How cool is that?
Every summer my father hitched the twelve-foot camp trailer and drove us to a trailer camp on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington. There we clammed the AM low tide (sometimes in the dark) and fished the PM tide change. The remaining twenty-two hours, the parental units slept or traded mild exaggerations with their cohort. Blue collar heaven, childhood purgatory.
At the age of ten, Long Beach was too far to walk, so we entertained ourselves by examining mildew in the communal showers, finding how deep dune grass roots went, and discovering the Literary Pirate, a fifteen by ten-foot building stacked to the ceiling with used books. The used books opened the mysterious adult worlds of character, story, and gasp, theme. Each year I challenged myself to understand more and more adult books. Sartre’s No Exit evaded my understanding until I was fourteen. I discovered that reading was FUN. Not that I knew it then. All I knew was that I wasn’t falling asleep.
This was when I started writing, covertly. What writing was acceptable was narrowly defined in school. This carried through High School and into College where sideways comments about imagination coupled with discouragement about pursuing my writing.
Hold for a moment… I have to slap myself from riffing on Bucky Fuller (1) and how formal education destroys…thank you. I feel better now.
A long story short, I became an Engineer, where having someone else to do the writing is valued. To be honest, the thirty-plus technical, NGO and government papers were mostly written to get my company to pay for junkets to exotic locations.
Then my wife’s hip broke.
She’s a patient bed-bound patient, but as the sole caretaker, this kept me at home for eight weeks. There are only so many times you can steam clean the floors before you start thinking… and writing.
This initiated my second childhood, but this time I’m the playground monitor. An INTJ playground monitor. On the path to publishing my first book, shameless plug below, I broke rules I didn’t know existed. Hopefully, my conclusions below will help.
Writing what matters.
Let’s take the kid-in-spacesuit story blurbed above. I internalized something from that book–diversity. Not as practiced in children’s books, slavishly measuring hue of melanin, the angle of eyebrows, or thickness of lips. What the Inter-Galactic Deep State couldn’t handle was different ways of thinking. This diversity of thought was seen as the root cause of conflict and needed eradication before it spread off the planet.
Thus inspired, my first fiction writing attempts were pedantic and read like something from a vade mecum. Amusing in places but with long stretches of ‘meaning.’ Zzzz. My writing still suffers from this tendency.
Decades later, I read interviews with the author. He purposely avoided hitting the reader between the eyes with the need to think. (Well, he did have a thing with militarism, but that is another discussion.) Instead, he wrote to entertain. He knew that those open to subversive notions such as diversity of thought would internalize it.
During the same period Fahrenheit 451 was written. While masterfully written in the MFA sense, it is a wall-to-wall polemic. However, it remains a great read.
Lesson learned. Write to be entertaining, and trust open-thinking readers will discover the theme.
The Write way to Right.
By now, you have been exposed to exhortations on how to write. According to these people, if you don’t do it in a specific way, you will never create anything good. Some, like James Patterson, soften it with ‘in a decent amount of time.’ Here is my experience in this.
In my first novel, I kept on getting lost as to who was where, when, and doing what. I created a master 55-day calendar and color-coded it with both plot strings and characters. Also, I enthusiastically joined group write-ins for the energy.(2) These all worked for me.
In my second novel, the count-down clock was still there but covered fourteen months. A calendar had too many empty weeks. I went to outlining, aka plotting, using the complicated but comprehensive Gold outline. (3) This helped me navigate the increasingly subtle and convoluted motivations of the main and secondary characters that evolve over those fourteen months. The matrix in 9 point print fills two 20×30 inch poster boards. I quit the write-ins as they did nothing for me. Instead, I sat in the elevated tables opposite the McDonald’s counter, especially during the height of Happy Meal time. The screeches and chirps of (mostly) happy children counter-pointed my somber mood.
Third novel needed to wrap up major character arcs and finally answer the question ‘What is really going on.’ The previous methods didn’t work, so I went to bubble charting and power lines. This is sometimes referred to as mind-mapping. When I couldn’t work in significant other’s She Shed, I repaired to the public library which turned over their swing office space. I wrote them into the acknowledgment.
The fourth novel was for fun, but needed to answer ‘Why did all this happen?’ This was the most complex, so I sketched on one sheet of paper the major plot and character points, wrote a one-page final chapter and quasi-outlined the first twenty-thousand pages. As I got to the end of each outline, I prep-ed another one. This is known affectionately and derisively in Project Management as the ‘rolling wave.’ My spousal-unit had had enough my use of her she shed, so she kicked me upstairs into a closet painted bright yellow.
Does that answer the question of how and where to write a novel? The answer is: whatever works for you.
Benefiting from Criticism.
“There are only two genetic imperatives: procreation and correcting someone else’s writing.” Not original, just another modern philosopher, Bill Lucky. (4) In professional circles, there is no shortage of people willing to critique your work. Some channel the Lucky principle, others are hungry for new ideas, and some for diversion from their work. I also had editors working in parallel, because that level of criticism energized my solution-creating.
Criticism is critical to your growth. Getting actionable criticism gives you the edge in clarity, speed, and expanded readership. I won’t say that it’s necessarily easy on your ego. With that in mind, some of the things I’ve concluded are:
Your least useful feedback is the positive “I love it,” or “I want to read more.” After the glow, how did your writing improve? Do you succumb to “confirmation bias?” I’ve left several local and online critique groups that didn’t know how to dig down.
Second least useful feedback is a blanket negative, typically hidden in flowery words. If you can’t find actionable meat, never send your work to that person. There is a special hell for any paid editor who creates non-actionable reviews.
Your most useful feedback comes from Nellie Negative. The more detailed, the better. This is a gold mine. Here are some nuggets to mine.
- What has the reviewer published? Read it. (5) Understand how you differ. Answer the question, is the reviewer a reader of your type of fiction? Adjust your writing to exploit the insight.
- Look for nuggets of severe unhappiness. What does each comment say about how your scene is perceived? What craft approach would fix it?
- Look for passion. Are the offending sentences or scene needed? Do they add or detract from what you are trying to do?
Marginal feedback comes in several forms. These are the comments that are utterly irrelevant in the draft stage or are written for another agenda.
- First are Lilly -LY, Passive Count, Queen Comma, and the Barron of That. Sometimes a draft sentence needs grammar, punctuation, or spelling corrected to prevent confusion. Granting that exception, deleting -ly words (a poor surrogate for really understanding adverbs), occurrences of that, passive words, and alternating between Oxford and common comma use is a waste of time. Until you get to the copy edit stage, most if none of these corrections will survive the revision process.
- Padded Palaver is the next waster of your time. PP frequents otherwise excellent on-line critique groups. These groups feel the need to rank order critiquers. You get what you reward. Unfortunately, the most common metric rewards gold stars for quantity, not quality. A two-thousand-word critique is never better than one with four hundred considered and actionable words.
- These days, a comment about PC, politically correct, is needed. When you get these comments, search your soul, their motivations, and research, research, research. PC-motivated comments from people who never lived the reality are rarely useful. As an example, until my last move, , I was an elder-elect of an eighty-percent black church. To set characters, I’ve used the dialect of people I know. As an example, a First Ward Newark person is distinct to my ears than one whose parents more recently joined the mass migration from the south to the northern heavy industries. When someone had conniption fits, I sent the offending chapter to my previous congregation. The only complaints I’ve received is about white-washing.
- The flashier their website, and the flowerier (is that a word?) the testimonials, the more useless the editor.
- The actionability of the edit toward forging a readable final draft seems to be in inverse to the cost. I once paid $7000 to an editor with lavish testimonials to get a seven-page editorial assessment that read like a Middle School essay, larded with about 55% repetition. There was no apparent taxonomy, just repetition. The line edits thinned out starting at the one-third point and stopped at the halfway mark.
- None of the bad editors ever gave me a clear answer to: Who have you edited? Which books? What type of editing did you do on each book? May I have their contact information?
- The best editors seem to cluster in price around the latest report by the Editorial Freelancers Association, https://www.the-efa.org/. Bookmark this. Too much lower, and definitely noticeably higher have been warning signs that I’ve ignored and regretted.
- You need edits that are brutal, but actionable. One without the other is a sign of a bad editor.
- GENRE MATTERS. With apologies to all my MA.Eng and MFA friends out there, you don’t want a paid editor who gets apoplectic over a genre meme or trope that has been used since the ‘50s. Or worse, misses how it affects the next three chapters, so the edits are useless.
Lesson learned. Actively seek out sources of criticism. Encourage negative criticism as long as it is specific and actionable. Don’t be afraid of questioning yourself and ask for help from people with direct, non-academic insight.
A beta and edit we will go.
Having someone read and comment on an entire manuscript is invaluable. You need brutal but actionable comments.
The first thing you do is turn on both the grammar and spelling checker, and revise the manuscript. This cleans up the most obvious ninety percent of errors that you miss. The reason is simple. Why tie up a reviewer with the simple? I would recommend that you next try out Autocrit, Grammarly, and/or Hemmingway. A shout out on Grammarly and Hemmingway. Do NOT slavishly follow the suggestions. Both flatten your and your character’s voice. Internalize what ‘non-normative’ word/phrase usages you and your characters use and trust yourself.
There is also the amusing thing that Grammarly does with commas and other grammar. The first pass, it removes commas en masse. The second pass, it replaces them. In my last manuscript, there are 400 ‘errors’ that never got resolved. I decided on a ‘standard’ to remain consistent. Anyone with a checkbook is free to tell me what the real answer is.
If the reviewer is unpaid, except via trade in kind, e.g., manuscript exchanges, or a point system, then they are Beta Readers. A beta read is a partnership. Search out fellow travelers where ever they hang. Once you find a genre-compatible beta reader question is if you can stand each other. It’s like being married.
Editing is when you pay for the review. In my technical papers, I typically have had multiple parallel editors. I integrated them on the fly. I’ve tried this in fiction, and, well, I don’t recommend it.
The big reveals from my many editors are:
My takeaway is my best editors have been deep into the genre, AND gladly provided explicit references.
One-inch margins are (not) (not) the gate to legitimacy.
Via rejection by a local critique group, I was introduced to the ‘proper manuscript format’ as the correct and only way to submit to agents and editors.
I thought I was being punked.
That method of manuscript formatting was abandoned in professional and technical journals in the ‘70s. (6) The military followed the mid-80s when Natick Labs proved that type of document formatting increased errors in maintenance 10 – 20%.
I now have an MSWord template that incorporates the standard format, or more accurately a central path between the dozens of ‘standard formats’ out there. I send it to people who are floundering with rejection having nothing to do with their writing.
A side note. Of the over 200 agents and editors I’ve queried, all but three wanted the pages pasted into the e-mail. So much for the standard manuscript format. But I still comply. My energy focusses on my writing.
Conclusion. Arguing about formatting is a waste of time. Put your energy into excellent revisions.
What agents and editors should tell you and never do.
A year into writing, I wanted to accelerate my skill acquisition. For an INTJ, this is a no-brainer. In my engineering and project management days, I’ve used ‘resident’ training many times. If I hadn’t, I won’t have seen one of the violent UCLA riots. I did miss a Berkeley smashed-windows-protesting-the-moderate-speaker when the one-week residential program was moved to a Ramada.
I cleaned up a sample short story and leveraged it into acceptance in a two-week mountain retreat writing workshop ready to pump up my writing muscles.
There, I discovered THE QUESTION that would dog me for the next four years, During the personal consultation with one of the faculty, a two-hundred-book Sci-Fi/Fantasy author, I asked, “What is my subgenre? Also, who writes in the subgenre?”
Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the significance of his response. “It’s definitely Sci-Fi. We (the faculty) don’t know what sub-genre to put it in.”
Flash forward four years. By then, I’d found, read, and loved several comparable novels, aka “comps,” but they are decades old. I needed contemporary books to study and adjust my work. So I asked a Harper Collins acquisition editor. She said, “My predecessor would have looked at your novel in the hopes of re-igniting the sub-genre. Unfortunately, all the majors have inventories of these books that we’ll never publish until someone else has the breakout novel.”
I can work with that—remember I’m an INTJ. Rejection only points to opportunities. For me, all mental barriers to indie publishing vaporized. However, it was just because we’d wrapped the pitch up in two minutes and had eight minutes to kill that I found out the truth.
My new solution freed up hundreds of future hours reading the muddy bottoms of teacups, aka querying. Instead, I invested in four courses on the nuts and bolts of the modern printing process. My first paperback went public as I write this.
Conclusion: Agents and Editors won’t tell you unless cornered, WHY your work isn’t what they consider to be commercial. But didn’t a story about children waving sticks and mangling pseudo-Latin have the same assessment?
Violating rules and gates.
As you may have noticed, I’m not a fan of rules imposed by gatekeepers. Consent of the governed, and all that. Rules imposed by gatekeepers reflect their needs first. On the other side, violating rules takes energy, especially when you don’t understand why you are getting pushback. This INTJ wasted a lot of time, before conceding that most rules are harmless, and moved on.
Note that I never say, ‘fix your theme or voice.’ With craft maturity, you should be able to present any concept, but only to the degree that it is understandable and entertaining. Being able to write stories outside of the PC mainstream while holding reader is my highest craft goal.
Your mileage will vary.
- Bucky Fuller, the author of several books masquerading as technical tomes, is in reality, one of the great philosophers of the modern era. A few quotes:
“If I ran a school, I’d give the average grade to the ones who gave me all the right answers, for being good parrots. I’d give the top grades to those who made a lot of mistakes and told me about them, and then told me what they learned from them.”
“Mistakes are great, the more I make, the smarter I get.”
“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
“There are no geniuses, merely those who defied damage by the school orthodoxy.”
- Find these by cruising facebook groups, meetup.com, and nanowrimo.org
- Go to your Library! Most books are available on-line FREE via Overdrive and other library services. I’ve even placed a dedication in my novel for my local library.
- Bill Lucky, a Bell Labs vice president, wrote volumes about how technology is defined by humanity and how humanity is defined by technology. To say an object is evil only states mankind is evil. Obsessing over the object is childish. A few of his essays are collected in the book “Lucky Strikes.” Interestingly, Spinoza said much the same thing over three hundred years earlier.
- I pulled my first paper, given at the first International Maintainability Symposia. Okay, I confess, it was in Orlando, and I wanted to see Disney World and Busch Gardens. Even in 1977, none of the accepted papers came close to the manuscript standard mandated for Fiction.
- My Matryoschka novel releases 23 November. Until then, discounted pre-orders are available worldwide and via library distributors Baker and Tayler, Overdrive, and Biblio.
This URL: https://t2m.io/l3Rkk5fj will get you to your preferred bookseller, anywhere in the world you live.
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