Posts tagged advice
There is a very old, and very wise, bit of writing wisdom. “Write what you know…” This can be taken too simplistically, and too seriously, but at its core, it’s truth. The reason most of the characters you will encounter in books, on TV, and in movies do not stick with you is very often they are paper thin. You also must write who you know. Crazy computer hackers always have stacks of monitors, racks of servers, dark rooms with flashing lights and these days at least one screen scrolling symbols like the screen saver that came out after The Matrix. When I see or read all of that, I shake my head.
I’ve worked most of my adult life in computers, computer security, and networks. I have met a lot of hackers and computer gurus. They are more likely to have a single notebook, maybe a server at home with more power… something they can close the lid on and run. Sure, they have gadgets and gimmicks, but what the big banks of monitors and dark rooms tell me is… the creator needed a computer expert, or an evil hacker, and they wrote what they’ve seen others write, rather than trying to dig deeper and find out the truth.
It’s how we ended up with so many Hannibal Lector, high-intellect serial killers, bumbling FBI agents, forensics labs with the time to concentrate a dozen people around the clock on a single case and many other endless clichés. They write well, people “get” what you’re doing and saying… but if you remember those characters it will be for something else they did… not for the characterization, or the dark screen-filled room.
So, how does that relate to writing what you know? You have a perspective. You have your own skills, knowledge, and you have your ability to research. If you write about a plumber, you are going to write about a plumber in the context of your experience with plumbers. You can widen your perspective by reading, actually talking to plumbers about what it is you need to happen, how it would play out in the real world. Even then, it’s wise to limit yourself to writing about your character, and embellishing that character with as much reality as you can without going too far and writing or having your character say something that will push buttons on readers who know more about plumbing than you do. It’s tricky business.
I recently read a pretty good mystery by an award-winning, Internationally bestselling author. It had a lot in it about falcons, and raptors. Repeatedly, he referred to them (and had his character who was purportedly an expert) refer to them as “raptor birds,” instead of simply raptors. I love raptors. I’m not an expert on them, but it was enough of a faux pas to really grate on my nerves, and if it affected me that way – I have to believe that people who know about falconry and birds of prey would be squirming – and they would have to be at least a peripheral market for the book.
It’s even trickier when you start writing about specific characters – say – a theoretical physicist. You are safest writing such a character as a person, and avoiding attempts to cleverly let people into their theoretical thoughts, or going too far in describing things. Most people know about Schrödinger’s Cat, and a few bits and pieces about chaos theory and string theory from The Big Bang Theory and Jurassic Park… but that is the paper-thin character I mentioned above. If you are not capable of thinking like a theoretical physicist, you should write the parts of that character that you can understand, their life, loves, tics and prejudices, but not try to pass yourself off as an expert in their field.
What you know is how you see people, how you see men and women you’ve met and interacted with, the things about certain types of characters that you would expect to encounter in a real-life scenario. Characters who matter to you will matter to your readers… characters who remind them of every other character of a “type” they have ever encountered, will not.
In keeping with the theme of this book I’m writing, don’t forget that you don’t like everyone, and some people you like to obsession, or love, or crave or loathe. If you are afraid to reach that level with the characters, you may write a darn good yarn, but a year after reading the book, no one will remember them.
Up front, again, this is me talking. I’ve been doing this a long time. I currently run a successful publishing house. I interface with, follow, and pay attention to hundreds of writers daily. It’s just what I think…
I don’t care what people tell you about Social Media Marketing. I don’d care if perky, smiling, very friendly online folks tell you they can get you X,000 of followers, friends, compatriots, groupies, etc…that you should do events, online blitzes, or any number of other things sure to turn you into the next Internet sensation. Most of that is crap. I’d go as far as about 95 percent. Marketing, like anything else, is work – and many times it’s hit and miss.
Yes, you should have a Facebook Page, particularly if you have time to use it (Not your personal profile, but an author’s page where you talk about your books, writing, and things you believe would interest fans).
No, you should not have a new page for every book, or probably even every series. You have a set number of people who see your marketing posts on Facebook. You have another group (probably with some cross-over) on your personal profile. Most of them won’t mind if you talk about your new book. Most of them will mind if you endlessly post links to it with no new content. If you take the “social” out of social media it’s nothing but an irritating spam-screen of dreck, and it will be duly ignored.
No you should not create an online “event” every time you launch a new book. The only people who will see your event launch notice are the same people who would see a thoughtful post on the new book with a link if you just put it on your author’s page. The more events you have, the smaller the box of folks who will agree to be irritated by it. Marketing is already hated in most cases. Fans seek out the new work on their own. Marketing is for people who are not yet fans, and pissing either group off is not the way to build your presence.
The key to successful Internet marketing has a couple of words associated with it. REACH and DRAW. The biggest key to marketing anything is to widen your reach. A thousand “likes” on your posts on Facebook aren’t half the use to you that 200 shares are. Those people sharing have different boxes that they play in, and if they share your posts, a lot of people who have never heard of you might see them. For this you need DRAW. You need interesting content- not too long – with the proper one-click-to-buy link in it. It needs to look interesting enough to stop a scrolling mouse. It needs to look worth the few seconds that clicking it entail, and once the person has clicked, it needs to very efficiently sell them your book.
To recap. Poke holes in your box and work from the inside out. Do not pummel your ‘friends’ with endless marketing posts. Do not make tiny boxes within your bigger box. The same is true on Twitter. Using some app that draws in smaller groups to talk is a good way to focus on a topic, but it’s not a good way to market…the only people likely to use that app and take the time already want your book. That is “maintaining” your box. If you want it to be bigger, you have to find ways to reach new faces – real faces. Those perky smiley helpful people will not do this for you. Mostly they will get you thousands of other hopeful authors looking at your posts wondering why you don’t buy their books – and a lot of fake people who never existed stroking your ego as your numbers skyrocket. Marketing – like writing – is work. There are no shortcuts.
And of course, a steady stream of new work. Write. ALWAYS have something new to talk about. Never sit back and spend hours selling the one book you already wrote. Keeping your name relevant, your work consistent in quality and output…these help build what – eventually – will be your fandom. If you need it by tomorrow, you are probably out of luck.
When I started writing seriously, I attacked the challenge of the short story. The first few times out the gate I remember how difficult it was to hit what I considered the minimum length for a serious story – 2500 words. I worked out characters ahead of time, almost like a role-playing game stat sheet for each one – not because I intended to use all of that information, but because if I knew it, it could inform the decisions and dialogue of the character.
I believed that there needed to be a set number of plot twists, and that there was a particular point in the story where you had to be working on the conclusion. I was fond of twist endings, cliché as they usually turned out. I read constantly through the pages of Writer’s Digest and The Writer, and I bought all the popular books on writing. Oddly, what I don’t recall doing is sitting down and trying to emulate a particular formula or style. Considering all the dissecting, prodding, poking and plotting that was going on, it’s an odd omission.
I don’t want to dwell on formulas just yet, though, I want to talk about the constant desire of authors I have known (myself included) to keep score on the words. As I said, in the beginning, a 2500 word story seemed pretty long to me. Over time, I started to stretch them out to 3, 4, and even 5000 words, but throughout that time I managed to hold onto the ability to be succinct. To this day I can write flash fiction under a thousand words without much effort, and with pretty good results.
Unfortunately, in the world of short fiction, you are paid by the word. In the world of novels, you often have guidelines you need to fall within – like 70-80k, or “about” 100k. If you are winging your novel, writing from the seat of your pants, these sorts of guidelines can drive you crazy. They are one reason that I took up the fine art of the outline a few years back. I don’t need explicit instructions when I travel – in this world, or one I’ve made up – but I like to know where I’m going and about how far I expect to travel before I get there.
I remember clearly a cruise I took on board the USS Guadalcanal, one of the ships I served on in the US Navy. I had two computers at the time – I took the older one with me to the ship. It was an old 386 with Word Perfect 6.0 loaded and ready. Along with that computer I had a Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 500 – the sturdiest, most reliable printer I have ever owned. I took a drawer full of ink cartridges, and a case of paper. I remember sitting down before I left and figuring out that, at 250 words per page, there would be half a million words printed if I used that entire case. I came very close.
I was the Leading Petty Officer of the Electronics shop during that period. I didn’t have an office of my own, but I had a UHF Transmitter room that I sort of took ownership of. Most of the equipment in that room was mine to maintain, and there was a workbench that would hold my computer. I also had a large “boom box” and a box of CDs. Those became the soundtrack for several novels; not all written on that cruise, but at the very least revised and completed. I had floppy disks with all my books and stories, and I worked constantly. The ship served dinner between 4:00 and about 5:30. After that, every night that I did not have duty, I was in that room, typing away, until around 11:00 PM – sometimes later.
Depeche Mode and Concrete Blonde were my friends. I memorized the first two Crash Test Dummies CDs and learned to love a band called Ten Inch Men, whose album Pretty Vultures is still one of my all-time favorites. The singer from that band, Dave Coutts, went on to sing for “Talk Show,” along with members of the Stone Temple Pilots. I met Dave, and several other members of Ten Inch Men, when they found my review and comments on their music in my Live Journal online. Again – another story.
The point is the words. You just don’t see how they add up until you let yourself think about it. Most professional writers I know claim about a 2,000 word per day output. In those days on the Guadalcanal I averaged 3500-5000 a day and had days that topped 10k. These days I fall in the 1500 -2000 word range, but here’s the thing.
One of my great pleasures every year is participating in the National Novel Writing Month challenge. 50,000 words in thirty days. When you say it that way it seems like a horrifying challenge. When you break it down to the reality – 1,667 words a day, you see that a lot of working writers write more than that every month. If you add in what I do for the Crossroad Press site, and the blogs I write to promote my work, I’m sure I’m still doing the 5k a day shuffle myself.
So…in reality…if you concentrated, you should be able to churn out 3-6 novels a year with some regularity, although broken up by short stories, essays, reviews, etc. Writers write, and though there are certainly times this is less true than at others, a steady stream of words produces a prodigious output over time. I have been at this a very long time, and have determined that I do not – at this point – want to know how many words I have written. In fact, I cringe at the thought of it and want to run away, pulling out what little hair remains to me and go screaming off into the night. I’ve written so much, and yet, I feel as if there is so much still to accomplish. There are so many stories waiting, and now they are piling up against the end gate as I plow into them, trying to fight my way through in the allotted space of a lifetime.
You can get buried in the words. You can get lost in worrying over the numbers. In the end, those that can’t be held back will escape your fingers, and your personal mountain of words will grow. I’ve decided to make mine tall enough to touch the sky, beautiful enough to attract climbers and wildlife, and solid enough to withstand time. Foolish, simple dreams that make me smile, and keep me working. I have always loved the mountains.