This week Writer’s Blog will be exploring literary devices to help you along with your writing. Literary devices are techniques and structures writers employ to convey their message and story. When done well, the use of literary devices can alter, manipulate and challenge the way a reader perceives any work. Used masterfully, literary devices influence how a story or essay can be interpreted and analysed, as well as how much the reader enjoys the work. Today’s device is Theme:
How To Master Theme
In my time as an intern at a publishing house, themes emerged as an unlikely yet important factor in defining the most enjoyable and publishable reads. At once simple yet difficult to define, themes are the conceptual framework that ideas spring from and exist in. Despite being typically associated with the realm of readers and critiques rather than writers, they are an essential tool to understand and keep at-the-ready in your writer’s tool kit. Let’s look more deeply into this underrated literary device…
What Are Themes?
Themes are your story’s message, morals, lessons, driving concepts, key ideas and big questions. They can stem from something concrete such as war, money or family, but they are abstract in nature.
“While the subject of a work is described concretely in terms of its action (e.g. ‘the adventures of a newcomer in the big city’), its theme or themes will be described in more abstract terms (e.g. love, war, revenge, betrayal, fate, etc.).” – The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms
Most themes are “universal”, meaning they can be understood in concept by almost everyone, regardless of race or nationality. They stem from basic human experiences, understanding and lack of understanding. While tricky to pin down with a definition, most people understand theme innately – but it’s important to know that theme is not plot, premise, conflict or concept.
Why Are They Important?
Whether you’ve planned it or not, chances are your story has at least one theme. And that theme affects everything: the characters, the plot and the setting. Such a powerful and natural device deserves all the attention you can give it.
“The theme of any literary work is the base topic or focus that acts as a foundation for the entire literary piece. The theme links all aspects of the literary work with one another and is basically the main subject.” – Literary Devices
Thanks mainly to our education system, most readers process stories through themes, so it’s important to be aware of them when you’re writing. Readers may not know what it’s like to be a super-spy, but they understand love and betrayal. Themes are the key to connecting your reader with a foreign experience.
Coherence and Unity
Themes can bring plots, subplots, scenes, settings and characters together as a whole, coherent piece of work. If your work is long enough to have subplots and side characters, they shouldn’t be there just to fill in pages. A subplot’s purpose could be to develop characters or setting, but for it to really feel a part of the story, it should work to develop the same theme/s as the main plot.
Most writers don’t write with a theme in mind. There’s no rule about when you should start thinking about themes. For a first draft, not thinking of them can be beneficial. Themes emerge naturally in stories, and focusing on other literary devices at first can help you stop sliding into cliché. But if you write a draft and then realise your themes are all over the place, it may take a fair bit of work and reimagining to fix them. The first step when working with themes is, obviously, identifying them. From there, you can make sure they’re performing their role as the story’s framework.
More likely than not, high school English has you well-equipped for identifying themes. A theme can be described as a key lesson or question that drives your story or characters. But sometimes you’re so close to the story that it’s harder to see the bigger picture. This is one of those cases where it’s useful to have a writing buddy, but in the circumstance that you’re lacking one, most people should be able to identify a theme in a story.
“Theme doesn’t have to be profound, but it must always be true to the storyteller. One of the most fundamental motives for writing novels is to reveal the truth as you see it, to share your life experiences and show people what this world looks like through your eyes.” – Harvey Chapman
Sometimes the theme you identify doesn’t ring quite right. Trust your writer’s instinct and take some time to ponder the concept and what it means to you regardless of the story. Then, with a new theme (or simply a new angle on the theme), get writing.
Sometimes themes are related and work together to strengthen each other, such as the themes of friendship, love and betrayal; others such as family, the environment and life purpose can detract from each other if not well thought out.
Combining too many non-related themes in one work can be messy. When was the last time you read a story that successfully contained the themes of loyalty, friendship, religion, time, the environment, loss, the law, racism and health? Maybe three or four themes from this list could play out in a story, with additional related minor themes. But stretching a story across too many unrelated themes can lead to confusion, superficiality and a lack of unity.
Thematic Write / Edit
Now you know your themes, it’s time to write or edit with these firmly in mind. If you find a scene or a side-comment from a character touches on another theme, seriously think about whether it is necessary. If not, change or delete it. If it is, think of ways to achieve the same goal without involving a new theme.
Everything can build and develop theme. Plot, motifs and characters are great places to start, but the list is endless. Even setting can tie into theme through the way it affects atmosphere and meaning. If your theme’s idea of “love conquers all” reaches its peak in a graveyard, you’d want to be aiming for a Romeo & Juliet style of “love conquers all, even death”.
“If you’re working on a theme involving sacrifice, you don’t want to have your characters making sacrifices in every chapter. Theme works best when it’s subtle.” –Melissa Donovan
Sticking to your themes is important but, having said that, so is subtlety. Theme is important, but so are plot, characters and plausibility. A useful tip for not getting too repetitive with your theme is to look at it from different or opposing perspectives. Consider the different ways love is portrayed in Pride and Prejudice, all the while leading to the one idea of marrying for love.
“Theme is life itself, as manifested in our stories, as seen through our characters, and as experienced through our plots.” – Courtney Carpenter
Themes are the framework of stories – a literary device that shouldn’t be forgotten. They add meaning to your work, draw your reader in and pull everything together as a whole. Be sure to keep this tool close by whenever you write.
This week Writer’s Blog will be exploring literary devices to help you along with your writing. Literary devices are techniques and structures writers employ to convey their message and story. When done well, the use of literary devices can alter, manipulate and challenge the way a reader perceives any work. Used masterfully, literary devices influence how a story or essay can be interpreted and analysed, as well as how much the reader enjoys the work. Today’s device is Structure:
How To Master Structure
Structure, or form, is the arrangement of story elements according to purpose, style and genre. Structure doesn’t just happen on it’s own. Rather, it’s carefully considered by the author to make sure their intended meaning is conveyed.
In order for a story to be truly immersive, the structure must play the part of a skeleton. In other words, the structure supports the story to ensure the most powerful delivery of elements, yet in a manner unseen and not easily identified by the reader.
“Fiction is supposed […] to be entertaining and narrative, so structures have to be buried a little bit. If they become foregrounded too much, it stops being fiction and starts being poetry – something more concrete and out of time.” – Eleanor Catton
Structure may be confused with plot. While the plot is the events in the story itself, heavily affected by character, setting and theme, the structure is how these elements are presented to the reader.
Why do we need structure?
Structure is the literary device that turns words and sentences into a story. It aims to present that story in the most favourable way, for a specific audience. The writing process is more than simply piecing together words on a page:
“[…] turning all that raw material into a novel isn’t simply a matter of putting it into words on a page or screen. You have to ‘translate’ it into a form that readers can relate to. That’s what structure does. And if you ignore it or mess with it, you risk frustrating – or worse, losing – readers.” – James Scott Bell
Consider this very article. If we opened with the ‘tips’ section, and finished with a definition, readers would become frustrated, scrolling up and down to make sense of the information. If all the quotes were lumped in a pile right in the middle of the article and sub-headings placed at the end of their sections, instead of at the start, would the article be easy to read? No.
It doesn’t matter if your sentences alone read like golden honey. Your story must have a readable and engaging structure or your readers will switch off.
Types of structure
Most stories can be either rigidly or loosely aligned to a particular structure and these can be expressed through simple diagrams.
A common example of structure in modern fiction is The Fichtean Curve, involving moments of rising and falling action, a climax at the height of the curve and a resolution, may it be a happy ending or a tragedy.
Perfect for fantasy or science fiction, the Hero’s Journey begins with an interruption to a protagonist’s everyday existence by an opportunity for adventure. They journey into the unknown, facing obstacles and undergoing a gradual metamorphosis. After overcoming every hurdle, they return to their old world with a new mindset. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is a fine example of this structure.
Another common structure, In Media Res, means ‘in the middle of things’. If your story begins on the third or fourth crisis point of a Fichtean Curve, the stakes are very high already. You hook your readers in from the first word. Events prior to the start of the story are revealed gradually through the narrative or through flashbacks, like in the movie Vantage Point. Alternatively, any boring introductory scenes can be dismissed entirely, like in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies or Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen.
Frame narratives are, as the name suggests, stories told within stories. Useful for setting the stage or casting doubt on the reliability of a narrator, this structure is more common in the crime, adventure or fantasy genres. The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith and every title in the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, are frame narratives.
Historically, the popularity of different types of structures has fluctuated. Of course, as story-telling continues to evolve, structures are constantly reworked, simplified and deconstructed, according to the writer’s target audience and purpose.
Working with structure
The way that writers approach structure can vary. At one end of the spectrum are the strict planners. Before they begin a first draft, these writers spend hours constructing each scene, and the order in which these scenes will appear.
“Some writers can produce marvellous plots without planning it out, but I can’t. In particular I need to know the structure of a novel: what’s going to happen in each chapter and each scene.” – Emma Donoghue
At the other end are the writers who leave the story in charge, writing without the ‘restriction’ of a preconceived plan.
“I don’t plot the books out ahead of time, I don’t plan them. I don’t begin at the beginning and end at the end. I don’t work with an outline and I don’t work in a straight line.” – Diana Gabaldon
And then there are the authors who occupy the middle ground.
“I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things undecided while I write.” – J.K. Rowling
Newer writers need time to discover how they work best when it comes to planning. On the other hand, you might already know where you stand, so it’s best to go with what works best for you.
In some instances, such as children’s picture books, the structure will be fairly straightforward. Other books are more expansive, such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
“I first read The Lord of the Rings as an adolescent. It’s a dense novel, a sprawling, complex monster of a book populated with a prolific number of characters caught up in a narrative structure that, frankly, does not lend itself to conventional storytelling.” – Peter Jackson
Tip: Reflect on some of your favourite poems or books and see if you can identify the structure. In most novels, you should be able to plot a graph of the structure and locate critical turning points.
Using structure to edit
The first stage in the editing process is called a structural edit. This only highlights the importance of a strong structure. Even before an editor looks at a manuscript at the sentence level, they start by gauging whether the structure is logical and appropriate for the intended audience.
Tip: Before you send your work to a professional, you too should consider structure when you first edit your text. Read through your work from start to finish, checking that sentences, paragraphs and chapters flow with logic and clarity.
Furthermore, you can check the pace of your story through a broad lens. Is one chapter far longer than most of the others? Are some chapters too short in comparison?
Approaching structure in different ways
Some authors may choose to toy with structure. Understanding your purpose is important. However, it’s also crucial to note that straying from the norm might not be as popular as sticking to well defined conventions.
This doesn’t mean that you should shy away from experimentation. When practising your craft simply for your own benefit, not for publication, you might choose to remove a critical turning point or write a story so convoluted that readers can’t make sense of it.
Tip: Try planning and/or writing your story from the end. Understanding the fate of your characters will strengthen their personality and motivations when the story is read from the beginning. And as you track backwards towards the beginning you’ll know for sure that the end of the book is supported by every word that comes before it.
“Structure is translation software for your imagination.” – James Scott Bell
At first, structure might not seem like the most important device, but imagine if you had no skeleton. Imagine if your car had no chassis, your bridge no pylons. Your story will fall and fail. This device is a must-have for your literary toolbox. Now it’s over to you!
Via the amazing resource that is Writer’s Edit: https://writersedit.com/literary-devices-master-structure
Imagine someone to suing you for half a million dollars because you failed to attribute their work correctly.
It would be a shock, right? But believe me, it’s definitely possible.
So one of the most important things you can do for your writing career is to learn the rules of attribution.
Why? Well, for one, failure to follow them could spell a heap of trouble… like getting a court order for half a million dollars.
Just take a look at the headlines from this summer. Melania Trump stirred up controversy with a speech that bears a striking resemblance to one made by Michelle Obama in 2008, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto faces a 23 percent approval rating following accusations that he lifted almost a third of his law school thesis from other works.
Plus, it’s a matter of ethics.
It’s one thing for writers to draw inspiration from past works and the world around us; that practice is encouraged on this site as well as others. But it’s quite another to take someone’s research, data, ideas or images and try to pass them off as our own. It’s unscrupulous.
Of course, not all cases of plagiarism are deliberate. Some writers don’t know the rules of attribution or think they’ve adequately followed them, only to have another party beg to differ.
Take this case from The Washington Post, in which an expert in the history of technology accused a freelance writer of plagiarizing one of his early articles. The freelancer claimed she thought citing a book of essays — in which the tech expert’s article was included — was sufficient attribution, even though she never directly cited the tech expert. She stated that she “attributed to my best judgment.”
Mistakes happen, but even if your motives were pure, do you really want a plagiarism accusation hanging over you for the rest of your career?
Of course not.
What You Need to Know to Avoid Being Sued
Direct quotes. If you use a person’s specific words, you must put the words in quotes and give credit to the speaker. “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Patrick Henry said.
Information and ideas. If you get information or ideas from somewhere else, credit the source, even if you use your own words to describe it. Thomas Jefferson was known to greet White House guests while wearing his robe and slippers, NPR reports.
Research and stats. You didn’t pull those numbers from behind your ear, did you? Give credit to the original source of any data you cite. Up to 100,000 people visit the White House every month, according to WhiteHouse.gov.
Opinion or uncertainty. If you’re stating someone’s else’s take on the matter, source it: The best foreign policy president of the 20th century was FDR, according to The Atlantic. Similarly, if you’re uncertain about the facts, source it: FDR may have been suffering not from polio but Guillain-Barré syndrome, according to a report from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
The Tricky Business of Image Attribution
This one is a little more involved due to the laws of copyright infringement. There’s a difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you can and cannot do with images:
- If you took the photo or created the visual you’re using, you’re fine — you own the copyright.
- You cannot grab someone else’s photo, use it in your work and think you’re covered because you provided attribution (“Photo by Joe Blow”). Do this, and you could find yourself on the receiving end of a DMCA takedown notice.
What can you do, then?
- Access any of the dozens of stock photo sites (there are both free and paid ones) for copyright-free photos and illustrations. Here’s a list from Forbes of 33 of stock photo sites.
- Find a Creative Commons image. These images are in the public domain, and you can use them as long as you properly credit the owner and follow any restrictions they may have placed on the image.
What About Other Kinds of Content?
Companies love it when you share these content assets; it’s one of the reasons they create them. They want them to be shared — not only does it help establish them as an authority in their industry and draw traffic to their site, it’s part of the culture of sharing that Leo Babauta discusses here.
What constitutes “proper credit?” Two things: Mentioning them in your copy and linking to the original image.
What About Credibility?
There’s another angle to this: Attribution boosts your credibility. When you cite ideas or facts and back them up with proper attribution, you substantiate the point you’re trying to make. You’re telling the reader, This isn’t just my take on the matter — XYZ feels the same way. Compare, for example:
One of the most important skills for a president to have is good public communication skills.
One of the most important skills for a president to have is good public communication skills. In fact, in his book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush, Fred Greenstein lists “effectiveness as a public communicator” as a major factor contributing to presidential performance.
See the difference? When you provide a source that backs up what you’re saying, you give credence to your point.
What Doesn’t Need Attribution?
- Common knowledge. You don’t need to attribute anything considered to be common knowledge or undisputed fact in the public domain. The Harvard Guide to Using Sources has more information on the categories of common knowledge.
- What you witness firsthand. If the snow is up to your waist on the National Mall on inauguration day, you can just say so. People will believe you.
Do Links Count as Attribution?
No, they don’t. That’s my opinion. Some would argue that in this digital age, a link is sufficient. I disagree. Note from the Editor-in-Chief, Mary Jaksch: For online writers, a link is a clear attribution (if it’s not a poll!)
Eight in 10 Americans believe that other people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.
– is not the same as –
Eight in 10 Americans believe that other people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy, according to a Gallup poll.
First, links get stripped. If the link was removed at some point, then you simply have a statistic with no source. Attributing the source takes care of this problem.
Second, the person or organization who did the research or came up with the idea has earned the right to be named. It’s only right.
People get rightly upset where you use someone else’s words, images, ideas or research in your work without properly crediting the source. Intentional or accidental, it smacks of deceit nonetheless.
Perhaps Steve Buttry, Director of Student Media at Louisiana State University, said it best: “Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism.”
Knowing the guidelines of attribution will prevent you from making this type of ethical error and help you remain in good standing with editors and readers everywhere.
Do you have a bunch of first chapters tucked away in a drawer – for seven different novels?
Is there a folder full of abandoned short stories on your computer?
Have you left a trail of abandoned blogs around the internet?
Did your ebook fizzle out after a few pages?
Most writers have been there … again, and again, and again. When I began writing, I spent plenty of time starting stories. The problem was, I pretty much never finished them.
Maybe it’s the same for you. You’ve got plenty of great ideas, and you just can’t resist throwing yourself into them. Unfortunately, your motivation seems to vanish … and you’re left with a bunch of notes, outlines and first drafts that aren’t going anywhere.
No-one’s going to buy a half-written novel. No-one’s going to read a blog post that stops short after two paragraphs. So whether your writing aspirations involve hitting the New York Times bestseller list or living from the passive income from your ebooks, you need to finish what you start.
Step #1: Stop Starting New Projects
Believe me, I know how tempting it is to grab that new idea and run with it. But now’s the time to stop. Resist the urge to begin anything new – however cool it sounds right now. After a few days or weeks, that shiny new project is going to lose its appeal and end up in the unfinished heap along with everything else.
Step #2: Assess Your Current Projects
Take a long, hard look at all your current works-in-progress. If your writing life looks anything like mine, you might well need to grab a sheet of paper and make a list – you may even want to hunt through your desk drawers or your computer’s folders.
Is there anything that’s just not worth completing? Maybe the novel you started ten years ago isn’t the one you want to write now. Maybe that blog post draft was never going to go anywhere.
Make three lists:
- Active projects that still excite you and have a purpose
- Dead projects that you’re ready to let go (even if you feel a little bit reluctant)
- Dormant projects that you might come back to in the future
Step #3: Choose One Project to Focus On
Now it’s time to pick one project. Just one. Because, when it comes to down to it, something has to be your priority.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t work on anything else. It just means that this particular project – whether it’s a blog or an ebook or a newsletter or a novel or a poetry collection – is the one that’s going to win out if you’re short on time and energy.
Step #4: Decide What “Finished” Will Look Like
How will you know when your project is done?
This might seem like a rather stupid question – but it’s worth thinking about. Many writing projects don’t have a totally clear end point.
For instance, finished might look like:
- You’ve written a start, middle and end
- You’ve proof-read it
- You’ve got feedback, revised it, and feel it is ready for sending out into the world
Without a clear definition of “finished”, you risk your project dragging on, and on, and on…
Step #5: Set Some Milestones (And Start Hitting Them)
Some small writing projects don’t need milestones: write a blog post, for instance, is something that you could realistically accomplish during one or two writing sessions.
Most projects, though – especially ones that have been hanging around unfinished for ages – are more complex. You won’t be able to finish them in a day, in a weekend, or even in a week. You’ll want to set some milestones to keep you on track.
Good milestones could be:
- Completing a major section of a novel
- Completing the first draft of a short story
- Getting the outline for your ebook finished off
- Writing a certain number of posts before your blog launch
I’d suggest having between two and ten milestones for your project (though you can break these down further if you want). It’s often useful to set a deadline for the nearest milestone, too, and hold yourself accountable.
Now, to start practicing what I preach I’m going to write myself a list, why don’t you do it too.
Friday poem: ‘A Dream within a Dream’
By Edgar Allan Poe
Take this kiss upon the brow!And, in parting from you now,Thus much let me avow –You are not wrong, who deemThat my days have been a dream;Yet if hope has flown awayIn a night, or in a day,In a vision, or in none,Is it therefore the less gone?All that we see or seemIs but a dream within a dream.***I stand amid the roarOf a surf-tormented shore,And I hold within my handGrains of the golden sand –How few! yet how they creepThrough my fingers to the deep,While I weep – while I weep!O God! can I not graspThem with a tighter clasp?O God! can I not saveOne from the pitiless wave?Is all that we see or seemBut a dream within a dream?
Writing is something that I do for myself. It gives me the opportunity to sit back, relax and enjoy a guilt-free cup of tea. However since deciding to take my writing to the next level, I have realised that sometimes you need to break out of that cosy comfort zone, in order to be a little more productive.
This new inspiration came in the form of participating in my first writing workshop. And let me just say, it will not be my last! Although sharing your work with fellow writers is a very confronting experience, it is something that makes you a braver and better writer. I had never been exposed to so many talented and unique minds, all with something brilliant to contribute. Listening and learning from them has definitely reinvigorated my writing, and has motivated me to share some of the benefits with you:
1. Learning to appreciate constructive criticism
More often than not sharing your work can be a daunting experience. Especially in the context where criticism is always guaranteed. Therefore, we tend to gravitate toward our closest family and friends for feedback, knowing that their encouragement will come from a place of love. The problem with this is that your writing may never be challenged, and without being challenged, you may never know your full potential.
2. Helping others improve their work
Participating in writing workshops doesn’t only involve accepting feedback, it also involves giving it. This is great, because it gives you a reason to expand your horizons, and gain exposure to different types of literature. Pushing your boundaries will not only help you to develop a critical eye when giving feedback, it will also give you the opportunity to learn new techniques to implement into your own work.
3. Meeting others who share your passion
Creative writing workshops exist both online and offline. Both mediums offer positives, however the most important thing to consider is that being part of any workshop gives you the chance to be part of a community. Writing is often something we do in solitude, often believing a quiet environment and sense of calm will inspire our words onto paper. However, you would be surprised, just how accurate the expression ‘two heads are better than one,’ really is.
4. Discovering your strengths
Whether creative writing is your true calling or just a hobby, gaining some outside perspective is definitely beneficial. Learning where your strengths lay will give your work direction, as well as giving you some well-deserved encouragement. Refining your strengths will not only improve your writing, but will also make your weaknesses easier to accept. Let’s face it, no one’s perfect!
5. Keeping you motivated
Sometimes writing can be as simple breathing. Other times, you may struggle to write even a sentence. It’s very easy to lose motivation when the words just won’t flow, and minutes of rest become hours, days or even weeks. But trust me, just like exercising, without continual training it just gets harder. Having a group of people to keep you accountable, will definitely give you the motivation you need to keep going. Knowing that you will be expected to share your work will ensure you put in your best effort. Workshopping your writing will keep you on your toes, and will help you to develop better writing habits to improve your skills all round.
So there you have it. If you’re not sure about your writing capabilities, are stuck in a bit of slump, need some motivation, or just want to meet people who share your passion, then workshopping your writing is definitely for you. Sharing ideas, insights and feedback is a surefire way to improve your work and will certainly help you to learn and grow as writer and as an individual.
Workshopping gives you the opportunity to share your love of writing, as well as new ideas, insights and conversation with people who are genuinely interested in your passion. Being able to bounce thoughts off like-minded people is truly invaluable. Workshops provide the perfect space for sharing passing thoughts, which can grow into fully encapsulated ideas with the help of fellow writers. Furthermore, they also offer you the chance to break out of your comfort zone, meet new people and potentially make lifelong friends.
1. Selling books is harder than writing them. There are 300k books published in the U.S. every year. And 30% of Americans read only 1 to 5 books in 2014. Writing a book is purely up to you. But getting other people to buy and read your book is another matter.
2. Everyone obsesses about titles and covers but it’s hard to prove their impact beyond above a basic level of quality. It’s easy to find popular books with lousy titles and covers, and unpopular books with great titles and covers. There are too many variables for magic answers. Publishers exert more control over titles and covers than you’d expect: often authors have little say.
3. Some books, like The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick, don’t become popular until decades after publication. It’s a strange world. Books have lives of their own, typically quiet ones. We judge success by sales, but many factors that have nothing to do with the book itself impact sales. Bestseller lists are not a meritocracy. Sometimes a book is on the bestseller list for a week and never heard of again. Other times a book has steady sales for years but never makes any lists or wins any awards.
4. Your reasons for writing must transcend fame and wealth as neither are likely from writing alone. Most books you read are written by writers who pay their rent through other means. If you want fame and wealth from writing be committed to the long term. This takes the pressure off each book, and you’ll be open to learning instead of foolishly trying to hit a grand slam on your first try.
5. Fame will likely ruin your writing or your life. Study the history of famous writers if you doubt me. Fast fame is a curse, or a trap, as everyone wants you to repeat exactly what you did before.
6. The publishing industry is slow to realize authors need them less than ever. Unlike 20 years ago, you can do much of what a publisher does yourself, perhaps not as well, but that depends on how entrepreneurial and self aware you are. Learn about self-publishing simply to be informed about your business end to end. Some publishers do great work, but many are stuck in an antiquated notion of their value.
7. Many authors are lazy. They’re arrogant too. They don’t want to do PR, they don’t want to do their homework and they are in denial of how many other authors there are. They, like some publishers, believe in romantic notions of how publishing works.
8. Some publishers/editors/agents are amazing. Some are bad and incompetent. YMMV. Don’t judge them all by the one you worked with. My agent, David Fugate, is awesome.
9. A great editor at a mediocre publisher can be a better situation than a mediocre editor at a great publisher. Editors represent you for dozens of decisions the publisher makes for your book that you can’t participate in.
10. Many editors don’t “edit”. They’re more like strategic project managers. There are three roles editors play, often played by different people. Acquisitions editors sign authors. Development editors help you draft your book. Production editors are the ones who spend the most time with your words, and even they depend on copyeditors and proofreaders. Many people will touch your book.
11. Don’t believe everything depends on finding agents or publishers. They both want you to already have a fan base, which is a paradox. There are many paradoxes to face in trying to break into any field that many people want to be in (e.g. being a movie star). To find an agent requires hard work and this is on purpose. There is a far greater supply of people writing books than demand from publishers.
12. Always remember you can upload a PDF of your book to Amazon and have it on sale on Kindle in minutes. Don’t get lost falsely depending on others. No one can stop you from writing a book and selling it except yourself. Promoting a book well is another matter (see #1), but publishers struggle with that too.
13. No one will come to your book reading/signing unless you are already famous. The packed author readings on the news are only packed because the author is already very well known. It’s another paradox related to #1. Read The First 1000 copies by Tim Grahl, or APE by Guy Kawaksai for a good start on how to market books. Book readings at bookstores are among the worst uses of time for a new author.
14. Publishers only invest in big PR for famous authors. For new authors there’s little reason to believe the investment will pay off. Would you spend 50% of your annual marketing budget on an unknown? Neither would a publisher. Publishers do love authors who invest their own time and money in marketing, and will help with and add to your investment.
15. Most people think they want to write, but really they just like to think about writing. If you have a 6th grade education you know how to write. The question is are you willing to put in the hours?
16. You can spot these people because they spend more time complaining about how hard it is to write than doing it. Or they endlessly stroke their idea as if it can someday magically transform itself into 300 pages. Don’t complain. No one is making you torture yourself but you.
17. Distractions say more about your lack of commitment than anything else. Learn to concentrate. Concentration is a skill anyone can develop and if you are serious about writing you should see this as central to your ambitions. If you were starving to death and writing a book would get you food, you’d write. We are all capable of writing if suitably motivated.
18. Which means that anyone with sufficient commitment can write a book. It might not be a good book, but most books by published authors aren’t that good either. What makes for a good book is highly subjective anyway.
19. A publisher is a venture capitalist. They are giving you money before your work is done. Before you complain about the size of the investment they are willing to make (or not make) in your book, are you are willing to make the same financial investment? Few authors are. It’s a business. They owe you nothing beyond what they agree to.
20. Your friends, family and colleagues are you best assets for finding an audience for your writing. Everyone has friends and family. Ask for their help. Make it easy for them to help you. Reward every new fan as if they were your only fan (because at first they will be).
21. Learn to take feedback well. By this I mean you want to be a better writer on the next book than this one, yes? That only happens if you listen for ways to improve. Arrogant writers, and they are legion, rarely improve.
22. Learn to take rejection well. It will be everywhere. If you think rejections from agents and publishers are tough, wait till you get rejected by reviewers and readers (e.g. The Great Gatsby has 235 1 star reviews). Look for a nugget of merit in every mean-spirited critique you hear as the mean people might have more honest insight into your work than the nicer people. Be grateful anyone read your book at all.
23. Stop looking for secrets and tricks. You’re a sucker if you think there’s a trick as every great writer in history never found one that let them skip the work. Tips only help if you are writing every day and can put tips to use.
24. You build a following, or in publishing jargon, a platform, by publishing regularly. There is no magic place where people will come to you just for showing up once. It doesn’t matter where you publish, but put something into the world regularly. Be willing to learn as you go and experiment. There are many ways to build an audience but they all require effort.
25. Publish once a week on a blog. You want to build an audience before your book is finished, not after. Write briefly about topics that relate to your book. Share excerpts and ideas you’re working on. Read other bloggers who write about subjects like yours and get to know them. Invite people you know to be interested to follow along. It will feel weird at first but work to get comfortable with being visible and making connections, as you’ll need those skills when your book is out in the world.
26. Don’t be precious. No one is going to steal your ideas. Ideas are easy, it’s the work of delivering on an idea in 300 pages that’s hard.
27. Get feedback on your ideas and drafts early. Find people who are honest with you – they are hard to find. Grand praise of your drafts does not make them better. Separate useful critiquing (“this section didn’t work”, “you should read Rushdie”) from the moral support your friends give over beers (“you can do it”, “keep going”). Get the tough feedback early enough that you can still do something about it.
28. Only your name is on the book. Your publisher will publish dozens of books every month. You will publish one book every few years, or maybe just once in your life. They will never care as much as you do about your book. You have the right to veto and argue, politely, with anyone who works on your book. Stand up for yourself, but earn that right by taking writing and publishing seriously. Do your homework. If you don’t take shortcuts, no one will try to take shortcuts on you.
Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books they’ve read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Here are their recommendations for April 2017:
- Faces In The Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
- An Exaggerated Murder by Josh Cook
- No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts
- The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
- What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
- The Whore’s Child by Richard Russo
- The Stand by Stephen King
- The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach
- Mad Men And Politics, Co-Authored And -Edited By Lilly Goren
- Dark Money by Jane Mayer
- The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- The Spy by Paulo Coelho
- Humans Are Underrated by Geoff Colvin
- Right Behind You by Lisa Gardner
Click on the links above for a detailed synopsis of each book, or follow the following link to see what the Writer’s Bone crew had to say: http://www.writersbone.com/book-recommendations/16-books-that-should-be-on-your-radar-april-2017