I get approached from time to time by aspiring new writers, asking for advice on how to get started. The longer I’ve been doing this, the harder it gets to answer them. At this point I’ve been in the game nearly 20 years, so how do I condense what I’ve learned into a quick conversation or a brief email? And what if they are interested in a completely different type of writing than the kind that has made me as rich and famous as I currently am? (Hmmm – now that I think about it, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But I digress…)
So how to advise them? Do I lecture them on the ever-changing industry? Warn them of the dangers of reading the works of Clive Cussler? Or simply hand them a dog-eared copy of The Elements of Style and turn around and run? Depending on who asks, it’s hard to determine which advice would be the most useful.
When in doubt, fire up the time machine!
I’ve been binge-watching the old Stargate SG-1 TV series recently, and several of the stories focus on time travel, a concept that has always fascinated me. In a couple of episodes, the main characters manage to pass messages to versions of themselves who are living in a different time.
This got me to thinking: what kind of messages would Current-Day Keith send to Past Keith?
After considering obvious nuggets like “buy stock in Amazon” and “don’t enroll in Trump University,” I started thinking about what I would tell Keith The Writer From The Past (or, KTWFTP). Since SG-1 episodes usually incorporate a ticking clock or some other increasingly urgent complications, I decided to ramp up the pressure, and limit myself to five pieces of advice. Here’s what I came up with to share with the younger (and yes, hairier) Keith.
1. Know your genre – and its conventions.
Probably the biggest – and hardest – lesson I’ve learned as a writer is that genre matters. Historically the genre of a book just wasn’t something I thought or cared about – as a reader or as a writer. But after writing one hard-to-categorize manuscript after another, the first message I would pass on to KTWFTP is to pick a damn genre already. It will make things SO much simpler.
Why? Genre simplifies things by setting expectations. It helps an agent sell your book. It helps a publisher market your book. It helps a reader choose your book.
And if you’re self-publishing, it helps YOU market your book, which is utterly crucial. In an era when anybody can publish anything, you need a way to make your book stand out to your potential readers. For self-published books, currently one of the most powerful marketing tactics is to get your book listed in a well-established promotional vehicle like BookBub. But here’s the thing: just as in conventional publishing, which many tend to view as adhering to an “evil gatekeeper” model, there’s no guarantee BookBub will accept your book. They are picky about the content of the books they promote, and IF they accept your book, the fees they charge can vary, based on – wait for it – the category your book fits into. Dang, looks like those pesky gatekeepers are hard to avoid, even in self-publishing.
On top of all this, with each genre may come an accompanying set of conventions and expectations, which might include the acceptable length for your book, and even some rules for what can or cannot happen in your story – e.g., the HEA or HFN (Happily Ever After or Happy For Now) endings required for most types of romance novels.
I know, I know – all this talk of rules can really go against the grain for an artistic soul eager to express his or her unique vision. Believe me, I get it. And hey, the reality is that you can write anything you want. But if you actually want to sell what you wrote, ignore the rules of genre at your own peril. Been there, done that, and no, I didn’t get to quit the day job.
Okay, I think I hear my Stargate clock ticking away, so let’s move on to the next message-to-self from Time Traveling Keith.
2. Give your story an antagonist.
This is another area where I definitely need to up my game. While there are bad or evil characters in my fiction, I’ve historically not been very good about creating a single identifiable “bad guy” for my readers to root against. I’ve posted about this before here at WU, and hypothesized that my own lack of a personal nemesis (other than Clive Cussler, of course) could be why it didn’t occur to me to create one when writing a story. Yet nearly every book, TV show or movie that I like has a clear antagonist. More importantly, that antagonist is often a VERY memorable character, so not inserting one into my story represents a major missed opportunity.
For the writer, a powerful antagonist can really amp up the conflict in your story. And for the reader, a clearly identified antagonist can make it MUCH easier to get emotionally invested.
So a key lesson that 2018 Keith wants to share with my younger (and okay, thinner) self is: give us a bad guy. (Or girl. Or shark – preferably with lasers.)
3. Go big or go home.
I love stories where the action is big, bold, even – for lack of better word – cinematic. But for some reason, I rarely have the nerve to write that way. Instead, I tend to “write smaller,” probably because I’m concerned with being realistic. But in doing so, I sometimes limit the impact of my stories. And that’s something I want to change.
If you’ve ever attended one of Donald Maass’s mind-blowing workshops, you’ve heard him exhort us to write about characters who say the things we wish we had the nerve (or the wit) to say, and who do the things we only dream about doing. As he states in his excellent book Writing the Breakout Novel, “The characters in your story will not engross readers unless they are out of the ordinary. How can it be otherwise? In life, ordinary folks do ordinary things every day. How much of that do we remember? Precious little.” By contrast, Donald observes, “In life and in fiction, when people act in ways that are unusual, unexpected, dramatic, decisive, full of consequence and are irreversible, we remember them and talk about them for years.”
It’s easy to dismiss that kind of advice as only appropriate for action thrillers or superhero dramas. But even in the smallest, most intimate and least superheroic situations, there’s no denying the fact that people are still capable of actions that are unusual, unexpected, dramatic, decisive, full of consequence and irreversible. So why not have your characters do things like these? After all, as Donald points out, “We read fiction not just to see ourselves but also to imagine ourselves as we might be.”
4. Obey the laws of cause and effect.
This is a lesson I wish I had learned sooner. I’ll confess that there have been scenes in my books that exist primarily because I thought to myself, “Hey, self – this would be a cool scene to have in my book.” From studying other books and movies I admire, as well as the never-ending series of writing how-to books to which I’m addicted, I’ve learned the importance of causality (a two-dollar word for the relation of cause and effect) in fiction.
Why does this matter? Your plot will feel far more tightly structured – and far more believable – if each action is caused or impacted by some other action or element of your story.
Conversely, a lack of causality can badly undermine your story. As an example, in an effort to follow my own “go big” mantra, I was brainstorming an idea in which a secondary character suddenly pulled a gun on some of my other characters. And I came up with a plausible reason for him doing so. I congratulated myself for ramping up the tension, and thought I had done a good job of matching the way one of my favorite comedic authors had given one of his novels an adrenal jolt with a sudden and unexpected gun scene.
But then I went back and re-read the shooting passage in that author’s book, and realized that the gun-wielding character had appeared as a direct result of something the protagonist did earlier in the book. In my own brainstorm, the character showed up because he was angry about something else entirely, and my protagonist just had the bad luck to be in the same building at the time. Causality FAIL.
In his landmark book Story, screenwriting guru Robert McKee takes the position that causality “drives a story in which motivated actions cause effects that in turn become the causes of yet other effects, thereby interlinking the various levels of conflict in a chain reaction of episodes to the Story Climax, expressing the interconnectedness of reality.” Highfalutin words, I know, but McKee makes a solid point, and I recommend his book for those interested in story theory. (By the way, did you know that highfalutin is one word, not two – and doesn’t need an apostrophe on the end? I didn’t, until I researched this post. You’re welcome.)
For a compelling – and far more down-to-earth – lesson on causality in storytelling, check out what the creators of South Park have to say on the matter. I’ve posted this video before (and yes, it’s safe for viewing in mixed company), but it’s definitely worth another viewing.
5. Be able to describe your book in one or two sentences.
Before you protest, I can say this with complete confidence: the simple reality is that EVERY writer at EVERY stage in their journey – from unpublished newbie to NYT bestseller – is inevitably going to be asked, “What’s your book about?”
This can be maddeningly difficult to answer, since you’re trying to express in just a few sentences what it took you several hundred pages to convey in your manuscript. But I can tell you from experience, when you don’t have a concise way of describing your book, you will lose your audience – fast. That might not sound like a big deal, but consider this: your agent could be having the same challenge describing your book to a prospective buyer. Not good.
So my big takeaway – and I emphasize that it’s MY takeaway, for Keith of Nowsville to pass on to YesterKeith – is that I want my next book to be VERY easy to describe. Yes, folks, I have drunk the “high concept” Kool-Aid, and have resolved to write a pithily describable book next time around. But I’ll delve more deeply into high concept in some future post. (Oh, and for extra points, try saying “pithily” out loud without sounding like a drunken Sylvester the Cat. But again I digress…)
Okay, but what if your story simply isn’t high concept? I still recommend that you put some effort into distilling it into a sentence or two, acknowledging that there’s no way to capture your whole story. So, if you can’t encompass the story in its entirety, what if you simply try to highlight the most intriguing part?
For example, maybe you could describe the “set-up” – the basic challenge being faced by your main character(s) early in the book. Or maybe focus on the climactic conflict – the big obstacle your character(s) must overcome to bring your story to its end. In either case, you’re not capturing your whole story, but perhaps you’ve included enough of a taste to whet the appetite of the agent or potential reader to whom you’re speaking.
High concept or not, this stuff is hard – believe me, I know. Time and time again I found it extremely difficult to describe my debut novel, which focused on two brain-damaged stroke survivors, but often in a humorous way. Particularly in a face-to-face conversation, try telling somebody you’ve written “a funny book about brain damage and stroke,” and imagine the stone-faced looks you’re going to get – jeez, talk about a “tough room.” That’s why next time around, I’m determined to write something that’s easier to talk about.
Food for thought…
I share all this in the hope that it might be helpful to both experienced and new writers. For experienced writers, maybe this will make you think about some hard lessons you wish you had learned sooner; for new writers, perhaps this will offer some food for thought and possibly a few shortcuts (or at least an express lane) to some concepts that might otherwise have taken several years – and/or several manuscripts – to figure out.
Again, I’m not saying these five messages apply to all writers. These are just what iPhone-Toting Keith would say to Way-Back Keith. That said, I hope at least some of these resonate with you, or get you thinking about something else you wish you had known when you were first getting started.
How about you?
Imagine you can travel back in time and share just five things with you-the-new-writer. What would you tell YOU? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
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