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Writing Right: The Blog


Have you ever wondered how you can create a unique book when it's eerily similar to another book that's already been written? Good question.


First, ignore the similar elements between your book and any other, and envision your story in your mind. Describe it to yourself. Fine-tune it. Flesh out the weak spots and trim the dead weight. Own it! Then, push the original story as far from your mind as possible. After all, there's a reason for the phrase, "There's nothing new under the sun." That applies to books as well as life in general. Get used to the fact that your book, no matter how unique you think it is, will be "similar" to another book or two or ten thousand in one way or another. So?


But, if you're still concerned someone may compare your work to a previous tome, emphasize the differences. After all, you're the author; you can write whatever you want. Be more detailed. Place your book in a different part of the world. Populate it with different characters, different places, different descriptive narrative, and different dialogue. Give your characters unique ethnic backgrounds. Set the story in a different time period. Use your own literary voice, of course, and not the other author's. (Which, I would hope, you're beyond temptation from doing anyway.) Read More 

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Someone asked on a forum recently if great writers need great editors, and I couldn't help but chime in--if only to correct some of the ridiculous responses others had given her. Here's what I said:

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Do great writers need great editors? Some do; others don't. A truly "great writer," if you stop to think about it, doesn't need a "great editor," whose work would only be superfluous. Now, if you mean a tremendously popular writer or even a highly skilled writer, then I'd have to say it's likely that an editor would help. But, that would depend upon the writer's abilities and literary adeptness, as well as upon the editor.


Hemingway, although hugely popular in his day, would likely not have endured without a first-rate editor backing him up. Fitzgerald, ditto. Even J. K. Rowling, who I understand enjoys a certain amount of favor among readers these days, needs the help of talented editors: She's powerless without them.


As for one commentator suggesting to you that feedback by a group of writing peers is more valuable than that from individual professional editors--ridiculous! He may be thankful for everything his group taught him, but I'm not impressed. Anyone who scribbles out, "A writer can more quickly experiment and evolve their technique when they have multiple people reviewing and reacting," deserves some skepticism. Aside from the misplaced modifiers and failure of agreement between subject and verb in a single sentence, his logic is flawed. But that's another story. Read More 

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I read an article the other day in The Writer magazine about why writers are so prone to self-doubt. It wasn't a bad article. It wasn't a good article. Mostly, it was a mediocre article, slanted to support the writer's hypothesis, slapped together with a modicum of research by someone who self-identifies as being a.) a female or someone who identifies with being a female, and b.) a writer with a life-long history of festering self-doubt. Not exactly the panache of Dana Lasch writing for the NRA on why guns don't commit crimes or Newt Gingrich espousing on why Nancy Pelosi is the first despot the House of Representatives has ever seen or even why Joe Biden believes the single greatest threat facing America today isn't crime or the economy or illegal immigration or even COVID-19 but White Supremecy. Come on, man!


So, although that article writer may not have nailed it, still, she's a writer all the same.


While the article was the typically flat, tepid fare for which The Writer (which hasn't published many articles of value to writers since I stopped contributing to them four decades ago—indulge me a little here, will you?) that we've come to expect, it started the wheels turning.


Why are writers so prone to self-doubt? Well, having been there and done that, I don't have to think that one through for very long. I penned my first "novel" more than half a century ago. I sweated bullets to finish that baby, doubting all along that it would ever happen. And, when I was done, I began sending it around for publication, doubting all along that it would ever happen.


Now, I don't mean I sent pitches for it to every Tom, Dick, and Doubleday I could find, I mean I dropped the whole damned thing in a Manilla envelope, addressed it, and mailed it toot suite, which I think is French for "SASE Enclosed." Read More 

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Someone recently asked if she could use a copyrighted photograph of a deceased model taken by a deceased photographer in a magazine article exploring the model's murder. It's an interesting question. And it's one that every nonfiction writer faces eventually. So, what are the legalities involved here? This is how I responded:

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For starters, remember that U.S. copyrights extend throughout the lifetime of the copyright holder plus seventy years. After the copyright holder's death, those rights are passed along to the heirs who can sell them if they wish to a third party, such as a photo agency or a product developer.


Regardless, in this situation, at least, it appears as if the judicial concept of Fair Use is in force. If that's the case, you should be able to use the images for illustrative purposes in your magazine article, with a couple of caveats. According to the Website of the American Bar Association in referencing the right to fair use:


"The first thing that we need to know is that copyright protection does not protect factual information conveyed in the copyrighted work, meaning that publicizing the scores of a sporting event or other factual information such as injuries, retirement, and so forth is considered fair use and does not constitute copyright infringement. What helps to strengthen a fair use argument in a case not involving the use of mere factual information is the use of the copyrighted material for the purpose of legitimate news commentary. For example, when using a clip or photograph to report the results of a sporting event or other factual information, courts have regarded the use of copyrighted material as fair use when the use is (1) brief quotations only; (2) presented in a news report; and (3) presented in a newsreel or broadcast of a work located in the scene of an event being reported." Read More 

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I was thinking the other day about how many truly great novels are being turned out today as opposed to, say, a hundred years ago or longer. Many people believe that writers back then cranked out the best literature around, and most modern writers can't compete.


Me? I'd say, that, throughout history, most published novels have been garbage, no matter when they were written. And, most novelists don't merit the designation. Back in the Golden Age of long-form fiction writing, probably 95 percent of all novels were junk—words on paper that some publisher hoped would catch fire and sell. Most of those publishers were wrong, and most are long since gone.


Today, I imagine an equivalent percentage of novels being cranked out are pure crap. Either the novels' storylines are weak, their plots are convoluted, their logic is skewed, their dialogue is unrealistic, their narrative is weak and wandering, their conflict and resolution are inadequate, their characterizations are shallow, and their grammar and punctuation are suspect (See? I can put things mildly, too!). And, for the really bad novels, check the box marked "All of the above." Read More 

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Can a person make revisions to a novel without destroying its essence? That's a question someone asked online recently, and the answers were eye-opening. I mean, they were horrible, if not outright harmful. Here's how I responded to the writer:

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I'm constantly amazed at the bad, offtrack, and irrelevant information people disguise as responses to serious questions. Contrary to what one respondent wrote ("Don't give editing a lesser weight in your efforts than the writing"), you didn't ask that nor did you imply that's what you intended to do. And, it's absurd that he said you can't revise a novel without changing its essence. I know it's tough to use such big words correctly, but that's what dictionaries are for, and he should buy one.


Ditto to another respondent who advised you, "The whole purpose of revising a novel is it isn't working as it is. If your novel isn't working, revising the essence of it may be exactly what you need to do." In addition to being at least partly erroneous, I don't see how that answers your question at all.


A third respondent, talking about art school and "one shot" prints, missed the mark by a country mile.


Here's the real deal: Read More 

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To the writer who wanted to know whether he should risk rejection and waste time begging agents to accept his book or go the quicker route and self-publish it, my answer left little doubt as to where I stand. If you have any questions after reading it, just let me know!

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Should you go the conventional publishing route? Absolutely. Should you plan on begging, cajoling, or bribing agents to accept your manuscript? Absolutely not. There's a right way and a wrong way of doing everything in life, and that's especially true when pitching a literary agent or even a publisher, for that matter. Write an enticing, one-page pitch for your book. Then, write the perfect complete book (fiction) or sample chapter with an outline (nonfiction) on a hot, marketable topic, and I guarantee you success.


And, since you brought it up, what's so enticing about getting your book published quicker, anyway? Even if it took only 24 hours to produce (which won't happen), if it sells two copies, what's the advantage? See where I'm going with this? Quicker isn't always better.


Here are a few other publishing-industry misconceptions I'd like to clear up. Read More 

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A young writer with relatively little experience in practicing his craft recently asked me what the benefits are of a first draft. I couldn't wait to respond.

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First-draft benefits? Are you serious? You might as well ask what the benefits are of buying a first car! Both eventually get you where you want to go, although not necessarily quickly enough to satisfy you.


Still, first drafts do serve a purpose, although there's no explanation of that purpose that fits all writers. In fact, a first draft serves different purposes for different writers at various stages of their careers. When I broke my teeth on long-form fiction fifty years ago, a first draft was my Red Badge of Courage. It showed me—proved to me—that I could write a novel. Never mind how good it was (it wasn't), and never mind that I didn't even think of it as a first draft (it was). I wrote it, and, by gum, I was proud of it.


Later in my development, a first draft became less of a measuring stick of my capabilities and more of an opportunity to screw something up before going back and setting things right. It enabled me to practice my concerto before lugging my instrument over to the concert hall for a performance. It also allowed me to see whether or not all the various pieces fit together in a way that made sense. It functioned as both a sounding board and a roadmap to where I wanted to go. Read More 

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Somebody asked, rather skeptically at best, how to turn a 150,000-word manuscript into a one-page synopsis. I mean, it just can't be done. Can it? Can it?


Well, you've probably already guessed the answer to that. Here's what I advised.

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You've received some useful pointers here, most notably the need for you to reduce the total word count of your manuscript by a third. That's true if you ever hope to sell the novel to a conventional publisher or until you make a name for yourself as a top-selling author, at which time you can sell any number of words you want. One not-so-good pointer you received is to write a synopsis with a misplaced modifier in the very first sentence, as in this respondent's example:


"John invites Mary to spend the weekend with him at a cabin by an upstate lake, that his dad has agreed to let him use."


Huh? His dad agreed to let him use an upstate lake?


Besides that little bit of ridiculousness, not one of the respondents to your question actually answered you when you asked How does one go about compressing a 150K novel into a page … The respondents tell you why you should condense your story into a single-page synopsis (which is not a "spoiler"). They tell you what your synopsis should include and why it should include it. But, they never give you a clue as to how to accomplish your goal.


But I will. Read More 

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COPYRIGHT: Yay or Nay?

Someone recently asked if I suggested he register his work with the U.S. Copyright Office before submitting it to publishers. He had received a lot of suggestions against doing so because it wasn't necessary. Publishers aren't going to steal anyone's work. But, actually, there are even more reasons for not registering your work before submitting it for publication--or ever. Surprised? Here's what I told him.

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Let me respond here less to the obvious and more to the down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty, practical issues of non-registration. I suggest you pass on registering your manuscript before sending it out to publishers for several reasons.


  1. Your manuscript is copyright-protected from the moment of its creation in a "fixed … tangible medium of expression," according to the U.S. Copyright Office.
  2. If someone appropriates and infringes upon your work, you can issue a demand letter for the violator to remove that work from all public spaces, including Websites, magazines, newspapers, books, billboards, television ads, stores, and so forth.
  3. If a violator fails to respond to your demand letter, you can sue for actual and punitive damages in Federal Court, but only after registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. The distinction boils down to this: You don't need to register to prove ownership of your creative property; you do need to register to take a violator to court for actual and punitive damages. Read More 
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