Thursday, January 29, 2015

Of Two Minds

MOST NOVELS ARE written from a single point of view ... one narrator telling one main story. But what do you do when you want to tell more than one main story?
   That was an issue I had to address when I wrote my 2009 novel, Pirate Hunter. It was going to combine the stories of two protagonists: one a rescued slave who was serving as a crew member on a pirate ship in the seventeenth century, and one the story of a contemporary marine archaeologist who was searching for the remains of a pirate ship.
   I wanted my stories to echo one another. I wanted to tell them, for the most part, in alternating chapters, and I wanted the transitions from one chapter to the next to be as smooth as possible. And I didn't want to depend on a dateline at the beginning of the chapter ("The Spanish Main, 1638"). In fact, I didn't want to use datelines at all.
   So how were my readers going to tell which story they were in?
   Easy: I told my historical story in third person ("he"), and I told my contemporary story in first person ("I"). It worked well; in fact it worked so well that I've had readers wonder how it was that I kept it so clear which story I was in ... and then they were surprised when I told them about the shift in person. They weren't aware of it; they only knew that it worked.
   This is by no means an idea original to me. I've read books by my friend Steven James in which he does the same thing. In fact, in some of his work, he will shift both person and tense (past in one and present in the other), which works quite nicely.
   So ... got two stories to tell in one novel and want to keep them distinct? Not a problem. You have first-person, second-person and third-person narrative points of view to work with. Pick two.
NOTE: If you are reading this on January 29, 2014, and want to see how I did this, for free, get yourself the ebook edition (Kindle, Nook and all other major ebook platforms) of Pirate Hunter. Today only, the price is $0.00.

Monday, November 3, 2014


AS I WRITE THIS, we are three days into the 2014 edition of NationalNovel Writing Month. The purpose of NaNoWriMo (as it is known) is to create a novel of at least 50,000 words in length, which means one has to average 1,667 words a day throughout the month of November.
   So how many words of fiction have I written in the last three days?
   And that doesn’t concern me in the least.
   You see, while I have occasionally signed up for NaNoWriMo in the past, mostly to offer encouragement to friends who were taking their first crack at book-length fiction, I don’t believe I ever did so with the intention of actually trying to churn out 2,000 words a day (which would have to be my goal, as I don’t write on Sundays). And this year, I have come to a conclusion that has been festering for a few years … namely that NaNoWriMo is basically a bad idea overall.
   I feel that way for three reasons.
   The first, and most obvious, is that a novel one writes in a month is almost certainly going to be the literary equivalent of a train wreck.
   Yes, I know … Hemingway wrote TheTorrents of Spring in just ten days. But it’s the literary equivalent of a train wreck as well, and it’s widely believed that it was deliberately created as such. When he submitted that manuscript to his then-publisher, Boni & Liveright, they rejected it, releasing Hemingway from his contract with them. Hemingway claimed that this was never his intention, but the fact remains that The Sun Also Rises, which would otherwise have belonged to Boni & Liveright, was sold instead to Scribner’s—a much more desirable publishing house.
   And yes, I know that there are a few hundred traditionally published novels claimed by their authors to have been written during NaNoWriMo. But of that number, I suspect some were merely begun during the November event, others simply worked on during that time … and it’s entirely possible that a few authors merely claimed participation to gain some word-of-mouth publicity.
   Even if all of those books were legitimately created during National Novel Writing Month, they amount, if my math is correct, to fewer than twelve hundredths of one percent of the manuscripts by participants since the event began in 1999. So at least 99.88 percent of what’s written during NaNoWriMo receives no reaction from legitimate publishers other than a gag reflex, and creating something like that hardly seems like a good use of time.
   The sad fact is that most of the novels written at any time of the year are, from a readability standpoint, rubbish … as are a significant fraction of the novels that are ultimately published. Forgive me for being a spoilsport, but it hardly seems as if we need a special event to add to those statistics.
   The second reason I’m not keen on NaNoWriMo is that its primary purpose seems to be the creation of trophy novels: books written so one can cross “write a novel” off one’s bucket list.
   The issue I have with this—writing a novel in order to call oneself a novelist—is that it inverts the proper order of things. The real reason one should be writing a novel is to entertain and intrigue readers.
   Was this the reason I got into fiction? Of course not. I wanted the recognition as much as anyone else. But I quickly realized that one does not gain recognition merely by writing. One gains it by being read, and one does that by creating something that is eminently readable.
   The third reason I’m not fond of NaNoWriMo is actually my primary reason, and this is that the basic purpose of the event lies at odds with a fundamental characteristic common to every successful novelist I have known.
   I’m talking about grit.
   “Grit” is an old-fashion word that refers to a particular strength of character—the ability to devote oneself to a goal that cannot be reached quickly or without sacrifice. In terms of the novel, grit is the willingness to sit down at the keyboard every morning, even though you may have known how the story ends now for months, or even for years. It is the ability to write the book and make it moving and beautiful even though you may be sick of the story and wish it would simply go away.
   And 30 days is far too scant a time in which to determine if you have something like that.
   So if you’ve gotten into NaNoWriMo for the camaraderie, or the novelty, or simply because you don’t care to watch what’s being offered on TV this month, then more power to you.
   But if you truly want to be a novelist, you are better off purchasing a truly comfortable chair, and thinking of November as nothing more than the first month of the rest of your life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: A Banquet of Beginnings

AS YOU HAVE probably assumed by now, I am totally sold on my Amazon Kindle.  
   I am on my second one. My first Kindle was the keyboard model; it had both wifi and 3G cellular connectivity, and I vividly remember being on a cruise ship leaving the Azores, leaning out over our stateroom balcony railing to catch the last vestiges of a cell signal so I could download a guidebook for Lisbon, our next stop.
   A little over two years ago, that Kindle bit the dust when it fell off the back of our couch (we live in Florida: ceramic tile floors), so my wife took pity on me and bought a replacement, the keyboard-less model. And now I am trying to figure out a way to kill it, so I can get a Kindle Paperwhite (I know, I know ... thou shalt not covet ... I'm still a work in progress).
   As an author, I know that Kindle ebook sales dwarf every other form of digital delivery. 
   And as an author, I use my Kindle as a tool (you can also do this with virtually every other ebook reader) to read the beginnings of books.
   Why the beginnings? Two reasons, really.
   The first is that the beginning is the free sample that Kindle will allow you to download when you are considering the purchase of the book. So (provided most of that beginning has not been taken up by front matter) if that book is a novel, you'll usually get most, if not all, of the first chapter. Sometimes more. This is far more cost-effective than buying every book that piques my interest, and it's much more efficient than a trip to the library.
   The second reason I browse beginnings is because, particularly in this age of free digital samples, that first chapter has a great deal to do with whether the reader is going to buy, or engage with, a book ... especially a novel. By perusing the beginnings of dozens of books every week, I get a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn't, and that is a very good sense for a novelist to have.
   Many ebook delivery platforms, Kindle included, also have two bestseller lists: one paid and one free. If I spot a book that looks interesting on the free list, I will download the entire book. That said, if anyone at Kindle is analyzing my reader use, they will probably notice that most free books spend no more than five minutes on my reader. Most free ebooks are self-published by writers not yet ready for prime time, and if this becomes apparent in the first page or two, I delete the book to keep my library screens down to a manageable minimum. The free "bestseller list" is mostly like the remainder table at a bookstore, and you don't want to reflect that; you want to emulate the books that sell well. Still, some very good novels occasionally show up on the free list; generally these are put up by publishers trying to promote the author's newer work.
   If you don't have an ebook reader, you can still browse samples. Most platforms allow you to download an app so you can use your smart phone, tablet or computer (i.e., whatever you are reading this on right now) as your e-reader. By going to the online store and clicking on the "send free sample" button, you can still browse beginnings at your leisure.
   All good writers are good readers first. Get acquainted with how great books tend to begin, and you can't help but up your game.
   And now, if you'll excuse me, I am off to balance my aging Kindle on the back of the couch.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gone Sporadic

THIS HAPPENS from time to time. After blogging twice a week for most of this year, I now feel the need to dive into a fresh project that is going to keep me writing fiction (as opposed to writing about writing fiction) for the foreseeable future.
   In keeping with what I recently said about sharing news of works in progress, I won't go into detail on what I'm working on. Just know that I am writing, and I trust you are doing the same.
   This ain't goodbye. As nuggets occur to me in my work, I'll surface from time to time to post them here on the blog. And when I do, I will tickle the social media to let you know I've posted something fresh. But the twice-a-week time-release capsules are going  into hiatus; I need to spend this creative time ... well ... creating.
   If this blog has been useful to you, or if there is something you've been wishing that I'd comment on, I hope you'll write it in the "Comments" section below. It will be a help to me when I come up from air from the fiction.
   In the meantime, strength to your writing arm.
   Now ... go craft something amazing.

Friday, August 8, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: The Best Buck a Writer Can Spend

MANY THANKS TO everyone who downloaded my free ebook earlier this week. I'm looking forward to hearing what you thought of it. And now I'd like to recommend that you spend 99 cents to purchase another ebook.
   No; it's not one of mine. It is The Complete Works of Mark Twain.
   Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man who wrote under the Mark Twain pen name, was easily one of the more extraordinary individuals of his time. In a period when most Americans never traveled more than 200 miles from the place where they were born, Clemens participated in the California gold rush, visited Hawaii, took part in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by way of Europe, married a wealthy woman and had four children with her, spent many years in Europe, made a trip around the world, and built and lived in two fabulous mansions. 
   He also lived with great tragedy, losing virtually everyone he loved. He convinced his younger brother to join him in the riverboat trade, and the younger Clemens was killed when a boiler exploded. His wife and all of his children except one preceded him in death, and the one who survived him did not particularly care for him. 
   But it is writing, and not his life, that makes him essential reading for aspiring novelists. In an era in which American novelists were expected to write like Englishmen, Twain wrote about American characters, using the American vernacular, from an American point of view. Kurt Vonnegut believed him to be the only saint of American writing, and William Dean Howells called him "the Lincoln of our literature." And whether you are reading this right now in America, or Australia, or Germany or Paraguay, there is a lesson here; readers love a fresh voice that shapes and echoes their perspective.
   So ... no plans for the weekend? Read Twain. Be transported. And be inspired.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Free Ebook -- PIRATE HUNTER 8/6/2014

WE'LL KEEP THIS short and (hopefully) sweet. Pirate Hunter is free on all major ebook platforms Wednesday, August 6th.

Please download a copy and tell me what you think of it! Comments section is below ...

Friday, August 1, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Accountability?

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM SAYS that, if you want to reach a goal, you should share it with people, so they can help hold you accountable.
   I'm not sure that's the best idea with a novel.
   For one thing, some psychologists say that the whole idea of sharing-to-motivate can backfire. If you say you're becoming a novelist, people who love you may praise you for doing that, and the gratification that results can play a trick on your psyche: in your mind, you have already accomplished what you are being praised for, and so become less inclined to actually write the book.
   At the other extreme, people in general have no idea how long it takes to write a novel. So if you share your goal and, four months later, people ask how you are doing and you say you only have three chapters written ... the look they give you may so discourage you that you give up the entire idea.
   And finally, writing a novel is an intensely private act that results in a very public outcome. Oftentimes, inviting others into that extremely private space just somehow seems wrong. I know that, on those rare occasions when I've been able to keep the news of a novel-in-progress to myself, I've been happier in my work.
   So ... are you writing a book? That's great.
   But you just might want to think before you go sharing that news with all and sundry.