Writing By Committee

Writing— fiction or any other kind— is a lonely business, and we have to have a certain amount of self-confidence in our work. If our Lead character is an elven android, we have to get stubborn when other people want us to transform our Lead into a neurotic werewolf or an Amish schoolgirl.

But lonely writing, and the self-confidence it needs, is not what we learn in schools. I remember from my own school days what happened when Teacher gave out a writing assignment. The chattier children all consulted one another about the assignment. What does Teacher really want? Does this count as doing the assignment? And, inevitably, they consulted with one another about their work. I’m writing this, is that okay? No, it’s weird, you have to change this into that.

The result of all that consulting was that the assignments of the chatty children got more conformist, more conventional, more bland and boring. Which is what you need to get good grades in school. Nowadays, it also prevents arrest of children whose imaginations run toward weapons and crisis.

Not all the schoolchildren of my past were the chatty, consulting type. I remember one boy in the ninth-and-tenth grade classroom at San Jose Christian School, who turned in a story about American POWs in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp that was a bit close to being Hogan’s Heroes fanfiction. I’m sure that if he had consulted anyone he would have been discouraged. Fanfiction wasn’t a thing in those days; people just called it ‘plagiarism.’ But I envied the kid and wished I had the courage to write something like that. Of course, my imagination would have turned out a Star Trek/Hogan’s Heroes mashup. Maybe with a little Batman thrown in.

As grown-up writers we still are not absolved from the writing-by-committee, thou-shalt-groupthink mentality. College writing classes, writing workshops and critique groups, which common amateur-writer ‘wisdom’ says we need, all enforce the idea that our writing becomes magically better when we have a peer group of ‘enforcers’ to keep us in line.

But what really happens when we submit our works to our peers for judgment? We get condemned to an endless cycle of futile rewrites until there is nothing of originality or of risk left. And if we submit the rewritten-to-death work to another group of our peers, we will have more input about more things we just have to fix in another rewrite…. We end up violating Heinlein’s Second Rule: You must finish what you write.

Writer Dean Wesley Smith had a cool way of getting around the writing-by-committee temptation. He’d write something for a workshop or writing class, and immediately submit it to a publisher. Often it was the stories that his peers hated and picked-to-pieces that were the first to sell to publishers.

No great writers ever produced their great novels through groupthink or writing-by-committee. They had the courage to write, alone, and stand up for what their minds produced. Even if they were like Kafka and wrote about a guy turning in to a bug.

FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: https://twitter.com/nissalovescats I follow back. Unless you tweet pictures of private parts or something.

RECOMMENDED READING:

Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing: Dean Wesley Smith

Killing the Top 10 Sacred Cows of Publishing: Dean Wesley Smith

IWSG: Following Heinlein’s Rules

Writers and would-be writers, since we work alone, crave rules that will promise success. Lots of people make up rules for writers— English teachers who have never published anything, or even written anything, wannabe writers who like to boss other wannabes around, people trying to sell writing classes or writer services or recruit writers to be victimized by a vanity press….

This is my monthly post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group: https://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

The best rules for writers come from known writers who have actually written stuff, and made a living from writing. Robert Heinlein was such a writer— his science fiction is still read today— and he invented 5 simple rules for writers.

I have a book by Dean Wesley Smith about Heinlein’s rules. Smith is also a professional writer. He got that way by following Heinlein’s rules, he says. Smith has written over 100 novels and an unknown number of short stories, in his early career he was entirely traditionally published and has now gone indie, and I have actually heard of him and have some books he wrote on my shelf.

Heinlein’s rules worked, therefore, for Dean Wesley Smith, at least. Will they work for you? Probably better than writing advice from people who have never made a living at writing, who perhaps have never finished a novel or even a short story.

Here are the rules— Heinlein called them business habits:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you start.

3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.

4. You must put it on the market.

5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

Things are a little different today, as Dean Wesley Smith points out in his book. Putting a written work on the market can now mean indie publishing it. Keeping it on the market until sold can mean keeping an indie published work up, even if it doesn’t sell very well, instead of pulling all your work down because it’s ‘not good enough.’

As the ultimate Insecure Writer, I’m shy about submitting my work for publication, perhaps because of my Asperger Syndrome. Perhaps it’s just I am afraid of being judged by people who just don’t get me. But in keeping with Heinlein’s rules, I put up some of my work on Wattpad, and plan to do more there— a non-fiction work, and a new book of my poetry, both of which may become, in a longer version, at least Smashword ebooks and perhaps proper books (if I can figure out how to format for Lulu and how to afford a decent book cover.)

My Wattpad profile: https://www.wattpad.com/user/NissaAnnakindt

Feel free to share your own Wattpad profile in a comment.

Writers (heart) Stories

One thing about writers is that writers are persons who have learned to love story. We are addicted to story! If we go through a few weeks without reading a new book or even seeing a new movie or new episode of a television show, we are story-deprived and become cranky— the same way a carbohydrate addict becomes cranky doing without his Snickers bars or his bread or McBurgers.

The majority of good writers discovered in childhood that books are reliable sources of stories, and from that age we’ve learned the tricks to find the books with the kinds of stories we like. We look for book cover pictures— a spaceship on the cover means science fiction, a shirtless man on the cover signals ‘sexy’ romance. We look for reliable writers who have delivered good stories to us before.

As we go on in the writing life, some of us stop reading for story. When we do writer-networking, we accumulate a pile of writer-friends, all of whom seem to have books out at the moment. We also read books by our genre competitors/colleagues to see what the genre is up to lately. We may feel we have no time to read something just because the story might be fun.

But fun is the essence of fiction. Readers pick up our books and read because they want the fun that a good story can deliver. They don’t do it, say, because their boss at work will give them a raise when they’ve read 100 new books.

Reading books for fun is the way to keep the fun of story alive in our own fiction. Nothing is more dreadful than the books that are composed with the idea of teaching us some Very Important grim feminist lesson, or some other vile didactic plot. If we want to learn the latest Very Important progressive lesson, we don’t need to wade through a full novel, we can find an op-ed piece or an essay that will give us the same stuff more quickly.

Writers gain readers when they can tell good stories and make fun happen. Even writers that are accused of being politically offensive can keep their readers as long as the stories stay good. I have been more than once mortally offended by stuff progressive writer Stephen King said about conservatives like me, but I didn’t quit reading him until I was about 1/4 of the way into a book of his and he not only said something vile about Donald Trump, I realized no good story-stuff had happened yet— I was still waiting for the fun to start. I put the book aside, not out of conservative righteousness, but because I didn’t anticipate the fun starting anytime soon.

So, my advice is, read something for fun, right now. Since I am short of funds at the moment, and am a fast reader, I made for my local library today to find new stuff to read. It’s a small-town library and doesn’t always have what I am looking for— they only had TWO books by Heinlein! But I found some Temeraire books I was willing to read again, and a couple of other books by authors that Dean Wesley Smith suggested as authors to study. So I’m ready for Thanksgiving Day— instead of watching and waiting to be invited to a gathering at which I won’t be particularly welcome, I’m planning on reading my brains out. And eating Spam and fried eggs instead of dry turkey. Win-win.

Why I Don’t Want to Be Critiqued

Amateur and new writers everywhere constantly cry out to have their work ‘critiqued.’ How do you get a critique? How do you find a cheap ‘editor’ (meaning ‘book doctor’ or other hired hand) to look at your work? But I have finally grown beyond that point.

The problem with the concept of ‘critique’ is that the word brings to mind the word ‘criticism.’ Criticism tears a person down. Sometimes in life criticism is needed, as when an employee starts showing up for work late and a little drunk. But it’s a tearing-down process even then. Criticism hurts, it destroys our souls, even if it’s prissily-worded ‘constructive criticism.’ Why would people ask for that experience? Here are the reasons as I work them out.

WE WANT THE BLESSING OF ‘OTHER PEOPLE’

Somewhere in our subconscious minds, we have the notion that we are small, weak, and inept, and that everything we do must have the blessing of other people, who are larger, stronger and more talented. If we show our writing to other people— any other people— and they say they like it, that means we are OK as a writer. We don’t even want to think about what would happen if the other person said ‘wow, that’s a piece of dreck!’

FIX: Now that we are grownups, we don’t need other people to approve of our work like we did in kindergarten. When it comes to writing, random other people may know less than nothing.

WE WANT GUARANTEED IMPROVEMENT SUGGESTIONS

If you have already decided to violated Heinlein’s Third Rule of writing (You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.), you want a guarantee that the rewrite you labor over will improve, rather than dis-improve, your work. Some of us have a naive confidence that any suggestion by another person, if carried out in a rewrite, will fix the writing and make it magically publishable.

Others of us hold out for someone we can believe is an expert. We may hire ‘book doctors’ (‘editors’ for hire) to give us advice we hope will guarantee that our rewrite process will create a better book.

The truth is, most people who suggest something about your work won’t get it. Like the beta reader who returns your sci-fi epic with a frown, saying ‘Your novel is no good. It has a time machine in it. There is no such thing as a time machine. You’ll have to take it out and start over.’

WE MAY WANT OUR EGO SOOTHED

Many of us have egos battered by life. We spend hours working on something for school or for work, and when we are done, our work gets pissed on, ever so genteelly, by the people that count. We are accused of not having done any real work on the project at all.

What some of us feel the need for, when we let others look at our work, is validation. We really need some writing authority figure to pat us on the head and say ‘Good little writer! You worked hard, so of course your writing is excellent!’

This is why some people, asked to critique, say how excellent everything is, even first novels by writers who don’t yet know how novels work. They think what the writer really wants is reassurance.

The problem is, when I get a reassuring response to my work, I tend to just feel the work was so pathetic that the person felt I needed reassurance and perhaps mental health help, rather than to hear the truth. Even when I know in my soul that my work is good, I feel that way.

GROWING BEYOND THE NEED FOR APPROVAL

If, instead of becoming a writer, you had decided to become a plumber, after you learned the basics you would not bother with approval-seeking. If the toilet you installed flushed, you knew you had done your job.

As writers, we need to get beyond the childish level of needing someone, anyone to approve of our work. They may say you can’t ‘critique’ your own writing, but I know I find plenty of things to fix in it. Seeking critiques to get more things to fix might be a way to avoid finishing a writing project.

Heinlein’s Rules 4 and 5 state that you should submit your finished work and keep submitting it until it sells. Dean Wesley Smith says in today’s self-publishing world it’s acceptable to self-publish as long as you keep the work available instead of pulling it down in a fit of self-doubt. Getting your work published— or having it sell well if self-published— is the main kind of feedback we writers need.

Personal Note: Yes, I’m scared to let other people see my work. So I put up a short story, The Skin Shirt, on Wattpad, and intend to add a children’s story, The Dust Mouse, in a day or two. I’m also working on another short story intended for Wattpad. Because of my Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a hard time with the idea of sending my work out (though I did it with my poetry years ago) and so publishing on Wattpad is a step in the right direction. My Wattpad account, if you are morbidly curious, is at: https://www.wattpad.com/user/NissaAnnakindt

What Is A Tag Line?

A tag line is a sentence or phrase describing a book or short story. Tag lines are used to sell potential readers on the idea of reading the book or story in question. So, yes, they are about book marketing. However, when you write your tag line before writing/finishing your story, it may help you stay on track.

Particularly on older paperback books, a tag line was often printed on a book cover. Here are some random samples of books with tag lines from my personal book collection, harvested from whatever books I could find while keeping my kitten Jon-with-Rice out of mischief.

Night of the Saucers – Eando Binder – 1971

“The saucers landed on Earth. The Vexxians infiltrated. Now they planned to blow up everything.”

Starship – Brian Aldiss – 1958

“The magnificent novel of a weird and terrifying journey— generations in length— that knew neither sun, nor moon, nor stars.”

Doomsday Morning – C. L. Moore – 1957

“Comus had brought peace and plenty to a war-devastated America— but could it survive the new revolution?”

Darwin’s Radio – Greg Bear – 1999

“In the next stage of evolution, humans are history…”

Star Trek: Death Count – L. A. Graf – 1992

“A saboteur is loose on the USS Enterprise.”

Star Trek: The Trellisane Confrontation – David Dvorkin – 1984

“An attack on a small planet triggers a deadly interstellar war!”

OK, what have you learned about tag lines from reading these commercially published examples? [Feel free to have any insights you like at this point.] What I learned is that the tag line is an attempt to hint at the content of the book, and to convey the excitement that the book (we hope) will provide to a reader.

Non-fiction books use tag lines as well. In fact, in the world of non-fiction books, the tag line is a part of the title. Such as “Gone With the Wind: Protecting Your Homestead from Wind Damage.” The tag line part of the title distinguishes it from any other books that might coincidentally be named ‘Gone With the Wind.’

The example tag lines I’ve given here are a bit on the abstract/general side— no specific character is mentioned, by name or otherwise. Nothing like “Gregor Samsa woke one morning to find he’d been transformed into an insect.” Which is not to say you can’t do a more specific tag line. The examples I’ve shown are just random examples. Go to your own book horde, pull out some paperbacks, and look for other examples of tag lines used on covers.

And in the modern publishing world where so many indie-publish in varying ways and have to do their own book marketing, a tag line is an important tool whether it is on your book cover or not. You can Tweet it when you Tweet a link to the book, or share it in other ways on other social media.

What I did recently when I published my short story ‘The Skin Shirt’ to Wattpad, I used my tag line, ‘In the City, they changed their skin color as easily as changing a shirt’ as the first sentence in my story summary. I left a line of blank space and then added the story summary I’d come up with: ‘Mardetto Abrono was only a merchant. It was his late twin Marcello who was the artist. Mardetto only sold the works that his brother created. But when Mardetto was faced with the task of buying a new skin shirt, which would change the now-much-faded color of his skin, he found himself thinking of making other changes.’

The tag line is more abstract— it doesn’t mention Mardetto or his late twin at all— but it gives a hint of what is different and unique about the story.

How do you or have you used tag lines for your writing? Do you think tag lines are important, or just some other damned chore writers are told to do? In the comments, you may share a tag line you have written for a work of your own, along with one link to that work (Amazon, Wattpad, wherever it’s available.)

If you are morbidly curious about my story ‘The Skin Shirt’ on Wattpad, here is the link: https://www.wattpad.com/807299575-the-skin-shirt-part-1

Learning the Three-Act Story Structure

One problem some of us have during NaNoWriMo is difficulty pacing our stories. The beginning goes on for 40000 words, or we reach the final battle around word 10000. If our goal is a complete 50000 word novel, that doesn’t work. (We may be OK with writing 50000 words of a longer novel, or completing a short story, however.)

Knowing about the Three Act structure will help you pace your story. The first act is where you set-up your story. In the second act you develop it, and in the third you conclude it. If you skimp on any of the acts, your story will feel unbalanced and weird.

Plotters will deal with the structure in the outlining phase. Pantsers may be keeping it in mind as they write, or using the structure to sort out the mess of randomly written scenes they have produced. In either case, at some point you need to think about structure.

ACT ONE

The first act is the first 12500 words of a 50000 word novel, or the first 1/4 of a longer novel. James Scott Bell, in his book Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing The Power of Story, gives us the following ‘signposts’ that should happen in the first act:

The Disturbance (to the Lead character’s ordinary world)

The Care Package (to show that the Lead cares about someone)

The Argument Against Transformation (Because your Lead is likely to resist the changes coming to his life.)

Trouble Brewing (Hint of the major story conflict to come)

Doorway of No Return #1 (Major change, Lead is now committed to the confrontation/conflict of Act 2)

ACT TWO

The Lead is now committed to leaving his Ordinary World for the world of the story’s conflict/challenge. In a detective novel, this change may be in taking the case. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place as tribute. In Act Two, the Lead’s life has changed in a big way.

Act Two is longer than Act One— 25000 words in a 50000 word story. About 1/2 of the novel’s total acreage. Act Two can drag if you let it. Here are the signposts that James Scott Bell gives us for Act Two:

A Kick in the Shins (Lead must face an obstacle— trouble related to overall story)

The Mirror Moment (Midpoint— Lead is reflective, realizes he must change or die)

Pet the Dog (Lead character shows compassion to animal or human, in spite of danger)

Doorway of No Return #2 (Lead is now committed to Final Confrontation)

ACT THREE

The Lead is now committed to the Final Confrontation that the story has been pointing to. No chance to back out. This final act is the climax of the story, the pay-off that the previous acts have been pointing to. This act is about 1/4 of the novel, or the last 12500 words of a 50000 word novel. The Final Battle should take care of the major conflict of the story, and other loose ends must be wrapped up as well, so the Reader feels the story is done. The signposts:

Mounting Forces (The Lead’s Opposition is closing in)

Lights Out (The darkest point: all seems lost, Lead can’t win)

The Q Factor (Lead receives what he needs to win: encouragement, a weapon, knowledge)

Final Battle (Climax of the story; this battle will solve the story problem, kill or defeat villain)

Transformation (After the battle, Lead has been changed— show this)

Plotters will use the Three Act structure and the signposts before the writing of the story begins. You can use them as the framework of your outline. And, as you write, you can revise elements of that outline to make it more reflective of what you have in fact actually written.

Pantsers aren’t going to work all these things out in advance. They MAY use the signposts and the Three-Act structure to help them set the pace, and to work out what they should write next. OR, they may ignore much of the structure until the second draft stage. Yes, pantsers sometimes outline AFTER they’ve written a first draft, as a way to organize a batch of randomly written scenes into parts of a structured novel.

NaNoWriMo Prep: Clearing the Decks

Preparing for NaNo, as far as the writing is concerned, is different due to your writing style. If you are a plotter, you may need to spend all of October outlining (even though officially you are only allowed one week.) If you are a pantser, you may do nothing, or perhaps just make lists of character names and place names so you have them when you need them.

But there is another, practical side to NaNo prep. You need to ‘clear the decks’ — make things in your life ready for your extra writing hours. What do you need to do to be ready?

You may need to beg off on some volunteering-type projects for the month of November. Let someone else teach that Sunday school class for the month, or run the neighborhood kids to the rec center. Perhaps you should have prepared further in advance by doing extra volunteer things in October to make up.

Writing needs a certain amount of writing hours. You may have to get up an hour or two earlier, If you are grouchy early in the morning, you may need to start the earlier wake-up before Nov. 1st. I use a ‘dawn simulator’ type of alarm clock, which wakes me with bright light, and, later, with nature sounds, because I jump out of my skin with a normal alarm clock. I’ve already set my alarm to an hour earlier, and I lived. I even got some blog posts written.

You might also need to give up some of your regular TV shows, or your regular internet surfing time. Or quit playing Candy Crush for the month.

Your writing area may need revamping. You may need to clean it up, make it more private or less so, or set up a new writing area altogether.

What about your personal responsibilities? If you do cooking for yourself or your family, you might need a plan to make things easier on yourself just for the month.DON’T plan on feeding yourself and possibly others by going on a month-long high-carb fast-food or processed food diet. Being exhausted, sick and unhealthy for a month will NOT help you get more writing done.

Some writers think they have to be fueled by high-carb snacks. This is not so. The way to prevent this is to keep plentiful supplies of low-carb and healthy food options in the house, especially things that are easy to fix. I got myself an ‘air fryer’ and plan to lay in some supplies of chicken wings or chicken thighs I can cook in it. I may also get some turnips to make low-carb ’french fries,’ if I can manage to get to the grocery that carries turnips, and if they have any.

Mommy writers who have to watch children during their some of their writing time have to get creative. I think very short writing sprints— 2 minutes or so— might be a way to get work done on your NaNo novel and give your kids attention in between time. I’ve read about a writer who did very short writing sprints while AT WORK and managed to get writing done and not get fired. (I don’t recommend ‘cheating’ on your employer like that. If you don’t work when your employer expects you to work, why will your employer be motivated to keep paying you? And there is the moral aspect as well.)

Do you usually write to music? That can act as a ‘sound wall’ that helps you ignore distracting noises. Buy yourself some new music to inspire you.

Finally, busy people are often the best people to get things done. Don’t worry if you have to be busy with things during NaNo. I’ve just started a new blog and will be writing posts for two blogs during NaNo month. That may actually inspire me to do more writing on the WIP, since I write both things on the same computer, in both case using Scrivener.

Questions: What preparations do you usually do before writing sessions? What would you do to prepare for a more intense writing experience like NaNo?