Maybe I shouldn’t be giving away my writing secrets.
Maybe I should be like Ernest Hemingway, who, with the exception of a couple of Paris Review interviews in which he gave cryptic answers to questions about writing craft, was selfish with his knowledge throughout his life and shared very little of it.
But there’s something that I’m seeing over and over and over again in so many novels published today that I have to say something. In both genre and mainstream novels, whether indie- or traditionally-published, I see “very good” or even “great” modern authors making the same mistake. Incredibly, one such book on Amazon has over 1,000 4- and 5-star reviews.
This trend has reached a point where someone has to say something.
And as one writer who knows what he’s doing, I am happy to take on this cause célèbre.
Here’s the deal: When you write a sentence, one of the things you have to decide is which part of the sentence is going to get the most detail or emphasis—the subject, the verb, or the object (the receiver of the action). Each of these units is called a syntactic slot. The subject is the person or thing performing the action. The verb is the action. And the object is the person or thing receiving the action. The general rule of thumb is that you don’t pack all of your syntactic slots. Packing slots creates cluttered, distracting sentences with hazy images that give the reader very little to latch onto.
(Of course the above is highly simplified—explained exactly as I did when I taught writing at Baruch College, City University of New York. I received a Distinguished Teaching Award for my efforts.)
Let me give you an example of a bad sentence—one that violates the above rule of “don’t pack all of your syntactic slots.” Following is the sort of opening sentence often found in poorly written fiction (especiallly poorly written genre novels):
When the lone stoplight in Hudsonville, Texas—a dry, dusty West Texas town, population 1,400—turned green, Blake Tanner, Dallas private detective, took a drag on his hand-rolled cigarette, flicked the stub into the wind, glanced at his piercing blue eyes and devil-may-care jet black hair in the rear-view mirror, and slammed his hand-tooled cowboy boot on the accelerator of his rebuilt, sky-blue 1963 Cadillac convertible with the 400hp V8, reveling in the khaki cloud of dust he left behind the car and looking forward to hunting down his quarry, bank robber Hal Driver, somewhere in the next lonely, dusty, desperate town.
Now…obviously I’ve been hyperbolic with my example; most opening sentences (even those of poorly written novels) are not that long or ponderous. But even novels with openings composed of several shorter sentences are often laden down with packed syntactic slots—attempts by authors to pile up the information.
Why, oh why, do writers (actually, more often, authors) do this?
There are several reasons:
1. The author isn’t a very good writer. He read somewhere that good fiction is about detail (which is partly true), so he makes a point of packing every single clause and syntactic slot full of detail.
2. The author is lazy, so she either doesn’t write multiple drafts of her work, or she doesn’t take the time in later drafts to edit out the unnecessary details. She wants to get it “all in there,” but isn’t willing to do the heavy lifting, which is to keep in the story only those details that are truly important. A story isn’t every thing that happens; it’s every important thing that happens.
3. The author doesn’t trust in the reader’s intelligence, probably because he isn’t particularly intelligent himself. He believes that he needs to spell out every single thing for the reader because the reader, in his opinion, is a dip-shit incapable of forming a mental picture of a scene unless provided with ALL of the details. For example, in a recent very highly-rated mystery novel, the author describes the counter at a DMV office as being “chest-high.” We’ve all been to DMV offices, and guess what? The counters at all DMV offices are chest-high.
4. The author doesn’t trust in the reader’s patience. She doesn’t believe that the reader will continue to read beyond the first few sentences or paragraphs, so she puts in every detail that she thinks will hook the reader and make him want to read on. What she doesn’t understand is this: The way to keep readers reading is by withholding information, not by dishing it out. Put another way, don’t take the reader where he wants to go.
Whether you’re a relatively new writer trying to finish your first novel, or you’re a seasoned author putting the finishing touches on your latest work, I hope you’ll take into account what I’ve written here. Nothing makes a potentially good story look more amateurish than packed syntactic slots or cluttered sentences, so no matter what stage you’re at, I strongly recommend you go back to the writing table and address this aspect of your work.
This evening, I did my first-ever LIVE radio interview, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. Host Pam Stack asked me some thought-provoking questions and gave me the opportunity to give detailed answers.
There was also a wonderful, unexpected call-in—my friend and colleague Hillary Leftwich, who praised my new novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, and asked me, “If you could have dinner with only one of the characters in the novel, which one would it be?” It took me a good minute to think of my answer. To hear it, you’ll have to listen to the podcast below. :)
I really enjoyed Pam’s conversational style; after the first 10 minutes, I relaxed and felt as if we were having a conversation in her living room.
Anyway, I think I did a good job on this, my first LIVE radio interview. I hope you enjoy it as well.
Well, as a corollary to that interview, Pam’s co-host, Lucie Dunn, does a written interview with authors appearing on Pam’s show and publishes them to her Authors in the Spotlight page on Facebook. I thought Lucie asked some terrific questions, so I wanted readers of this blog and the internet at large to have access to this interview.
Lucie’s questions are presented in the bolded text, and my answers appear below each question. I hope you enjoy it.
Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of doing a written Q&A interview with a very articulate and intelligent man. His most recent novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, was released at the end of March, 2014. He has the first two novels in his acclaimed Dakota Stevens Mystery Series published and I am told he has enough ideas stored for quite a few more. He comes to us from New York but is a true New Englander having been born in Maine. I present to you Chris Orcutt!
OK, first question: Were you always a reader?
Absolutely. This is going to sound apocryphal, but I taught myself to read at age 3. The story is that I walked into the living room and started reading out loud from Time magazine. My parents were dumbfounded. So, yes, I’ve always been a reader, and I enjoy reading the very best writing. I’ve also read my fair share of junk over the years, but over time I learned that life is short and you can’t waste your time reading the junk when there are so many masterpieces to read.
Very true! How old were you when your first manuscript idea came to you?
Well, if by “manuscript” you mean stories, then I began writing them at about age 12 and would read them aloud to my friends on the school bus. I serialized the stories so every day, or every other day, there would be a new installment. I still remember some of the characters I created. One was a James Bond-esque spy, another was a detective.
Is this the detective that went on to become Dakota Stevens?
No, not at all. Dakota came much later. I got the first name of my detective, Dakota Stevens, when I learned that a girl I went to middle school with had named her boy Dakota. I filed that away. “Cool,” I said to myself. Then I wrote a humorous story with a PI named Dakota Perez—a story that mirrors the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Anyway, the first glimmers of what would become Dakota arrived on the scene in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I decided I wanted to start a PI series. I was laid up for weeks with a back injury and did nothing but read Chandler and Parker novels, and that’s when I said, “Hell, Chris—you can do this.”
And you did!!! Are you working on book three, assuming there will be a few more?
Yes, I’ve already written the first drafts of what I think will be books 3 and 4, and I’ve been taking notes for book 5. Honestly, I have more than enough ideas for a dozen Dakota titles. To me the ideas have always been easy; it’s the execution that’s hard. The writing and polishing of the work takes the most time. If I were content to simply publish my first drafts, I could have a dozen titles out in no time, but I’m not content with that. I want everything I write and publish to be the very best work I’m capable of.
That just means you take total pride in your craft. And there is nothing bad about that.
Writing is my life. It’s ALL I do.
You have a great resume though. A High School History teacher for instance. Are you a history buff?
I do enjoy U.S. history and am fairly knowledgeable on the Civil War and WWII—especially D-Day. I’ve been to Normandy, stood on Omaha Beach, and I’m in total awe of what those men did. I’ve walked the long walk up to Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg and been in awe of both the Union and Confederate soldiers. I enjoyed teaching history for a couple of years—the students I had were wonderful, talented, bright kids (and I stay in touch with some of them!)—but other opportunities came along and I pursued them.
Well as a reader, I’m glad you did.
Thanks! I especially enjoy going to historical sites, because I’ve always believed that there are certain things you can’t know about an event unless you’ve been there. For example, when I went to Omaha Beach, I got there at low tide, just when the U.S. soldiers landed, and let me tell you, it’s a LONG way from the water to any kind of shelter from the withering fire they endured.
It’s at least 300–400 yards. At least.
So tell me about reading The Great Gatsby. You have read that several dozen times. They say that you never really read the same book twice. After reading The Great Gatsby that many times were you able to walk away with a different perspective than you came away with the prior reads?
The Great Gatsby, in my opinion, is an absolute gem. I have a framed version of the book from this terrific little company Litographs, which prints the entire text of the novel (and many other novels) on a poster, in a nice pattern. It hangs in the hall outside my bathroom. Let’s put it this way: Every time I come out of the shower, I stop and point at a random place on the Gatsby print, and every time I see something new: some new metaphor, some delicious use of an adverb, some joining together of words that you’ve never seen before. Original.
When I was first publishing the Dakota books on Kindle, I weighed epublishing vs. traditional publishing, and the touchstone I used was Gatsby.
The question I asked myself was this: Are the words of The Great Gatsby any less poetic and utterly perfect presented in e-ink than they are in print? No. In fact, I submit that you could paint those words on a dark cave wall and they would still be as great. Great writing is great writing, regardless of the medium in which it’s published or who decided to publish it.
One point to add to that: Each time you reread a book (and we writers do a lot of re-reading), you see different things—and you especially begin to understand how the writer does what he does. I wrote a [loving] spoof of Gatsby titled “The Magnificent Murphy,” which I’m very proud of. It’s in my [short story] collection The Man, The Myth, The Legend.
How did you come up with the ten men and their professions for The Man, The Myth, The Legend? I particularly enjoyed the homicidal violinist.
What can I say? I didn’t come up with them. These characters just arrive on the doorstep of your brain and insist that you write about them. They start talking to you. You ask “What if this? What if that?” a lot.
The African big-game hunter, Buck Remington came from reading some armchair safari books. The road sign engineer came from speculating about what such a man (and woman) would be like. As for the homicidal violinist, that came out of a summer when I had been fantasizing a lot about finding a bully from my past and confronting him. Not killing him, obviously, but confronting him. Instead I saved that energy for the story. I had been listening to Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” over and over all summer long, along with eating a watermelon a day and hacking into the watermelon with a big Henckel’s chef’s knife. It’s the “bits of string” idea that Nabokov talks about—these stories and novels come from the collecting of these little bits of string and fluff.
I loved Buck Remington’s name, being a hunter and having Remington as your last name is just so apropos for a hunter.
That was exactly why I gave him that name.
It was a great read and I am not generally one for short stories.
Thanks! One of the things I try to do in my short stories is to actually give the reader what I call a “distilled novel” experience. Finish the thing and feel like you’ve experienced a novel, but it didn’t take you days to read.
I like that, “distilled novel.” Tell me about your first two books, Nick Chase’s Great Escape and I Hope You Boys Know What You’re Doing. I am thinking I would definitely love to read the latter.
I wrote Nick Chase and I Hope You Boys back in my mid–late 20s, and they were the best I was capable of at the time. They’re well-written, humorous stories—Nick Chase is a comic novel; I Hope You Boys is a collection of mainly humorous stories—but not only has my writing advanced profoundly since then, I as a person have evolved and deepened. When you’re young, Life hasn’t beaten you down very much, but as you get older and have some bad things happen to you (and some good things), you gain perspective.
What I would say about those first two books is that I’m glad they’re out there in limited quantities (they’re no longer published) as a record of my early work, but if readers want to read fully matured work, read my latest four books.
I think the I Hope You Boys appealed to me because I am a Mom, and I could just picture saying that to my older son and his friends…MANY TIMES!
Let me tell you where that title came from…
My friend Carl and I were “landscaping” for a very old woman (her son hired us), and our idea of landscaping was this: When in doubt, cut it out. Every so often the old woman would come out on the porch and yell at us, “I HOPE YOU BOYS KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOIN’!”
Ok, last question. I think I know what one part of the answer will be, let’s see if I’m right. Every writer has a “toolbox.” You know, things that you must have or must do when you sit down to do some writing on your work in progress. What is in your toolbox?
For me, it’s a thorough knowledge of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and storytelling principles. Because you don’t want a lack of knowledge of these things to slow you down. And when you know them, when you know the rules, you know when you can break the rules.
Also in my toolbox is desire. Desire not merely to become a good writer. There are plenty of good writers. I want to become a great writer. My heroes are Chekhov, and Fitzgerald, and Cheever, and Hemingway, and Chandler, and Fleming, and Nabokov. The desire is a major tool because it gives me something to strive for. Sure, I’d love to be selling my books by the bushel, but it’s more important to me to write work that will last.
Oh, and COFFEE and REALLY GOOD PENCILS!
I would like to thank Chris Orcutt for his generosity and time! It was definitely a tremendous pleasure chatting with him! I invite you all to go and check out his website at www.orcutt.net and if you would like to pick up any of his awesome books you can find the links on his website. If you would like to pick up his latest novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, here is a direct link to the Kindle book: http://amzn.to/1fo9hdY, or if you prefer a paperback: http://goo.gl/RqQkxy.
Besides my new novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, we’ll be discussing my other fiction, the craft of writing, and anything else she decides to ask me. (I’m sure there will be surprises.)
Some of you might recall that I did my first radio interview back in December of 2013 with “Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem” host Stephen Campbell. That interview was recorded and edited, however, and my thanks go out to Stephen for making me sound as good as I did.
Although Pam is a surpassingly pleasant person, because of the “LIVE” aspect of our interview, I have to admit that I’m a little nervous about it.
Pam Stack is a voracious reader, a compelling interviewer, and an indefatigable promoter of writers. I’m truly honored to be on her program, which has featured a wide variety of prestigious and bestselling authors in all genres—from mysteries and thrillers, to romance, to literary fiction, to select nonfiction titles.
If you’re available on April 30 at 8:00 p.m., go to the link at the top and listen in. There’s a call-in number on the show webpage, and I’d be delighted if you called in with your questions about my work. I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.
Back in February, my documentary filmmaker friend Jason Scott created a short documentary about me any my use of pencils for writing first drafts. The doc came out last month, but I realize now that it got buried on my “About” page, so many of you probably haven’t seen it.
Anyway, it’s about 3 minutes long, and if nothing else it proves that Jason can film anything—even a guy writing in pencil and talking about them—and it’s going to be interesting. I hope you enjoy it.
Today, for the first time in weeks, I took a walk.
A long walk.
I put on my coat and my Boston Red Sox cap, and I walked a quiet road north of where I live. I passed a pheasant farm, which, if you don’t know Millbrook, probably sounds ridiculous. But trust me—around this rarefied countryside, pheasant farms are de rigueur. I passed a large meadow that my wife and I refer to as Darcy Meadow—named after Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, because on summer mornings there is often a romantic haze hanging over it like in the climactic scene in the 2005 movie. And I passed what we call the Christmas in Connecticut house. We call it this because the place looks exactly like the house in the classic film—especially when there’s snow on the ground.
I passed these things and kept walking.
As I continued to walk, sucking in the cold, fresh air, I could feel the fog clearing out of my head. My heart beat faster. Blood surged through my veins again.
All through the holidays, I had kept myself chained to my desk, attending to a number of business-related matters: doing a radio interview, updating this website and my Twitter page, being active on Facebook, writing some speeches, and interacting with fans of my books and readers of this blog.
In addition, for the past two weeks, I was dealing with a crisis in my personal life that put me on an emotional roller-coaster and caused me to lose sleep, weight and peace of mind.
But here’s the thing: Through it all—no matter what—I wrote.
In one form or another, and with varying levels of output, I have written every day for 25 years. Some days it’s been only a sentence or two in my pocket notebook; many days, a few pages in my journal; and on one exceptional day (during a manic cycle), I cranked out 8,602 words towards the second Dakota novel. (I’m sure of this number because, for a long time, like a lot of writers I kept track of my daily word output.)
I’ve written through a horrible tooth abscess, mononucleosis, and paralyzing depression. I’ve written through the death of my beloved grandfather, and I even wrote on the morning of my wedding (in my journal, briefly, about my bride-to-be).
I was pondering all of this—how writing has seen me through the best and the worst times of my life—when I reached the end of my walk. I was miles down a dirt road, Woodstock Lane. Ahead, a flock of wild turkeys walked out of the woods and crossed the road.
I thought about a difficult email that I’d had to write before I left on my walk, and how until I wrote it, I was uncertain how I felt.
And then, I had an epiphany. We writers live for these, and we always write them down. I took out my notebook and wrote,
If you are truly a writer, then writing is how you process the world, and you can’t be certain what you think or feel about something until you write about it.
I stood in the leaves on the edge of the woods and wrote many of the thoughts that appear in this blog entry. A Range Rover crept by, and in my periphery I saw the driver staring at me. I ignored him. We writers are used to this. We’re used to whipping out our notebooks at inopportune times, or in less-than-ideal places. Just yesterday, in the supermarket, I saw an attractive young mother with toddlers, and the scene reminded me of something, and I stopped in the Bakery section, planted my notebook on some boxes of pies, and wrote about it.
At that point, finished with my thought, I put my notebook away and headed back down the road. The wild turkeys were long gone. It was getting late in the day, and the woods were growing dark.
No matter what vicissitudes life has brought me, writing has always been there. And when I’ve had problems, questions, or crises, even if I haven’t written about them specifically, the very act of writing—writing anything—has brought me answers.
Today my interview on the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program (part of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network) aired, and it was a terrific success.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell, and as I mentioned a few days ago, I was taken aback by how well-prepared he was (he had read all of my work), and the penetrating questions he asked.
Using the SoundCloud player (below), you can play the interview right here on this webpage, or you can download a copy of the interview and play it on your computer offline.
I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please leave me your comments! I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks to the thousands of readers of my Dakota Stevens mysteries, in the past 18 months I’ve been able to fulfill two lifelong dreams.
The first was going to Paris, spending two solid weeks exploring every inch of that gorgeous city, and walking in the footsteps of my literary idols—including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Flaubert and Maupassant. (You can read about that trip here.)
The second, which I fulfilled only two months ago, was driving through all of England and Scotland, seeing the castles of my ancestors in the Scottish Highlands, and visiting the iconic locations associated with my favorite works of English literature: the Chatsworth estate (the basis for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), Stratford-upon-Avon (the birthplace of Shakespeare), and 221B Baker Street in London.
This last location, of course, is the residence of the most famous detective ever—Sherlock Holmes. A detective so famous that some people don’t realize that he and his partner, Dr. John Watson, were entirely fictional—the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor himself.
From the time I was 10 years old, well into my late teens, I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I read all 56 short stories and four novels multiple times. I collected Sherlock Holmes encyclopedias and books about Victorian London. I read biographies of Doyle. I read textbooks about criminalistics and forensic science (this was many years before the CSI TV shows). And I went to college to study forensic science, with the original intent of graduating and working at the FBI crime lab.
My plan to get a degree in forensics and work for the FBI lasted two semesters. Through one of my courses—Criminalistics and Crime Scene Investigation—I met a forensic scientist from the state crime laboratory and shadowed him. I visited his lab, interned for a few hours a week, and accompanied him when he testified in court. Doing these things, I began to realize that I wasn’t cut out for the largely tedious work involved in forensic testing, nor would I enjoy being grilled on the witness stand by needling lawyers second-guessing every test I performed.
By then I knew that I didn’t want to become a forensic scientist, and I had decided that the sciences were boring; ultimately the answers (or at least some of them) were in the back of the book. Besides, I had discovered that I was more interested in questions than answers, and I enjoyed literature and storytelling too much to give it up for what I perceived would be a humdrum life of science. So I changed my major to philosophy, expanded my reading of the classics, and began doing seriously something that I had done since I was 11 years old—writing stories.
But it all went back to Sherlock Holmes. Even though I didn’t write a mystery of my own for many years, the richness of the Holmes character, and the verisimilitude of his world (as described by Watson) had made a deep impression on me. I knew that whatever the subject or genre, my goal was to write stories as entertaining and compelling as Doyle’s, with characters that were equally strong and larger-than-life.
As I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I was creating the Dakota Stevens series, Sherlock Holmes and Watson couldn’t help but be literary touchstones for me. I wanted a Holmes–Watson dynamic, but I wanted such a duo to reflect modern sensibilities, and I knew that I wanted the counterpoint, the yin and yang, of having my “Watson” be a woman. And so I asked myself, “What would the dynamic of a modern Holmes and Watson—a man and woman detective team—look like?”
And that’s where Dakota Stevens and his “Watson”—the brilliant and beautiful Svetlana Krüsh—came from.
I didn’t get a chance to visit 221B Baker Street until the morning of my last day in the UK. Alexas and I had specifically chosen our hotel because it was in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, relatively close to Holmes’s address, and when we exited the hotel early that Sunday morning, we were unsure whether to try and walk there, or take the Underground.
We were fumbling with the map when I glanced down the sidewalk and saw a cabbie buffing his freshly-washed black cab. One of my other, smaller, dreams was to ride in a London black cab, and so I got the idea of fulfilling two dreams at once. I would take a London black cab to 221B Baker Street.
I asked the cabbie if he was taking passengers yet (it was barely seven-thirty), and when he replied, “Absolutely,” Alexas and I climbed eagerly in.
“To 221B Baker Street, my good man,” I said. “And hurry!”
Even though it was early on a Sunday morning, there was considerable traffic on the streets, and it took a good fifteen minutes to reach 221B. During the ride, the cabbie asked me why I wanted to go there, and I gave him an abridged version of everything you’ve read so far. I also told him some of the history of Sherlock Holmes, and how Doyle had based the character in part on a medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. I mentioned that I was a mystery novelist from the States (“Not famous—yet,” I added), and the cabbie said he would buy my books on Kindle (Dakota Stevens #1 & #2). Finally he dropped us off, and I gave him an extravagant tip. I wanted him to remember me as generous so he’d be more likely to buy my books and tell others about them.
With the exception of a few construction workers gathering in front of a building a few doors down, Baker Street was empty and quiet. A single door, marked 221B, sat next to a closed Sherlock Holmes collectibles store. I knew from my reading ahead of time that Holmes and Watson’s apartment on the second floor was decorated and staged as though they still lived there and had just stepped out. I also knew that admission to the apartment was ridiculously expensive, and was sure to be a disappointment—what with having to share the experience with a mob of people who were merely going there so they could check one more item off of a “bucket list.” It was unlikely that the true Holmes lovers, the serious aficionados, would be part of any tour group. They’d all know it was a Barnum sideshow.
Besides, the building, with a Victorian façade on it, didn’t fit with the other buildings on the street. Not only were the other buildings of more modern architecture, the building numbers were out of sync. It was clear that 221B used to be farther down the street, but that building had been torn down and rebuilt, so they created a new 221B Baker Street (in Victorian style) and wedged it in a few doors down.
But it wasn’t about the actual, physical address anyway. It’s not as though Holmes and Watson had really lived, and I was seeing the exact building and apartment where they’d resided. No, it was about the idea of 221B Baker Street. It was about what 221B represented.
As I stared up at the windows, the stories came flooding back to me: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (a great TV version here). “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” “The Final Problem.” “The Musgrave Ritual.” “A Scandal in Bohemia.” A Study in Scarlet.The Hound of the Baskervilles.
It was about all of the pleasure these stories had given me since I was a boy, and how Sherlock Holmes had been a constant companion to me through my difficult and awkward teenage years. It was about how these stories had launched me in a certain direction in life, and how they had inspired me to write the best detective novels I possibly could.
Alexas took some photos of me standing proudly in front of 221B Baker Street, and then we took a few of a young Japanese woman who knew that 221B was famous for something, but famous for what, she had no idea.
So often in life, the moment of actually realizing a goal, fulfilling a dream, is a letdown compared to how we imagine it will be. But not this time. Not for me. Seeing 221B Baker Street—the home of my childhood hero—affected me much more deeply than I thought it would. As I stared at it for the last time, I realized then how much I had dreamed of being there, how important the place was to me. And I told Alexas so, and began to cry.
So I was browsing Kindle books on Amazon earlier today and came upon one that thoroughly pissed me off.
Truly, this book represents everything that’s wrong with ebooks.
In the content, advertising and book cover, the author details how a writer can write a book a week, and how turning out such a quantity of “writing” is the key to making a lot of money on Kindle.
Let’s talk about this, shall we?
Yes, you can get rich writing a book a week—when most of your “books” are 50 or fewer Kindle pages, and when you’re writing books about how to make money writing books for Kindle.
Not so easy is writing a real book a week—say a novel. I’d like to see Foster live up to his advertised maxim that the quantity and the quality have to be there, if he were trying to write a novel a week.
I’ve read a number of these ebooks about “getting rich writing books for Kindle,” and as a lifelong writer who has earned a living as a journalist, technical writer, scriptwriter and speechwriter (in addition to novelist), I find their common assertion that there’s nothing to this, that anyone can do it, not only insulting but also dishonest.
Writing is like any other specialized skill: It takes years and thousands of hours of study and practice to do it well. Just as I wouldn’t expect that I could go into a dentist’s office tomorrow and begin filling teeth, no one should expect that they can sit down and dash off an ebook in a week that will make them a lot of money.
The main problem I have with Foster’s “book,” as well as all of the others that advocate writing a quantity of work for Kindle, is that they promote a writing-as-lottery mentality. They promote the idea that a person can just churn out a “book,” and that the possibility exists that they’ll make tens of thousands, or millions, of dollars from the book with little effort.
This writing-as-lottery mentality is bad for Kindle and indie-published books in general because it lowers the overall quality of the work out there, and it reinforces the idea among readers and literary opinion-makers that ebooks (especially indie titles) are junk. Well, we writers who have worked long and hard at our craft, and who strive to give readers excellent quality work for their money, resent this.
We resent ebooks like Foster’s, as well as those that advertise that it’s easy to amp-up sales of your current books with a few simple changes to your book listings on Amazon. I have read probably a dozen of these titles, each time convincing myself that this one is different, that this one contains the keys to the kingdom. Guess what? NONE of them do. These authors are simply getting rich on our desire to sell more of our work, and any of the “fixes” that they suggest, if they help sales at all, are merely temporary.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you have something to say.” Don’t allow your work to become part of the glut of mediocre ebooks on Amazon; have something to say, a story to tell, and put your absolute best work out there—every time. You might not rake in the money as Foster and his ilk do, but you can take pride in the idea that you are only publishing good work, and that if you’re suddenly taken from this earth tomorrow, you at least will have left something of substance, of yourself, behind.
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you already know that I began writing the third installment in the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series last Monday, and that I’ve written about 18,000 words so far.
What you don’t know, because I haven’t spoken about it at all, is what a bitch this first draft has been.
The tension of not knowing exactly where the story is going is killing me.
It’s been a while, you see, since I had to write a Dakota novel from scratch. The last time I sat down and started a first draft was seven years ago.
Obviously, I’ve written first drafts of other work since then—stories, essays and speeches mostly—but nothing compares to the intricacy of a novel.
Which is why I’ve recently taken great solace in two quotes on writing by two masters: E.L. Doctorow and Bernard Malamud.
Doctorow compared writing—particularly writing a novel—to driving at night through fog. “You can only see as far as your headlights,” he said, “but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Whenever I’ve found myself getting frustrated with not being able to see the story more than a chapter or so ahead, I’ve thought of Doctorow’s quote: “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
The second quote, by Bernard Malamud, was directed to writers in general: “Teach yourself to work in uncertainty.”
This is especially apropos to the writing of a first draft—the very definition of uncertainty.
Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty is imperative for a writer. Uncertainty about where the story is going. Uncertainty about how it will be received. Uncertainty about finances. Uncertainty of all kinds.
These two ideas—uncertainty, and seeing as far as your headlights—are getting me through the first draft, and they’ll get you through, too.
While writing the first two books in the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series—A Real Piece of Work and The Rich Are Different—I kept notebooks of other plot ideas, titles, scenes, characters and anything else that occurred to me for future installments.
As a result of these notebooks, I had begun two more Dakota novels and created outlines for 3–4 others.
However, when I opened these notebooks recently with the intent of continuing one of the stories I’d started, I didn’t like what I found.
I’d written this material (including the first hundred pages of a Dakota & Svetlana prequel) between 5 and 7 years ago, and I’d matured as a writer since then.
I no longer liked the direction I’d sketched out for the character and the series.
A realization soon followed that made me sick to my stomach:
I needed to dump all of that work and start over.
When you’ve created a series character, starting from scratch is a scary thought. For the first time since I invented Dakota & Svetlana, I won’t have drafts of work to build on. I’ll be facing a blank Page One and all of the paralyzing dread that accompanies it.
But I’m doing it. I’m starting from scratch, mainly because a novel is a hell of a lot of work, and you have to start with a story, a vision, that you really want to tell. It’s the only thing that carries you through.
Ultimately, the task before me now is to figure out what excites me about Dakota & Svetlana, and to ask myself, “What is the Dakota story I would most like to read?”
I know that’s the question I need to be asking because it’s the same one I asked myself before writing the first two novels, and I’m pleased with the results.
Allegedly, J.R.R. Tolkien was partly inspired to write his Lord of the Rings series for this very reason. He thought about the books that he would most like to read, realized they didn’t exist yet, and set out to write them.
He wrote the books he most wanted to read. This is a great lesson for all of us writers.
Over the coming months, I’ll be writing the first draft of Dakota 3. I have no idea what kind of story it will be or where it will take me; all I know is, I want it to be a fresh take on my vision for the series, and I want it to be as well written as I can possibly make it. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
For as long as I’ve been writing—over 20 years professionally now—I’ve collected articles on writing, handwritten snatches from books on writing, examples from great authors, as well as my own tips, tricks and hard-won wisdom on the art, and I’ve kept it all in a series of composition notebooks titled “Notes on Writing.”
These notebooks are my Cliffs Notes of every (good) book or article I’ve read about writing, and they’ve proved invaluable over the years. Before starting a new project, rather than reread all of those books and articles, I simply reread the notebooks, giving myself a refresher course on story craft, characterization, punctuation, inspiration, grammar and much more.
These notebooks are my secret weapon as a writer.
They are partly responsible for the excellent reviews my Dakota Stevens Mystery Series has been garnering—reviews like, “This book is magic” and “Another one out of the park” and “Real life took a backseat during the two days I was reading each of these books.” (Shameless plug: Book #1, A Real Piece of Work, is available here, and Book #2, The Rich Are Different, here.)
I reread my “Notes on Writing” before I start any major project, and I’m continuously adding to these notebooks from new books and articles. I also steal liberally from my writer and artist friends, jotting down their own wisdom without their knowledge, reminding myself that Picasso said, “Good artists borrow, but great artists steal.”
It’s a lot of work, and you have to be diligent about tedious things like copying quotes and getting the titles and by-lines right, but in the end it’s worth it: you have your own go-to writing resource. You never have to ask yourself, “Where did I read that excellent passage on characterization?” You never have to ask yourself that because, if it’s excellent, it will be in your notebook(s).
To help you get started with a notebook of your own (if you don’t already have one), I’m going to share a few entries from mine. Following are only a fraction of the quotes and ideas I’ve collected (I’m not giving you all of my best secrets), but these examples should be enough to inspire you to start collecting your own, and I strongly recommend that you do.
Betsy Lerner, editor & agent:
“If you are struggling with what you should be writing, look at your scraps. Encoded there are the times and subjects that you should be grappling with as a writer.”
“Make your characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
Stephen Koch, Modern Library Writer’s Workshop:
“Use the badness of your first draft. Let the holes and dull spots tell you what needs to be filled and what needs to be cut.”
“What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.”
“Ars longa, vita brevis.”
“The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.”
John Braine on dialogue:
“If you can’t speak it out loud, it’s no good.”
“Nothing is so important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.”
“…a tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect.”
George V. Higgins:
“Nobody ever got started on a career as a writer by exercising good judgment, and no one ever will, either, so the sooner you break the habit of relying on yours, the faster you will advance.”
John Gardner in The Art of Fiction:
Scenes are the “logic” of a fictional argument.
“Prefer predicate adjectival construction over nominative adjectival construction—produces a clearer set of images. Also, learn about syntactic slots (S-V-O) and the importance of not trying to pack all three slots with information. Packing slots clutters the sentence.”
From Techniques of the Selling Writer:
After a motivating stimulus to a character, the character’s reactions should come in the following order: feeling, action, speech.
From Immediate Fiction:
“1 + 1 = 1/2.”
I’ll leave you to puzzle over the meaning of that last one until you read Immediate Fiction yourself and discover what he meant by that cryptic formula.
I hope you’re inspired now to run out, buy a composition notebook, and start taking notes yourself. Over the years, this process of reading, copying down insights, and referring to them later has improved and deepened my writing. It’s one of my secret weapons, and now I offer it to you. Good luck.