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About Writing Right: The Blog

WRITING THAT ELUSIVE NOVEL

Someone asked in a forum the other day how he can write a novel. He has been unable to get a good story line or style and hopes to get some help. As usual, he received plenty of responses, not many of which applied to him. Here's what I wrote.

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Well, bad novel-writer, congratulations. You have accomplished two things with one question. First, you admitted your weakness, and that's a definite plus. Second, you elicited a number of ridiculous responses from people who should know better. Lynda was the only one who hit the nail on the head. I'll take her advice of, If you're bad at writing novels, why try? and go one step further.

 

Don't try.

 

Huh? I can hear the naysayers and wannabe writers (and shoot-from-the-lip responders) castigating me already. How dare you? What gives you the right? Why would you say such a harsh and cruel thing? Why put down someone for simply asking a question?

 

To them I say, "Grow up and get a life." Read More 

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REIMURSEMENT FOR UNSOLD BOOKS

The question came up recently as to whether or not authors must repay their book publishers for unsold books. As usual, there were plenty of answers to go around--and most of them were wrong. Here's how I corrected them.

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Yes! Unlike the response from the Queen of Wrong and so many other respondents who, if I'm reading your question correctly, missed the boat entirely.

 

If you were talking about paying the publisher back for any advance against royalties received by the author but not earned out through the book's sales, the answer would be "no." Publishers don't traditionally require authors to repay unearned balances from the advances they pay their authors. But, you don't mention advances, royalties, or unpaid balances in your question; so, that's not at all the question you asked. Read More 

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BOOK REVIEWERS' RESPONSIBILITIES

I was perusing some online writing forums the other day when I came across an interesting question. The writer wanted to know what responsibilities a book reviewer has while reviewing a particular work. Not many people had answered the question (in fact, only two), and one of them was way off base. So, of course, I had to chime in. Here's my take on the subject.

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Well, while one of your respondents may know Hindi (his self-description, not mine), he certainly doesn't understand English. You asked about the responsibilities a writer has while writing a book review; he responded by explaining how to critique another writer's work. Two different animals.

 

Fortunately, another respondent to your question, Rodney, hit the nail on the head. His response is on-point and accurate. To that I would add a few things.

 

First, a book reviewer must be inscrutably honest at all times and not let a book's subject matter influence or taint his or her review. That may sound simple, but it could be unnervingly difficult. I've reviewed some books in which I didn't care for the author's literary style, but the books themselves were quite good—informative and entertaining. So, I overlooked my personal biases in stylistic preference and gave those books positive reviews. Read More 

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ARE DERIVATIVE WORKS LEGAL?

Someone asked the other dayif he could legally write a sequel to an existing work. Of course, he received a predictably muddled and incorrect response from one resondent in particular, who went out of her way to define what a derivative work is and what writing one entails--incorrectly, of course. Here's how I broached the subject.

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Well, the Queen of Wrong missed the boat yet again. Funny how often it sails away without her!

 

The truth is that copyright laws pertaining to derivative works and whether or not an author can create a sequel based upon an original, copyrighted work are complex and can't be answered with a glib, and inaccurate, "No!" Giving such an answer is irresponsible and harmful to the world of truth and reality, not to mention the derivative work's author and his or her potential for success. Who would have guessed?

 

So, with Queenie's misinformation out of the way, here's what the U.S. copyright office has to say about the subject. Read More 

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WHERE TO BREAK FOR CHAPTERS

Someone asked online the other day how to know when to break a fantasy novel into "parts" and how long those parts should be. As usual, the advice from other respondents was sketchy at best. One gal was really off base. Here's what I advised.

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Okay, listen up. Let's get one thing straight. As a teenage writer, you have my empathy. I was fifteen when I wrote my first "novel." Maybe fourteen. Who cares. What matters is that the Queen of Wrong misfired again. In her response to you, she assumed by "parts" you meant "chapters." That may be right, of course. But I doubt it, or you would have referred to them as "chapters." I'm assuming instead that by "parts" you mean "parts." As in "Part One, Part Two, Part Three" of a book, etc. And that your chapters will fall into those parts. (Forgive those who jump to conclusions and shoot from the lip, for they know not what they do.)

 

If this is true, your question can't be answered here. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

 

The number of "parts" you have in a fantasy novel is dependent upon one thing ONLY. How many do you want? How many do you need? How many do you end up with? You're the writer, after all. That means that you're the one who has the story rattling around in his head, waiting to be freed. And that means that you get to call the shots. No one else. Only you.

 

Now here comes the gut punch. The creator doesn't solicit advice; he creates. If you want to write a cookie-cutter junk fantasy novel filled with 5,000-word chapters (in general), go ahead. If you want to create your story in your words, go ahead. The difference? One will be the same old garbage that other writers always produce—formulaic, poorly crafted, unbelievably naive tales of fantastic proportion. The other will be yours. For good or bad, better or worse, it will be yours.

 

Now, you may be thinking, "Gee, that's really nifty. (Forgive me. My generation, you understand.) But he still hasn't answered my question as to whether or not I should divide my novel into parts. And if so, how many? Read More 

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FORMATTING FOR PUBLICATION

People often ask me for tips on how to format a work they're preparing to submit to a publisher. The answer, once you understand the rationale behind it, is quite simple. The time-tested most optimal formatting for submitting anything other than poetry to a print publication is this:

  • Use 1-inch margins all the way around (top, bottom, left, and right)
  • Use Times New Roman type face only (never Arial, which is far more difficult and tiring for the human eye to read)
  • Use 12-point type size
  • Use double-spaced lines throughout for the main body of your work
  • Use .5-inch (one-half inch) paragraph indentations

As for pagination, put the page numbers in the Running Head always (never in the Running Foot) and include the BOOK TITLE and author's name on all pages except the first, or cover, page. A typical running head would look something like this: "THE OX BOW INCIDENT/Herda, Page 12." Set the numbering of pages to automatically paginate beginning on the second page so you don't have to change each page number manually and run the risk of getting something wrong. Read More 

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WHY NOVELS AND FILMS VARY

A guy named Mike with a really cool pair of shades asked on the Internet the other day why stories in magazines differ from the same stories when they're published in books. Since no one else seemed able to cover this one, I dove right in.

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Hey, Mike, I can answer this one for you. As a former book, magazine, and newspaper editor, I have the response down pat. Besides, it's my pleasure to help out anyone with such cool shades!

 

There are a couple of reasons magazine versions of a story differ from what may eventually appear in books. The first and most obvious reason is that different editors working for different publishers in different media exert their influences on the work in different ways. One editor might concentrate on focusing the story more sharply while the other might be more concerned with cleaning up grammar and sharpening the rhetoric. As for the author's input, unless he's a world-famous proven moneymaking scribe, his or her material is going to undergo editing. Period. That's a standard clause in every  magazine, newspaper, and book publisher's contract, even if it's only understood rather than written in stone.

 

That's one reason. The second reason stories may differ is for the sake of brevity. While books can publish stories that are tens of thousands of words long or more, magazines can't. To understand why, think of the magazine's goals in life: To increase readership; to make money, and to entertain the readers. Let's examine the three. Read More 

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IMPROVING "BAD" WRITING

I've written before about how to improve one's writing. I've written before, too, about how I hate to see totally unqualified advisers who are all too willing to offer their advice. Think about it. Everyone likes to help, and everyone likes to think he or she has the magic cure to all of mankind's dilemmas. Unfortunately, that's a recipe for a world filled with inadequate, incorrect, and outright potentially dangerous information.

 

That's what I ran into the other day when a fifteen-year-old writer admitted he thinks his writing is super boring, and he wanted to know how to improve it. Here's what I told him--along with the legion of ne'r-do-wellers who only helped lead him astray.

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Well, in many ways, I'm sorry to see you ask this question online because every answer you have received so far is absolutely wrong. Oh, I'm sure the respondents meant well with their limited and often irrelevant points-of-view. But they're still wrong. And by piping up to answer your question, they're running the risk of fueling your inadequacy as a writer.

 

Inadequacy? Is that what I said?

 

No, that's what you said with your phrases, "super boring" and "let down." And no one on earth is better suited to judge his own literary competency than the writer. I'd make one minor correction to your question, though. You don't "think" the way you write is super boring. You know the way you write is super boring. So, let's begin with that and ask ourselves why and how to improve it.

 

Practice, practice, practice? Is that the mantra people are giving you? Ignore it! If you don't know how to write, writing over and over again, utilizing the same skillset, will only reinforce your poor writing. You can't learn by practice alone. Read my lips, everyone. YOU CAN'T LEARN BY PRACTICE ALONE! Read More 

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IS THIS PUBLISHER A SCAM?

I came across an all-too-frequent question the other day from a novice writer who wanted to know if his publisher was scamming him by publishing his story in an anthology along with other writers in exchange for $500 each. He mentioned that the publisher's name will appear on the book's cover as the author. Here's what I advised.

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If you ask a question like this one, you already suspect the answer, and you're right. The publisher, if promoting itself as a publisher, is scamming you. It's not a legitimate, conventional publisher, as other respondents have pointed out. It's a company that preys upon the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of the uninformed. Since you can't land a contract with a legitimate publisher, you turn to anyone who seems genuinely interested in your work. In fact, your "publisher" is genuinely interested only in your money. And that's a scam. A legal scam ("Let the buyer beware") but a scam nonetheless.

 

My suggestion to you: If you want to see your name "in lights" (and you do) but you don't have the skills to make it as an author with a conventional publisher (and you don't), ask yourself if having a book with your name on the cover (oops, it sounds as if the publisher is taking claim as the author, so scratch that) is worth paying $500. If so, go for it. On the other hand, if you're being led to believe that getting your first piece "published" will make getting other work published easier or that it will make you any money in the end, forget about this "deal." Believe me, it's no bargain, so I suggest you hit the bricks running. A little sadder but a whole lot wiser. Read More 

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PLAGIARISM ... OR BUST?

I ran across someone who wanted to know if he'd be commiting plagiarism by copying and pasting someone else's work into an online paraphrasing tool. Now, whenever I come across forum questions about plagiarism, I'll bet the farm that some horrendous answers follow. This day was no exception. Here's how I replied.

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Wow! I can't remember when I've seen so many absolutely ridiculous—and thoroughly wrong—responses! Did you draft your question by the light of a full moon? If so, I think you'd better send out the hounds because the vampires are flooding the countryside!

 

Seriously, to all those geniuses who haven't yet learned how to read and assumed that you, the questioner, are talking about writing research or academic papers, you're acting out of ignorance and slothfulness. It's like assuming the questioner is using a Xerox machine to make paper copies of a work and gluing them to his computer screen with wallpaper paste. Is it possible? Sure. Is it a given? Of course not. Wake up, you other "respondents." School is out. You get no points just for showing up! Or for shooting from the lip! Read More 

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