Data, big or small, will never write a good novel.
In so much of our daily lives, there are simple problems with simple solutions, or simple problems to which a few general rules can be applied to solve them. Consider a window that won’t close.
The rule “don’t force it” will prevent you from breaking the frame or hinges, and might also lead you to look for the blockage, free it, and close the window normally.
Then there are simple practical ways of helping yourself around things you find problematic.
For instance, I have trouble with short term memory, so I write a lot of things down. My Google Calendar is packed with notes and appointments, and I keep my phone near me at all times, mostly for timekeeping and remembering things.
Think of all the methodologies you had to learn in school and college. All the situations where there was a right way to do stuff… or several right ways.
If you know what science is – you’ve read your Karl Popper, you understand the principles of philosophy of science, then you’ll understand exactly why there are scare quotes around “the” in the title.
A lot of people who think they understand science will tell you “science is a methodology, not a set of rules or knowledge; science is not about what we know, but about how we know it.” This is true, of course.
But it it’s a misleading representation. Too many people who have never done science, think that it’s about acquiring knowledge by applying The Scientific Method. As if this were something repeatable.
You keep hitting a problem with The Scientific Method, and eventually it yields a solution.
But science is more abstracted than that.
The recursion is intentional. Because the scientific approach is to discover, invent or design the optimal method for each problem. Each problem, each area of knowledge, requires its own method. The scientist’s job is to invent the method that matches the problem.
The rigorous scientist discards the method as soon as it has yielded results, and looks for a new method to see if that will yield the same results.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the title you choose for your book will make a difference to how many people read it, because it will.
So you might also be forgiven for thinking what an awful lot, possibly most, other people think:
If you could only discover the underlying rules behind the titles of successful books, you could apply those rules to create a successful title.
I’m going to have a damn good try at showing you why that’s impossible.
You’re thinking, ‘a great title doesn’t make a great novel’ – the title might be awesome, but the book has to meet the expectations it creates, has to deliver on the promise; has to live up to the title, otherwise it’s a one way trip to Refund City.
But… if you have written a great book, then if you can apply the Ten Rules for Killer Titles, then you can find a title that will do your book justice; that will attract the readers who will discover the book, and you’re made, whereas if your title sucks, then it doesn’t matter how good the book is, because no one is going to discover it.
Of course not. But you saw that coming. Actually, it’s nearly true. You can certainly discourage readers with a bad title. Can you encourage them with a good one? Kinda.
Big Data isn’t anything new. But for the last few years, we’ve really, truly, had the processing power for it. It’s yielded some amazing results. Read the Wikipedia article, though. All of it.
Through Big Data, Google is a very effective search engine. Through Big Data, you can gather a lot of information about the topic you want to investigate, and apply statistical analysis to discover trends, correlations, discrepancies, and these can lead to discoveries, to new knowledge.
And since we want – that is to say I want, and I’m assuming you do, since you’re reading this – to become better booksellers as well as better writers, then Big Data must be able to tell us something about what makes a good book title.
My excuse is that I’m expected to write these compelling articles, that are at once obvious clickbait and deep, valuable content – knowledge and insight that you can apply immediately to improving your work. That is a lesson in marketing right there.
So I’m excusing myself for having spent some time analysing the data. I have a friend and author who is also an API whizz, who has acquired data for me on sales (estimated), ranking (provided by the retailer) and title. I have applied various analyses to this, by genre.
Yes, I am kidding.
But yes, I did the analysis. The best selling titles in Heroic Fantasy had 2, 3 or 4 words (I counted groups of digits as single words, so the title 1, 2, 3! is three words, but the title 123! is one word.).
I’m not giving the absolute numbers because the difference was not statistically significant.
It will come as no surprise that books with no words in the title had no sales. Consequently the Bell Curve was asymmetrical, but sales don’t fall sharply until the number of words exceed 12. I was quite surprised by that.
One word titles sold less well than 6 and 8 word titles but better than 7, 9 and more.
Reason suggests that this analysis has some sense to it, because it uses a measure that is only quantitative (objective). You could conduct this analysis, for instance, independent of language.
No, I am not kidding.
But yes, I’ve done the analysis, and so have others. I particularly like this analysis by Tor.com. My analysis used a much bigger sample than theirs, but the results were the same.
I’ve also done the same analysis on SF books, and this time I included subtitles and series name if it appeared on the cover, because I’m also interested in how redundant all that (Book 4 in the Arch Ark Arc series) is… I excluded the number that the book was in the series, so the only numbers are ones that appear in the main title.
Here are the top 15 (excluding the, in, and, of):
If you keep the subtitles and series names in there, then the most common words are Chronicle, Book, Novel and Series. I only point that out, because in SF, everyone seems to like to write a chronicle. I’ve written one.
For the next time I decide to do some unnecessary and fruitless statistical analysis on book titles, can we agree on a couple of things?
I get this is one of a series, or one in a world, or a universe you created, but when ‘Berth of Darkness’ is book one of the Dark Universe series, don’t call it:
The Dark Universe Book One: Berth of Darkness,
Berth of Darkness (Dark Universe Book One)
This is partly because it would make the statistical analysis easier. But spare a thought for the reader, too – and think like a salesman.
Readers who like your Dark Universe series will want to read all the books. Once there are 5 or more books in the series, they want to be able to identify as easily as possible which ones they don’t have.
They’ll search Amazon for “Dark Universe” and scan down the list. If the first words of every item are “Dark Universe” they have to read the whole title of every book to see if they’ve got it, whereas if it starts with the book title, they can tell at a glance.
The Dark Universe Book Two: The Dark is Everywhere
The Dark Universe Book Three: Dark Truth
The Dark Universe Book Four: A Lie in the Dark
The Dark Universe Book Five: Penury of Light
The Dark Universe Book Six: Dark Messiah
Berth of Darkness (Dark Universe Book One)
The Dark is Everywhere (Dark Universe Book Two)
Dark Truth (Dark Universe Book Three)
A Lie in the Dark (Dark Universe Book Four)
Penury of Light (Dark Universe Book Five)
Dark Messiah (Dark Universe Book Six)
(Please note this series does not exist. At least, I sincerely hope it doesn’t. In fact, if anyone reading this specializes in making horrible clichés a reality, you’re welcome to it.)
If you have to do the colon thing – and please don’t – can everyone please agree on a format? Either:
The Dark Universe: Berth of Darkness
Berth of Darkness: A Tale from The Dark Universe
Obviously, the latter is better.
Please (Arthur C. Clarke I’m looking at you here) don’t put a comma in the actual title.
Not only is this cliché mindblowingly pretentious, it’s also utterly pointless. Yes I know someone did this recently and got some big indy success.
I guarantee they did it out of insecurity coupled with the desire to evoke echoes of certain whimsical or experimental writers of the mid twentieth century.
Your book is going to be in the fiction section unless you’re unlucky or have so little tech savvy that you can’t get over the very low bar that Amazon wisely set in the KDP interface.
Anyone buying your book from the bookstore is going to find it in the fiction section and I promise you, bookstore owners and librarians will put it in the right place. They check.
This excellent Guardian Article has a choice remark to make about this strange practice.
There were 14 of these in my sample of the top selling 1000 SF titles, which isn’t as bad as I was expecting.
In Fantasy, if you analyze the titles including the series names, you get much the same outcome as you do with SF, but Book, Series and Chronicle are joined by the equally inevitable Saga and the ubiquitous Trilogy.
In Fantasy, the first word after these series words is, predictably, Dragon, closely followed by War and Blood.
You fantasy writers should be duly embarrassed by the fact that the next two most common words appearing in titles and subtitles in Fantasy are: Novel and Fantasy.
My raw data takes many thousands of the top ranked titles. So arguably, what I’ve been doing is analysing the words that appear in the most successful books.
The conclusion seems to be that the most successful book in either SF or Fantasy is a series. In SF, the first book in the series would be called:
End of the World (Alien Time War book 1)
… and in Fantasy:
Dragon Blood War: A Fantasy Novel (Book One in the Series Trilogy Chronicles Saga)
What’s the main thing you notice about those titles?
They look like everything else on those genre lists.
The result of applying a big data analysis to successful book titles to try to work out the rules for writing a successful title is a title that fails to stand out from the others.
And this is exactly what I’m expecting. I’m expecting it because I’ve approached this problem from two directions.
As a literary editor, I understand what creativity is, and how it works, and I’m aiming to show you exactly what creativity is, through this slightly silly exercise of word counting. Counting word use enables you to see what is happening. Specifically, it reveals trends.
Trends are what they sound like they are. In Fantasy, at the moment, everyone is still writing about Dragon Wars. And Blood. In SF everyone is still writing about Time Wars. And Aliens.
Now I don’t much expect the subject matter to evolve anytime soon. Those are proven favorites among readers. But it does look like there’s a trend for tediously and unimaginatively titling books as if they’re tins of paint, or baby food.
Dragon War is a book about war, with dragons. So much so obvious. Dark Magic Mage King is about… well, you get the picture.
If you look at the title trends in new books that are selling well, the titles all seem pretty samey.
However, look at the titles of the breakout hits of the last 100 years, there are quite a few oddities.
In #6 of Scott Berkun’s excellent little summary of the problem, he lists a few of them, and makes the best possible point about them: the titles we remember are the ones that are titles of good books… but also, are easy to remember, because the don’t have what the Guardian article calls the Samey Virus.
On the other hand, a few of the great books of the twentieth century have truly dull, samey titles that hardly set them apart from the pulp they either rose above or were already set above: Sons and Lovers, or A Passage to India.
But those were authors who didn’t worry too much about their titles because they knew the content was worth reading. And by “knew” I mean they knew it was true objectively, because they possessed the necessary literary education and experience to be able to judge.
The samey titles we see today are all coming from the wrong place. That place is: this is the sort of title that sells well, so this is the sort of title I should use.
But think about that for a moment, and go and read this article on the BBC News Website.
If it was really possible to work out how to make a killer title by analysing the titles of successful books using statistical techniques to develop algorithms with which to create new titles, then sooner or later, AI would be able to write novels.
And it will be able to, but not creative ones, for exactly the same reason that getting your title from the wrong place will mean your title is indistinguishable from thousands of others: it is inferring and then applying rules.
The result is therefore a kind of average, like a face average: it’s bland and anonymous; it could be anyone’s.
Creativity is the capacity to break the trend. To produce something that fulfills all the other needs of a title, which according to Scott Berkun (and I don’t disagree with him) are:
To be able to achieve all this, and not sound like every other book in your genre, requires creativity. Because only creativity can invent an alternative way to achieve these goals; a way that isn’t by the numbers; a way that isn’t based on satisfying criteria.
You can do this because you’re a human being, and you use a brain. Brains are messy. Brains use association. But crucially every part of your brain is used, in myriad different configurations, for many different purposes.
Which means you can make connections between ideas in a way that an algorithm, or even an AI (that isn’t based on some sort of highly plastic chaotic network), just can’t. You can make irrational associations; find, and indeed force connexions between ideas that really ought not to be there.
A lot of people think of creativity a something “going wrong” in the brain but actually, it’s an example of the brain’s necessary disorder going exactly as specified. Above all else, the brain is a shortcut machine.
Biological thought is embarrassingly slow, and the brain is an expert in short circuiting itself in order to save on resources.
So what is creativity? Creativity is thinking in leaps. Linking ideas that are not habitually linked.
If you insist. Here’s an example of a creative SF title:
The Time/Cost/Quality War
… and here goes with Fantasy:
The Accountant’s Apprentice
In these two examples, I’m satirizing the current trends to make a point. You will remember these – especially if their associations resonate with you.
But actually, if I had written a book in either of these genres, I’d look for something a little more creative. A title that evokes the genre but in no way suggests what the content might be. So for SF:
The Only Pace
… and for fantasy:
Olive Token in the Pod
This is a phrase invented by Terry Pratchett as part of the culture around the story of one of his earliest books, The Dark Side of the Sun.
With a typical mixture of mastery, wit, and a nod to popular culture, this title screams SF, but is incongruous, even impossible, in its meaning.
One of the features of the story is frequent mention of fictional philosopher and explorer Charles Sub-Lunar, and this phrase, the poet and the mad computer describes him. But it also describes the process of creative thinking.
The mad computer because your brain’s very disorder is what makes it such an effective thinking apparatus, and the poet because it is through mastery of meaning that you can both decipher and create great writing.
Here’s my advice for creating a great title.
Science is about finding stuff out, by applying a suitable means to a problem. Statistical analysis is not a suitable means of finding out what makes a successful title.
Although it can reveal patterns in current successful titles, it can’t tell what direction trends in titles is going to take. It can also reveal patterns in culture, thinking, behavior, even desire.
But empirical analysis is not a suitable means for understanding how a creative literary process works. If science means anything, it means knowing when to use analysis, and when not to.
The suitable means for creating a great title is the same as for creating a great story. It is the practical application of creative thinking.
And since creativity relies on the brain’s capacity to exploit disorder to find more efficient solutions, the results of creative thinking differ from person to person. In short:
Use your creativity and your titles will be unique to your way of thinking. Use analysis and your titles will be the same as everyone else’s.
That can’t be a good thing.Continue reading
Think of the story as a vague shape; a block of wood formed from your desires and experiences. Somewhere inside it is the story you want to tell. That is a different shape; it must be contained within the block, and suit the grain and density of the material, but doesn’t yet know its final shape.
And neither do you. But you have an idea of the order, kind and type of shape that you want to give it. You have an idea of how you want people to be affected when the see the final shape; you have an idea of what you feel, and what you want them to feel. An impression of the impression you want to leave.
Before you start carving the block, you need to get to know it well, to understand its potential. This is self knowledge – knowing your own experience and abilities, but also knowing what matters to you, both about the creative process and about what its outcome—the story—should achieve.
Before you start carving the block, you need to get to know well the idea that will guide and shape the process of carving it.
But who knows what surprises are hidden beneath its surface? What knots and twists in the grain, what interplay of the color of heartwood and sapwood, what new surfaces will you both reveal and create?
So, as you carve, you will incorporate these discoveries into your idea. Even as where you chuse to cut, chisel and scrape is guided by your story idea, so your story idea is formed and shaped as it adapts to the qualities and textures of the wood as you reveal it.
This is an idealized view of how the creative process of writing a story works. For many years I’ve been working towards a way to describe the process that takes account both of the infinite variety of methodologies that I discover in my writers, but also of their difficulties and frustrations. Probably the most divisive and dominant of all these frustrations is the conflict between planning and discovery.
The false dichotomy between what is unhelpfully called “plotter or pantser” has been obvious to me for a while. Doubly unhelpful because the terms themselves are misleading (which is a polite way of saying “wrong”).
“Plotting” (in storytelling, not moustache twirling) is primarily an activity for academics. Writers can usefully apply it for self-editing, using it to map out the events of their stories to help find flaws. Crime and thriller writers can also use it beforehand, as a means of understanding, revealing or making clear the events that cause the story. But not the story itself. There is a pervasive myth that somehow PLOT is the skeleton or substructure of STORY, so if you first create plot, story can be built on it, or fleshed out (shudder).
“Pantsing” is short for “writing by the seat of your pants”, which is taken to mean “writing without the security or safety of an outline”. But “by-the-seat-of-your-pants” was originally a term used by early aviators as a jokey way to explain to non aviators how they stayed in their aircraft, because for their own safety they wore no seatbelt or harness. This was for exactly the same reason that pilots have ejector seats today. You’re much more likely to survive a bad landing. Early aircraft were light and slow, so being literally thrown clear improved your chances. So flying by the seat of your pants was safer than being strapped in!
That is, of course, just a linguistic quibble, albeit a fascinating tangent.
I was talking about a false dichotomy, and it is this:
EITHER you invent the whole story and then write it,
OR you make it up as you go along.
Neither of these is true. All writers know, if varyingly, what story they want to write. If you really made it up as you went along, you wouln’t get beyond the first word, because you wouldn’t have a purpose for the first sentence. But equally, if you could really know every detail of the story before you wrote it, you would have to write motivated by self-discipline alone. It would be like doing homework for a subject that doesn’t interest you – sound familiar?
Actually, the pantsers have the easier side of the false divide, since they are following their creative instinct. They create difficulty for themselves through fear. They are afraid that if they work out too many of the details in advance, then the creative part of the process will have been done, and there will only be the tedious slog of writing it out. They fear the boredom, and they fear a loss of the creative spark.
They are right, of course, but for (partly) the wrong reasons. All communication is creative. Creative writing is better the more creativities are active as you write. That’s why poetry is such an essential learning tool: it seeks to engage every type of creativity at once, to exploit connexions and associations, by encouraging visual, verbal, imaginative, absurdity, nonsense, half-meanings, dissonance, harmony, and so on, all in search of communicative serendipity – the chance discovery of perfect arrangements of words that arises from a well prepared state of mind.
To be slightly Taoist again, the discipline of poetry is to cast off categories, to include everything, especially indiscipline.
The plotters are also right, insofar as they admit to themselves that you can’t write a story without first knowing what it will be. Where they go wrong is much the same as where people go wrong in all manner of human endeavor: believing themselves to be in a category, they try to conform to consensus about that category.
The most common example of this is when people conform to expectations of them that are based solely on their gender: they do so because they think it is right, and think there is something wrong with them when they feel ill-at-ease with it. In the UK, young men are expected to be fanatical about football (soccer) just because they are young men.
Plotters, having recognized that you need to know the story before you start writing, conform to all the planning, plotting and outlining advice they can find. They soon become unhappy with how constraining it is, but have been told that the only alternative is pantsing, which they won’t try because they believe what the pantsers believe: that it is done without any foreknowledge of the story; and they know this to be impossible.
I’m here to tell you (today) that everyone who writes a story has some foreknowledge of the story. How much foreknowledge should be what drives the rest of the creative process. If pressed to make a distinction, I’d say that some writers are much more conscious than others of what they want to write; they plan the story unconsciously, and don’t realize that they aren’t really making it up as they go along, but are actually working towards an unconscious goal.
Forget about left-brain/right-brain; not only is that distinction unhelpful, it also isn’t an accurate depiction of the way the brain works. Everyone is creative. But some people adapt better to having their creativity “channelled” (for which read “stifled”) than others.
An effective creative process arises from two things:
On a number of occasions I’ve applied Alfred Jarry’s invented science of Pataphysics to real-world problem solving. It is extraordinarily effective as it teaches people to shift paradigms at will – and paradigm shifting can only be done if you can encourage, develop and exploit the associative interconnectedness that is the real power of your creative brain. I really sound like I’m going to sell you some pseudoscience product now, don’t I? Any second now I’m going to use the word ‘quantum.’
Pataphysics is described as ‘the science of imaginary solutions.’ In Pataphysics, you present or describe a real-world problem, and encourage people to come up with solutions that can only work in their imagination.
This exercise encourages freedom of imagination, which is what post-industrial educational institutions beat out of you. It’s the imagination that you have to rediscover; non-instrumental imagination; imagination that does not, because it cannot, lead to concrete results.
If you are an experienced writer, you already have a process that works for you, and you aren’t reading this.
You aren’t reading it because you already know that it is impossible to write a story without knowing what it is going to be, but also impossible to write a story that can’t be adapted to what you discover while writing.
You’ve left the whole “plotting vs. pantsing” question far behind you, or given up writing for good, so you still aren’t reading this, unless indulging in the cup of regret.
So I’m addressing myself to those who are still on the steep part of the learning curve – the part where it looks like a sheer cliff-face.
Don’t try to be a plotter, don’t try to be a pantser. Try to discover the creative process that works for you.
Before You Start Writing
How much you do before you start will depend on what sort of story you want to write, so you should begin by understanding that. The key issues are going to be length and complexity.
Length can refer to word-count, but before you start writing, you should think about the density of events. If the story contains two or three major events and the rest is all about their consequences – emotional, psychological, economical, then even if it is 500k words, it has a low even density, so you won’t need to do much note-taking. If it is action packed, leaping from place to place, filled with significant encounters and twists-and-turns, then even if it is only 80k words, you may need to make some notes.
Complexity is revealed through looking at the interplay between story features (characters, locations, events, items, ideas) as well as how numerous they are. Broadly speaking, the more characters, the more complex the story, even if most of the characters are minor, if they appear more than once, they need to be tracked.
Forget anything you’ve learned or read about structure. If you define a structure and try to fit a story to it, then if you’re extremely talented, the story will be well-written but mediocre.
If it looks like it’s going to be long, complex or both, then you will make your life easier if you start thinking about a few objectives.
Finally, consider your availability. If you are already a full time writer, then you will be spending a considerable chunk of your time, daily, to your book. You aren’t likely to lose track of the bigger objectives, but probably need to make less notes. If you only write in your spare time, or at weekends, making notes and identifying objectives and writing them down becomes a necessity.
The Hierarchy of Objectives
Objectives are ordered from the vague and general at the top to the precise and local at the bottom. Think about all of them, but don’t write them down unless you think you are in danger of forgetting them, or getting distracted.
In my experience, the difference between a very good book and a great one is the existence of an outline; but an outline can cut both ways if you don’t know how to use it.
Think of your outline as the empty space between the beginning and the end of the story. What you put in between should be a balance of what you feel is necessary for you to be able to start writing, and any important ideas that you have that you might overlook if you don’t write them down.
Most important is that your outline is not fixed.
Even though you might sketch out in charcoal the shape you expect it to take on the outside of the block, once you start carving, you have to adapt.
The flexible outline has three qualities.
In short, the purpose of an outline is to let you get on with creation, but mitigate for your faults and failings. If I didn’t make notes of all the ideas I have while writing, I’d forget most of them. But I also note important fine details (recently, the colour of stockings that two characters were wearing) so I can refer back to them correctly (the right colours on the right legs, which I would certainly get wrong otherwise) AND expand them into the symbolic landscape (echoing the colours elsewhere).
Sparse Visual/Spatial Outline.
I like to use this one myself for editing, and especially when helping an author to develop a story idea. There is enough information here to start writing, provide you know what type of story you want to write.
How to do it:
At the top of the page, write a single line that describes the first event in the story – the event that starts everything happening.
At the bottom of the page, write a single line that describes the story’s ending. This is a lot more difficult; it can take several stories before you get proficient at summing up an expected ending, so don’t worry if it seems vague or unclear.
Draw a vertical line from the start to the end.
On the left-hand side of the line, write the major events that you expect to happen in the story, and mark with a short horizontal line approximately where you think that the event will occur.
On the righthand side, make a note of any other thoughts or ideas you’ve had, and if possible draw lines to the outline showing where they have influence. In the example I’ve just used characters, but other features – locations, idems, ideas – are all relevant.
The most important thing in this approach is that you DO NOT EVEN TRY to think of anything, let alone everything. Make a note ONLY of the ideas that have already come to you. If other ideas follow on from the process of making this outline, make a note of them only if you think you might forget them.
As you write, add events to the left, and other features to the right, as you write them. Evenually this outline will become quite cluttered, but keep it up to date and it will form a very accurate picture of your story by the time you reach the end. This is of very great value in self-editing.
Chapter by Chapter
Literally the opposite extreme, a chapter by chapter outline can be produced in a number of different ways, but my advice is to work by working your way down a hierarchy of objectives.
How to do it:
Using your favorite word processor or creative writing software, begin with some major objective signposts. Two of these are obvious:
There are a few others that are not too difficult to find:
If you already know what the key events of the story are going to be, give them simple names and put them in as objective signposts:
And so on. If you know that characters have to be in particular places or states of mind by any particular stage, use those, too.
Bear in mind that before you start outlining the actual chapter content, you may not have many clear objectives, but they will occur to you as you are developing the chapters. Write them down, in approximately the right place in the story, as they occur to you. Bear in mind also that as you progress through the chapter details, some major objectives may change or move. Do so as soon as it occurs, even if you haven’t finished writing a chapter summary.
Once you have your major objectives, begin working your way through each chapter in order. For each chapter, write a sentence or two describing the chapter objectives, and a few more describing how you think you will reach those objectives. I generally write the objectives first, and then build the story around them (see further below).
This is the outline for chapter 2 of a book I am writing:
We bring Chastity to Ake town. It is Saturday – the day after Chaper 1.
We get to see various features of Ake Town including Mill Scrap.
By the time Chastity and Warris sit down to dinner, an even worse storm is raging than the previous day.
Show that Chastity already knows Doad – inevitable really, considering how long she has been there.
End the chapter with more than a hint that Warris stays the night with Chastity.
As you work your way through the objectives for each chapter, you will probably find that details of later chapters start to suggest themselves to you. Make a note of these. Eventually you will start to see how the events of each chapter tie the major objectives of the story together.
The advantage of working ONLY with objectives is that it leaves completely open how you chuse to achieve them, and therefore enables you to create a clear definition of the story’s intention and it’s destination, without fixing the path that it follows.
Finding Your Own Balance
My technique is to begin with overall objectives but not to fill in any details until I am ready to write them. This is a process that builds up the story outline progressively as I write it.
Before I used Scrivener I used loose sheets of paper, because you need to be able to add new information between existing information.
With Scrivener, I have a folder for each chapter, and within it, a file for the chapter outline, a second file for the scene outlines, and then each of the scenes in a single file. But how you organize it matters less than the overall process:
How to do it:
Begin with a sparse outline, and then add in as many major objectives as possible. Write out a brief story summary. This is one paragraph for each of the major events, and lists the major revelations.
Then decide the objectives for the first chapter. Once you’re happy with them, add some details as to how the objectives will be achieved. This is the second chapter outline with those details filled in:
We bring Chastity to Ake town. It is Saturday – the day after Chaper 1.
She has been given various errands by other girls (and maybe by members of staff). She goes to town with Hope and one other girl. They have to leave her at the Star with the Inspector, who is expected to bring her back to the school.
Over the course of the afternoon, the weather worsens. The market closes up early.
We get to see various features of Ake Town including Mill Scrap.
By the time Chastity and Warris sit down to dinner, an even worse storm is raging than the previous day.
They convince each other that it would be best if Chastity stayed the night in town, in one of the Star’s comfortable rooms. The inspector uses the call box outside the Star to call Letter House.
This gives an opportunity to show that Chastity already knows Doad – inevitable really, considering how long she has been there.
Possibly drop a hint that Chastity has already slept with some local young man.
End the chapter with more than a hint that Warris stays the night with Chastity.
From here, you can identify individual scenes within the chapter, and outline them, immediately before writing them. Here’s scene 1:
Scene 1: the bus to town
Use the view from the bus to establish the broader landscape.
Also, use it to give the first glimpses of some important locations: Newly, the Old Mill, Mill Scrap.
Give some slim details of the town centre.
Develop the relationship between the three girls a little more.
Drop the mysterious parcel in there somewhere.
Get the girls to the tea rooms.
But, while writing, I continue to update the rough outline, and while writing a chapter, the chapter objectives and outline can also change, so I make sure to update it once I’ve finished each scene.
My main points in this article are these:
In short, writing, like any creative endeavor, is a mixture (rarely a balance) of expectation and discovery. Both are essential to creative excellence. If there is a balance to be found, it is between your anxiety, your needs, your desires, and the needs of the story you want to write. In other words, the right approach to writing an outline is going to vary with your personality and experience, and with the requirements and constraints of your chosen project.
What I hope you will do, therefore, is find a balance to suit you that is some sort of mixture of all three outlining techniques that I have described.
Your outline is there to help your story meet its objectives – to help it to become the story you want it to be. So your outline must not dictate the path that the story follows, just show it where it needs to get to.
Your outline should become more and more detailed as your story progresses. Your story shapes the outline.
The story you finish up with, is a combination of your intent, and the process of realizing your intent, and the tools and the medium you work with. As you carve the block, the wood pushes your chisel. You have to decide when to let the wood guide you, and when to force it. When to follow the grain and when to cut the grain. You have to learn to recognize the beauty that your process reveals, and balance actively searching with surprise revelation, balance force with discovery.
Art is meaningless without conflict. If it was a matter of every factor in the creative process working in perfect harmony, the results would not merely be uninteresting, but pointless.
No creative process can be uniform, nor uniformly easy. Some parts will be difficult. There will be times when you strike a knot, and have to completely rethink the shape of the final sculpture. And that is exactly how it should be.
Whatever process you follow to your current story, you should prepare yourself to begin the next one in the same way, with another uncarved block, and another journey, where you will again discover both the work of art, and the process of creating it, at the same time.Continue reading
Why are you looking for creative writing ideas?
Does that heading come across as a little aggressive? It will, if you feel guilty about looking for ideas. But why would you feel guilty about looking for ideas?
I suppose because:
We make these preconceptions for ourselves because our culture has us convinced that…
artists are special
… and once we start to see ourselves as artists, we start to see the value in being seen as special. And because we want to be what we seem, we try to be more special.
So surely if you have to go looking for ideas about stories to write, you aren’t very creative?
C’mon! I did an article about ghostwriting where I tried to show that you can have all sorts of creative ideas but no idea how to turn them into a novel.
So you can also have all the creative talent necessary to turn great ideas into great stories, but be short on the actual ideas. And you can, through the course of your artistic career wander all up and down those two continua.
I am going to tell you where to find the ideas that will make great stories. But I’m going to start with a few techniques for finding ideas, and here’s why.
You’re an artist, and you need to push and stretch your creative ability, to develop your range of expression and your reach.
You’re an artisan, you have a specific skillset related to writing, but you’re well aware that this is a skillset that takes a lifetime to master, that there is always new knowledge to add, new skills to incorporate.
This means that the core of your career as a creative writer is learning and development. With every new writing project you expect to learn something new; and I’m certain you do.
If you’re aware of this, then you’ll know that mastery comes from seeking mastery, and from practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Practice differs from free creation in one very critical way: it is artificial. The aim of practice is not to produce a work of art, but to hone your ability.
I’ve produced a whole range of exercises for exactly this. Some of which will be available for free on this very blog. Their purpose is to do more than just hone. My aim with those exercises is to challenge, to sensitize, to raise your awareness, to get you thinking about writing in new ways.
And that’s the other major component of practice: exploration.
If you’re lucky enough to already be a bestselling author, or you have at the very least a sure and steady income from it, you can probably do some of your exploration by getting a little experimental in your next published book. Try out new techniques, new ideas, new approaches.
But if you reckon you’re onto a winning formula, or you just want to build up a loyal fanbase by giving your readers what they love the best about you, then you might not want to get too experimental in a book you intend to sell.
And of course, if you haven’t hit on that winning formula, then clearly you need to keep experimenting.
And that’s where practice comes in.
Working for nothing
It’s hard to convince a writer to spend her precious writing time on work that will never see the light of day. Actually, I’d like to see writers who do my exercises post the results on their Facebook or their Website, to encourage the others – but mostly to show that most creative people create better within constraints. All the writers I’ve worked with write better to order than when writing what they want to write.
But time is the constraint. Most writers do not write full time – though since the e-book revolution, a lot more do than ever did before. This means your time is limited, so practice writing doesn’t seem like an efficient use of your time.
A truth, cautiously and mostly acknowledged
Most people seem to agree that the best way to sell more books, long term, is to write better books. So even if your priority is to get rich from writing, your primary long term goal must be to become a better writer.
This will never happen if you don’t try to become a better writer.
And a harsh truth, mostly ignored
You won’t become a better writer by reading books that claim to tell you how to become a successful writer. You certainly won’t become more creative, or become a better artist. And you need to become more creative, and become a better artist, to become a better writer.
Let me put it this way…
Which is easier for a salesperson:
Wouldn’t you rather try to make money selling great books than try to make money trying to sell mediocre ones?
You should look for creative writing ideas for practice.
Stories are everywhere
We make almost everything we do into a story of some sort. Stories are everywhere. In the simplest form, a story is
how we explain what we want and how we get it
Stories like this abound in everyday life, generally as answers to questions, but sometimes as the questions themselves, their explanations, their justifications.
Most people would answer that kind of question with a story. So all those questions are story prompts. Story ideas.
The more you go looking for them, the more you will find them. But if this still looks a little arcane or obscure, then start simpler.
Look for conflict
Conflict makes stories like nothing else.
A conflict is easy to express in a few words, and its resolution always brings a sense of release, and of completion.
Conflict can start very small.
An ant, trying to climb over a grain of sand.
Conflict can be real or imaginary.
Is your neighbor trying to steal your parking space or does he just not know whose it is?
Conflict can be internal.
Should I have another biscuit?
You ate all the pies!
… and make the practice effective
Narrow the scope
The more you restrict a story idea, the more you will learn from it. Artificial restrictions are exactly what you need when you practice. So give yourself limits in both the idea itself, and in the treatment:
Only the ant’s point of view
in 50 words
with only dialog
with no dialog
every verb has an adverb
all in the future tense
All of which means that practice shouldn’t take up too much of your time. If the restrictions are tight enough, it will force you to explore and discover and innovate and experiment. And this will have consequences when you go back to your book.
There are plenty of online resources that have lists of writing prompts. Use those, but stick to the most restrictive ideas, and the ones that you think will be difficult; the ones where you think you will have a hard time finding something to write.
The story is almost unimportant.
Even I’d admit that the very greatest writers chuse stories with great care. But they aren’t just plucking the stories out of the air. They certainly aren’t looking for conflict and drama, and turning that into a book.
They’re chusing their story to match, complement and enhance their central theme.
The theme is important.
Think of your book as a message, from you to the reader.
If you think you’re writing for yourself alone, then I can’t help you become a writer. Until you start writing for the reader, you won’t be a writer.
If your book is a message from you to the reader, what do you want that message to be? Here are some I’ve encountered recently, in every genre from pulp detective fiction through historical, SF, heroic fantasy, “chicklit”, contemporary fiction, urban fantasy and “literary fiction” (whatever that is). I guarantee you can’t guess which theme goes with which genre:
All these statements have one thing in common. They are opinions.
Strongly held, perhaps even beliefs, but opinions. And they are the opinion of the author. Sometimes the author is surprised when I point it out to them.
What you care about
How do you find your message?
It shouldbe fair to say that you write because you have something to say.
It may not be a darkly hidden fire or a bright flame in your eyes. It may just be an issue you care about or a current cause of anxiety or concern.
It may not be some trauma from your past – though it could be.
It may not be some dread for the future – though it often is.
It ought to nag at you.
Think about what makes you bridle. What gets you on the defensive, or the offensive.
What makes you angry?
The first time you identify your theme or message before you start writing will probably result from identifying what makes you angry.
Anger is born of frustration – at incapacity, injustice, incompetence – at any situation that could be remedied, but where the people who could remedy it take no steps to do so.
Anger may be personal, it may be social. It may be irrational. It may be idealistic.
But if you are angry, it will show in your writing.
And this is good.
Because if you can find and latch on to a strong emotion, it will provide you with a message.
The ideal message
Should take the form:
this is so, or seems to be so. people seem to accept it.
this should not be so. people should not accept it.
Doing it wrong
This is the wrong way to think about it. True, I said that great writers will select or build or design a story around their central theme, so that the theme is served, and never undermined, by the story.
But if you take your message and try to build a story around it, you will end up with a plodding, obvious fable that constantly repeats the message until the reader is sick of it and throws the book at the wall.
The secret of rhetoric
Rhetoric is the Classical art of public speaking. In it’s simplest form, it has three stages:
This applies just as much in a book. Want to get your message across, but the reader can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t accept just passively listening to your moralizing.
The reader wants and needs to be entertained, and if you can give the reader his dose of stimulation, escapism, excitement – whatever he is looking for, then you can also deliver your message, and this is the killer:
deliver your message with passion, and you will enhance the reader’s experience
but here’s the caveat…
let the reader become too conscious of the message, and it will destroy the reader’s experience
Striking a balance
Finding that balance between a satisfying reader experience and the requirement for a heartfelt message is what leads to the best reading experience. Getting there is all about your approach, and this is where I come back to the heresy:
The story is almost unimportant.
Choose a story that you think you will enjoy writing
Possibly the best way to do this is to write a story that you would like to read. Or imitate or emulate a story or writer that you love. There is a great tradition of writers wearing their inspiration like a badge of honor. Don’t be afraid to dedicate your book to the author you want to be like.
Give yourself clear boundaries
In exactly the same way that artificial restrictions force you to work harder and better at practice exercises, so clear boundaries will result in both clearer and more coherent work, and a better class of creativity.
Clear boundaries can be as simple as:
Be careful that your boundaries aren’t in direct conflict with your desires. It’s one thing to give yourself a challenge; if you are constantly fighting the structure you imposed on yourself, maybe you should ease off on the structure.
But be equally wary of giving yourself too much freedom. If anything goes, there’s no tension. If there’s no tension there’s no drama. If there’s no drama, there’s no reason for the reader to read.
DO NOT think about your message when you are writing
But think about it as much as you like between writing sessions, because it matters. Talk about your message. Develop your thinking around it, inform your understanding of the issue. Research it.
BUT DO NOT WRITE ABOUT IT
Your book must not contain the message. It must be the message. So you absolutely cannot, must not, make any explicit reference, exposition or explanation of your message of any kind in your book…
You won’t be surprised to learn that rule one of writing is that there is no rule one. Or something like that.
It’s more like:
the more you master your art, the more you learn that there are secret paths
These are not secrets in the sense of mysterious techniques that experienced writers are hiding from you. They are secrets in the sense that they can pass unseen and unnoticed.
When you use a metaphor, you are using figurative language as a means of giving a clearer, simpler, faster or more efficient sense of what you want to convey to the reader.
Figurative language is the tip of the ominous iceberg of symbolism.
Symbolism is the art of writing without writing. Of telling by showing. Of giving information with doubt. Of inviting interpretation then denying everything.
Symbolism is the language of signs. It is without doubt an advanced technique. To apply it effectively you need to know how to use poetry and you will need to learn all about symbolism.
By far the best way to give the impression that you are a skillful writer of learned articles is to make some contentious statement right at the start and then re-evaluate it at the end.
Telling you this is called “touching the mask” – an expression borrowed from the Commedia del’Arte which refers to breaking the illusion by drawing attention to the mechanisms behind the illusion.
I’m touching the mask here because I want to reveal to you that there is another way to think about writing stories.
I really think it is all about inspiration. But inspiration is not what you have been raised to think it is. You can’t get inspired passively. You need two things for inspiration:
Desire is what comes from within. It’s why you want to write in the first place. If you have that, then dammit, you are special. Just not all that rare. Most people want to communicate. Most people want to express themselves. You want to do it by telling stories. So you are special, and you’re going to be a creative artist.
Stimulus is what you need to trigger a story. And you have to go looking for it. You can find it anywhere you look, as long as you are looking. You can hear it anywhere you listen, as long as you are listening.
You find stimulus by engaging with the world around you. And stories are about people. So you find stories by engaging with people.
I strongly suspect you already know whether your book is going to be Science Fiction or not. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that you had a shrewd idea of what type of science fiction it was before you read “How To Decide What You’re Writing.” Although this discussion pretends to be about Science Fiction, what it’s really about is genre, and what, if anything, it’s for.Continue reading
This is part 2 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:
You might have the impression that everyone who writes science fiction knows, or thinks they know, exactly what science fiction is.
You might, in fact, be surprised by how difficult even science fiction writers find it to define the genre.
There seems to be little doubt that this genre exists, and there are many works which are unhesitatingly placed in the category, because, as far as popular culture is concerned, they contain science.
This has led to the genre containing a vast diversity of content and content type, so I’m beginning by asking you this simple question: which one of these best describes your book?
Some books are placed in the SF category because the story takes place “in space” – regardless of the type of story, and regardless of whether the rockets or the rayguns are based on (or derived from) known science or are figments of the author’s imagination. The presence of humanoid robots and matter transfer are additional indicators.
In a way, this is the most meaningful type of genre classification because it concerns itself only with the setting, and completely disregards the story, which could be a romance, a tragedy, crime, thriller, horror – it really doesn’t matter. If there are spaceships and lasers, it must be SF.
Rockets & Rayguns may legitimately be referred to as “SciFi.” Some authors don’t like their work being referred to in this way, because they want to distance themselves from 1950s pulp science fiction that is, with a few notable exceptions, one of the two categories below, or something very similar.
In many, possibly most cases, R&R SF falls into one of two main categories:
Knights & Dragons in Space
The stories and characters are straight out of Arthurian legend. There are princesses to be rescued (or more recently, I’m relieved to say, saving themselves), there are strange birthmarks and in some cases, special powers. Often these stories become fairytales in space or sword and sorcery in space.
Cowboys in Space
Space seems to be full of bounty hunters. But it also has its fair share of exploited indigenous peoples, rebels, bandits, US Cavalry, marshals, and so on.
I appreciate Star Wars, because it gives so many examples of cobbling together fun ideas that look awesome in trailers, even if it rarely makes a coherent narrative. Star Wars is of course, a mish-mash of everything, throwing samurai and nazis into the mix.
A purist, and I am not a purist, might prefer that a fiction genre take account of the type of story, but for most readers, a familiar setting is a comfortable place in which to discover and explore new stories.
For those readers, there’s little difference between Asimov’s rambling (or, if you prefer, far ranging) Foundation saga and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s rambling Lensman series.
Both were chemists, but as writers leave a very different impression of their scientific knowledge and its influence on their writing. Doc Smith’s work is definitely Rockets and Rayguns. But to many readers, Asimov’s is…
Whereas any story may be told in R&R, in Other Worlds, the kind of story that can be told is defined, or at the very least, directed our bounded, by the nature of the world that the writer imagines.
For Other Worlds to be SF, however, certain rules must apply to the imaginary world, of which the primary is:
Everything in it must have a scientific – or at the very least, nonmagical explanation.
The author is expected to build a world on sound physical principles, careful rationalization and extrapolation from what we know. This is usually done by building on a rational “what if” statement:
Much SF exists only in order to place real people in unreal situations, and explore their reactions and interactions.
In some cases, the story only arises because of some unexpected scientific or technological invention. In many cases, the author and the reader are captivated by the way in which these inventions will change the world – by which, inevitably, I mean change human society.
This type of SF is typically subdivided into Hard SF and Soft SF. There are many categories in between.
Hard Science Fiction
Hard SF explores the potential practical, social and human consequences of real, known, verified science. The author’s imagination is therefore restricted to the consequences of the science or technology.
Typically, the author will take some new scientific discovery, and imagine what would happen if its applications became commonplace.
For example, we know that some forms of cloning are possible. The author would have to explore the consequences on health, society, morality, of those forms of cloning becoming commonplace – such as the availability of genetically identical organs for transplant meaning that there is no longer any argument against banning motorcycles.
Soft Science Fiction
Some readers will argue that if the technological foundation of the science in an SF story is completely imaginary, then the story is not even soft SF, but fantasy.
Doc Smith’s infamous “disintegrating copper bar ” might well be an example of this.
To qualify even as soft SF, then any imagined future tech or future science must be derived from known scientific fact.
I’m sure you can imagine just how much argument there can be over this, which is why, I think, that there is another category in this section:
Moral SF is as much about the popular understanding of science as it is about science itself.
Typically, the author will invent a science or technology that resembles not real science, but what most people think science to be, and use that to explore the ethical, moral and social questions that surround the real science.
This would be the story about cloning where a clone is an identical copy of a person, right down to their knowledge and personality. What would that mean to our sense of self, our sense of what makes a person, and our responsibility for eachother?
You could easily imagine that Star Trek, especially TOS is at best soft SF, at worst R&R. But I think the reality is a little different.
Certainly the voicover of the opening titles uses the rhetoric of colonial exploration – which implies “Colonial Era Explorers In Space” – but the stories themselves are really about the interaction between the crew of the Enterprise and the societies and civilizations that they encounter. It isn’t for nothing that a recurring theme of both TOS and TNG is that the Enterprise crew are tested by an all powerful (or pretending to be all powerful) alien intelligence.
Space Opera is actually a kind of extraordinary circumstance where human society is placed in contact with other societies. It’s a combination of Moral SF and Other Worlds.
For me, the Tech Thriller is just a variation of the “McGuffin Plot”, where the author invents an object, item or piece of information that everyone wants to get their hands on. (This could look like an item oriented story but in general I advise against orienting your story this way.
Instead of an object the author comes up with a scientific or technological advance that represents a threat. It’s better to think of it as a type of thriller than as a type of SF. After all, the reader is along for the threat, and the thrill of discovering how it is thwarted.
If the thrills are sufficient, then the reader won’t be too bothered about how convincing the science or technology is. Dan Brown makes a substantial living from understanding this distinction. His critics are always those who see his work as SF, and therefore challenge the science.
Avoiding this kind of criticism is a matter of sticking to one of the two standard Tech Thriller plots:
Tech Thriller Plot #1
Tech Thriller Plot #2
If it seems like I’m doing tech thrillers a disservice, I’m not really. This is more of a short-sell, in the hope that you will look for more plots than just these two, or better still, you’ll write your story without thinking about the plot, and thinking more about the characters and consequences.
Both of these are arguably genres in their own right, and not SF at all. Sometimes they get listed as subcategories of SF for no better reason than that the action takes place in the future.
This is an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
It doesn’t matter what caused the apocalypse; it doesn’t matter what caused whatever it is that the characters have to survive. What matters is how they set about surviving. To decide whether or not your book is post apoc/survival or SF, ask yourself this simple question:
Could the same story have been told in another time and place?
When your generation ship crash lands on a distant, but improbably habitable, planet, with only 30 survivors, how different is the story you tell from a story of 17th century explorers shipwrecked on a remote island?
If the only differences are in the scientific and technological knowledge of the characters, then you’re probably writing a wilderness/frontier survival story, and not SF.
When nine-tenths of the world population is wiped out by a genetically engineered virus, how different is the story you tell from one set in medieval Europe where nine-tenths of the population is wiped out by the bubonic plague. On the face of it, it might look pretty different.
But instead of thinking about what your characters know; what creature-comforts they crave and what kind of world they want to rebuild, think about what they whole experience makes them feel. I suspect the feelings of 21st century plague survivors would be much the same as those in the 14th century.
Clearly I have to take a pop at this. The Zombie Zeitgeist seems to be enduring longer than ever this time around.
Zombies are mainstream. There may be good, if disturbing, reasons for this.
Broadly speaking, zombie fiction can be divided into one of three categories:
Supernatural zombies obviously aren’t SF. They are the stuff of horror or fantasy.
I quite like to see a supernatural zombie or two in Urban Fantasy. Supernatural zombies are the ones that claw their way out of their own graves in spite of their soft tissue being in the process of rotting away. It’s simple mechanics; if you haven’t got working muscles and sinews, you have to have magic.
Scientificy-explanationey zombies are arguably science fiction. Whenever zombeism is caused by a pathogen or poison, but the zombie is basically still alive, then the author is at least nodding to some sort of scientific thinking.
The purest form of this in recent years was the movie 28 Days Later. Darren & Marcus Wearmouth’s Activation series is sometimes called a “zombie apocalypse without zombies” but it’s really more of a post-apoc/tech thriller crossover. Arguably, the Activation series fits in the last category – even though there are no aliens.
Alien zombies happen whenever the author wants to avoid the supernatural but handwaves the scientific explanation with a vague or veiled reference to outside forces or evil science. In a sense, this is science fiction because the story premise arises from the idea of what science might do. This is a core concern of:
Yay special category.
A significant proportion of science fiction is about the fear of science. In such stories it’s only natural that the science be unreal – because it symbolizes the excesses and the dangers of science.
These stories are still SF, however, because they are about the consequences of science. Luddite SF, therefore, often resembles fable or parable.
Spec. Fic. is the bucket genre of any non-realist fiction. It is often an excuse for letting your imagination run wild, and as a result often results in writing that lacks focus, or even coherence.
Spec. Fic. can all to easily head off on dreamlike tangents from which it never returns.
What Spec. Fic. ought to be is the exploration of the possibilities beyond the bounds of our current knowledge. A solid Spec. Fic. starting point is found someplace where human knowledge ends. There are two possible launch platforms:
Hard scientific spec. fic. wonders what might exist beyond the boundaries of our knowledge or (more contentiously) our understanding. For instance, what sort of Universe preceded the last “big bang?”
Hard scientific Spec. Fic. can get a little softer, when exploring questions like “what sort of life would have evolved on Earth had the initial conditions been different?” And softer still: what if the dinosaurs had not died out? (We already know this one; they didn’t. They turned into birds.)
Mystical Spec. Fic at its best explores the what-if: “supposing superstition X were true?” If you approach this as a sociologist or hard SF author, it can result in some very interesting social consequences.
At its worst, mystical Spec. Fic. is about the afterlife. There are lots of stories about people discovering that the afterlife is real, and that there are problems there that need to be solved. 99% of such stories are awful, because the afterlife described is non-symbolic.
If you really want to know how to do this, read D. P. Prior’s Shader series, where other worlds, including a sort of afterlife/limbo are described as if real but their role is entirely symbolic. Using symbolism this way is a technique well worth learning and will be covered in detail in a future course.
How do you draw the line between Science Fiction and Fantasy?
I suspect that the real difference between SF and Fantasy is not about the setting, the trappings, the magic or the tech.
I think it’s really about the character.
Fantasy stories are about individual struggles. Science Fiction stories are about groups – about societies.
I think that’s why SF writers feel a need to anchor their stories in hard facts wherever possible.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:Continue reading
This is part 1 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:
It would be a bold, not to say ridiculous claim, that I could teach you to write an award-winning story. But what I can do is show you how a successful writer does it, and show that in principle it isn’t complex or difficult to understand.
In April 2015, Kary English won the Writer’s of the Future Award for short fiction, for her short story, Poseidon’s Eyes. At time of writing (May 2015) she is nominated for a Hugo Award for her short story “Totaled” and a John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer. It’s been my good fortune to work with Kary developing both of those stories.
What makes an award-winning writer?
It should come as no surprise to learn that Kary has been a professional writer for a long time – and even though for most of her career she hasn’t been writing fiction, she has been reading it constantly. It’s probably fair to say that Kary was always going to be a writer.
So is that why she’s getting awards and nominations?
Actually, no. But it does explain why she can.
Since Kary is an experienced, well practiced and well-read writer, she has all the tools you need to be able to write exactly the right story – to be able to do a good job of transforming a great story idea into a narrative and committing it to the page. She has acquired those tools through her commitment to learning the skills and the art of writing.
But that isn’t what wins awards. What wins awards is a great story.
I’m going to show you the process by which Kary creates an award-winning story, and I’m going to take the example of “Totaled” (which you can download to your e-reader for $0.99 here).
A short story must be clearly focused on a central idea. This is often called the theme. To build her short stories, Kary selects two ideas whose very specific nature is what makes these stories great science fiction.
The high concept is what makes these stories SF. It is an idea, ideally drawn from, or even better, extrapolated from real life, but which is pushing beyond the boundaries of today’s science or technology. You can think of the high concept as the story’s “what if?”
It’s essential, for maintaining the focus (that is necessary both for short stories in general and in particular if you want to win awards) that the story only have one, unique “what if?”; one high concept per story.
In Totaled, the high concept is:
“What if a person could be totaled like an automobile?”
If you can sum up your high concept in a sentence as short as that, then you can be sure it is a strong contender for the driving theme of your story. If it takes you more than a sentence to describe, then think again.
Take another look at that high concept. Its strength comes as much from the additional questions it begs, as it comes from the consequences – the situations or scenes you could imagine; they ways it could come about. The biggest of the additional questions is the one that provides much of the story framework:
“What would have to happen to someone, that you would describe them as ‘totaled’?”
The second guiding idea is what makes it possible to turn a high concept into a compelling story. Without it, you’ll have no real characters, and it will be difficult to convince the reader to care about the story. And the reader must care enough about the story and the characters to accept anything else that happens.
Remember, this is science fiction. Some of the things that happen will be impossible, or at the very least, highly improbable. You have to create a situation where the reader trusts you; trusts that these improbable or impossible things are essential to telling the human story.
In Totaled, the human experience is a very simple one:
To fulfill the desire to tell someone how you really feel about them before it is too late.
Because in Totaled nothing is left of the person but his brain, the question naturally arises: how much of your body do you need to be able to be a person, to have desires, to have feelings?
You will, I hope, recognize, that this second guiding idea is universal. It is not at all unique to any particular genre. This is especially important in SF, because people who don’t read SF – and many of the people who do – think that SF is all about the high concept.
The reality is that the greatest SF stories are not even a balanced synthesis of the high concept and the human experience.
They exploit the high concept to provide a framework through which to explore the human experience.
This is the lesson. If you get this, and you keep your focus on it, you will be able to write great SF.
Once the two ideas are selected, and you’re satisfied that they are compatible and they set up an adequate conflict of ideas to be able to provide you with enough questions both to ask and to answer, you can begin to develop your story framework.
Kary says that the high concept for Totaled came from her desire to write her take on the classic SF concept of a “brain-in-a-jar.” Because this was the origin of the idea, Kary selected a classic SF setting for her story: among the researchers in a neuroscience lab.
From this, the initial story framework arises quite naturally.
The story framework is not the story itself. It’s best thought of as the environment in which the story takes place. This is usually a combination of a physical environment, a social environment and a conceptual environment.
The physical environment is just the location – in this case, a science lab. It tells you a few things about the kind of place it is, and the sort of things that can happen there.
The social environment is defined by the interactions between the people involved. Their friendships, romances, kinships; the workplace hierarchy; all the interpersonal relationships.
The conceptual environment arises from who the people are and what they do. It tends to dictate what is acceptable where the physical environment dictates what is possible. Acceptability arises both from the physical environment (in the form of best-practice, health and safety, rules and regulations) and from the social environment (morality, ethics, taboos, politics, etc).
The story framework also includes the necessary “set-up” to make the story happen at all.
Put as plainly as possible, the framework for Totaled is as follows:
The next step from the framework is developing the story around it. At this stage, you have to start thinking about characters, and about events and incidents.
Part of Kary’s process was to talk to her editor at this stage, in order to develop and mature her ideas for the story. If your aim is to write an award-winning story, then you can’t afford to skip this stage.
You need to find someone to talk to about your story idea, and especially, to develop the characters and events of the story into a complete, coherent whole.
This is also the stage where you will need to start thinking about the ending.
You can’t get very far in writing a short story if you don’t know how it’s going to end. In fact:
I’m here to tell you: you can’t “pants” an award-winning short story.
The ending ideally should depend both on the high concept and on the human experience – but the human experience is the more important of the two.
Totaled ends with the death of the brain in the jar. I won’t spoil the ending for you by telling you if the desire is fulfilled or not. What matters in your story is that you take that decision.
Once you’ve chosen your ending, building the rest of the story is a matter of finding a path from the start to the ending that enables you to explore the questions and implications of your guiding ideas.
I think if you read Totaled you’ll see how Kary achieves this through a combination of memory and incident with some “attempts” made by the brain-in-a-jar to communicate, all the while showing the progressive deterioration of the brain’s condition, and therefore sense of personhood.
Discussing this with an editor can help you to find your key symbols for your story, as well as to identify potential difficulties and find solutions to them.
In SF, one of the most common difficulties arises from a high concept that is too complex, and results in your having to keep inventing more imaginary science, which distracts from the main point of the story.
Key symbols are important to reinforcing the power and focus of your story, but there’s no way I can teach you about symbolism outside of a complete writing course.
As I said before, Kary is already a skilled and accomplished writer. So when it comes to drafting and re-drafting, once she knows she has a strong idea, it’s largely a matter of putting it on the page.
But Kary doesn’t underestimate the value of getting other people to read and comment on her work before finalizing it and submitting it to competitions.
It doesn’t matter how experienced or inexperienced you are, readers, editors, other writers, will be able to help you to make your work as good as it can be.
Kary is also aware that as a fiction writer, she still has a great deal to learn, and is always looking out for new people to learn from, and new ways of improving her writing.
It might already be.
Seriously. You can’t really know without submitting it.
Having said that, you probably have a pretty good idea of how experienced you are, and reasonably good idea of how your work compares to others. If you’ve read Totaled or Poseidon’s Eyes, you’ve probably compared your work to Kary’s.
Find out as much as you can about each competition you want to enter. Look at the kind of story that wins. Find out whatever you can about the judges – what they write, and what they like to read.
Don’t write your one great story and submit it everywhere.
Do write a different story for each competition; use this lesson to develop your ideas and your stories; write with the intent of writing an award-winning story.
If on top of that, you do everything you can to raise the overall standard of your writing, then you will, sooner or later, start to find yourself shortlisted.
It surely goes without saying, that writing an Award-Winning Short Story is fundamentally different from writing a successful full length novel.
When writing in the short form, every word counts; you have to agonize over every detail, you have to make sure that everything you describe, every character, every incident, every item, harmonizes with the overall theme, to ensure that the story has maximum impact from a limited number of words.
A full-length novel, because it is longer, can be broader in scope; there is more room for rambling, for tangents. The author can be more indulgent of the space taken up by descriptions of beautiful landscapes or discussions with fascinating secondary characters. And of course, you can write more words faster, because you don’t have to agonize over every word.
That’s the difference. If it seems like there’s something else, then it just means that you’re being lazy when you write in the longer form.
So many writers say to me “I haven’t tried the short form yet; I’m not sure I’m ready for it.” I have bad, or possibly good, news for you:
If you can’t write a short story, then you can’t write a long one.
Many writers recognize that for a short story to work well, it has to focus on a central idea. The problem is that they think that the reason for this is to ensure that the story stays short. It isn’t.
It’s because every story has to focus on a central idea.
Every story has to have a theme. If you don’t know what the theme of your novel is, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. Many writers discover their theme as they write. But if you do that, you’re going to have to go back and rewrite the parts you wrote before you discovered the theme, otherwise it will show.
I understand the fear that having a central idea will somehow limit the scope of the book, and thereby prevent your imagination from really being free to discover and invent.
Fortunately, your imagination doesn’t work that way. It’s a tool for solving problems, so the more you limit it, the more it will discover and invent.
A short story can reveal, expose or direct attention to a central idea.
A full-length novel can explore the idea in detail. It can examine the consequences. It can look at how the idea influences other ideas.
It can explore the way that the idea provokes and creates human behavior. Much SF is all about the way the transmission of ideas through culture, forms human society.
However, your attitude to your words, your sentences, your paragraphs, your chapters, your symbols, your motifs, your theme: should be identical in both the short and the long form.
Full length is not an excuse to be lazy or self-indulgent.
It is an opportunity to be thorough.
This is part 1 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:Continue reading
I don’t want you to just write a book.
Look around you – for which read: trawl the internet – and you’ll find the same, perfectly correct advice everywhere:
At best, this advice is geared to an early learning mindset; it’s geared to people on the vertical part of the learning curve, and it’s trying to pretend that the curve isn’t vertical, for fear of discouragement.
Well I’m going to treat you like an adult.
You’re at the bottom of a vertical cliff. Maybe there’s a safety rope. Maybe there’s an inspiring climbing instructor. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re nervous, tense, and might be on the edge of an attack of the shakes.
That’s what it feels like to be in front of the vertical part of the learning curve.
Think of how you felt during your first driving lesson. The most anyone could tell you to help you feel better was to remind you just how many people have successfully learned to drive. But the most helpful thing that your driving instructor will say to you is not “I know you can do it.”
It’s what she says after you’ve pulled away in first gear, driven ten yards, and then pulled back into the curb. She says: “well done. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
That’s the sound of encouragement. It’s when people tell you well done for taking the first few steps. It’s impossible to tell you well done if you’ve never tried.
So here’s my first, and favorite, example of when Yoda was wrong:
Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.
I’m sorely tempted to say that I don’t have words to express just how wrong this is, just how angry this makes me. But the truth is, I’m a good writer. I have lots of words to express it. I’m just far too considerate of your sensibilities to use them in a published article.
Without try there is no learn. This is for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that in order to learn almost anything, we have to imitate and repeat. We call this practice.
The repetition enables us to build neural pathways and to develop dedicated muscles. The second is that encouragement is a very hard currency, but you can’t spend it on someone who has not tried.
As soon as they have tried, whether or not they have succeeded, you can encourage them.
“Well done,” you say, “that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
If you want to be able to find the right mindset to write your first book, there’s one more thing you have to know about becoming a writer.
You never stop learning.
Learning curves are the graph of a logarithmic function. I’ll give the non mathematical explanation in a moment, but bear with me, because the mathematical explanation of this extended metaphor is wondrous: the shape of the curve is always the same, regardless of the scale.
Let’s say the x axis is the number of weeks you’ve been learning for, and the y axis is how much you’ve learned.
If the x axis goes up to 10 weeks, the curve starts out vertical and finishes horizontal, curving quite quickly around week 3.
Extend the x axis to 20 weeks, and the shape of the curve will be exactly the same, it just starts to curve quickly round week 6 instead.
This is what learning to write is like. The more you learn, the more you discover, and the more you realize that there is a lot more yet to be learned.
But this shouldn’t be demoralizing…
… it should be liberating.
It’s liberating because you soon realize that you’re first book is just the first step. That means your first book isn’t going to be anything like as good as your second book. That every book you write will be better than the last.
Even if you’ve never written so much as a short story, it’s a very small stretch of the imagination to think that once you’ve written ten books, you’ll find it easy to s ee everthing that’s wrong with your first one.
It’s liberating because everyone who is persuing an artistic path is seeking something that can never be completely found. That can only be approached. And this means that every step on the path is as valuable as every other. Even though your first book will be your worst, it will still be an essential part of your life’s work, which is the struggle to communicate meaning through stories.
Does it sound like I’m treating you like an adult?
Western culture gives you the false impression that idealism, and especially artistic idealism, is not for adults. Adults are pragmatic. Adults are realists.
Idealism, especially artisitic idealism, is for adults. Art is necessary because we understand that meaning goes beyond Yes and No. That meaning is often almost impossible to express clearly, simply, plainly or literally.
And stories exist because sometimes meaning can only be expressed over time, or through a journey. Sometimes to communicate our meaning, we need a process.
That process is the communication that passes between writer and reader.
Think of your driving test. By the time you took your test, by the time you collected your license, you knew, for certain, that your first driving lesson was the first step to collecting your license.
Your first book is that first driving lesson.
What I’m trying to do here is show you the mindset that leads to writing the first book, and how to avoid the mindset that prevents you from finishing it, or the other one – equally wrong-headed – that prevents your finished book from ever seeing the light of day.
The mindset you need is to recognize that your first book matters.
And there’s one more component that you need to establish this, and that is to recognize that you want to write because you have something to say. Something you care about. Something that you value. This something is your meaning.
Identify and understand it, and you will have no difficulty addressing the blank page and no difficulty in finishing your story.
One more thing about learning…
So, I’ve berated Yoda and talked about the wonderfully weird exponential curve, but there’s one other aspect of learning that you can’t afford to be without. Providence, or history, or our biological and cultural descent, has provided us with a means of learning very rapidly and very effectively, almost without realizing we are learning.
But unfortunately, if you went to school at any time in the last couple of hundred years, you will have had it at best denigrated and sidelined, at worst beaten out of you. It’s play. Play is a lot more than just “fun” (if there’s any such thing). Play is a lot more than just try. Play is experimentation.
It’s taking steps in new directions. But also it’s rehearsal. Repetition. Trying out and trying on. As an adult, if you want to relearn what you’ve unlearned about learning, the most important thing to reintroduce into learning is play.
To sum up, getting the mindset to write your book:
It’s not easy to summarize, or to pare down to a few glib soundbites, because telling stories is an art, and art is communication through non-literal, messy, intuitive, associative means.
In other words, art communicates the way your human cognitive and communicative faculties really work, as a mixture of feeling, sensation, emotion, truth, understanding; a mixture of certainty and uncertainty. A mixture of the present with the eternal process of living.
I’ve done the messy pep-talk. I hope it’s left you even more daunted but even more encouraged. If you have the temperament to become a writer, then it will have done, because the main characteristic that my pep talk addressed was ambition. Ambition is the quality you have to have, the sine qua non to use the Latin, of self-improvement.
Finding your ambition requires a bit of introspection, but it helps if you spend some time talking to others about what you want to achieve. It will bore them, but it will help you get the self-knowledge you need, so trespass a little on their goodwill for your own good.
You can thank them afterwards.
I think it’s worth our while talking about some practical considerations. If you’re going to write a book, you might as well make it as easy for yourself as possible. In my course on writing your first book, Read Worthy Fiction, I devote an entire lesson to making yourself comfortable in your writing environment.
But that doesn’t mean you need to set yourself up a cosy little nook somewhere. I wrote about 60% of my first book in the office, on company time. I have worked with a writer who did most of her first book on the kitchen table while preparing meals for her family, with the radio and the extractor running, and the kids watching the TV in the next room.
Making yourself comfortable is about knowing where you need to be in order to be able to write.
I also know that I write more when I have something else I ought to be doing but don’t much fancy doing, like hanging out the washing or changing the straw in the goose shelter. It helps if you understand your motivations.
Many writers use the process of story discovery as a means of motivating themselves, but long term, this will fail, because the more you know about the art and craft of writing, the more you will know in advance about what you are going to write.
My feeling is that it is best to start in the right place, and know exactly what you’re going to write.
Take as many decisions as you possibly can before you start writing. Remember all these decisions count as tries, so there’s no need to worry about whether you make the right decision. You’ll learn something valuable whatever you chuse, and that’s the point of the endeavor.
Write down your answers to these vague, broad, open questions:
A novella is 20,000 to 30,000 words (40 pages and 60 pages in old money). A short novel is 40,000 to 80,000 words. I advise you to aim for 20,000 to 40,000 words.
I advise you not to exceed 100,000 words for your first novel, as you will make yourself wait to learn all sorts of valuable lessons.
How to actually write?
My number one advice, which counts for about 95% of the effort of preparation and will be your most valuable asset for the creative, technical and artistic challenge ahead:
If you can only one-finger type, you will go so slowly that you will not be able to maintain a strong sense of your story, and the narrative will become stilted and jerky.
There is pretty good voice recognition software available that you can use to dictate to the computer, but this is much, much slower than typing. Alternatively, you can dictate, and make use of a professional copy-typing service. There are many of these to be found online and rates are very reasonable, but still, this is much slower than touch typing.
I type at 80 to 90 wpm (words per minute). With a few week’s practice, you can learn to type at 50 wpm or more. That’s 3000 words an hour if you type continuously, which when writing your book, you won’t.
If you include rephrasing, rereading, staring into space or out of the window, trying out dialog aloud and the many other non-writing parts of the writer’s creative process, then 1000 words an hour is only accessible if you can touch type.
The best advice I can give here is to condense the whole creative process down to a couple of simple phrases:
It isn’t for nothing that I’ve created a course for first time writers. There’s no way I could give meaningful advice about what to write in a short article like this one.
But, I get that this simplification begs a pretty big question:
Where do the ideas for what to write come from?
I would generally hope that if you have the ambition to write a book, then you already have some sense of what you want to write about. That’s why I suggested you answer those questions asking what the book is about. But even once you know what it’s about, you still have to work out the detail of what happens.
You can see, not far above you, maybe three or four yards, a ledge that’s wide enough for you to sit and have a rest. That ledge is now your first objective.
To get there, though, you have to find a route to climb where there will be hand and footholds that you will be able to reach, and you will have the strength to hang on to. There’s only one way to find them: try.
Grab a likely looking handhold and see if you can get started. Feel out with hands and feet, and see if you can work your way up. If you can’t, go back down and try again.
The detail of writing is all about identifying your objectives.
Once you do, everything starts to fall into place. Let’s suppose that you give yourself a very broad objective for chapter 1:
The main character has their most valued possession stolen.
This statement immediately begs a whole pile of other questions:
Although you don’t have to tell the reader the answer to all these questions, clearly you need to answer them, and each answer leads to a new objective:
This dialectic process will lead inevitably to the story being invented and to its being told.
Eventually, you will internalize this process and do it instinctively, in exactly the same way as you steer, brake and accelerate in your car without consciously thinking about it, now that you’ve been driving for a while.
As I’ve already intimated, and it bears repeating, learning to touch type is the single most effective way of making your ambition to write a book accessible. This implies using some sort of writing machine.
Plenty of authors still use manual typewriters for their first draft. For exactly the same purpose, many authors favor small, dedicated machines like the Alphasmart range or lightweight portable electronic typewriters.
The advantage of these machines is the focus they provide, because they can only be used for writing. There are no distractions. No games, no internet, no messaging.
The authors who use these machines do so either because they like to be isolated and focused, or because they want to escape the temptation of distractions.
If this is going too far for you, then all you need is a computer with word processing software.
A novel is just text with gaps and a few chapter headings.
So in theory, you don’t need anything more complicated than a text editor, like Microsoft Windows Notepad.
In reality, once you reach a few tens of thousands of words, it becomes valuable to be able to find your place easily, to add notes, references and comments, and so a richer working environment becomes more important.
I’ve written another article about writing software that covers these in a lot more detail.
Publishing is about product, writing is about process. ~ Emma Darwin
Writing fiction is a unique creative exercise, because unlike every other creative art (except perhaps music), fiction depends on rules, guidelines and conventions – it depends on being recognized as fiction – and fiction depends on a special, learned complementary activity: reading.
You can write your work of fiction alone. If you have a massive reference library (paper, electronic or both); if you have been a voracious reader for many years; if you have had a thorough, intensive, deep literary education and if, most of all, you have a bottomless well of self-belief, you can write your fiction alone.
With the rise of e-readers and electronic publishing, it has become possible to publish your novel yourself. If you’re going to do this, then if you’ll excuse my presumption, you want to get it checked over for mistakes. But today, even traditional publishers expect you to submit a manuscript that has already been checked, at the very least, for basic errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation.
If you don’t have a bottomless well of self-belief, then you also want to know if your book idea is worth pursuing; worth the many weeks of toil to turn it into a manuscript.
Once you’ve added those all important words The End to the final page, you want to know if your book is any good. Or if it sucks.
You may find all sorts of volunteers who can give you an opinion.
But there are also professionals, who will give you a whole lot more.
Broadly speaking, the professionals who can help you with your book can be divided into three skill sets, which I call high level editing, low level editing and proofreading. There are numerous terms for each of these skill sets in common currency, but very little consistency in their usage.
The role of the literary editor grew, very rapidly, out of the role of publishing editor. In traditional publishing, many publishing editors, commissioning editors, acquisitions editors and literary agents combine their commercial role with the role of literary editor. The literary editor’s role, in the broadest possible terms, is to help the writer to realize her book.
Book not manuscript.
The scope of the literary editor’s work is the book, not the manuscript. This is not only because literary editing arose from traditional publishing. It is because, perhaps even more so, in today’s self-publishing scrum, the author has to project manage every aspect of publication, and often wants or needs someone who can guide her through every stage of book production, from choosing which story idea to develop into a manuscript, right through to publication, marketing and promotion.
There are two obvious motives for seeking the aid of a literary editor. The many other reasons why my authors email, Skype, text or call me all seem to derive from these two motives:
Your high level editor will, depending on their preferred process, either focus on just the manuscript, or may focus also on the author, and/or the development and publication process. This is partly a matter of what clients usually ask for; but the demand for help beyond the current draft seems high, and I think you should want more than just a report on the characters and plot of your manuscript.
But what you want from your high level editor needs to be driven by your priorities, for the simple, if perhaps not obvious, reason that you will learn the most from an editor who is focused on what you want to know.
You should be expecting the editor to provide you with the results of an analysis both of the experience of reading the book and of the techniques you have employed, and you should be expecting the editor to show you what needs urgent fixing, and also where there are opportunities for improvement.
You should also be able to instruct your editor in your values, aims and ambitions as a writer.
An additional point to consider is the amount of contact both with you, and with your manuscript, that the editor is prepared to offer. My standard full content edit includes at least two 90 minute consultations. I also read your second draft. To my knowledge, most high level editors do not offer this. So find out.
The toolbox is divided into three compartments:
I provide my feedback in three different forms.
Those features and many others (as well as how to avoid common problems with each), is something I cover in much greater detail in: Read Worthy Fiction.
Other high level editors may restrict all their feedback to comments in the manuscript or give everything in a separate report, or do the same as I do. There are no rules, no conventions. We do what works for our authors.
In addition, I also invite the author to chat via Skype (or equivalent). Typically we chat once or twice, for 90 minutes at a time. This is not typical but worth asking for.
You may need some time to get over the shock.
Your literary editor is there to tell you what you are doing wrong, what isn’t working, what sucks. It won’t be balanced out with praise of what you are doing well, beyond the occasional “well done” or “more of this please”. Actually I make an effort to point out where you are obviously doing well. It helps to have someone tell you something about your strengths. But it is the nature of the exercise that priority is given to your failings.
And expect the editor to be frank and honest and direct. There’s no time to be gentle or spare your feelings, and we all assume that you’re doing this in order to improve; so you should expect to be told that you have some improving to do.
The most important thing to do with your editor’s feedback is to ask questions. You may grasp much of it right away – it’s fair to expect your editor to be a pretty effective communicator. But many of the ideas, issues, principles, conventions and techniques may be unfamiliar. Be sure that you don’t skip over or ignore comments, remarks or suggestions that you don’t fully understand. Look them up, research, and above all, ask.
Some of the changes or corrections that your editor advises you to make may require significant structural changes, such as changing chapter order, adding or cutting or entirely rewriting some chapters. In this case, you’re likely to need a strategy, in which case, ask your editor for guidance and suggestions.
There is one good reason to pay a professional to copy edit your book:
Readers will not forgive you if you don’t.
Readers will notice, with surprise and curiosity, one error in (your mileage may vary) 10,000 words, and carry on reading. Readers will begin to get irritated with one error every 3,000 to 4,000 words. Any more than that, and they will very likely stop reading. If there is an error on the first page, the reader will spot every other error in the book (I call this ‘dead-in-the-water’).
And they won’t forgive you. They’ll write a review saying: ‘don’t buy – obviously hasn’t been edited.’
The copy editors speciality is errors. The good ones will find and correct all of the errors. This is not a matter of your peace of mind. It is the difference between getting read and not getting read. That simple.
Your copy editor will focus on the manuscript you send them.
The minimum you want from a copy-editor is that your manuscript comes back free of spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Most copy-editors will also flag actual and possible vocabulary errors: where they know or suspect that you may have used the wrong word. Often they will make suggestions. Many copy-editors will also make suggestions as to sentence structure – either suggesting where to break up long sentences or where to join or complete fragments.
It might sound like copy editing is very black-and-white; scientific almost. They find the errors, and correct them.
But language is never that simple. Even grammar and punctuation are messy. Spelling is especially messy; did you know that the dictionaries in most word processing software spell -ize words ‘-ise’ in UK spelling and ‘-ize’ in US spelling, and that as a result many people think that ‘-ize’ is incorrect in the UK. It isn’t. It’s at least as common as ‘-ise’ and much older. I chuse to spell choose with a ‘u’ because although not generally considered standard modern spelling, Jane Austen uses it.
So you will make your copy-editor’s job vastly easier if you know that you have certain preferences in spelling or punctuation. It will make their job easier if you can tell them something about your style, and the literary techniques you like to employ.
If you enjoy, for instance, using sentence fragments. If you enjoy word order that is non-typical. If you like to torture syntax on purpose. It will also help if you have specific concerns about your style, like people have told you that your sentences are too long, or that you use too many adjectives.
In all cases, the corrected manuscript should be in one of two forms; either with markup, showing where changes need to be made, either in the traditional blue pen or using a common word processing software’s commenting feature. Or, the corrected manuscript should have the errors corrected, but with the common word processing software’s change tracking switched on, so you can accept or reject each change.
Even though the copy-editor is the expert, ultimately it’s up to you to decide what to do with each change. You will have to read through and consider each change on its own merits. In general, I suggest:
If in doubt over:
Many copy-editors will answer any questions you have about their corrections and suggestions. But remember copy-editors generally work very hard, and their work requires a special level of focus and concentration. So make a note of each question and query you have, and send an email with all your questions in one go.
What are they?
Proofreading and Beta-reading, in the age of digital publishing, can be thought of as the same thing. Back in the days of moveable type, the proofreader’s job was to ensure that no new errors had been introduced to the text by the typesetter. Today, there is no typesetter to introduce new errors. So proofreading has become a test to see if the book works for a reader.
As such, what you want from a proofreader is a read-through from the reader’s point of view, and a report on what the book is like to read.
It is therefore very important to give clear instructions to your panel of readers. Make sure they are clear that you don’t want them to worry about errors that the copy-editor is going to find and correct, like errors of spelling or punctuation.
Make sure that they do know that you need to know, however, whether characters or settings are believable. That you do want to know that they can imagine the locations clearly; that they don’t get confused as to what is going on. A very valuable specific instruction is to have them make a note of anywhere that they have to read more than once or stop and think. A less obvious instruction is to have your readers make a not of where they stop, every time they stop reading to go do something else.
It’s very effective to talk to your proof/beta-readers. Face to face if possible (e.g. Skype). This is because you need to get their feedback on the emotional experience of reading your book.
Non-fiction requires a different skill set both at high and low levels. Many copy-editors do both. My best advice is that if you need a fiction edit, chuse an editor who specializes in fiction or who edits at least 50% fiction.
Non-fiction can be edited by someone whose English is a second language or from a different English speaking region from yours.
Your literary editor will be with you for the long haul. It should be thought of as a long term creative collaboration.
This means that your literary editor needs to be a good fit for you. Assuming you’ve been convinced that a candidate for the role has the necessary skills, personality is going to play a much bigger role than age, genre, educational background or cultural background. Personality is going to play a bigger role than genre.
Having said that, you do need to know that they can do the job. There are three ways to find this out, and you must do all three:
In my experience, copy editors are more likely to have literary and professional qualifications, and are more likely to be members of professional associations, than literary editors.
This is to be expected. Many of the skills that copy-editors apply are derived from knowledge acquired through study, and examination for qualification (testing) is much more feasible.
But letters after their name, and logos on the website, are not enough.
It’s best if your proof/beta-readers are people you already know. Friends, colleagues. Your best friend’s spouses are often a very good compromise between people you know well and people who will be honest. Members of your writing circle are to be avoided because they are writers.
You need to find non-writers.
I think it’s a good idea to pay your beta-readers, even if it’s only $5, because it’s valuable for both of you to remember that even though they are volunteers, for you this is a business. You should have about five people on your beta-reader panel. Two is not enough. And they should be people who do a lot of reading.
Assuming your manuscript is between 80,000 and 120,000 words, you should expect a high level edit to take less than a month. I usually expect a typical length book to take me less than 20 days. It’s certainly possible to do it in 10 days, but my process requires a certain amount of down time for thinking.
Your low level edit should not take more than a fortnight. Many copy-editors will turn it around within a week.
It’s also a good idea to give your beta-readers a deadline. Two weeks should be enough.
When planning your publication schedule, however, allow a month each for high level, low level and beta-reading.
Rates for Editing of all kinds vary enormously and are calculated in a variety of different ways.
High-Level Edit Costs – Most will have some means of calculating how much you will have to pay. Make sure it is clear before you start whether they are going to give you a fixed quotation (quote) or an estimate. If they give you an estimate, it will be adjusted once the job is completed, according to the time it takes.
Some charge by the hour, and estimate the cost from the number of pages or the number of words. Others charge per page or per word.
Whatever their advertised means of calculating the cost, always ask for a quotation or estimate.
My preference is to estimate the time that the job will take me based on a large sample of the text and on the author’s requirements. This allows me to put a fixed price on the job, and to give a firm deadline.
For a complete literary edit of a 80,000 to 120,000 word manuscript, high level editing rates vary very widely. Because my own service is tailored to the individual author, the fork is anything from $1,000 up to $3,000 and beyond. Editors using a fixed rate per word or per page charge from about $2,000 for their services.
Estimate the cost of high level editing: 0.025 * word count = price in USD
For 90 minutes of story development consulting, you should expect to pay $250 to $500.
Low Level Edit Costs – Most copy-editors will charge per word or per page. A few charge by the hour, but will give you a fixed rate based on page or word count if you ask for it. Bear in mind, however, that some writers are much easier to copy-edit than others, so copy-editors will typically reserve the right to revise the price once they have seen the manuscript.
Prices for copy editing typically start from about $1,000 for an 80,000 to 120,000 word manuscript. The highest rates are about double this.
Estimate the cost of low-level editing: 0.0125 * word count = price in USD
Your relationship with your editor, in business terms, is of the purchase of services. You are the client and the editor is the vendor. As such, a minimum of paperwork should exchange hands. In most jurisdictions, you should expect a quotation before the job and an invoice when payment is due.
My standard quotation includes the following instructions:
Please print, write the words “read and agreed”, sign, date and return (you can scan and email).
This way the quotation document constitutes a formal agreement for payment in return for the services. You should therefore expect the quotation to identify clearly the service that is to be provided. Many editors have the possibility for direct payment in advance via their websites. If they do this, you should still have something from them explaining what they will do for you and when.
The invoice is essential for your accounts. The Quotation is not enough on its own.
Payment terms vary. Many editors accept payment in installments. Some expect a downpayment then balance on delivery (my preference – it’s very motivating). Many will expect payment in full in advance. Some may be flexible so it never hurts to ask for what will suit you best.
Remember, no amount of paperwork or promises guarantees that the work will be done to a high standard. Indeed, price is no guarantee of quality. If you want to know if someone offering editing services can be trusted, take up their references. If you can’t find any references or testimonials, don’t go there.
Finding your list of candidate editors can be tricky.
Novel writing has always been seen as rich hunting grounds by scammers and con artists, so if you just google editing services for fiction writers, you’ll get the people who’ve paid the most for SEO. Actually, Joanna Penn’s excellent website will come up in the top ten results and she has a very good, if short, list of editors that she recommends.
I can give you a couple of other points of departure:
Kboards.com is a forum for users of e-readers. There is a very active community of indie and self-published authors who have compiled a list of reputable services for authors. (Link pre-sorts for editors.)
That still gives you a lot to choose from, but you can visit their websites and contact them for sample editing.
Make use of the KBoards “Writer’s Cafe” to ask your questions about editors, and ask other writers for their recommendations.
An excellent way to find a good editor is to find out who edited your favorite recently published books. Often, the editor’s name, and sometimes their website, will be given in the book itself. If not, contact the author.
This is much more feasible with self-published authors, but these days, most authors are pretty accessible, and if they’re asked the question enough times, maybe they’ll put a link to their editor’s website on their own website.
What follows is a series of posts that I originally wrote several years ago, as part of the process of articulating the importance of the work of the literary editor. I've revised (2016) and collected them all here, in the following sections with original publication dates in brackets:
Now that I am offering editing to independent authors, here are some thoughts about what I think you should expect from a literary editor.
What is a Good Book? I’m sure the reply is pretty much unanimous: a good book is subjective, personal. But just as I can tell a good violinist from a bad one, although I know nothing about playing the violin, so most people can recognize a bad book. So can most people be editors? I don’t think so. Most people can be proofreaders, however.
The techie culture surrounding indie publishing has made “beta-reader” the favoured term. Literally, ‘proof read’ means ‘test read’. A proofreader is someone who reads as if they are the intended reader, whether for pleasure, information, study, who is able so state, thereafter, whether the book met their need.
Who is a good editor? Derek Prior and I both studied drama theory, and in the course of our studies learned the craft of textual analysis. Textual analysis arises on the one hand from the kind of literary criticism developed by F. R. Leavis and his contemporaries, and on the other hand from the desire to apply scientific rigour to the study of literature.
I have applied textual analysis in every type of work and writing that I have done (In French academia, there is a vast, rich, and mostly redundant vocabulary of technical terms that can be applied in textual analysis. I try to steer clear of this kind of thing, though some of the terms are indispensable).
A good editor needs to be able to combine his analytic skill with a deep understanding of what makes a story work.
What makes a story work? This is not as hard to pin down as what makes a good book, because what makes a story work is contextual rather than subjective. I have read manuscripts that contain no story – just a series of related events. Sometimes this results from the naturalistic fallacy (that I will discuss another time), sometimes just from narrative incompetence. Narrative incompetence is the inability to tell a story. As long as your manuscript features a story, your story can be made to work. How to make it work means getting down to the nuts and bolts of narrative mechanics, and putting right what is obviously wrong. Sometimes an editor’s work is limited to this, but this alone does not make a good editor.
So what makes a good editor? A good editor is aware of the greater literary freedoms that are possible with indie publishing, and will aid and encourage you to take advantage of them if you want to, but will also know how to shelter you from their uncertainties if that is what you need.
A good editor needs to know what makes a good writer. After all, an editor needs clients, and a client who is a good writer will be good publicity for an editor. So a good editor will be able to show a writer not only how to improve his book, but how to become a better writer.
All editors are not alike. Each will have his preferred methodology. Each will have strengths and weaknesses, just like a writer. I am aware that there are editors whose principle is that there are a few “standard” ways of writing a good (or saleable) book, and they will coerce your text into meeting the standard. This may well suit you.
One might be tempted to divide editors into those who edit to create a commercial success and those who edit to help the writer improve his work. This would be wrong for a couple of reasons:
What a writer ought to get by working with an editor is a better book.
I’m going into opinion here – so don’t hesitate to disagree, especially if you are an editor. An editor needs to be a rigorous, skilled critic, and an ally. Here are the things I think an editor must provide:
So what in concrete terms should you get for your money? At the very least, you should get your text back from the editor with lots of notes in the margin. Much as I am loath to say so, MSWord is very good for this purpose.
Some editors will not touch spelling, grammar and punctuation until you deliver a final draft. Others will do it as they go. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Any other changes that the editor makes should come with some explanation.
I don’t usually apply literary corrections directly to the text. I prefer to flag the problem, explain it, and let the author make the correction, as I think this helps the author to assert his personal style, and to learn.
I think the editor’s job is to help the author to improve his book, not to correct the author’s book for him.
I also like to provide a summary of my editorial notes. This includes a short literary analysis, and details of any general issues that I think the author needs to address. This is valuable because it is hard for the author to get a view of any global issues when reading notes in the margin. I also like to chat with authors (via Skype call) – though I understand entirely why this is not possible for other editors.
You can expect me to ask you if you have a preferred style manual, or what consistent style rules you apply. I will make a choice between proposing one of the commonly used conventions, that, with your agreement, we apply across the board, OR I will infer a set of personal rules for you from the choices of style and presentation that you make, and ensure that those are applied consistently.
I’ve been thinking about how I set out my stall. To this end I have been re-reading past posts that deal with my literary ideology, as well as those that deal with what I think editing is all about. I have also made use of the wonderful educational tool, InspireData to help me think about how I think about editing:
Each of these diagrams shows the same set of editing “interventions” (e.g. spelling, grammar, diction, punctuation) sorted via Venn diagramming three different ways, first by general editing domain, then by the type of checks (or controls) used, and then by the origin or source of those controls.
The broad outcome of this analysis is that in my thinking, editing can be divided into four general domains, as follows:
The purpose of this analysis is not to create something new; it is to describe what I am already doing, what I have always done, and how it has evolved in the light of the indie publishing phenom.
Two major points arise from the co-evolution of indie-publishing and literary-editing-for-indie-publishing:
In the case of 2 above, I think that the author has a duty, and the editor a responsibility, to ensure that the author’s eccentric, esoteric or merely mildly divergent choices remain consistent within a given book (so they do not confuse or alienate readers), and do not hinder clarity or accessibility.
Like never before, however, we writers and editors have an opportunity not merely to democratize publishing, but to democratize language; to celebrate regional variation; to experiment with alternative means and modes of expression. I for one feel that (f’rinstance) there are many situations where the common US and UK conventions for laying out direct speech are stifling and inflexible, and I would love to see more writers looking for something better (and simpler).
Great (and apparently, Irish) writers have in the past had to establish and fight for their own authority before being allowed to go outside the conventions (Joyce, GB Shaw). You don’t have to. As long as you don’t compromize comprehensibility, you don’t have to compromize on your style.
Not every book needs a literary edit. I think that every book should go to a professional editor for style and format (copy-edit), but a literary edit isn’t needed for everything. But how do you know if your work needs one or not?
I suspect the only way to know is to go through the literary edit process at least once. It also helps a great deal to talk to other writers who use, or have used, a literary editor. Those who can tell you why they decided they didn’t need to will be the ones who help you to discover if you need to. So why not?
For one thing, it is expensive. A book of 120k words will take me anything from 30 to 50 hours to edit, more if you include communication with the author. Your first two or three full length novels will take longer to edit than later ones, which means that those who charge a fixed rate per word may have to do a lighter edit than your work really needs, and those who, like me, quote based on an estimate of the time required, will charge more to edit your early, weaker work than for your later, stronger work. This is one of the ironies of our profession – but it applies to everything that authors do:
The more you write, the faster you write, and the fewer errors you make. So even if you don’t use an editor, the effort it will cost you to write your better work (the books you haven’t written yet) will always be less than the effort you are investing now.
Many writers see using a literary editor as an investment. They hope that it will lead to their becoming a better writer faster. I hope this is so, too, since this is my main professional intent: to help you become a better writer. It is both a privilege and a pleasure to watch this happen, when I am the right editor for you.
There’s the crux of the issue. Not every editor is the right editor for every writer.
It is far more important, in my opinion, that a writer find an editor who is a good match to his immediate needs, than the writer find an editor who is a good match to his purse, or who he perceives as being the best editor.
This is a major reason for my posting the kind of things that I do here in my blog. I want you to have a chance to discover what sort of edit you will get, and to discover a little about my personality and my approach. I think that if the kind of things that I say appeal to you, then we can probably work together.
But you can’t know if you have the right editor until you try him or her. There are plenty of us out here. It makes sense to try more than one. More than two.
And if you have a bad experience with an editor, it is likely that the editor was a poor match to your needs. Probably more likely than your impression that he or she was a “bad editor”. If you found your editor on Kindle Boards, they’re probably good. If they were recommended by another author, they’re probably good.
Even for copy editing, a good match is necessary. Some editors will, unless otherwise instructed, edit spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary in strict accordance with an approved Style Guide. They are absolutely right to do so.
Some authors find this sanitizes or anonymizes their work. Others are glad they don’t have to think about those details. Some editors will copy-edit with a very light touch indeed; correcting obvious errors, but not standardizing anything. They are absolutely right to do so.
But some authors find that certain (ahem, fussy) readers make comments that suggest that editing has been sloppy or nonexistent. You can’t please all the readers all of the time; having an editor on board if only for a light copy edit can help you to go into this with your eyes open.
A discussion started on Kindle Boards a couple of days ago about editors and editing. The tone of the discussion is rather forceful in places, but as a crash course in what you should expect, what attitude and approach to take, and how to protect yourself from a bad experience, this is REQUIRED READING: Editing Rant (via Kindle Boards).
If you have an editor, and you think they are the best, then you have found a good match. Please gush about them on your blog in and in KB – but try to say why they suit you so well, and this will help other authors to find the right editor for them.
I think that these posts about editing should probably be taken as a view of my thoughts on editing as it evolves over time, so it is probably a good idea to ensure that you have read all of them (links top right).
I’ve been thinking about this one for a long time, and as I specialize more and more in story development and do less and less copy-editing, I think there are a couple of lines that I can draw fairly clearly on the subject of what you should not expect.
To get copy-editing out of the way: from a copy edit, you should not expect your manuscript to be error free, and conform perfectly to every style guide. But you should expect errors to be few and conformities to be maximized.
For a content edit, here are a few things that you shouldn’t expect, after your edit has been completed:
1. All content editors agree that your manuscript needs no further editing.
The truth is, your editor might think that the manuscript needs further editing, but doesn’t want to overwhelm you. A content editor is not just working with your manuscript. He is working with you. Even an experienced writer can still learn and improve, and working with an editor is a good way to stimulate this improvement. So an inexperienced writer might, not to put to fine a point on it, have a lot to learn. A responsible editor may well chuse not to draw attention to all the problems, because it can end up looking insurmountable. Actually this doesn’t happen all that often, but it is worth being aware of it.
More often, different editors will have different preferences and priorities, and what you chuse to do to solve one problem might be considered a new problem by a new editor.
Editors’ preferences might run to your turn-of-phrase or even vocabulary choices. Editors’ might prioritize, narration, characterization, plotting differently. This is why I’ve already blogged on chusing the right editor for you. Complete your rewrite, your editor might tell you it’s all good, you send it to another editor and he might tell you something completely different. Hence point number 2:
2. Your editor will tell you when your manuscript needs no further editing.
Content editing is expensive, time-consuming and its results are uncertain. Even though those who have tried a professional content editor generally want to do it again and again, it’s worth looking for alternatives. Discussing your work in writer’s groups is good, as is using a panel of beta-readers. I think that a content editor brings something else to the table, though, and that is a service tailored personally to you and your book.
Even so, only you can decide when your book is ready for publication. I think if you use an editor and are not satisfied with the draft you do afterwards, but the editor thinks it’s good, it probably means the editor wasn’t a good match to the book, or to you, or both.
3. Everyone who reads your book with think it is great, and…
4. You will sell loads of books because your book is great.
It may seem obvious that these two are false, but it is worth preparing yourself mentally for the reviews that say: “this book seriously needs editing!”.
And indeed, mentally preparing yourself for not selling many books.
It’s the subject of much curiosity and discussion, that the quality of a book doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in its (initial) success. That seems to be largely luck. Once the book is established, the better books will continue to make good sales for longer, we hope.
Tangential to these two is what is, for me, the bottom line of what not to expect:
5. Your book will be great because your content editor is great.
If you have a great content editor, she will have done a great job at finding the problems and opportunities, documenting them, communicating them to you, and suggesting what you should do about it. However, she won’t be the one rewriting you manuscript. That will be you. No matter how good your editor is, your book can only be as good as you can make it. I believe that if your editor is great, then you can make your book a whole lot better with the editor than alone, but it’s still you the limiting factor.
I find I can be very open about this with my authors; most of you think you are worse than you are; all of you are trying to become better. I believe that working for authors who are humble but ambitious, keen to learn and hardworking, is what makes me become a better editor. Since I work with lots of authors, while most authors work with two or less editors, I reckon I get the better side of the deal, which is why I advise all writers to try more than one content editor: even if the one you have really suits you, you can learn a lot by working with someone else from time to time.
For the second time in as many months, a new customer has said to me something along the lines of:
“You weren’t the cheapest option, but I guess good work costs.”
In reality I suspect that there are two ways of getting a good edit: for free, or by paying what the job is really worth.
You can get a good edit for free. Generally speaking, when someone does you a favour, they do it conscientiously. (Is that really naive of me? I hope not.) I’d be inclined to suppose, though I admit on no evidence, that this is more true for a copy edit than for a literary edit (yes, I’m still using this term as an umbrella for story development, content editing and writer mentoring).
If you pay someone for an edit, there is a very simple way to work out if you are paying enough.
For a writer who is experienced and reasonably competent at narration, I won’t need to make notes more than once every few pages – and mostly on story and characterization at that rate, I can read and take notes at more than 5,000 words an hour.
If the writer is less experienced, or makes lots of errors or there are generalized narrative or stylistic problems, my speed can be cut down to about 2,000 words per hour. This is excluding time that I take to think (anything up to 2 days for a book of that length), the time taken to organize, structure and write up my notes (1 to 2 days) and time spent discussing all this with the writer (2 to 6 hours, though sometimes as much as 25 hours; I don’t count this however as writers’ needs can vary so much).
So for an 75,000 word book with average problems, I would need just over 40 hours. I base my prices on my estimate of the amount of time a book will take me, because it does vary a very great deal.
Going back to (1) above, if you paid me at the same rate as someone flipping burgers, I’d still need $ 293. But you ought to expect to hire an editor with qualifications and experience that are more difficult to acquire than those needed for flipping burgers, and such people are not all that easy to find. In short, someone who is going to help you to add value to your work is going to cost more than the minimum wage.
In my case, my lowest rate would, based on the figures above, be about $ 28 an hour. Someone charging you $ 200 dollars at that rate would have to work at a rate of 10,500 words per hour! That sort of speed is not possible.
In my opinion, there shouldn’t be much difference in cost between a copy-edit and a literary edit. The skills, knowledge and experience required may overlap, but they aren’t different degrees of the same service. They are different services provided by different specialists (many editors offer both, and I assume in my usual naive way that that means that many editors are equally or nearly equally good at both; I am not). In both, you require a degree of specialist knowledge, thoroughness and attention to detail that is relatively uncommon.
Ultimately, you should pay what you can reasonably afford, and of course, you get what you pay for. What I hope to have done with the above is show that you can, to some extent, work out if you are being charged too little. This is only possible because you know that the job requires both time and undivided attention.
I don’t think there’s any meaningful way to judge if you’ve been charged too much based purely on the price. You have to see the completed edit before you can tell.Continue reading
This is a new series where I will give examples of standard English that are ungrammatical. I’m not talking about idiom, nor about those exceptions that escape the rules. These will not be obscure, nor exceptional, just correct English that is grammatical nonsense.Continue reading