I just wanted to share this with everyone. Baen Books does this every year. It’s one of the many reasons they are my favorite publisher.
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Want to know what makes me tick? Why I write? Smashwords asks thirteen questions about me and my writing.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
What is your writing process?
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
How do you approach cover design?
What are your three favorite books, and why?
What do you read for pleasure?
What is your e-reading device of choice?
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
When did you first start writing?
What’s the story behind your latest book?
What motivated you to become an indie author?
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
Click HERE to see the interview answers.
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Couple weeks ago I decided to give the series Van Helsing a try. My expectations weren’t high and good thing too.
With the constant stream of disappointing fare offered by SyFy, Netflix, pretty much everyone, I pulled the plug on satellite some time back. I’m one of the binge-watchers who isn’t going to bother until the season is done and then only if I’ve heard lots of good things about it from people I trust. I don’t care for cliffhangers and they’ve been so overdone in a desperate attempt to hold on to audiences that we’ve become annoyed rather than tantalized by them. Hollywood, get a clue. Really.
I admit a moment of weakness and a desperate need for something that didn’t tax the brain too much, because I hadn’t heard about this series. It just scrolled through as recommended viewing.
I actually stopped the first episode three times to check if it was really the first episode. I was convinced I was watching things out of order. Nope. Some jackass decided it was better to drop us into the middle with no explanation, no idea who these people were, and not a SINGLE reason to care about any of them.
Ooh, vampires. Ooh, a woman Van Helsing. Yawn.
I had two questions a while back from an aspiring writer. The first one was, “I’ve got thirty-thousand words written. Should I start looking for an agent?” I hate these kinds of questions because I can’t tell them what they want to hear. So after giving them what I figured was the correct answer, the follow up question was, “Okay, so once a writer finishes the book and gets an agent, how long before they can quit their day-job.” I admit, I was a bit dumb-struck and while my brain was going “Let me break out my divination toolkit” and refusing to come up with something encouraging, I finally settled on “I have no idea.”
I still don’t have an answer (that fortune-telling kit I bought is pure bunk; don’t waste your money), but I do have some thoughts on writers, writing, and their expectations.
So here goes…
Probably like most people, I was introduced to the 10,000-hour concept via Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. (If you haven’t read it, it’s a pretty quick read and well worth the time).
To condense it to its most basic form, the premise for the 10,000-hour rule is that it takes ten-thousand hours of work/practice to become an “expert.” The specifics of what constitutes “work” or “practice” or an “expert” seem to have inspired a bevy of criticisms since the book came out in 2008.
I ran a quick search on “ten thousand hours rule” this morning and was surprised to find the links “debunking” the concept preceded a link to the book itself. My understanding is that search results are ordered by popularity which suggests that people have been far more interested in the articles “debunking” the concept than not. To be honest, I’m not surprised. Who wants to be told they’ll have to put in 10,000 hours of work on anything.
Yet, the articles didn’t so much debunk as get into the nitty-gritty of what constituted practice, work, and expertise, as well as pointing out that there are physical traits and aptitude that will skew the results (No duh, experts, thank you. Honestly, where would we be without you.)
Ten years after the book came out, I still recall the example given, in that if you work a 40-hour week (and spend all 40 of those hours actually doing your job, rather than in meetings, travel, etc.) it would take 250 weeks, or FIVE years (50-week year) to become an expert at your job. I remember this because it paralleled my own work experience. It’s about how long it took to unlock that “expert” achievement level, and if you switched jobs you usually ended up resetting the clock or moving it back a bit.
Then Gladwell wrote about what it would take to get to the 10,000-hours in FOUR years: an extra ten hours per week (50 hours x 50 weeks x 4 years=10K). Again, these numbers stick with me because working as a salaried engineer, it seemed that we were always working 50- or 60-hour weeks. Problem was, of course, that those ten or twenty extra hours weren’t always “work” in the sense that we were doing our jobs. Mostly I’m casting the stink-eye at meetings that could have accomplished their goal by memo and various time-wasters like mandatory company training, i.e. HR meddling and getting in the way of doing work.
So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, I’m always stunned by the number of people who proclaim that they’ve been writers for N years, as if that means something. It’s a totally meaningless number, unless “year” in this case means 2000-work-hours, and each one of those work hours represents actual writing or something directly related to improving your writing skills.
It does not include research, except when you take said research and figure out how to use it in the actual writing process. It does not include marketing (which is promotion of your writing, but isn’t writing). I would argue that it includes editing, if we’re talking about editing that involves implementing editorial requests (in this case an editor NOT being a person YOU pay, but a person who your publisher pays). I would also say that includes any activity that goes towards developing your writing skillset, such as continuing education. This could include a class, a book related to the craft or skills of writing, taking a book you enjoyed and studying how that author did what he did.
Most writers are part-time writers. They have day-jobs. There’s nothing wrong with this. It does however mean that if you only have ten hours a week to devote to writing, that it’s going to take twenty years to get to that 10,000 hours. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, well-connected, or already in the industry in some other form, you’ve set yourself on a long, slow path to success.
There’s a faster track, a ten year one, if you double up to twenty hours a week, stick to it, and don’t veer off of it.
Most writers veer off the path at one point or another. Life gets in the way. Things happen.
You’ve won the lottery if you can devote forty to sixty hours a week to developing your writing skill set. You could actually achieve that four- or five-year plan as if you had a job. But it’s still a four- or five-year plan. It’s not a one-year plan. It’s not 30,000-words and “Should I start looking for an agent now?”
Hard work is key. So are realistic expectations. Becoming a writer is a marathon, not a spring, although sometimes it does feel like you’re sprinting the entire time.
“Researching the Science in Science Fiction” was probably my favorite panel at FenCon this year. The panel was moderated by William Ledbetter and included Science GoH Marianne Dyson, fellow authors Kristi Hudson (not pictured) and Patrice Sarath (not pictured). Photo credit: C. Stuart Hardwick.
While all the panels were great, I really enjoy discussing the craft of writing. For a sci-fi writer, that often means research. Sometimes it means going down the research rabbit-hole and getting lost. We discussed our own experiences, i.e. how we approach it, as well as the best methods.
Doing research may sound easy. Google is your friend, right? Problem is that everything correct is on the internet; along with everything that is incorrect. The search for facts can be as muddied as the search for truth.
As a writer one must know when to stop. Research is a great way to procrastinate and still pretend that you’re “writing.” Research can also be the death-knell for your premise, your idea, and your story. So how do you handle the story-slayer? Do you write around it? Do you pull out your handwavium and unobtainium? Do you just ignore it? (Think about the sounds that spaceships in Star Wars make in the vacuum of space where sound cannot travel).
Lots of factors come into play, depending on what kind of story you’re writing. There is more rigor in a hard SF story than a soft SF one. Consistency becomes a challenge, as well as knowing how much of your research to include. After all, you did all that work. Hours and hours. Weeks and months and years. The longer you spent toiling away in the research salt-mines, the more you want to include. But that’s not necessarily the best thing for your story.
Only about 10% of what I learn via research makes its way into my stories, even the hard SF ones. It has to be absolutely vital to the story, but more importantly, it has to be something that the viewpoint character knows. I think that including things the viewpoint character cannot possibly know is one of the worst mistakes I see consistently across all genres, not just sci-fi.
Number two would be the dreaded, tension-less, “As you know, Bob” exposition via dialogue. Number three is straight up exposition, usually via author voice. We hashed out some of the best strategies for avoiding not just research pitfalls, but best practices when it comes to incorporating that research into our stories.
I’m hoping FenCon will continue to offer this panel at upcoming conventions, and if you’re an aspiring writer, I hope you’ll attend. I certainly learned a lot from my fellow panelists.
I can’t believe it’s just a few days away, but FenCon XV starts this Friday.
I will be reading from “Bellona’s Gift,” (Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation, edited by Tom Kratman, August 2019). It’s a half hour slot and the opening scene is about half that, so I will also be talking about what it’s like to get to play in someone else’s universe and the origins of this story. The reading starts at 4:30pm in the Pecan Room. Hope to see you there.
The rest of my schedule is:
|Before Their Time: Technologies that didn’t make it (yet)
Saturday 1:00 PM Irving Lecture Hall
|Researching the Science in Science Fiction
Sunday 10:00 AM Irving Lecture Hall
|Outlander Season 3 – Voyages in Time and Space
Sunday 11:00 AM Trinity VI
|2050 & Beyond: Four Futures
Sunday 2:00 PM Irving Lecture Hall
I’m also looking forward to meeting Larry Niven, the guest of honor and getting him to sign Fallen Angels. I remember reading Fallen Angels shortly after it came out. I was working on my physics degree. I was also taking astrophysics at the time (it was my minor). His book had such a profound influence on me (even though at the time I was not part of what one would call “fandom”) that it has stayed with me to this day. Time has proven his mockery of radical environmentalism. It has proven the ignorance of journalists. I can’t wait to meet him. [Note to self: Don’t fangirl. Don’t fangirl. Don’t fangirl.]
This is the last installment in my review of Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction.
It is interesting to note Koontz’s fervent advice not to allow yourself to be labeled as the writer of any specific genre, i.e. a science-fiction writer or a mystery writer. Instead, go for the label of “writer.”
Just because we start out writing in our favorite genre does not mean that we will remain there, or be successful at it. We might find greater success in a different genre. How did we start this? Wasn’t it with epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century? I can see his point.
Nevertheless, Koontz spends an entire chapter (the twelfth) on two genres (science fiction and mystery) and how to write them well. I will tell you up front, I skipped the section on writing mysteries, but I’m sure it’s as packed with good information as the part on science fiction.
The main focus was on bringing aliens to life, i.e. how to write them so that they are not (a) cardboard or (b) humans with spots painted on them. It is one of the best written pieces on the subject that I have seen, and best of all, Koontz provides us with great examples. I would recommend his book for this section alone.
The takeaway, for creating aliens as well as alien milieus, was the same: you need lots of specific details to make them believable. It is, by far, the hardest aspect of writing science fiction because you must not only come up with the details, but they must mesh and they must be believable. You must have the skill to create suspension of disbelief and maintain it throughout.
Within science-fiction, there are a number of genres, most of which Koontz does not deal with by name, but rather indirectly, via a discussion between writing near-future vs far-future stories. It would be of no surprise to any sci-fi writer that writing near-future is far harder than writing about the far future. The former requires extensive research and a skill for extrapolation, while the latter is more speculative and relies more on imagination. Whether you choose one or the other, the key to success lies in making it cohesive. If something stands out as a red flag, you must world-build to a sufficient degree to sell the red flag to an editor.
Chapter 13 deals with pitfalls and how to avoid them. Rather than summarize them, I’ll focus on the takeaway since it’s one that I rarely see emphasized: “a writer is only in competition with himself.”
There is also a short, somewhat useful section on overcoming writer’s block, but nothing that one couldn’t find via an internet search.
I skimmed Chapter 14 (Selling) because I think most of it is out of date. When it comes to selling, pretty much any of the books below are a far better investment of your time and money:
- Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 5)
- Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing: A WMG Writer’s Guide (WMG Writer’s Guides Book 6)
- The Magic Bakery: Copyright in the Modern World of Fiction Publishing (A WMG Writer’s Guide)
- Creating Your Author Brand (WMG Writer’s Guides Book 16)
- Discoverability (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 7)
- Closing the Deal…on Your Terms: Agents, Contracts, and Other Considerations (WMG Writer’s Guides) (Volume 14)
Chapter 15 consists mainly of a list of best-sellers deemed worthy of study. Like the chapter on selling, it has not aged well, but may be of use to some.
I hope you found these entries as educational as I did. I think that in order to be a successful writer one must continue learning. And it’s particularly difficult when it comes to writing, because so many think that stringing sentences and paragraphs together somehow automatically turns into fiction that will sell.
We can watch someone cook and get a fair idea of what’s involved. We can follow a recipe. But do we ever get to watch someone write? I argue that we cannot.
Even if one were to perch on a writer’s shoulder and watch them work, one would not be privy to what’s going on in the writer’s mind, what thoughts led them there. I think that writers think about writing all the time (even if only subconsciously). We spend a great deal of time inside our own heads before we are ready to sit down and type or put pen to paper. Therefore, even a keen observation of the “writing” process would miss out on all the essentials that went into getting the writer to the point where they sit down and start typing. Perhaps if the writer started giving the observer a running commentary, we might be able to witness the process of creation, but even that would be marred by the commentary itself, for if the writer is explaining to you why he chose one word over another, he is no longer creating.
Continuing with Dean Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction…
While Koontz’s discussion of viewpoint takes up only part of his chapter on style, I realized I could not give the subject adequate treatment except via a dedicated post. It’s because of the way that he defines omniscient viewpoint. Nothing he says is wrong, but the way the terms are used has changed and I wanted to do a more in-depth exploration of the subject. If you’re not a writer, this may not be helpful to you in terms of craft, but it may help you understand why that book that someone was so keen on didn’t resonate with you even though it had all the markings of being your thing.
I’ve written about viewpoint before, and at length, not only because I find the subject itself facsinating, but because I think it’s a key component of immersion and a difficult subject to master. It is one of the reasons I dread reading slush or first drafts. It is the number one reason I set a book down and walk away from it, never to pick it up again. Perhaps a scant two percent of books with viewpoint flaws (meaning the mixing and misuse of them) engage me enough on other levels to keep me reading to the end. They are the exception to the rule. Remember, just because [Insert Famous Writer of Your Choice] can get away with it, doesn’t mean your unproven behind can.
I’ve observed, and others have confirmed, that narrative styles/techniques have changed in the last four decades, and certainly since the golden age of science fiction. Some genres are more hospitable to newer narrative viewpoint choices, such as multiple first person present tense, i.e. erotica or YA (young adult) or NA (new adult). “Literary” is definitely more open to choices such as second person and/or future tense. And if you’re writing how-to books or blog posts, then second person is a deliberate and appropriate choice.
I think a lot of confusion about viewpoint stems from the fact that there is no standard terminology. Unlike physics where “work” has a standard definition (work equals force times distance), viewpoint terminology seems to be rather fluid. In more discussions than I care to count, it’s been obvious that when one person uses the term “third person limited” they mean something completely different than another person using the same term.
Koontz starts out by discussing modified omniscient, which is explained as a technique where the author may write one scene from the protagonist’s viewpoint and another from the antagonist’s and another from a third character’s. These multiple viewpoints may be used in whatever order the plot requires. Today, this would be called “multiple third person” not modified omniscient. And the reason I can say that with a high degree of confidence is because Koontz emphatically (and correctly) states:
It is never permissible to switch points of view from one character to another within a single scene. (p. 204)
Today, many writers would argue that omniscient viewpoint allows them to switch point-of-view multiple times within a scene, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. In fact, when challenged they can present you with reams of works that do just that. They are not wrong. Many stories are written in that manner and when the author’s presence is strong and present throughout, the technique works. But when done badly, it doesn’t. And when it’s done poorly, you have this…
Dropping into the minds of both characters in a single scene is jarring and it shatters the illusion of reality [of the story]. (p. 205)
…when the author dances through several points of view in a single scene, the result is confusion and chaos. (p. 205)
Koontz’s section on “modified omniscient” is a worthwhile read because it goes into the many advantages of it. It has been so successful that at the time he wrote this (1981) it comprised three-quarters of all successful mainstream stories. And he’ll tell you why that is. I’m not sure where that number stands today, but I have read similar statements, i.e. that the most used narrative choice is multiple third-person (what Koontz calls modified omniscient.)
Next, he delves into “pure” omniscient, a narrative style where the writer addresses his comments to the reader. We would call this, breaking the fourth wall. On page 203, he states:
Ninety-nine percent of the novelists who use the pure omniscient viewpoint have passed into total obscurity; their work is now unreadable.
How unreadable? Well, apparently, if they exist at all, modern versions of their work are edited or abridged to eliminate this “stylistic ineptitude.”
Next, Koontz tackles third person limited, where the word “limited” refers to the use of ONE third-person narrator throughout the story (limited in this case does not refer to the other way it’s used, i.e. narrative distance). The main advantage of this choice is that it focuses attention on the protagonist at all times. Koontz sees it as suitable for genre/category fiction, but NOT for a mainstream audience.
First person is defined as a narrative where the hero tells his own story and is deemed as the best choice only if your lead is “fresh, unstereotyped, and individual.” If your intent is to color the story with the hero’s opinion of the events then this is an ideal choice.
Speaking for myself, I think this is where many first person novels fail: they are devoid of opinion and the needed color. And I think there are two reasons why first person fails. Number one is because writers either don’t understand what makes first person a good choice, but use it by some default or for the wrong reason. Number two is that they are afraid to inject color and opinion because of political correctness. Better to have a hollow husk of a character than be accused of any “-ism” because we live in a world where far too many idiots (and that is exactly what they are) attribute the opinions and attitudes of a character to the author himself.
While the discussions of third- and first-person narrative technique are good, they are very brief. If you are interested in better supplements specific to that subject, I highly recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) and Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction). Both of these references uses different definitions of omniscient, so if this is your first exposure to the technicalities of narrative viewpoint, please make sure you understand which definition is being used.
This highly relevant chapter on style closes with a very memorable quote that I hope all of you will take to heart.
The only thing you really have to sell is your style. All the stories have been told. There are no new plots. (p.207)
Continuing with Dean Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction…
In the chapter on Background (Ch. 9) Koontz gives several useful pieces of advice about how to incorporate background material (what might be called milieu) into a story. He goes into the advantages and disadvantages of using contemporary vs other types of settings. He also gives good advice on research.
The most important piece of advice is that details make the story authentic and I have to agree. Stories sparse on details tend to be a boring conglomeration of dialogue and action, the cardboard characters in a white room that are such a pet peeve of mine.
He goes into how to make even a mundane setting interesting and how to get readers to accept speculative elements.
He obviously wrote this before the “crime” of “cultural appropriation” was invented because he says (quite correctly) that no geographical or cultural element can be exhausted (not by one book or a hundred).
Certain people will insist that readers are tired of certain settings (countries, cultures) and only “marginalized” cultures and peoples are worthy of further exploration. The implication is that you as a writer, as a unique human being, cannot bring your own point of view or perspective to a story. How insulting to dehumanize the most relevant minority on Earth–the individual.
Chapter 10 –Grammar and Syntax– talks about the importance of getting two things right: background details and a respect for and knowledge of basic grammar. These are two mechanical elements not subject to taste. Koontz insists that since they are both skills that can be self-taught, they are not part of the mistakes for which a new writer should be forgiven. And don’t expect your copyeditor to fix it.
It should be noted that when he speaks of respect and knowledge of basic grammar, he is not speaking of syntax and style, both of which make your writing voice unique and should be left alone.
In Style (Ch. 11) he covers the differences between real-life dialogue and fictional dialogue and the pitfalls of making your fictional dialogue sound just like the dialogue you’d hear in real-life. He also covers how to make your dialogue better (so it’s a must read), including the pitfalls of using creative dialogue tags [I covered the same material in this blog post].
Cliches, simplicity and transitions are also covered in this chapter, as well as viewpoint. However ,due to its importance, I will save covering viewpoint for the next entry.