. Their relationship can be more accurately described as a rivalry. They can be protagonist/antagonist, but when they are on the same side, there is a lot of friction. It is a classic collision between reason and emotion. Harnessed correctly, it can make a powerful duo, but success is often balanced on a razor's edge.
With that in mind, let's look at some well-known Soul Diptych examples.
Body/Heart Mind/Reason Book/Movie
Mr. Hyde Dr. Jekyll Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Tyler Durden The Narrator Fight Club
Mulder Scully X-Files
The Hound Arya Stark Game of Thrones
Patrick Spongebob Spongebob Squarepants
Dr. Watson Sherlock Holmes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Victor Dr. Frankenstein Frankenstein's Monster
Again, consider how this kind of duo interacts. The body is grounded, simple & clear, often physical and strong. They are experience seekers. The Mind is more skeptical and analytical. Often smarter and more cynical. The duo is sometimes a forced alliance, and sometimes antagonist/protagonist, but either way, the relationship is built for conflict. With no third party to mediate, these two are oil and water. They still usually need each other, though, so like it or not, they have to find ways to tolerate each other, even when their personal goals are at odds. The diptych has the makings of great tension.
Alternatively, you could just as easily define your own necessary facets of the human condition and create roles for your characters to fill. The point is that it is a tool, and it opens up avenues of thought that you might not otherwise have considered. And because the model involves, or should involve, fundamental aspects of the human condition, then it can produce consistent characters that will resonate with your readers in a natural way.
As I said in the beginning, it isn't necessary to use models like these. They're a tool that may help you think and create. They can channel your thinking. Maybe they'll get you off to a good start and then you jettison them, or maybe you'll follow them rigidly to the end. Either way, they make your writing fun to think about, and that's worth something all by itself.
Let’s take a moment to look at a surprisingly underutilized element of fiction writing: the active environment.
Have you ever found yourself watching a movie and one of those moments occurs when the camera enters a new scene for the first time? The camera pans slowly around the room, and the audience is presented with a collection of objects. No narrative takes place. There are no characters. Very little is in motion. Yet we find ourselves learning fascinating things about the character that inhabits the environment.
Most of us just absorb it and enjoy the moment that this inevitably short bit of camera work creates, but as a writer, you should pay close attention. Very close attention. There’s a fabulously powerful technique that’s taking place here. The environment is telling you a story.
In my class on game design, this is one of the lessons that I try to instill on my students. I give them an assignment that has proven quite popular (and instructive) over the years. I provide them with an occupation and a couple of adjectives, and then instruct them to design a space that that character might inhabit. But to really hammer the point home, I provide a number of caveats:
At first, the students look confidently at this assignment and are raring to go, but very quickly they discover that it’s actually much harder than it seems.
We’ll get into the nuts and bolts of how to think about it momentarily, but for now, I’ll give you one of the better results. The student was asked to come up with an environment for an Arrogant, Newly Divorced, Bitter, Neurosurgeon. Here’s what he gave me:
The corner office is mostly barren save for a few choice pieces of furniture. A large mahogany desk paired with a leather office chair sits towards the back of the room. Next to the desk is an anatomical model of a brain on a stand. On the white walls behind the desk hangs a large picture of a man in his late forties receiving a plaque from Michael J. Fox. This same plaque, with engravings from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, is found hanging next to the picture, as well as a large diploma from Harvard University. Two simple chairs face the desk with a box of tissues close by and a picture of the same man next to Christopher Reeves in a wheelchair. On the floor is another picture surrounded by broken glass. It is a picture of the same man in a tuxedo embracing a woman in a white wedding gown. A half empty bottle of whiskey sits next to an empty whiskey glass, and at the bottom of this whiskey glass is a solid gold ring. Stabbed through the table is a scalpel, pinning another picture down. Three people in cap and gown are shown in the picture. Two of them are from the wedding photo, and the third individual has the scalpel plunged through his face. A computer monitor on the desk shows an unsent, half written email titled “YOU FREAKING JUDAS” with the name Derek marked as the recipient. Next to the keyboard, a contact book lies open showing the address of a Derek. Beneath, a mostly empty desk drawer is pulled all the way out. Inside, only an empty pack of cigarettes and three loose bullets can be seen.
I can’t express how fascinating I found this scene. Notice how the objects give clues to the occupant's job and state of mind, without ever TELLING us. The collection of objects presents us with a very clear story. Obviously a doctor, the occupant of the room fell in love with his college sweetheart. His best friend was the best man at his wedding. There was an affair between the best friend and the wife. The doctor found out about it. He’s angry, and contemplating violence.
There’s almost no text (except for the email) in the scene. No leading adjectives. No narrative. And yet a story with a crystal clear beginning, middle, and end has been provided. It could be better written, but that was never the point. The scene is intrinsically evocative.
Let’s take a look at another example. In this one, the student was given: A bored, social climbing wannabe, secretary. Here’s what she turned in.
A desk sits close to the entryway of the room. The desk is “L” shaped and has a small counter connected to the top of it. Several thick padded chairs sit against the wall with an end table holding Business Magazine sitting in neat stack divides the chairs. The lights are all turned off including the desk lamp and overhead ceiling lights. Nothing sits on the counter of the desk other than a small metal plaque that reads “Stephanie Walker.” The desk itself holds a landline phone as well as a computer. A calendar reminder popup regarding a networking event hosted by Riverbed Technologies covers over google map directions to a local beauty salon. Several personal photos sit upon the desk including one of three young college girls in bikinis on the beach making triangles with their fingers. Another photo depicts two girls, one slightly older than the other, windsurfing with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Bright red lipstick labeled “Seductive Enchantress” lies cap-less on the desk. An iPhone 7 sits on the computer keyboard lighting up every few seconds. One drawer is slightly open and inside is a pile of rubber bands and what looks to be the start of a rubber band ball. The desk chair is tipped over and a red thong lies on the ground just under the desk. A bookshelf behind the desk has several books tipped on their side and a stapler sits on the ground with the staples spewed out on the ground. To the far side of the room is a glass wall and a door leading inside. A metal plaque on the door reads “Executive Manager Eric C. Sharpe”. The blinds on the other side of the glass wall are shut.
Although it doesn’t quite contain the breadth of the first example, these objects nonetheless give the audience an evocative scene. We know who this secretary is, we get insight into her motivations. We know where she is right now. The reader hasn’t been ‘spoon fed’ information. This is one of the things you’re always being admonished about when you hear the classic “show, don’t tell” advice. In scenes like this, the reader is drawing their own conclusions based on the objects you choose to put in front of them. And it’s that sense of inference and discovery that makes environments so powerful.
In the next example, the student drew an environment for an aggressive, paranoid, garbage collector. Here was the result:
A bright yellow safety vest lies bunched up on the floor. Shoe scuff marks mar the edge of an old dented coffee table. On the second-hand coffee table is a pair of thick brown work gloves set atop a National Enquirer with the image of a stereotypical alien shaking the hand of President Donald Trump. The caption reads “Trump Appoints Martian Ambassador.” An old style TV with antenna sits pushed against one wall of the living space. Foil is wrapped around each antenna of the TV and only static plays. The blinds over the window are closed and drawn even though the windows are also covered in foil. An end table holds a ceramic lamp that flickers on and off. The lamp looks as if it was pieced back together with glue and lacks a lamp shade. Next to the lamp is a page-a-day calendar with Tuesday January 20th showing. The couch has a faded floral pattern that is reminiscent of 70’s wallpaper. A light dusting of white powder and small pieces of plaster speckle the couch. The wall directly behind the couch has a fist size hole. On the floor lies a map of what looks to be a suburban area with different colored lines drawn from one central location to different areas of the map. The key on the map shows that each color corresponds to a different day of the week. The Tuesday line is highlighted.
Again, we have an interesting character portrait comprised of nothing but static objects. Now, we are left to speculate about what is soon to take place. Clearly, we have an unstable, obsessive compulsive, blue collar worker. He or she is violent, and seems prone to conspiracy theories. The Enquirer article leads us to believe that perhaps this maniac is considering an assassination attempt. We don’t have all of the information to form a solid conclusion, but sometimes the ominous implied threat is even more interesting.
Finally, a student rendered an environment for a Washed Up, Bitter, Retired Cop.
There’s a room solely lit by a dim, bare lightbulb, hanging by a chain. An empty shoulder-holster hangs from the rack, along with a ratty leather jacket. The room is primarily occupied by a large square table. Several cups of unfinished coffee and Styrofoam carryout boxes are clustered in one corner of the table. All are in various states of moldy decay. A collection of newspapers are scattered about the table. Each features a front-page photograph. Some are of an elderly policeman handing a badge to an elderly man in a suit in front of a tall brick building with stone pillars. Others are of the same two men shaking hands and smiling. In each photograph, members of the crowd are applauding. The elderly policeman’s face has been circled in red marker in every photo. On one wall of the room, several framed photographs hang. One photo features a mid 30’s version of the elderly policeman and young blonde officer. Both men are standing, arm in arm and smiling, behind a large pile of cocaine parcels. Another photo is a group photo of 15 extremely young looking policemen and women, two of whom are the arm-in-arm men from before. Everyone is smiling and holding a framed piece of paper. Next to the photo is a framed diploma from a police academy. A box of ammunition sits on the center of the table, with several loose bullets scattered around it. A worn police badge sits atop a neatly folded piece of paper.
Here we see the police officer’s life on display. We see him graduating from the academy, making high profile busts, getting awards, and retiring. We see a happy, fulfilled life. Yet the badge atop the note, the empty holster, and the bullets add a dark twist. Somewhere around here, we’re bound to find the body. Clearly, this officer’s life has ceased to have meaning since retirement.
In all of these examples, the student had to grapple with a challenge. They had to tell a story in a static way. And what they all learned was that you can’t do this without a bit of up-front planning.
To do something like this correctly, you have to have the story in your head first. You have to understand the character’s past, present, and future plans. It’s usually a simple story, like with the newly divorced neurosurgeon, but it’s evocative: people who are contemplating suicide or violence; people who have having an affair; someone who is obsessed. These are strong stories and emotions that a reader can identify with.
Once you know what your character’s simple story is, then you have to walk a mile in that character's shoes. Imagine the trail of breadcrumbs they would leave as they go about their daily lives. Much of this trail would be innocuous, and you would leave it out of the collection of objects, but some of it would be much more meaningful. Those are the things you have to zero in on. Don’t just settle for things that give a static glimpse of personality. Tell a story that spans time. Show us who this person is, where they came from, what they’ve experienced, and what they’re thinking/doing now.
Then once you’ve jotted down your collection of objects, let someone else read it. See if the objects tell the story you were imagining. It will take a bit of practice, but when you can learn to let the objects tell the story, it makes a wonderful tool to add to your writer’s toolbox.
About a decade ago when I first started writing fiction, my early work suffered from a staggering number of problems. If I represented each mistake as a single domino, I bet I could have filled a gymnasium with them, like one of those mesmerizing world record domino-toppling videos. Correcting my errors involved several years of herculean effort, but I’m happy to report that these days, I might only be able to fill my living room with dominoes.
In this post, I’d like to discuss the domino that I didn’t even realize existed until two or three years ago. I think in many ways, it turned out to be the master domino. The root cause of many of my flaws. The one that ruled them all.
I had been following a standard methodology that simply didn’t fit me. I was writing linearly.
Linear writing is such a standard that a lot of people don’t even recognize the term. They aren’t aware that it has an opposite: NON linear writing. They don’t know that it could be an answer, at least for some of them.
To understand it, let’s start by defining linear writing. It’s very simple. Linear writing is when you write each of the chapters in your first draft in the same order the reader will read them. It seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, how can you possibly write chapter 47 before you write 46? Don’t you need to know what happened in chapter 46 first, so that you know where to pick up the action?
No. In fact, you don’t.
Non linear writing uses exactly that approach. It is a system where you write chapters in an order that is essentially random. Whatever scene you feel inspired to write about when you get up in the morning, you write.
Yes, yes. I know. That way lies madness.
Nah. Pour yourself a scotch and stop flipping the bird to me through your computer screen. You only need one thing to restore sanity to that madness. You need an outline.
Think about it. If you have a thumbnail sketch of each chapter in advance, then you already know the big events that are going to happen leading into the chapter. You already have an idea where the chapter has to end in order to flow into the following chapter. You already know the characters who will appear, what their motivations and emotions are, and what aspects of character arc you have to fulfil. You have everything you need to write any chapter at any time.
An outline is simply a matter of sketching out each scene with a few paragraphs of pertinent information.
There are lots of great books on the subject of outline creation. You can check out KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success for one good example. Books like this will give you lots of good ideas of the kinds of information a good outline requires. When done properly, an outline allows an author to focus on the writing craft, rather than getting bogged down in the strategic elements of plot and character development while they write.
Ironically, even the process of outlining can be an example of non linear writing. When I started my outline for Gnosis, I followed James Scott Bell’s advice in Write Your Novel From The Middle. I started with the pivotal mid-point scene first, then outlined the inciting incident, then the climax, worked my way through the major structural scenes, and finally filled in all the remaining gaps. All in outline form.
Then I started writing. In the past, I could write chapter 1, maybe 2, 3, and 4. But eventually, I’d hit a wall. For whatever reason, a chapter would stare at me and laugh. Nothing would come to mind. I’d struggle for days. Sometimes weeks. I’d delete attempt after attempt, each one causing me far too much stress.
Now, I look back on those days and laugh. Armed with my mighty outline, I wake up and ask myself “What do you feel like writing today, Rick? A chase scene? An epiphany scene? Dialogue?” I peruse my list of unwritten chapters, and let them speak to me. Inevitably, one will jump out and shriek in glee “Pick me! Pick me!”
And off I go.
In the back of my mind, I still know which chapters I dread. But with plenty of fun things to write first, the hard ones have time to bake in my brain. Sometimes a stray thought for a dread chapter will occur to me as I’m writing a fun one, and I jot it down in my notes while I forge ahead with the easier chapters. Over time, I get enough notes that the hard chapter seems much less intimidating. When I finally get around to it, it’s almost never a dread chapter any more.
And this was the essential ingredient I’d been missing all along. The linear approach killed all of my motivation. It caused a civil war in my state of mind.
When you dread writing something, it’s almost a guarantee that it will take ten times as long, and in the end it will still suck. Then you lose momentum. Things go downhill fast. You resolve yourself to dealing with the dread chapter in revisions. You put it off, or sometimes you just chuck the entire manuscript onto the slush pile and start something new. I know. I’ve done that.
But using a non linear writing approach, I dialed back the difficulty level of the dread chapters, AND I kept up my all important forward momentum. I stopped tossing perfectly good work onto the back burner. Writing became fun again. And that made a world of difference.
But before you write the whole process off as just a self-induced motivational mind hack, note that there are some other tangible benefits to non-linear writing.
At this stage, I should acknowledge a personal preference. I don’t feel totally bound by my outline. I treat it like a general road map, not the Bible. If, during the course of writing a chapter, I feel like a character’s personality dictates a zig when the outline called for a zag, I let the character zig. After I finish the chapter, I return to my outline, update it, and make the necessary changes to any subsequent (or previous) chapters that might be impacted. It’s not a lot of work. That’s the point of an outline. It’s low investment. You can write with no style and terrible grammar, and it doesn’t matter. Just change the necessary facts and move on.
That’s usually the big complaint about using outlines, by the way. Writers say they feel constrained, bound, by the outline. But if you do, you’re rather missing the point. It’s not there to shackle you. It’s there to liberate you. It’s MUCH easier to modify a collection of thoughts and ideas than to go back and rewrite whole chapters when you have to change a character or plot moment. THAT is shackling yourself. When you’ve invested a lot of time into writing an entire chapter, even in draft form, you’re giving it momentum. You’re increasing the resistance to change it. Outlines free you up from that.
Look, non linear writing isn’t for everyone. It requires a bit of a paradigm shift in your thinking, especially when you first try it. And it seems pretty scary, like you’re tightrope walking between skyscrapers without a safety harness.
But from my perspective, once I got the hang of it, the methodology offered so many benefits that I could never go back. It’s like travelling forward in time to read the ending of your novel, and then coming back to the present, armed with the exact road map of how to write it. Non-linear writing is my own personal DeLorean, complete with flux capacitor.
I’m never trading it in.
I’m sitting here, working on a story idea that erupted from literally nowhere. A dream I had about virtual reality, and then mutated over morning coffee, Monster energy drinks, and a long shift at the day-job. When I sat down to write that afternoon, there was only one thing on my mind: I need to get this story out.
You might call me a busy person. I’m working 40 hours per week again at a day-job that literally pays enough to have a roof over my head, food, and the ability to keep writing in comfort while I figure out the next phase of my property development.
By setting things up this way, I have purposefully relegated myself to a life of poverty and humble conditions, where I can focus solely on my work when I’m not “at work.”
Even so, it isn’t always so easy to maintain focus. I know that I want to write, but in my own aggressive pursuit of creating works, I’ve buried myself in projects. The NaNo thing is slowly gaining some momentum for the year, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a ton more to do on it. Stone’s Shadow is out of the gate and on the final assembly line, effectively done but still requiring another critical proofread. I have another book that I was hoping to have out by the end of the year, but it sits as a work in progress. On top of all this, I’m also trying to deliver 500,000 verified words this year, and submit a new short story and flash fiction piece every single month.
The work is cut out for me, but the cookies are a bit too plentiful, and I fear I won’t be able to finish them all. My story kitchen has become an understaffed factory trying to fill an order of a million units.
You would think, with so much to do, that I could sit and spawn thousands of words without hardly any thought devoted. But things are never this simple.
When I work, I work on one project at a time. Generally. Day’s like today require breaks for me, so I’ll “break” from one writing project to work on another. Right now, that means taking my first break on the new story to write this blog post.
There are two modes of thought on how to increase your output and efficiency, and I’ll explain some of the pros and cons of each.
One Thing at a Time, With Intensity
This is how I normally write. I work on a draft for as many days as it takes until the draft is done. I’ll work on an editing pass until it’s done. I’ll work on a cover concept until I’ve taken it as far as it will go.
My timing for this is simple. One pass through the manuscript. Whether I’m hunting typos, tidying words, doing a full rewrite, or even drafting a new story, I devote myself to working on it, every single day, until I reach the end of the last page. I can work on other stuff too, but a block of my writing time every day is dedicated to that one task, and it’s the most important task in my hierarchy of work.
I learned to write this way, not because a bunch of other writers recommend it, but because I learned enough about myself to know, as I once told my brother, “If I don’t finish a project in sixty days, it’ll never get done.” Turning down the intensity is not an option, because if I leave something alone for too long, it tends to not get done.
This applies to my hobbies, my writing, my various crafting endeavors, even my video games. If I loose focus of the primary goal, then I fail. I shut it off and stop coming back. It takes sixty days for something I’m excited about initially to become dull as lead and stuffed in a dark corner of my closet space.
So, when I work, it’s important to clear everything else off the plate. I sit down and do the work, and only the new work, for as long as I can bear, until it’s time for a smoke break. Even with these little interruptions, I tend to get a lot done, because while I’m on break, I’m also thinking about the next element in the story or project. I return to the laptop refreshed, and I keep going.
In the oilfield, it was known by a few directional drillers that I had this odd habit of solving problems, and according to them, it always worked. Running high tech signal processing connected to multiple wellsite sensors and data streams isn’t easy, and something always seems to go on the fritz. That environment is a breeding ground for gremlins.
When I was stumped on a problem-or if I was woke up in the night to fix something the night-hand couldn’t figure out-I would back away from the keyboard. I would grab my smokes, my lighter, and my beverage, and proceed outside of the cabin. I’d stand in a secluded spot where I couldn’t even see the rig, and light up.
When I returned to my work five minutes later, I always had a new idea that might solve the problem.
What I’m trying to say is this, even with intense focus, energy can only be expended for so long. So don’t take this little section to mean work and only work without breaks or any interruptions of any kind. Meditative breaks can be beneficial. But the focus of your work should be on one thing and one thing only, like getting words flowing toward the end of a draft.
The Multi-Tasking Approach
This is the dark side of any creative endeavor. If you are working with multiple projects, and especially social media or advertising work, you’re going to mess yourself up more by trying to “multi-task” than you will if you completed each task one at a time.
However. This methodology does have a case where it can work. Today is one of those days when my focus is a little scattered, but at the same time I can dig into a smaller project, and throw everything I have at it for a short bit of time. This is upping my total word count, and I may end up completing several timely projects by the end of the night.
But, I started with my story. 800 words in, I hit a stopping point. One of those breaks where I need to let my brain sift through the present story a bit so that I can gain some ideas for the next milestone. What did I do? I swapped over to write this blog post, which I’ve also been thinking about for a few days.
In other words, my “breaks” today are becoming their own little projects. I don’t have to feel bad about ignoring my story for a bit, because the noodle needs to chew on it for a while. In the meantime, I can get more words (which is always good for practice), I can let my brain play with some concepts to diversify my creative thought process, and I can get some blog posts written.
Best strategy ever. Except when it isn’t. This multi-tasking approach has a deadly component that you need to watch out for. Don’t multi-task into projects that require no deep thinking at all. Make all of the deviations to mini projects that require some cognitive thought, not answering emails or updating social media. Those tasks typically entail dumping data you already have to add to discussions or further threads.
The querying process is much different from the creative. I would say, stick to ONLY creative projects when trying this approach.
Creative vs Querying
There are basically two modes that my productive mind defaults to, creative and querying. You might find that your mind works much the same way. Both of these modes are productive, and I “make” things while doing both. But there’s a difference.
My creative process is strictly that. Unencumbered, unhinged, and producing ideas like I’m drunk. I’m throwing shit at my proverbial wall and seeing what sticks. While most of my projects require that ideas make sense, it’s not in a way that draws on information I already have, which is filed away. Instead, it produces out of synthesis, that which I want to create. I can hammer out the details later if needed, but for the moment, I create and to hell with the consequences.
Querying mode is different. Where creation is strictly proactive, querying is reactive. I’m answering questions online, quite literally. I’m responding to on-going discussions. I’m checking for updates on this or that. I’m processing hard data that exists already instead of letting things flow. There are many varieties of this, but almost all of them can be seen in how I use my social media time. Querying is moving data and facts around. I’m storing facts that I pick up from others, and I’m digging facts out of my own brain to dump on them.
Creative tasks are things like drafting, sketching, making time-lines, or meditating about the story as if it were a movie. The creative mind needs no data or hard facts other than what is immediately in front of it.
Querying tasks are things like social conversation, answering an email, doing probing research into a specific topic, or organizing your planner. It’s things like checking on book sales.
If you’re moving information, you’re querying, even if you are simply answering a phone call from a friend. These drag on your creative processes.
This isn’t to say, mind you, that querying processes are useless, or even less useful than creative ones. Only that they distract from creativity. If you’re trying to accomplish creative things, stick to creative things even in your breaks. Don’t break from a novel draft to answer an email. Do your creative work, and then sit down to do your querying work after you have finished.
That, or take the easy route, and simply concentrate on one project at a time, and don’t do anything else at all until you’re exhausted on it, or your time limit is exceeded. You might find that you need to set some kind of alarm, as getting deeply involved with a creative work will suck the time away without reminding you that your coffee has gone cold.
This article was drafted in my creative mode, and uploaded later when I put aside creative things for the night to focus on querying tasks, along with answering my email and checking in on social media for the night.
Martin McConnell, author of Finish the Damn Book!, holds a Physics degree from SIUE, and when he isn't writing speculative fiction, he's motivating other authors, stargazing, reading, or playing Kerbal Space Program. He avidly encourages everyone he meets to seize control of their dreams by driving their own plot. You can find him at his website writefarmlive.com.
First time novelists think that getting to the end of the first draft is the "work." It isn't, but most won't realize this until after they finish penning their first novel.
As a preface, if you are working on your first book, do not take this post as a deterrent. Finish the damn book, and use this as preparation for what lies ahead. I take no issue with outlining a new idea, or converting it into a text of 60,000+ words. This is the fun and creative part of the writing process, so you had better enjoy it.
Often, I tell writers to focus on the next book immediately after finishing draft one. Start coming up with a story. But out of all the advice on the internet, including my own, the topic of coming back to a first draft after a short rest never seems to be discussed. Believe me, I'm criticizing myself right now for not giving this its proper due before, as well as most others who blog about the writing process.
The reason it gets glossed over, I think, is because the sting of it is a one-time event. Most of us have written over a dozen long-works, or none at all. So few are at the cusp at any given time, and as a result, this post will likely not be shared, and it will disappear into the ether of the grand internet slush pile. It is a useless blog post in a certain respect, but I write it on the off chance that it may one day help one single writer overcome this obstacle.
The Prospect of Writing off a Loss
I've seen not a single study done on this, and I invite you to comment below with your own insights. How many budding authors quit after writing the first draft of their book to completion. I don't have a number, so don't let me lie to you, but I suspect that thousands, if not more, fall into this category. I write off these losses to the grueling hunt for representation, or the mountain of drudgery that we collectively call editing. The prospect of self-publishing is still tarnished by hostile attitudes, no matter how common it appears to be.
But there's something else. A potentially deadly monster lingering around the very beginning of the post-edit process, and perhaps one of the causes of the onslaught of negative thought that accompanies purification of your work.
This monster isn't writer's block. It's inadequacy. And it's just as damning and critical as its cousin from the drafting process.
It takes an act of sheer courage to begin the writing process. You give up time from your life to devote to a singular project that will continue to consume you for months or years. Relationships become strained, and each of us must find the self-motivation to move forward every day despite what else is happening in the world around us. We need to get up every day, and devote at least a portion of it to our dream of putting our own words out into the world.
We can do this, because of faith. We believe in the drafting process that we have something meaningful to contribute to the world of literature. We fall in love with our story, our characters, and the fantastical world we've created. We push on, focusing on the best parts of the story. We struggle against all odds to finish (most budding writers won't finish a novel). Then we reach the finish line, "The End." Celebration is in order, but it comes to a crashing halt with the following hangover.
When we return to our words, they aren't the same. They're terrible. Sometimes the first paragraph of re-reading our work can be enough to cripple our efforts. The first snowball rolling down a mountain teetering on catastrophic valley-town smothering avalanche.
This is the seed of all future inadequacy. Instead of focusing on the awesome parts of the story and making them better, as we should be doing, we're crippled by self doubt and the fear that perhaps our story, our idea, or our grasp of the written word simple aren't enough. Instead of seeing how our work is different and wonderful, we look out into a sea of authors doing it better.
When this happened to me the first time, i thought for sure one of my buddies on the rig had deliberately sabotaged my work. The words were that alien to me. This doubt leads to months of constantly comparing our words to other works where the author seems to be doing exponentially better than we ever could.
For TSOV (now scrapped), it even carried over into the query process. I watched other authors re-write parts of my letter in ways that shocked and amazed me. Their words were great, and mine appeared so sophomoric that I swore the average third-grader could have done a better job than I. Those thoughts and attitudes sank my original series, and pushed me away from writing for three years. I'm writing this post, because I don't want to see that happen to you.
Your book might not be good enough. Go ahead and let that idea find a place in your mind now, and save yourself years of potential torture. I heard these words first from another author, and didn't want to believe it. Looking back now, what should have been a mild hiccup turned into a deserted wasteland of unwritten pages because instead of embracing the idea, I wore myself out trying to fix something that would never become anything.
Now that the idea is planted however, the next step is to NOT give up. When you finish writing a novel, it changes you. Your words haven't changed, you have. 80,000 words is a lot of writing experience, and if you don't improve as a result of the process, then you probably did something wrong. It's NORMAL to feel like your first draft was crap. That's because you were a different writer when you started on it. The skill you gain by "doing" changes your style, it accents your ability to pass a thought, and it can either drive better works and fix your current work, or it can overcome you.
Try this exercise. Read the first few pages. Then skip all the way to the end of the document and read the last few pages. This is a great way to see the change in your words over time. If you spent six months writing a draft, (or even three weeks), you'll see a pronounced difference. You're a better writer now. THAT, is the reason you can see faults in what you thought was awesome before.
The first thing that you will likely notice is the sentence length. New authors like to string words together into strands of enigmatic goo, and through the course of cranking out thousands of lines shift toward shorter frameworks. The pattern will actually oscillate as you continue to find your own voice, and after a while, you'll stop thinking about it.
I highly, highly, highly recommend, especially for a first novel, to set the red pen aside, and read through the entire text at least once without changing anything. You can keep notes in a separate document or notebook if you like, but focus on story details, not grammar. You might make a page or two of recurring problems to keep an eye out for, but focus on the story itself. Read through, start to finish, and don't touch a damn word.
My next suggestion is going to seem like a ton of work, and this is going to take a huge leap of faith on your part. It is something that MOST authors will benefit from. Now, if you spent a great deal of time on the first draft making sentences pretty, then you might be better off with another editing routine, BUT, if your words were really that amazing, you most likely would not still be reading this post.
Rewrite the whole damn thing. Every word. The whole story. You can use your current work and notes as a guide, or start again from a revised outline. But rewrite everything. A second draft is exactly that.
We're spoiled in the current era of automatic typesetting and digital storage that we sometimes forget earlier writers had to hammer out the whole text again on a typewriter as a natural part of the editing process. IE, #amwriting and #amediting were the same thing. Writers were notorious for drafting and redrafting a dozen, two dozen, or even fifty times.
And you know what? It works. It's actually easier than trying to rearrange everything to tighten up the script. I've made a habit of doing this with almost every long work now, precisely because it is so effective. A novel isn't a pamphlet or flier. It's not five or six pages of story. It's a lot of shit to keep track of, and the administrative tasks of fact-checking and item tracking can make even the sharpest of accountants bug-eyed and atrophied. I rewrite drafts now because it's easier, not harder, than the alternative. It's like hitting the reset button, and it has the added benefit of improving your skill at every phase of the writing process at once. In fact, you may improve so much that you come back to your second draft and go through this whole process again.
It happens, it's normal, and it stings. Looking at your first long work with a critical eye can break your heart, but it doesn't have to be a permanent wound. Take solace in the fact that most, if not all of us, have gone through it at least once. Things will get better as you continue to write more books, and there are actionable steps you can take to break up the process into manageable chunks instead of trying to fix everything on the first pass.
Plan on a lot of editing passes. Like I say in Finish the Damn Book! Write fast, edit slow. The path to publication is long and tedious. Put on your boots, choose a road, and keep walking, you'll get there eventually. Good luck.
Originally published at writefarmlive.com on July 5th, 2018.
Martin McConnell, author of Finish the Damn Book!, holds a Physics degree from SIUE, and when he isn't writing speculative fiction, he's motivating other authors, stargazing, reading, or playing Kerbal Space Program. He avidly encourages everyone he meets to seize control of their dreams by driving their own plot. You can find him at his website writefarmlive.com.
A Deadly Journey with Jack Hunt
Zombie epidemic books these days are a dime a dozen, to the point where it's likely civilizations from the distant future will assume we had to deal with this problem on a daily basis. A little while ago the novelty of the genre wore off rather quickly, which in turn pushed many authors to try and come up with new twists to keep it fresh.
Today we have zombie apocalypse books of all kinds, littered on the entire spectrum between action, horror, comedy and even romance. While many of them are seeking to simply cash in on a craze with a lazy idea, there are authors like Jack Hunt who truly strive to move a blockaded genre forward, as he did in his first book of a series titled The Wild Ones. In it, we followed a group of teenagers as they were faced with a zombie outbreak while, rather conveniently, being in the middle of zombie survival camp.
In the second book, very aptly-titled The Wild Ones: Book 2 we are once again reunited with our heroes as they managed to tame the threats of the Adirondack mountains, somehow surviving against all odds. Now they simply need to figure out where to go and what to do with humanity more or less laying in ruins around them. It doesn't take long for the opportunity of a lifetime to present itself: there is a doctor who might very well have the cure to the monstrous pandemic. Unfortunately, the group must travel through the heart of the country to protect humanity's last hope, something much easier said than done with human threats thrown into the mix now. Cruel gangs now roam the lawless streets, revelling in their new world order... even with the epidemic cured, is there any hope left for humanity at all?
A High-Octane Affair
In the previous book, Jack Hunt managed to masterfully combine meaningful character development with a plot which kept on ploughing forward regardless of what was happening. In my opinion, the pace of the second book is even faster, putting character development in a bit more of a secondary role than before. We follow the events of the story through Scott's eyes, so in that sense we do become even better acquainted with him than before and witness the changes he's still undergoing on a spiritual level. The characters surrounding him aren't paid as much attention, and while generally I would say it's a bad thing, in this case it felt logical considering how much attention was dedicated to our first-person narrator. The author makes it very clear we are reading Scott's story at this point, and in my opinion he is an interesting and complex enough character to carry a story, at least this particular one.
With less character development to get in the way of the book's events, Jack Hunt certainly made good use of the extra page space to weave a plot moving almost too quickly for us to process it. From one page to the next something is happening, someone is in danger, and some threat looms either close or far in the distance. There is nary a moment of respite or safety, with a certain atmosphere of restlessness permeating from start to finish. There is a constant urgency to the characters' goals, which in turn prevents the book from ever feeling stale or boring. Even the few passages which draw on cliches we've grown tired of in the zombie genre don't feel like a burden, but rather like a familiar stop we pass on the bus every day.
The Chaos of a Ruined Society
One of the common difficulties authors tend to run into when writing a book is presenting their own social and/or personal commentary in a very ham-fisted way. All too often authors come across as if they're beating you over the head with their ideas, putting a solid stop to the story to try and shove their beliefs down your throat. This might not even be done on purpose, because frankly it takes a fair amount of skill to do what Jack Hunt does and simply weave all his thoughts and meditations seamlessly into the text. The old dogma of showing rather than telling applies here more-so than in other cases; instead of directly explaining his concepts, Jack Hunt creates a world where we can see them in action and judge for ourselves.
As you might imagine, a lawless society can make for a rather interesting canvas to explore the inner workings of society with and without order, the makings of personal identity, the hedonistic cravings we suppress, what shapes our morals and values, and so on and so forth.
Hunt really makes the most of this canvas, constantly thrusting his characters into situations where they witness manifestations of this new world order, pushing us, the readers, to reflect on the presented concepts on our own. Honestly, even if you aren't a fan of philosophical and spiritual debates, simply observing the fallen civilization as depicted by the author is fascinating itself, even if somewhat exaggerated at times.
The Final Verdict
With all being said and done, The Wild Ones: Book 2 is very much a worthy successor to the first novel, adroitly building on what was already established to deliver a fast-paced and action-packed story with some interesting character development and social commentary. If you enjoyed the first book, I believe it's safe to say you'll definitely like this one.
David ben Efraim (https://bookwormex.com)
The average indie book sells 250 copies. In it’s lifetime! Trade publishing isn’t much better at 3000.
While I couldn’t find what I would consider a reliable source for the above numbers, this is what is propagating all around the internet. And I believe them. It’s hard to sell books. I also see reports that if we discount the outliers (J.K. Rowling and the Bible), the average book sells around 2000 copies overall, for its lifetime.
While there is no guaranteed way to get your first 1000 fans, this article will attempt to showcase the importance of finding fans over unit sales.
A note about “sales”
Sales means something different to different people and different markets. For instance, a traditional publisher might print 10,000 copies on the first run, and report this number to the author. More likely, they’ll report the number of books they have placed in bookstores.
When a bookstore “buys” a book, they get it at a discount, usually 45-55% off the cover price, and are able to return them within six months if they aren’t selling, or the store thinks that they won’t sell. So for the example above, the publisher might report that they “sold” 8,666 copies, when these “sales” were actually bookstore placements.
Next up, actual physical copies sold directly to readers through the stores. This number is tracked on Bookscan, but not all sales are tracked. Most major chains report sales, and these numbers are used by the NYT and other media outlets as raw input for their weekly bestseller lists. Publishers rarely report these sales, and part of the reason is that they cannot track them. They can track the Bookscan list and the orders placed by bookstores, but as I said, this doesn’t account for every unit sale.
The Actual Sales numbers.
The numbers vary, and most sources can’t even tell you which numbers they are looking at. They rarely get them from the publisher. But there is one truism about book sales that penetrates every report on average book sales. That is the conclusion: not enough.
For the sake of argument, I’m going to stick with the number I quoted above for indie sales: 250. Indie authors sell in various ways. Local authors who are willing to hustle can easily reach this number in direct distribution to a local audience, but gain very little momentum across the rest of the world. Clever marketing people can secure enough online sales of ebooks to make the quota. But the sad truth is this:
I don’t know who came up with that number, or how they got it, but I assume its a mean average, based on my limited experience and communications with other authors. I imagine that if we looked at the median, if we were able to look at the median, the number would be much more dire. My guess would be around 50. I know authors aren’t always good at math, so for the sake of clarity, mean is the total number of sales divided by the total number of books in any given sample. Median is sorting the books in a line beside each other, and picking the one in the middle to see how many it sold. Again, this is for indie authors.
Now that I have your attention
Do I have your attention? Okay, then read carefully, because this paragraph is important. I’ll put it in one of those quote block things to emphasize the point:
"For an independent author, your lifetime sales for any book are directly dependent on the size of your platform, i.e. your fans and readership."
This might seem like a curse at first glance. You might be wondering why the hell you bothered to become an author. But this statement comes as a blessing in disguise. It means that as your readership grows, so will your book sales.
This is also true for trade published authors. Yes, they get the cool shelf space and a little media push, but publishers are doing less and less to push debut authors, which means at a certain level, it’s still on the author (specifically their platform) to make the book sell. They are further constrained by deadlines. In most cases, if you don’t earn out 12 months after release, your book goes out of print. (I have a friend this happened to, and it took years for him to get his rights back and self-publish his books)
Ever wonder why books are sorted by author name at the library? Because established authors are selling new books on their own reputation, not on clever marketing, or even that wonderful front table at Barnes and Noble. That table is for people who already have an audience walking in the door, who wish to say, “Hi, nice to see you again. I released another book. You should check it out.” Success with debut novels is much less, even on the new releases table.
But how do I build an audience?
You get off your ass, and get your book in as many hands as possible, by any means possible. Most often I get this question from authors hustling for every local sale they can get. “Most of my readers prefer buying the signed copy straight from me,” they say. That’s awesome, but by settling into that state of mind, you are automatically limiting your readership to those you can meet in person. And you’re spending your weekends sitting at a table instead of making use of your most available writing time to crank out more books. Your readership will grow, and indeed this is how a lone author attacked the process for years. Orwell is one example. Selling books out of the trunk of your car becomes your ONLY source of sales, even if the book is available everywhere online.
There’s a billion ways to build an audience, but these days, EVERYTHING is online. Like it or hate it, that’s where the waiting bookworms are. I can’t tell you what will or won’t work for your books. Every individual book, regardless of author/genre/etc has its own audience. Just because Joe liked your first book, doesn’t mean he won’t hate your next.
Historically, authors stuck to one genre, and it worked well to ensure that readers who already liked the author would continue to buy similar books. I’m probably wrong, but I don’t stick to that. I write across genre, perhaps intentionally, because my “ideal reader,” the target audience I wish to grab isn’t as influenced by genre as they are by my future forecasts, grit, and ideas to speculate on. My ideal reader wants to finish a book, and then think about the deeper context for the next three days. That’s who I write for. A niche audience. The biggest moment of my writing career to this point was when I found him.
One reader I’ve been communicating with (who I’ve never met before) reads books for the same reason that I write them, and now I think about him every time I sit down at the keyboard.
ONE reader. Your ideal target audience. Friends and fams are great, but finding that one true rabid fan who will assault his friends and family with your work is an irreplaceable asset.
Going from 1 to 1000
This is a long discussion. I gave one tactic in my prior example when I hit 61 on the Kindle Bestseller List for free ebooks. According the the updated history of that book, Amazon now claims it hit 58, but I didn’t get any screen-shots of that…so…
The point here, is regardless the audience you have now. Imagine there were 1000 people out there who bought everything you put out, forever. Each time you released a book, you immediately sold 1000 copies. Compare that idea to what you are doing now. Building a platform is more important than unit sales at a given marketplace or signing. It’s ALWAYS been more important, for EVERY product.
Here are some general ideas. These shouldn’t be seen as a to-do list, but rather a spark of ideas. You bring the tinder. Start with any one of them, and then figure out the best way to reach your ideal reader, and do whatever you can to ensure they read the book.
You might wonder what that weed is in the picture at the top of this post, or what it’s doing there. The plant is called mullein, or often “witch’s torch,” “devil’s torch,” “poor man’s flannel,” or any of fifty other common names. It grows like a lot of weeds, forming a basal rosette of leaves it’s first year after germination. The next year, it sends up that spike of flowers, quite aggressively. It builds a platform first, and then launches like crazy. One plant can spread as many as half a million seeds.
When I think about marketing, I think about that plant. It’s cozy, warm, comforting, and incredibly helpful. Smoke from the leaves has been said by some to alleviate lung conditions, and the flowers can help with ear aches. When mixed with other herbs in, say, a tea, it is said to enhance any medicinal effects, giving a boost to your soothing chamomile. (some people are allergic to the fuzzy stuff on the leaves, so I’m not recommending any of this directly)
The point here, the big picture, is that one plant, one book, or anything else can go viral, just like a tweet. Books take longer, as the virus has a long incubation period (they take a while to read). But a good book will spread, and it’s that spreading that we should be trying to facilitate, not one-off sales that must be repeated over and over. It’s not one plant in a garden that we should seek to be, but a noxious weed that keeps coming back, year after year after year.
Selling one/two/ten books per day, every day, all year, isn’t a marketing trick. No marketing platform exists that could sustain sales over time indefinitely, and operate at a profit. But, when your average rate of sharing (i.e. so and so recommended this, it’s awesome, you should read it too) is high enough to overcome diminishing returns from a marketing push, new readers will be seeing your book every day. Eventually it will find your target reader, and they’ll shoot you an email (or tweet, or message, or whatever). THESE are the fans you want, and the ones you should focus on.
You won’t find a thousand all at once, but gain them one at a time, and they’ll continue to support your work as long as you continue to put out books at the same level of awesome. And you will, because if there is one consistency I’ve noticed among authors, it’s that they get better at writing and storytelling with each book.
It isn’t going to happen overnight. Most creators work their ass off continually for 10-20 years before becoming an “overnight success,” if they get that far. When you find that wonderful reader who loves your book, welcome them with open arms. They are the best person you could ever hope to meet, and bonus: if they love your writing that much, it means you have something in common already. You have a common ground to forge a lasting friendship.
For the few “true fans” I have, I would do anything for them. We chat back and forth via email, and it isn’t always about books, or even anything literary at all. These are the people that see my vision and simply “get it.” Friendship comes easily.
So, to recap, here are the steps.
Write awesome book (and package it well – cover/blurb/etc)
Tell your existing audience and release book.
Make a push to get as many copies out over a short window as possible, even if it means giving the electronic version away for free. On trick is what I did in the post I mentioned earlier.
If it spreads (you will see residual sales start to trickle in on their own without additional advertising), then your book has some degree of awesomeness, and it is hunting for true fans so you don’t have to.
When your fans reach out to you, don’t be afraid to make friends. You’ll actually find it incredibly easy. Your book already broke the ice. A great book is the ultimate wing-man.
Hope you enjoyed the post. I think the scope on this one was a bit bigger than I prepared for, but if you gained some nuggets of wisdom, and the post was helpful, then I’ll call it a success. Lots to think about here, so feel free to ask questions in a comment or email, or just let me know what you think.
Originally published at writefarmlive.com on June 21, 2018.
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