Monthly Archives: April 2011

How to know if you’re a writer

I am not here to dispel any stereotypes or clichés or generalities about writers.  My goal is only to hold up the proverbial mirror and let you discern for yourselves if there is a writer within.

There is a phrase in the New Testament, Luke 4:23 specifically that reads “…Physician, heal thyself:”  I would like to adapt that to read, “Writer, know thyself.”

Why do this?  Writers are notoriously subtle creatures and often benefit from a good reflection now and then.

So here we go with a list of different mirrors.  If any of them resonate then you may have an inner writer after all.

You might be a writer if…

  • When telling friends about your root canal, you recite the event in three acts, with you as the hero and the oral surgeon as the evil villain
  • You think being social means posting to Facebook once a month
  • Your idea of “dinner out” is a trip to your dining room
  • You have a picture of an old typewriter over your desk
  • You have an actual old typewriter on your desk

Actually, I could go on, but there are several blogs that have done these lists before.  And honestly, they are mildly humorous only to writers who recognize the hyperbole in themselves.

For me, I don’t buy into stereotypes too much.  Since the age of fifteen, I have always considered myself a writer.  But what is it that made me think so?

I could tell stories.  I liked telling stories.  In fact, I thrived on telling stories.  Even the most innocuous event, when told properly, could be a compelling story.  Okay, so some of the bullets above apply to me, but not all.  Those who know me can likely guess which ones.

It wasn’t just about telling stories, it was about entertaining the listener.  I found an interesting paradox within myself at age 15.  I was painfully shy in most social circumstances, including classrooms at school.  But during our creative writing section, I was always the first to volunteer to read my story aloud to the class.  Those few stories were likely all the talking I’d done in class that semester, but I had no fear.  My shyness disappeared while I read and observed the reactions around me.  My first real audience.

Now I’m sure those early stories were horrible, not in the genre sense, because I tended to write horror stories back then, but in the sense that I didn’t know proper “craft” or narrative structure.  But I did thrive on using words to move an audience.  I had passion for story telling.  And at the time, that was enough for me.

So, that is why I know I’m a writer.  There are far more signs and evidence to consider and everyone arrives at the realization in different ways.

If you do not consider a writer, are you sure?  Do you like telling stories?  Do you have a decent vocabulary?  Do you enjoy reading?  If so, you may have an inner writer you’re neglecting.

If you are an admitted writer, when did you first realize you were a writer?  What signs led you to that discovery?  Are you actually writing, or just thinking about writing?


The Biggest Mystery in Publishing

What sells books?  Not who, but what?

This is one enigma for which opinions vary from publisher to publisher, agent to agent, media expert to media expert, and often writer to writer.

With all these opinions, though are very few facts or scientific data. How does anyone say with any authority what sells books? Is it the New York Time Bestseller list? Another list? Amazon’s online tools? Press releases? An author’s reputation? Media buzz? A movie version made and released? A clever title? A fancy cover? Word of mouth via social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or Shelfari? Is it some or all of these? Or is it none of them?

Since it indeed a mystery to the publishing industry at large, I will address this with one opinion, my own, naturally. In other words, I will provide evidence of why I buy books and then ask you to do the same.

Clarification. The following is why I “buy” books, not necessarily what books I have finished reading or recommend to others.

In order from top reason, to bottom reason:

  1. I’ve read a previous book in a series by the same author and eagerly await the next installment. (e.g. Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss)
  2. I’ve read a previous book by the author and liked the story telling enough to buy other works. (e.g. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, Under the Dome by Stephen King)
  3. I’ve read a previous book in a series by the same author, am behind in the series, and have several more to read to catch up. (Brotherhood of the Wolf by David Farland)
  4. A recommendation from family or friends in a genre I like. (Harry Potter series)
  5. A breakout author in one of my preferred genres that is generating great reviews and buzz (The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Elantris by Brandon Sanderson)
  6. A recommendation from family or friends in a genre I don’t normally read. (The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho)
  7. A classic in my preferred genre recommended by online reviews or ‘best of’ lists (Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams)
  8. Random browsing in bookstores or online bookstores. I tend to find new writing books this way, not fiction. (e.g. Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld)

Okay, clearly the books I buy AND read tend to come from the top four or five reasons. Books from the bottom three reasons are books I purchased with intent to read, but did not finish either the book or series because it wasn’t compelling enough in some way or I had books from the top of the list I preferred to read first.

Reason #8 has been nearly all non-fiction and I read those topically as needed, not straight through like a novel.

Now let’s discuss #8.

Why is #8 last on the list?

What about an unfamiliar book or author on a bookstore shelf or in an online catalog can overcome our buyer’s defenses and help us decide to buy it?

Here are some thoughts on why books sell off the rack or online catalog in no particular order.

  • Book is on the shelf (or catalog section) of one of your favorite genres
  • Book is displayed so you can see the full front cover and title
  • The title is intriguing
  • The cover is interesting
  • The back cover blurb/synopsis interests you
  • The cover reviews increase your interest
  • You read the first few pages and the story pulls you in.
  • Either a bookstore employee or an online catalog recommends the book
  • Positive online reviews from others who have read the book

Which of the nine reasons compel you to buy a book from a new/unfamiliar author?  (select all that apply)

Thank you for your participation. Check back often and see what others rank as their reasons for buying books from authors they haven’t yet read.

While there are many reasons we ‘buy’ books, I don’t think we’re any closer to what ‘sells’ books.  And so it remains the biggest mystery in publishing.


Outlines are still for Wimps

Back in January, I wrote about how outlines were for wimps, and how I finally had the courage to become a wimp. If you missed the original post, you can read it here.

The courage has paid off and although I didn’t finish the outline process in January as planned (I finished March 31, actually) I am very pleased with the process. I expect the next time I outline it will go much faster.

How did a discovery writer, like me, even attempt an outline when my only previous attempts at outlining were for college essays? A co-worker—who also happens to be a published writer—introduced me to a writing guru named Randy Ingermanson. His fiction writing web site is here.

Randy advocates his “Snowflake Method” of story design, or in other words, a method for outlining. So, I read the free article on his site. You can read it here.

The short version of the process is simple. You start with a single sentence description of your story and build on it in deliberate steps until you have a four-page story synopsis, a full scene and chapter list, and full-page character synopsis/description for each major character and a ½-page synopsis for secondary characters.

This process can take a month or more, and for me it took two. However, the results were worth it, because I now have well-defined characters, core story, and a plot that flows consistently and builds gradually from beginning to end. I even tamed the typically vast wasteland of the middle of the book by a careful outline detailing the scenes and goals for the characters in that section of the story.

Now that I’ve invested energy up front in what amounts to story planning, I expect the process of writing the first draft will be smoother and more consistent than for my previous works. I don’t expect to be stuck anywhere along the way wondering how I painted my characters and myself into the proverbial corner. There are no corners at this point, only smooth curves ahead.

What about the siren’s song of discovery writing? What of the joy some writers derive from experiencing the story as it unfolds along with the characters? Well, I had that satisfaction while I developed the outline. I conjured the important high level events and determined the path and obstacles the characters would face.

The Snowflake Method has a built-in revision process so that after each of the ten steps are achieved, you go back and update earlier design elements so that everything is in harmony. For example, you have written a one page story synopsis which describes the beginning middle and end of the story with key events and outcomes. In the next step, you do a more detailed character description and you discover that your character would do things a little differently than you first thought and so the outcome of one event would be different. You like the new idea better so you update the earlier story synopsis to match.

This is part of why this process talks a little longer because you are evolving the story/plot in parallel with the characters and cross-pollinating ideas and revising both to stay in sync. When I finished, in essence, the scene list combined with the four page story synopsis (and major character synopses) became a mini first draft and I see the whole story now with all its core elements. The discovery part that remains is how the characters will navigate this path. How will they react? What will they say and do? Will they decide to veer of course and cause me to change my outline? It may. I have already given myself permission now to change the outline. It is, after all, my outline and as the writer, I should not hold myself to any structure that gets in the way of telling the story in the best possible way.

To me, discovery writing is like riding a raw wave of creativity. It is exciting while it lasts, but eventually the tide turns and you are left with still waters.

Creativity in a raw form is also like a bare light bulb shining in all directions, bright and diffuse and illuminating everything. However, we can’t look at everything at once. Our binocular field of vision is ~140 degrees. So, by focusing that creativity via planning or outlining, we are in effect putting that light bulb into a cylinder with a lens and a reflector. Now we have a means to focus and aim that light to help us find the best path forward. A focused light also helps us see further down the path than we could otherwise see with an unfocused exposed light.

Creativity needs focus to produce results. Outlining provides focus for writers.

This may not work for everyone, but if you find yourself struggling with the middle of stories or novels, or sustaining a plot through the full length of your WIP, you may find that investing some bandwidth in story design is a possible solution.

The process so far has been successful for me. I am very pleased with the results. I’ll revisit this topic down the road to see if I still feel the same about the value of outlines when I’m deep in the middle of The Lost Tower first draft.

Has anyone else had any outlining success stories or learned any new tips or tricks since the beginning of the year?

Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.