Time to Get Serious About Your Writing Career

Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to PixelBack in the 1980s I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know any writers or have access to any writers, so I turned to how-to books to learn how it was done. Over the years I amassed quite a collection. Most of them either angered me or depressed me. Angered me because all too often I would run across a passage that said, essentially, “Do NOT write trash like romance or science fiction or mysteries. If you do, you are defiling the Artistry of the Sacred Calling of Authorship, and that makes you a sell-out.” (This to a hardcore genre fiction junkie, shees.) Or else they depressed me because they declared: “Do it THIS WAY and you will be a success.” Only I never could seem to do it THIS WAY, which meant I must be a horrendous failure or more likely those jokers were lying to me and I was a sucker who’d shelled out money for their crap. A couple of books inspired me. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott; Wild Minds, by Natalie Goldberg; Zen and the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. A couple helped me with craft: Story, by Robert McKee; The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogel. Only one book both inspired AND helped me with craft: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block.

What made Writing the Novel different from so many other writing books–both inspirational and for craft–was LB himself. A serious writer who didn’t take himself seriously. A working writer who had a handle on the business of publishing–the good, the bad and the ugly sides–and who made a career out of writing fiction. (That’s a rare thing, actually, and his career is still going strong to this day.) I read that book to tatters, referring back to it time and again whenever I got discouraged or stuck. I often recommended it to other writers. I don’t know how many copies I purchased and gave as gifts over the years. (I made the mistake of loaning it to someone–breaking my own rule about never loaning a book I wanted to keep–and now I can’t remember to whom I loaned it, so if you’re reading this, please give it back.) What makes it stand out is that LB teaches you how to think as a writer. How to read as a writer. He doesn’t tell you what to write or spout cookie-cutter steps, but he’ll help you figure out what might work for you. For instance, from his chapter on outlining, one of my favorites:

     “An outline is a tool which a writer uses to simplify the task of writing a novel and to improve the ultimate quality of that novel by giving himself more of a grasp on its overall structure.

“And that’s about as specifically as one can define an outline, beyond adding that it’s almost invariably shorter than the book will turn out to be. What length it will run, what form it will take, how detailed it will be, and what sort of novel components it will or will not include, is and ought to be a wholly individual matter. Because the outline is prepared solely for the benefit of the writer himself, it quite properly varies from one author to another and from one novel to another. Some writers never use an outline. Others would be uncomfortable writing anything more ambitious than a shopping list without outlining it first. Some outlines, deemed very useful by their authors, run a scant page. Others, considered equally indispensable by their authors, run a hundred pages or more and include a detailed description of every scene that is going to take place in every chapter of the book. Neither of these extremes, nor any of the infinite gradations between the two poles, represents the right way to prepare an outline. There is no right way to do this—or, more correctly, there is no wrong way. Whatever works best for the particular writer on the particular book is demonstrably the right way.”

Now LB has updated the book and expanded it. He even expanded the title to Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel. He’s brought it out in both ebook and print. The original material is still as valid today as it was when first published in 1978; the new material is geared toward today’s publishing climate, taking into account how traditional publishing has changed and with new chapters on self-publishing.

It’s still a book I recommend. It’s posted now in the sidebar of this blog. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.

These past couple of years have been hell on writers. Trad pubbed writers are suffering because the industry is in flux; indie writers are running themselves ragged learning to be publishers during a time of rapid changes. The biggest frustration I keep hearing expressed is that the writing itself is suffering because of the business side of publishing. Time to remember what’s important, folks. Storytelling. The writing itself. Business goes through the crazies–that’s one aspect that never changes–but the core of who we are–storytellers–that remains true whether we’re chiseling our tales into stone tablets or tapping them out on an iPhone. Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel can help you remember what’s important: telling a good story.

Like LB says:

“…while there are far too many books in this world, there are far too few good ones.

“And I don’t ever want to run out of things to read.”

Why We Write…

Alert: This post is NOT about ebooks.

“Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion. And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have the need to prove their bravery.

“Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say–  ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers; that is worth a great deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin egg.”

–Appsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

Substitute “writer” for “explorer” and much is explained.


Excerpt courtesy of Patrick Trese, author of the most excellent memoir, Penguins Have Square Eyes, about his adventures in Antarctica.


Ebooks: Back Matter Matters

Do you enjoy extras in your ebooks? About the Author, reader letters, a note from the editor, teasers from other books, lists (in order) of the author’s other works, reviews? I do. I read everything. Even ads for other books and special promotions. I even read the little notices in some hardcover volumes that describes the typeface used and gives a bit of history.

I admit I am an oddball, but surely I am not alone in this? I didn’t think so.

What surprises me is how poorly many self-publishers exploit the back matter in their ebooks. I read ebooks that might have a tiny About the Author blurb and maybe a few titles listed. I’ve read others that have no back matter at all. The text ends, then nothing.

Let’s discuss this a moment, shall we? As I’ve stated before, the back matter in an ebook is valuable real estate. And it is, hard cost-wise, free. Print volumes can’t always justify the cost of extra pages and added labor costs. Ebooks can’t justify the cost of NOT including extra material. For indies, it is probably the absolutely best way to talk directly to readers and hand-sell their other works.

The best thing of all? You are not limited as to what you include (except by the distributor’s TOS). No space limitations. The more readers read, the more YOU will sink into their consciousness. If you make that connection, the next time they see your name on a book cover, the more likely they are to give it at least a second look.

So let’s brainstorm a bit. What makes great back matter material?

  • About the Author. Of course. And of course, most writers don’t do them well. They get self-conscious. Worry about looking like an idiot. Don’t know what’s important, what’s not. Many About the Author pages read like a resume or a curriculum vitae. They’re boring and sound pretentious. If you are comfortable talking about yourself in a friendly manner, you are ahead of the game. For the rest of you (me, too) a few suggestions. Keep it short and sweet (a hundred words, more or less). Show a bit of personality. Tell readers something they might never guess from reading your books (at his day job, Novelist is a tree surgeon). If you’ve won a major award(s) readers might actually have heard of, include that, briefly. Clue readers in to your geographic location (it is astonishing how powerful a connection location can be).
  • Dear Reader Letter. Unlike About the Author, the reader letter is more about the book and the writing. Come on, writers, what question do you hear from non-writers all the time? Say it with me now: Where do you get your ideas? The reader letter is your opportunity to answer that question. Talk about where the book was born, the inspiration, the research, maybe even liberties you took with the facts. This is your opportunity to get chummy with readers, to make them feel part of the process. You know you love talking about your work. Here’s your chance. Have fun with it.
  • Reviews. Yes! If you have advance reviews or the book is a reissue or you have reviews for other titles, by all means include them. I suggest you show restraint out of consideration for the readers. Take your cues from the big publishers and include excerpted blurbs of one or two sentences, max. Trust me, no reader cares as much about your glowing reviews as you do. Your goal is to assure readers that others have liked your books. It might inspire them to leave their own review. Make sure you properly attribute the reviewers.
  • Book Covers and Descriptions. Promo your other titles with a thumbnail of the book cover and a description. Make sure your name is prominent on the page.
  • Teasers. A first chapter or a juicy excerpt from another of your titles makes a sweet bonus.
  • Cross-Promotion. A teaser from another writer’s title. You might also consider an If You Like page. Can’t go wrong helping out your fellow indies.
  • Bonus Fiction. Do you have a short short story or flash fiction? Or how about poetry? Think of it as a little gift, a surprise for the readers.
  • Recipes or How-To Instructions. Another bonus for readers. If your characters enjoy meals made with your own recipes, include it. If your characters do something interesting in the book that you exhaustively researched or have expertise with, why not provide how-to instructions? (How to mount a cannon on a Buick: Materials: Cannon, Duct Tape)
  • Letter From the Editor: This can serve two purposes. One, that you even have an editor ups the reader’s opinion of your work. Two, it’s an opportunity for a third party to talk about how special your work is. Can’t hurt.
  • Acknowledgements. It’s always nice to say thank you.
  • Maps. Have you created a fantasy world? Is yours an historical novel? Are you a smart aleck on par with Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt? (the maps in the Joe Pitt Case Books are hysterical) This bit of back matter might cost some dollars, unless you’re a graphic artist and actually know how to draw maps. It is something to consider.
  • Bibliography. If you’ve done extensive research, your readers might be the type who enjoy research, too.
  • Links. Read your ebook distributor’s TOS to know what is allowed. Generally, live links to your website and blog are okay. Invite readers to follow you on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Create a special email account for fan mail.

I don’t recommend special promotions. Even though it’s fairly common in mass market paperbacks, there is a Right Now quality about ebooks without the clues that a book is older. Unless you are willing to re-upload the ebook after the special promotion is done, it could create bad feelings if a reader tries to redeem an expired coupon code or finds out the book you touted as on sale is now back at the regular price.

So there are some ideas for you to consider. Does anyone else have suggestions?