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Writing Right: The Blog


Can you write eleven chapters of a book and then decide to write a complete outline? That's what someone recently asked me. It's a question I like a lot because I've been there and done that ... a lot!


Now, as the King of Outlining, I hate to admit this, but it's true. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in a new property that we dive right in without stopping to create an outline. Often, we don't even think we need one until we're well on our way to completing the book.


But, you know what?


We need one.


Somewhere along the line, every author will need an outline to sell his book. Either an agent will request it, or an editor will ask for it as part of a submissions package. For either of those two scenarios, a general synopsis (a complete book outline) will suffice. But if you're going to go to the trouble of outlining the complete book, why not make it a detailed chapter outline (chapter-by-chapter) so that you can also use it as a blueprint while completing your writing? Read More 

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A writer grappling with how to write a novel responsibly while placing it in Incan/Mayan lands received a suggestion from a "College/University" respondent to travel there to research the locality personally. My advice to the stymied author?

*     *     *

Wow, leave it to a person whose credentials for giving advice are "attended some College/University" to give you such life-changing advice: travel to Mayan/Incan Land where you can learn firsthand how to write ethically while "thriving in context." My advice to College/University? Go back to school and learn how to think things through realistically.


The truth here is twofold. First, as for ethics, approach your subject ethically by being aware that you're a real human being and a cohabitant of the United States of America in the Real World. In other words, don't worry about being politically correct. Do worry about portraying people and their cultures without bias. Treat all people equally, both in your writing and in your life, no matter what their culture is, and you're sure to be a winner. Don't talk down; write up!


Second, as for your book thriving in context, do some research. Travel there if Mr. College/University will pick up the tab, of course. That's considering that you're not averse to the gangland murders and cartel mayhem spreading throughout the land. (Wow, good choice--Mexico!) Otherwise, listen up.


I have an alternative. It's called research.


Don't know how to research? Then either 1.) learn or 2.) set your fantasy culture in Detroit or Pittsburgh or someplace with which you're more familiar. Read More 

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I can't tell you how many beginning writers have asked me over the years if it's possible to earn a living as a full-time book writer. My answer is always the same: Yes ... and no.


To begin with, let's clear up a few misconceptions. Here are some all-too-commonly given tips to becoming a self-supporting, full-time author that I highly suggest you ignore:

  1. See what traits bestselling books have in common - The truth is, they have very little in common, as a quick glance at the NYT bestseller's list will affirm. And even if they had, jumping on the bandwagon to create a similar book that gets published from six months to two years later won't do you a bit of good, because the train has already left that station.
  2. Write a grippy book on a trendy topic - Been there, discussed that (see above).
  3. Build a huge following on social media, or become a sought-after celebrity - Social media, it's been proven, doesn't translate into book sales, so that advice is worthless. And becoming a celebrity—you mean, like Tucker Carlson or Kami Baby? Well, that's pretty damned difficult to pull off without a whole lot of time, patience, persistence, and luck. And, in the meantime, who's going to be writing your books?
  4. Learn how to write a fantastic pitch letter that promises editors what they want - Not even close. If editors knew what they wanted, they wouldn't need authors' submissions; they'd commission those bestsellers themselves. The truth is that editors rely upon authors and agents to tell them what they think is a hot topic. As for a fantastic pitch, I'm onboard with that one. Get an acquisition editor's interest piqued, and you're halfway home.
  5. Convince a literary agent to represent you and pitch your book to major publishers - Totally ridiculous. You'd have better success pitching your book to publishers yourself, even though most of them will summarily turn you down, than trying to land a legitimate literary agent to represent you, an unknown and untested writer with no proven track record. Agents make their living off the percentage they receive from selling their writers' works. No sales record, no attraction. Game, set, match! Got it? Read More 
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We've all been there. As authors, we have preconceived notions of the universes we create and populate, particularly in fiction. Sometimes, we even sketch out our ideas or, at least, get a visual image in our minds. And then, when our books are completed, we're faced with what to do with those sketches and images.


"I know!" you say. "I'll submit them with the book. They'll give the editor a better idea of what I'm talking about!" Right?


Wrong! In fact, a trade-book author should never submit his or her book for publication complete with artwork unless an editor asks for it. The reason is not that "illustrations require a lot more work on the part of the printers, which means it costs more to print the book" as someone recently speculated. That's sheer nonsense. In eighteenth-century America, yes. In today's age of digital printing, no.


The truth is that, while printing most illustrations costs no more than printing a page of text, most acquisitions editors frown on receiving illustrations as part of a manuscript submission package because they find illustrations distracting from the written word, if not outright disruptive to the flow of the story. Also, editors aren't illustrators and shouldn't be expected to know a good illustration from a bad one.

On the other hand, every publisher I've ever worked with was happy to review samples or suggestions for artwork with the art director and staff after issuing a publishing contract. That doesn't mean they used the art, of course. Most passed based upon their own concept of art already under in-house consideration. Nonetheless, they looked out of courtesy. Read More 

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One day back in the Sixties, PBS television host Bob Cromie had author Gore Vidal on his show, Book Beat. At the time, Vidal was riding high on everyone's list of favorite authors. Toward the end of a fascinating interview, Cromie posed a question to Vidal similar to the one you ask. Vidal replied something along the lines of, That's easy. Give up writing. Quit.


Cromie, slightly taken aback, said that Vidal surely didn't mean that the way it sounded, to which Vidal added, Absolutely I do. The best advice I can give struggling young writers is to give up writing for good.


By this time, Cromie, never one to surrender a battle without a fight, said that Vidal must not be serious because there were hundreds of thousands of fledgling writers in America just waiting for some advice and a chance to succeed as published authors. Surely, he cajoled, there must be something Vidal could offer in the way of advice, to which the author responded:


Look, for every new author who comes along and makes it, that means there's one less book for me to write. I don't like those odds, so my advice is for all of them to quit right now. Read More 

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Daily Writing Output

A number of beginning writers have asked me how many words they should crank out each day. The truth is, the number doesn't matter. Getting faster as you practice doesn't matter. What Isaasc Asimov did when he was writing doesn't matter. What DOES matter is how well you write. Thirty words a day of perfectly crafted prose beat out thirty thousand words of hastily scribbled crap any day.

You may have heard the admonition to spit the words out while they're fresh in your mind and get them down on paper because you can always go back and edit them later. My advice: Don't buy it. If you were capable of going back and editing them later, you'd most likely be working as a professional proofreader or editor for some major magazine or book publisher and making a damned good living at it. I think it's safe to assume you're not.


The plain truth is, you need to do the best you can possibly do in any given time frame. A day, a week, a month—hell, a year, if you're comfortable with that. Take your time, and get it right. Read More 

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Someone asked me the other day who my favorite authors are. I had to think about it for a while, because I appreciate good writing and quality craftsmanship, and that combination isn't easy to find these days. In the end, I came up with several favorites whose works I've enjoyed over the years, some of the longest lasting being Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dürrenmatt, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and even Donald Barthelme for his mastery of the short story. But only one writer changed my life forever more than fifty years ago. It was a guy who went by the name of J. D. Salinger.


I was a freshman in high school when our teacher assigned the book, The Catcher in the Rye, for a report. Thinking it was a story about baseball (freshman, remember), I decided to read it rather than merely peruse Cliff's Notes and skate through the assignment, as usual. Well, it wasn't long before I fell in love with Holden Caulfield's brashness and the power of his creator's literary voice. They got me thinking about how cool it would be to be an author and how fortunate Salinger was to have a name as distinctive as J. D. You know, only those two initials out front.


Just for fun, I began contemplating what sort of by-line I would have used had I ever decided to write a book. You know. J. D. Salinger. D. J. Herda. J. D. Salinger. D. J. Herda. Read More 

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When I was a kid of 17 or so, I wrote a satirical stage play and tried to find a publisher/producer for it. When that failed, I decided I could produce it myself. (How hard could it be?) I happened to know a man at Follett Publishing in New York. Which is to say, I knew of him from some book rejection slips he'd sent me over the years. So, on a lark and desperate for notoriety, I gave him a call to tell him what I had in mind. I explained the plot, told him about the characters, and said I was looking to produce the script and had heard he might be interested in backing an upcoming young playwright.


To my surprise, he said, "Sure. I'd like to hear more. When can we get together to talk?"


Naturally, since I lived in Chicago and he lived in New York, I had to do some fancy shuffling before the opportunity arose for me to go knocking on his door. I had by then scraped together a few bucks, and I prevailed upon a couple of friends to kick in a few more for a third-class train ticket, and I called Louis Zara and told him of my plans.


He sounded delighted and suggested he pick me up at the airport and take me to his home for dinner. I sounded delighted and replied, "Sure. Great. Except I don't like to fly, so I'll be taking the train."


"Even better," he said. "I'll see you at Penn Station when you get in." Read More 

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I never cease to be amazed at the literary skills (or lack of them) that some people possess while nonetheless thinking they're equipped to write a book and make a killing. It's not that I object to people seeking reasonable answers to intelligible questions. That's how we learn. But, I received this question the other day: "How many sales before a 275-page book shows a profit at $100 a copy?"


Naturally, it was too enticing a question to pass up; so, I didn't.


You didn't exactly give a whole lot of thought to this question, did you? I mean, first of all, what's your definition of "profit"? If you mean something so obtuse as to how many copies you'd have to sell to cover the time, sweat, and tears you spent in writing your book, I haven't a clue. The variables are too great. Nor do I have an inkling of the rate you ascribe to your hourly toils or how many weeks, months, or years you spent busting your butt.

Ahh, but I see now in reading between the lines that, since neither the book's total number of pages nor its oversized format would affect your bottom line, that must not be what you mean. Read More 

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First, I'm assuming you're an adult. If you're not, you may have stumbled across why your book reads like a YA. It's tough for a kid to create a story from an adult's point-of-view. If that's the case and you're attempting to write the way an older person would, I think superimposing an adult to whom you feel close in place of yourself as the narrator might help. In other words, instead of asking how you, a 16-year-old high-school student, might describe a scene involving a 24-year-old man, ask how your 39-year-old favorite Uncle Jack might do so. Imagine yourself as he might tell the story. Just one possible solution.


Second, no matter your age, I'm guessing you haven't thought the story through in detail. I'm also betting you haven't written out a comprehensive, chapter-by-chapter outline from which to work. If you're "winging it," hoping for inspiration to strike around every corner every time you sit down to tackle your story, you're likely to be disappointed. That's been my experience, at any rate. Particularly with Sci-Fi/Fantasy, if you can't picture the story and don't have it outlined from start to finish, it can be really tough sledding—and a huge disappointment in the end. So, here's what I suggest. Read More 

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