On my fortieth birthday, I decided to reinvent myself as a novelist. Some guys buy Harley-Davidson Duo-Glides, some go on walkabout in Thailand, some do Esalen; I spent my midlife crisis reading John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. And now, nearly twelve years later, I have self-published my first novel on Amazon's KDP Select program, and I thought it might be fun to share with my fellow Kossacks what I've learned along the way.
This will be a three part series. In this first installment, I'll talk about honing technique, networking, and finding an audience. Next, I'll discuss choosing a venue and formatting appropriately for it -- call it e-Book Formatting for Dummies. Finally, I'll discuss promotion.
Guess I should put a few things straight right from the start. I'm more of a lurking Kossack than a contributing Kossack. While I like to think I can write well, I can't seem to write well about politics. I get too emotional about it, and I'm prone to ad hominem attacks upon red herrings. I push straw men down slippery slopes, I sweep generalizations under the bandwagon, and I commit just about every other logical fallacy worth committing. Fortunately, I'm bright enough to delete most of those comments before I ever post them.
I'm an ENT doc living with my wife and son in Bakersfield, California, home to the worst air pollution in the United States. If there's one bankable aphorism in writing, it's "Don't quit your day job," and I'm not quitting mine. I love being a doctor, but I love to write, too. I figure there's nothing wrong with planning for my career post-retirement, and I can think of nothing better than writing novel after novel.
Let's get started.
Honing technique, networking, and finding an audience
I'm not an expert at this. Here at Daily Kos, there are many writers who are more talented, successful, and industry-savvy than I. I'm writing this to share what I've learned, but I hope I will also learn a few tips from my betters.
I've grouped technique, networking, and audience together because I think they are intertwined. While I worked on my technique, I networked and I found my audience. I couldn't have done one without the others. And no question, I had to work on technique. No one's a natural born writer. Back then (2001), self-publishing absolute tripe meant paying thousands to a vanity publisher, then traipsing around the nation with a trunk-load of dead tree editions, hawking your novel to booksellers (fingers in their ears, singing La la la la la! at top volume). Respectable authors sold their books to the big houses, but to do that, you had to write a good book.
Nowadays, you can e-publish absolute tripe without paying thousands to a vanity publisher. Getting someone to read your tripe -- well, that's another story.
Sad thing is, an awful lot of crap gets e-published. I find it disheartening to click a link for someone's new e-book, only to find spelling and grammatical errors in the blurb (sometimes even the title!) Wade into the listings at Smashwords, and you'll be feted with countless examples. I have to wonder, how many readers get past these butchered blurbs? Why do we write, if not to have readers? And how many readers can stomach such awkward prose?
This brings me to my own Step 1. These are rules that worked for me. Your mileage may vary.
1. It's all very well to read books on the craft, but you have to join a writers' group, and you have to write.
SF/F/Romance writer Holly Lisle, one of the great pay-it-forward authors on the Net, writes (in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or How to Choose A Writers' Group),
. . . I strongly recommend that you get involved with a good writers’ group when you’re getting started. I credit what I learned from my early groups (plus enormous amounts of hard work and persistence) with leading me to publication. The Unknown Writers’ Group and Schrodinger’s Petshop (Essentially Bizarre, But Cats Like Us) pushed me to succeed.If you live in a metropolitan area, you probably have several writers' groups nearby. In the early 2000s, I lived in southwestern Oregon, where we had one writers' group. It met in our local library, and consisted of a memoirist, a poet, and a writer of children's books. All three were talented. They weren't novelists, and they didn't have much interest in science fiction. They weren't the right group for me, but they were the only game in town.
But I was lucky. I got in on the ground floor of each group, and each group was good. I heard horror stories of other writers’ groups in the area (we acquired a lot of their fallout members) and discovered that not all groups are created equal.
. . . Well, not exactly. At the time, Writer's BBS was a hopping place -- I would link to it, but my security software says it's unsafe (!) I spent several years writing challenge stories and critiquing ('critting') other people's stories. I met writers at the BBS whom I have remained friends with to this day (networking) and who have bought my e-book (audience) because they know I don't write crap. I've refined my craft by writing a few hundred thousand words, and critting a few hundred thousand more.
What are the active online writers' groups nowadays? A poll at Squidoo generated the following list, in order of popularity: Scribophile, Critique Circle Online Writing Workshop, Authonomy, Review Fuse, and Absolute Write Water Cooler. Take a look at what Squidoo has to say about each group, then browse them to figure out which is a good fit for you. Most if not all seem to work on the same basic model: you have to crit other people's work to get folks to crit your own. Trust me, this is a good thing.
Where else can you work on your craft, network, and find an audience? Why, here at Daily Kos, of course! The only downside to practicing here is that readers will crit your thought processes, not your writing. (Every group has its own social contract; at Daily Kos, it would be impolite to point out a diarist's every last technical error. That said, if you find any errors here, feel free to point them out.)
The next few steps -- which should all take place concurrently with Step 1:
It seems to me (and many of my blogging friends) that the golden age of the personal blog may be over. I hope I'm wrong. I've made a lot of friends in my eight years at Balls and Walnuts, and I'd like to think that if someone attacked the task of blog-writing with the same fury I did from 2005 to 2008, he would make as many fine friends as I have made. Certainly, he would learn from it. Daily blogging teaches you discipline. If nothing else, you realize there is enough time in the day to write a few thousand words; and ideally, you give the Muse a little exercise, and help her develop her muscles.
I'm not a superstitious man, but I do believe in the Muse. She's an autonomous slice of my intellect who broods and invents while I sleep, eat, and work, and who drops clever ideas and phrases into my conscious mind at the most inconvenient of times. At first, my Muse seemed comatose every time I would open a new document. But, funny thing: if I kept at it, she would start working for me, like the pals Tom Sawyer convinced to whitewash his fence. The more I wrote, the more she wanted to help me.
Yeah, she's a she. Maybe women have male muses. I have no idea how this works.
3. Discover social media.
I'm not so sure about this one. Facebook is a great time-suck (Words With Friends, anyone?). I'm not convinced it's a useful place to practice my writing, network, or develop an audience. Sadly, it's the only way I can reach old blogging friends who have given up that art form in order to play Farmville. As much as I would like my Facebook posts to go viral, the only reliable way to do that is to write,
Intelligence test!I've read articles explaining how new authors can make the best use of Facebook. I'm not convinced.
How fast can you name a word that begins and ends with the letter C?
It's harder than it looks!
My impression: with rare exception, Facebook does not promote obscure people to stardom. This is not the way to build your fanbase. It is a great way to discover that "friend" is a verb, as in, "Please come and friend me here and/or here." Thank you.
What about Twitter? The only folks who follow me on Twitter are other writers who want to hawk their books. I follow lots of comedians and humorists, but their tweets are often untweetworthy. I haven't figured out how to find readers, and I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong. Perhaps I should take this article, Twitter for Indie Authors, to heart.
Goodreads, a social media site for book-lovers and writers, has enormous potential for reaching an audience. They've been around since 2007, have seventeen million members, and have a number of lively discussion boards (hundreds or even thousands of posts). I'm new to Goodreads, but I've been trying my best to make a good impression. I can't help but think that all the time I've spent on Facebook these past few years would have been better spent at Goodreads.
4. At the end of the day, forget step 1 and hit the books.
As I mentioned earlier, too many indie authors e-publish before they've learned the basics. Manuscripts fraught with your/you're and their/they're/there errors (and many other boneheaded mistakes) are far too common. The aspiring author can spend lots of time memorizing George Orwell's Rules for Writers (or Elmore Leonard's ten rules, which I like even better -- especially rule #10), but there's no substitute for a few core texts. Here are the ones I've found most useful.
An American Rhetoric, by William Whyte Watt. I suggest this book with some reluctance, since the second edition is out of print, and the copies offered by Amazon's used booksellers start at $83. God only knows what my 1952 first edition is worth. If you can find a battered copy in some used bookstore, buy it.
I include An American Rhetoric because it's the textbook we used in high school, and it's what transformed me from an okay writer into someone who could pull A's and A+'s in my humanities classes at Berkeley.
While An American Rhetoric covers grammar and punctuation, it does much more. For example, early on, Watt addresses what he calls 'naturalness':
When a student is stuck for a word or conscious of an awkward phrase, he should ask himself not, "How should I write it?" but "How would I say it?" If he has had ample opportunity to listen to the speech of educated people, he should be suspicious of any expression in his writing that doesn't sound natural.I remember that passage when I write, when I help my son with his writing, or when I crit the work of others. The question I ask is, "What are you trying to say?" Speak your ideas out loud, and often, the awkwardness evaporates.
With similar clarity, Watt addresses economy, revisions, paragraphing, tired words, "flat writing and fine writing," clear versus cloudy thinking, and more. I suspect I could easily write a whole diary (or series) filled with Watt's pearls, so lets move on.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It's under ten dollars and skinny enough to digest in an afternoon, which makes it one of the fastest and most economical writing lessons money can buy. I took my son through The Elements of Style three or four times in the five years we home-schooled him. It's dry, but the pain passes quickly. In contrast . . .
The works of Karen Elizabeth Gordon are a bit more time-consuming but far more entertaining. Particularly useful are The Deluxe Transitive Vampire (grammar) and The New Well-Tempered Sentence (punctuation). Gordon teaches by example, and humor plays a huge role. Think of Strunk and White dosed with the sensibilities of Tim Burton and the artwork of Edward Gorey.
What about the higher level aspects of the craft? One of my favorite books is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I found their chapters on characterization, dialog, and beats (those little actions that break up an otherwise lengthy stretch of dialog) particularly helpful. Like all the books on this list, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers lends itself well to re-reading. I revisit it every few years, and as I gain more experience, I get more from it.
I've read many "how to write a damn good novel" books, but the one that stands out best is How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. Frey addresses characterization, the premise, conflict, the climax, viewpoint, the basics of storytelling and dialog, rewriting -- lots of really great stuff. Countless books take on this subject, but Frey's is one of the most helpful.
A parting comment: my novel, Shark & Gator Save the World, is available for purchase on Kindle. I'm holding a FREE PROMOTION today (5/3/13) through the end of Saturday. Check out my page at Ask David. The same site also has a beautifully formatted sample from the book.
It's young adult science fiction, written so as to appeal to us older folks, too. I would warn the more sensitive souls that the language is most foul, and there is some discussion of sex (though nothing happens 'on camera'). The politics is decidedly Kossack. In fact, I wrote it specifically to make wingnut heads explode nationwide.