Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: The Lyric Start

I'VE SAID BEFORE that writing is recorded sound, and that this is the general difference between great writers, good writers and writers in general. When you're enjoying a book, part of the reason is that the writing sings to you. You enjoy the experience of mentally hearing the words.
   So what do you do on those days when you seem to be tone-deaf?
   It happens to all of us. At least I know that it happens to me.
   And when it does happen to me, I usually find the best course of action is to stop writing fiction, get out a pencil and notebook (for some reason, this works better away from a keyboard) and start writing poetry, instead.
   Now, don't go Googling for published poetry by Tom Morrisey. You won't find any; I don't write poetry for publication. But what I do write poetry for is to tune up my writing instrument and get back in touch with the sound of the words and the ways they work together. Usually I write blank verse, and the subject can be anything ... if I don't have a subject, I will look out the window and write a poem describing what I see. Usually, it only takes a few minutes of this to get my writerly voice back into my head, and then I can go back to fiction.
   This technique is not unique to me. I understand that Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both wrote poetry to get the current running (the difference being that what they wrote was good enough to publish). And I imagine they did it for the same reason I do it ... it works.

Friday, July 25, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Nom de Notebook

I DON'T WRITE my novels under a pen-name, and I know very few writers who do. But I get asked about it frequently, which makes me wonder if, to the general public, writing fiction seems a craft so despicable that it is best performed anonymously.
   The writers in my circle who do use pen-names have their reasons. One case is a husband-and-wife team who didn't want a double-byline on their books, so they created an alter-ego to stand in for the two of them. And another case is a writer who established himself in one genre and then switched to another; he didn't want to disappoint readers who might buy his books because of name recognition, expecting his previous genre.
   Writers have all sorts of reasons to use pen names. Stanley Leiber believed he would one day write full-blown novels, so when he began writing comic books, he shortened his name to a nom de plume, "Stan Lee." That name became so well-known that he adopted it legally.
   The author of The Sun Also Rises was originally "Ernest Hemmingway" (double "m"). That was the family name, but he didn't like the way it looked on a book cover, so he changed it to "Hemingway."
   Sometimes it's the publisher's idea. Joanne Rowling  created the pen-name, "J.K. Rowling" after her publisher expressed concerns that boys might not want to read her books if they knew they were written by a woman. Jo didn't have a middle name, so she adopted her grandmother's name (Katherine), and "J.K. Rowling" was born.
   Then, when she switched genres and wrote The Cuckoo's Calling, Rowling adopted yet another pen-name (Robert Galbraith). But similarities in style were noted between that book and the Harry Potter series ... enough so that one English newspaper commissioned a comparison using linguistics software. It suggested an extraordinarily high probability that the author was Rowling and, when confronted with the evidence, she 'fessed up. But Rowling continues to write as "Galbraith," and predicts that eventually his titles will outnumber those in the Harry Potter series.
   Many years ago, when I wrote my first book (a climbing travelogue called 20 American Peaks and Crags, now long out of print), I did so under the name "Thomas Morrisey." But these I do all of my writing under the name I'm known by to my friends: "Tom."
   Would I ever use a pen name? If I made a huge genre switch, I would consider it. But other than that, my body of work is directly linked to me, and that's probably the way it will stay.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: In High Places is FREE July 22nd

IF YOU HAVE READ my novel-writing how-to, The Novel and the Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft (link at right), you know that my 2008 novel, In High Places, is used as an example through much of that book.
   And if you've been intending to buy In High Places, but your book budget hasn't allowed it, you are in luck. Today only (July 22nd, 2014), In High Places is FREE on all the major ebook platforms.
   So pull it up on your ebook reader and buy before midnight. Or, if you are away from your reader right now, here is the link to the title in Amazon's Kindle Store.

Friday, July 18, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: The Actual Writers Conference

WHEN I LIVED in Michigan, the county library system held an annual writers conference, one that they asked me to teach in. They also asked me to serve on its board, which I did, thinking that I would have all sorts of expertise that might be useful to them. But when I got to my first board meeting, I discovered that they already knew something that most writers-conference organizers either do not know, or don't apply. And the thing they knew was this: to have a successful writers conference, you need to have a plenary speaker that people have actually heard of.
   This is something that all writers conference say they do, but few actually succeed at. Conferences run for profit often aim for an A-lister, but then discover that, to turn a profit, they have to settle for someone further along in the alphabet. And university writers conferences often fall victim to inbreeding, with academics convincing one another that Graham or Desdemona really is extremely well-known, even though the writer in question may have written exclusively for the sorts of magazines whose sole purpose is to occupy shelf space in university libraries.
   Our little county library system avoided these traps. 
   First, we were a non-profit, so every penny we made on registrations went straight into providing content for the conference; we even held the conference at the local Carnegie library, so we wouldn't have to spend a cent on facilities. We also sought sponsors to make up the shortfall between what we took in and what we spent to put on a good conference.
   And second, our board had an unwritten no-BS rule. If you proposed someone as a plenary speaker and had to spend time explaining who he or she was, then you were not proposing someone in whom the board was interested. As we had librarians on the board, we also had a darn good handle on who our county residents were reading, and that played into our decisions as well.
   Following these simple guidelines, we got people such as Elmore Leonard and Audrey Niffenegger as our plenary speakers. 
   When we did this, something amazing happened. Really good writers came out of the woodwork to teach at our conference, partly because they wanted to hear the plenaries, and partly because it looked as if we knew what we were doing with our conference. Published writers came to take our workshops. The atmosphere was positive and not desperate, and when you sat down to lunch, chances were that there was someone at your table who could offer significant insight into an area of writing that you wanted to know more about.
   So these days, when people ask me about writers conferences, I ask them one question: have you heard of, and do you admire, the person who's headlining the conference, or was it someone you had to Google?
   Because, if it is the latter ... keep moving ... nothing to see here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: The Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel

EARLIER THIS WEEK, I woke up and wrote this in the notes app on my iPhone:

The years just after the war were especially hard on the general, who wore civilian clothing like a penance.

   That's an opening line. Whether it is to a novel, or a novella, or a short story, I'm not sure, because that is all I have written so far. But I now know a lot more about that story, because I have been thinking about the general ever since I wrote it. 
   First lines are like seeds: they get the story started. And that is why I have that collection in my notes app ... I think of it as the greenhouse, where I start growing things that may eventually be stories.
   I haven't written more about the general yet because I don't like to sit down and really start cranking on a story until I know how it ends. That gives me a destination for what I'm writing, and knowing where I'm going means I throw away less of what I have written, although I still throw away quite a bit. In fact, more often than not, I throw away that first line, because the line that gets me thinking about the story may not be the best one with which to start it. And that's fine; seeds often cease to be, once the plant begins to grow.
   In workshops, a great exercise is to have everyone come up with a great first line, and then exchange them with a neighbor, who expands the first line into a paragraph. And that initial paragraph is almost never what the author of the first line was thinking about, because each person will start grasping and toying with that initial thought in his or her own way.
   Do all of my stories begin this way? No ... they do not. Frequently I will think of an ending first, in which case it is easy to begin writing, because I just follow the story back to a starting point and begin work. But for those days when it is not that cut-and-dried, it is good to know that I have all those seedlings in the greenhouse, waiting to be cultivated into something larger and more complete.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Wind River is FREE July 8th

I OFTEN USE my own books as examples of technique on this blog. And Wind River is one that I use as an example of taking "show, don't tell" fully to heart.
   Well, today only, that book is available free on Kindle, Nook and all other major ebook platforms.
   So we'll keep this post brief. Click the link above, get your free novel, start reading that and stop reading this.
   Fair 'nough? We'll see you on Friday.

Friday, July 4, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Financial Independence as a Novelist

IT'S THE DREAM that most unpublished novelists share: selling your novel (finally), quitting your day job, and living the good life ever after.
   So ... can you do that?
   The answer is "Yes," but as you may imagine, there are a lot of conditions attached to it.
   For instance, income from a novel tends to arrive in chunks widely separated on the calendar. If you are fortunate enough to sign with a publisher who pays advances (some do not), you'll typically get half of the advance upon signing a contract, and then the other half when the manuscript is agreed by all parties to be in final form (some publishers do this in thirds: a third on signing, a third on delivery and a third on acceptance). After that, if your novel earns out its advance (and the odds are against this with a first novel), it might be a year or more between your final advance check and your first royalty payment. 
   Even if your advance was lucrative enough to live on for a year or more, it takes tremendous financial self-control to make it with such sporadic income. It is not uncommon for first novelists to wind up in dire straits; in fact it is so common that I know of at least one publisher that requires first novelists to present proof of a second source of income as a condition of their contract.
   There are things that will help. One is to sign a two-book contract and have both manuscripts ready at signing. This will increase what you have to work with, and probably space out the advance checks a little more.
   Even better is to have three years' worth of income in the bank and ready to live on (separate from your 401k or retirement savings) before you sign that contract and deliver your two manuscripts. Saving up that sort of nest-egg takes time and discipline, but it does a tremendous job of helping to keep the wolf from your door.
   Now, here's the funny thing; while I know some novelists who live entirely in the income from their book-length fiction, most do not. Some get a second income from teaching. Some work as freelance editors. Some (I'm one of them) hold down full-time nonfiction writing gigs; a measure that helps put important things such as health insurance on the table.
   In fact, during the decade-and-a-half or so when I worked full time as a freelance writer, fiction was oftentimes the majority of my income, but it was never the entirety of it. Then, as now, I wrote travel stories, not only for the extra money, but for the fact that doing so allowed me to research the settings for my novels at no expense to me. And then, as now, I wrote speeches because (in addition to the extra income) doing so required me too write in another person's voice, which helped (and helps) to make my fiction sing.
   Particularly in his later years, Mark Twain made most of his money on the lecture circuit. The poet Wallace Stevens never quit his job with an executive with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote for the movies. They knew what many novelists learn as they go along: that while it is possible to live exclusively on one's fiction, you just might find greater satisfaction if you make it part, and not all, of your professional life.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Why Copyediting Matters

JUST THIS WEEKEND, I was reading a book by a New York Times bestselling novelist ... one that I am fairly certain the author self-published. I was in the first chapter, just getting into the story, when I hit this sentence: "Symbols clanged."
   At first the sentence intrigued me; I thought it was an unusual image. Then I re-thought that, wondering how a symbol, a visual element, could clang. I re-read the sentence in context, and then it finally hit me. What the author had meant to write was, "Cymbals clanged."
   It was an understandable mistake. The two words sound alike ... sort of. And between the two, only two letters are different. 
   But those two letters were enough to remove me from the story, dissolve suspension-of-disbelief, make me realizing I was reading something someone had written, and get me wondering why he hadn't used a better copyeditor (if he'd used one at all ... in the same novel, I later found "baby's" used as a plural).
   Copyeditors get a bad rap. We think of them as wan, cantankerous individuals who never see the sun, and live to pounce on novelists who write "who" instead of "whom" and end their sentences with prepositions. But they also serve the very useful purpose of helping the writer to keep readers in the storyworld, to help those readers forget they are reading, and encourage them to surrender the disbelief that stands between audience and the story. To that end, even if your next reader is an audience of one—an editor or an agent—it's worth your time and money to hire a copyeditor if you can afford one, or to ask several careful readers to beta-read your manuscript for you if you cannot.
   It's important, because you want to keep your readers lulled within the storyworld, undisturbed by typos, wordos or other errors.
   And symbols cannot clang.