Why am I working so hard on my writing skills? The top authors defy the reasons.
Despite the many hours I spend writing, critiquing and editing, I still make time to read the odd book or two every month. It’s my love of reading that brought me into this business of being a writer.
I recently completed reading The High Druids Of Shannara Trilogy, having managed to snag a copy at my local bookstore for the affordable price of $9.99 – a deal, in my opinion, for 1132 pages of epic fantasy written by Terry Brooks, an established author of the genre.
One of the downsides of being an author when trying to read for pleasure is the unfortunate habit of examining the writing for editing issues such as grammar, plot holes, and other kindred issues. When I find them I tsk, tsk away and it deflates the value of the read. A problem I never had prior to becoming a writer. This particular work followed in the footsteps of something I have seen quite a lot of lately – bad editing. In defense of Mr. Brooks, he’s not alone. This problem is widespread across all genres with best sellers.
I took the time to glance through The New York Times top ten best sellers list. The nice thing about online shopping for books is the read me feature at all of the websites. It allows the courtesy of perusing a number of pages to determine whether the book is worth buying. I wanted to see how many editing misses I could discover in the first page of each on this dignified list.
Currently, sitting in the number one spot is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. With missing commas, sentences beginning with conjunctions, and a penchant to string sentences together with colons and semi-colons, this first page failed my test miserably. A quick examination of the list of 6,392 reviews spotlights the number one comment by 1,863 of them – “well written”.
At number two, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn features such delights as an errant switch from past to present tense, a plethora of colons – punctuation normally reserved for textbooks, and the insertion of extraneous words such as that. Of course, of the 35,135 customer reviews, the top line by 3,149 reviewers once again reads – “well written”.
Moving on to number three, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, I am entreated by dangling participles, the use of brackets, and more sentences beginning with conjunctions. Of the 5,018 reviews, the top line by 469 of them is… you guessed it – “well written”.
As I examine number four, Die Again by Tess Gerritsen, my expectations are no higher than the others and the pro forma of what has occurred continues with the constant incorrect use of the word and instead of commas, and descriptive dialogue tags. In fairness, hers is the first where of the 221 customer reviews, in the top three summations, you do not find the words – “well written”. Kudos for that crowd.
Number five is Gray Mountain by John Grisham. More sentences starting with conjunctions and a serious case of talking heads where all the characters are talking in a void – no actions, no thoughts, to accompany the intense lengthy dialogue. A slight drop in the review performance on this one. Of the 9,702, only 641 one of them, the third most popular summation, included the now famous quote – “well written”.
Yeah, I know I said “top ten”, but I think five is enough to prove my point. Should I commit the offense of any of those writing gaffs my editor would hang me up by my thumbnails.
What gives? Why are these people given a pass when it comes to writing faux pas? It’s because the publishers don’t sweat it. These books will sell whether properly edited or not. Yet when you examine any list you like by literary agents as to why they reject new authors you will invariably find among the top reasons – “poorly written”.
Agents need to re-think their priorities when examining submissions from new authors. Learning the ins and outs of writing is something authors will do when they get to the editing stage. It’s not the attention to good grammar that is the key, it’s the story.
So after my little tirade, where does that leave the novice writer like me? Where else? Working on writing skills. Yep. The truth of the matter is my piddly little blog is not going to change the minds of a legion of literary agents. They will continue to expect par excellence performance from the rank amateur and ignore the small failures of the well known.
Alas, such is the life of a budding author.
Why do writers have characters do things to themselves?
I’ve seen it many times. Too many. Characters in novels doing things to themselves.
He got himself out of bed.
Imagine you are Drax the Destroyer from Guardians Of The Galaxy. You would take everything literally. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WFerMzBfB8
To Drax, the prose above would be most confusing. How could he get himself out of bed? That would require there to be two of him. One to pull the other out of the bed.
Sure, everyone understands what is meant and so the prose is considered acceptable. Or is it? Just because such vernacular is commonplace in the English language doesn’t mean it’s good writing. In questioning this practice with other writers I have come to the conclusion this is a form of filtering, an issue I am constantly struggling to prevent in my work.
Filtering: “Filtering” is when the writer forces us to “look at rather than through” the point-of-view character’s eyes.
Filtering can inadvertently hold the reader at a distance, especially when working in a close 1st or 3rd-person point-of-view, and keeps the reader from sinking comfortably into the fictional dream. One moment the reader is hunched over the POV character’s shoulder, observing the world as if he is that character; seeing only what the character sees. But stumble across a “filtered observation” and suddenly the reader is looking at the character instead of with the character — watching the character as the character watches something else.
This all comes back to the desire to write in an active tense rather than a passive one. In striking the word himself from the example you end up with:
He got out of bed.
Same meaning, same intent, and yet, different. It’s a feel of some sort. Where the original example is passive and may reflect a struggle by the character to achieve the goal of getting out of bed, the revised sentence is active and direct. There is no question of what is happening.
So what is better?
I suppose it comes down to a case of use versus abuse. Like the occasional use of an adverb, (you know those -ly words editors are constantly asking writers to remove) the rare use of having characters do something to themselves may be acceptable, but like adverbs, too many is not a good thing.
With apologies to the author, Bradley P. Beaulieu, I became acutely aware of the issue when reading The Winds Of Khalakovo, edited by Ross E. Lockhart.
For those of you who by chance have a copy, on page 383, one third of the way down.
And so she found herself fighting to keep herself from sliding along the thwart, fighting to stay warm, fighting to prevent herself from heaving again, an action that brought only pain.
Wow. In one sentence the character did something to herself three times! As before, if I’m Drax, that would make… (counting on fingers) …four of her! You can see the conundrum such a statement would make.
Now either the editor found such prose acceptable or the author rejected the edit. I will never know for sure. What I can derive from this and other examples is such filtering is nothing if not pervasive.
In trying to decide how I should proceed, I’ve made the business decision to do my utmost to maintain an active voice in my writing and edit out all filters. That means, among other things, no characters doing things to themselves. How you choose to proceed is only a question you can answer for yourself! (wink wink)
The evil ways of dialogue tags
They are sneaky, pervasive and forever lurking in novels to break your concentration. They will pounce on the unsuspecting reader and hammer that individual into submission to the point where they surrender to the endless march soldiering through the prose.
What are theses hidden monsters? Dialogue tags.
They come in a variety of colors. There are the bold and jarring ones making loud exclamations demanding the reader’s attention. You know the kind. They come in loud colors of orange and red screaming for notice. They are the descriptive kind. Throwing in an adverb for fun, they are the overly descriptive kind! Words like shouted, yelled, hollered and like, often with the dreaded adverb added they become shouted aloud, yelled at the top of his lungs, and hollered insanely.
There are their close cousins who arrive in shades of purple, blue and green. Tags like whispered, muttered or grumbled. These too become convoluted with their adverb additions metamorphosing into whispered softly, muttered under his breath, and grumbled incessantly.
The soft ones arrive in creams and shades of grey that float with innocence in the lines. Tags taken for granted such as he said, she answered, and he replied. Likewise, they often suffer the adverb fate and alter into he said intelligently, she answered with skill, and he replied instinctively.
As a writer, do not let these demons control you. They will be your undoing. Like gnomes hiding in your walls, they will invade your prose when you least suspect it, subjugating everything written to their fiendish ways. In time, your writing will be focused on the tags with everything else second place. It won’t be long until your writing looks like this.
“What are you doing?” Bob asked, with a questioning look on his face.
“Nothing.” I asserted with candor, having nothing to conceal.
“Then let’s go do something.” He lavishly suggested with a tone indicating great promise.
Insanity. Plain and simple. the tags are more than fifty percent of the written words. Do not laugh. If you have read to any extent, you will have seen something like this before. The sad thing is, I am seeing it more and more. It’s everywhere, like some malicious disease, spreading through the firmament that is the written body of work in today’s marketplace. It is not just in poorly done self-published works, but in highly marketed successful blockbusters put out by the major publishers. It is as if the editing gods have forsaken us, having determined we are a lost cause, and have moved on to work in obscurity.
Think of the reader. What happens when they encounter such ghoulish tags? Do you ever wonder what the difference is between an easy read and a book you keep putting down? Dialogue tags strain the reader’s eyes. It is a natural propensity of a reader to skim past a tag as they know it is just that, a dialogue tag, and will add nothing to the story. So they un-focus, find where the writing picks back up after the tag, and re-focus once more to continue. After a few hundred tags, you can imagine how disconcerting that can be. The next thing to happen is the glorious momentum is lost and the book is doomed.
What is to be done? It’s time to get out the pesticide. Eliminate them. Eradicate them. Eviscerate them.
I believe the use of dialogue tags should be kept to an absolute minimum, if at all. The goal in writing should not be subjugated to telling the reader who spoke what and how they said it. It should be in showing the reader who has spoken and how it was said.
There are some simple things one can do. Do not underestimate the reader. First of all, provided you’re not writing in omniscient, if there is only one character in the scene, no dialogue tag is needed. The reader knows there is only one character there, presumably the protagonist, and, as such, any dialogue must be that character’s. If there are only two characters in the scene, or if only two characters in the scene are involved in a discussion, the reader will automatically assume the characters take turns talking unless informed otherwise. Many dialogue tags will not be necessary.
Use actions instead of tags. At some point you will need to identify a character so the reader will know who is talking. By attaching an action to a character prior to the dialogue, you set up the reader with the knowledge of who is talking without using a tag. The reader will automatically assume the dialogue immediately following the action of a character is the dialogue of that character. In such a deployment you actually achieve two things – identifying the speaker, and giving the reader a visual as to what is occurring during the dialogue.
Dialogue does not occur on a blank screen. Actions, inner thoughts and the setting are necessary implants between dialogues to fill the scene. Otherwise, it’s just talking heads. Using dialogue tags does not fill in as the things listed above do.
So why do writers succumb to these foibles? The answer is simple. Yes, you heard it correct. The answer is simple, as in keep it simple. Writers prefer tags instead of filling in actions, inner thoughts and setting because to do so is easier.
Forget about easy. If writing is supposed to be so easy, then good writing would have no value. You have to work at it.
Bob gave me a friendly punch to the shoulder. “What are you doing?”
I’ve been staring blindly at the people in the night club, taking them in without recognition. “Nothing.”
“Then let’s go do something.” He winks and leads the way to the girls by the bar.
So guard against these evil minions of the writing world. Your work will be rewarded when you do.
The simple, step by step business for self-published authors of finding bloggers to get book reviews
With the release of my new novel, I decided to set about the task of trying to garner reviews from book bloggers. For self-published authors, reviews are still one of the best ways to get the message out. Not only do the bloggers write the reviews that are viewed by all of their followers, they post them in important places such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and more. There is no better free service out there for promotion than book reviews.
The task of getting these bloggers to consider your novel for review is another thing altogether. There is some work involved on the author’s part.
First of all, you have to find the bloggers to contact. If you’re brand new at this, you won’t have any prior connections and will need to start from scratch. A good place to begin is by examining some online book blogger lists. You can Google a search and come up with plenty of them, but for this examination, I’m going to list a few here.
If I’m going to pick a favorite to start with, it would be the appropriately named The Book Blogger List. It has a large number of bloggers listed and you can search through them by twenty-three different categories of types of books they review. This makes searching for ones that review what you write that much easier. The bloggers listed are almost all currently active so whoever is maintaining the site is doing a good job.
A second list worth examining is The Indie Reviewers List. This is another substantive list that features bloggers who are willing to review self-published and indie published novels. It provides some nice extra details, the name of the blogger contact, the link to their review policy, and what they review. Likewise, this site also lacks the necessary maintenance regarding active bloggers, but still a good site.
The last list I’m going to add is the YA Book Blog Directory. Like the name pronounces, a site where all reviewers review young adult novels. Outside of alphabetizing, there is no breakdown and, once again, a proper lack of site maintenance.
There are more lists out there – many more. Also, a number of the bloggers appear on multiple lists, so you have to watch out you don’t repeat review requests from them. For each other list I have examined, they are even further less proficient in the ability to search through the list, have categories, and site maintenance. I suppose I could list them, but at some point I want to move on to what’s involved in sending the actual review request.
What most bloggers have somewhere in their site is a Review Policy. It spells out what they will review, how they will review it, and what they require from you to do so. Some are very detailed. Some are not. Some are formatted through a contact form. What you need to do is make sure that with each and every blogger you have read through the policy before sending a request.
A check list of your own is required.
1. Are they accepted requests at this time? This one is tricky because the review policy may be old and the posting about not accepting review requests at this time may be somewhere else, like the home page.
2. Do they accept self-published, indie published works? There may be special circumstances for acceptance, such as whether the work has been professionally edited. If you haven’t had your work edited, you may want to stop here and go get that done first. It really makes a difference between a good and a bad review.
3. Do they review the type of novel you wish to submit? If they don’t say, a quick glance at what they have reviewed in the past will give you a good indication.
4. In what format are they willing to accept my novel? If you are only sending digital, there are many who only accept hard copies.
5. When will they be able to do the review? Many are behind in the TBR (to be read) piles and will give you an idea how long you will have to wait. My opinion is any review received, whenever it comes, is a good review, but if you have a deadline. make sure they can meet it.
You may have other questions for your checklist, but these five are a must.
The next step would be the drafting of a template review request. Creating a generic email saved into your drafts will give you a starting point on each review request you want to send out instead of having to create each one from scratch. You can paste your draft on each email and then amend it to meet the specific criteria of the blogger. In case you haven’t heard of the expression before, a good thing to keep in mind is the KISS method. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) That means short, direct, and meaningful in content. The blogger does not need to read your life history or how your mother loves your writing. Stick to the facts. There are some fairly obvious things to be included, but for the sake of this examination, I will give you what I put on mine.
1. A salutation. Hello, hi, or whatever your preferred greeting, it starts at the top. Do some homework. Bloggers have names. Don’t type “Hi The Book Blogger” or whatever the name of their blog is. Search the site and find out the name of the blogger. Hi Sue, or Hi Ann, is much more personable, and shows the blogger you have paid some attention to the site. Sometimes this requires more work than expected as many bloggers don’t list their name. Examining their posts, you might find a name at the bottom, or if they have a Goodreads button, you may discover it there.
2. A book cover. Many bloggers won’t open attachments so don’t do that. Shrink it down and fit it on the page as a large thumbnail.
3. A statistics list. What type of book is it? Genre? Word count? Number of Pages? Edited? By who? (not your mother) One sentence can list all these facts.
4. A short description of what the book is about. You know the kind, like what you see on the back of the book or the inside flap. Keep it short, and without spoilers. They aren’t interested in reading a full synopsis, just the blurb.
5. Links. Where can they see the book? Amazon? Barnes & Noble? Smashwords? Goodreads? While your at it, include a link to where they can see an excerpt. Other links needed are, if you have them – your website, your Facebook author page, your twitter account, your Goodreads page. Don’t copy the urls and paste them in your email. Insert them as hyperlinks. So, for example, instead of listing my website as http://www.michaeldrakich.wordpress.com, I would say, my website is here.
6. How you intend to deliver the book. As a business practice, I use Smashwords to distribute my digital copies. They let me create a coupon for the books which entitles the blogger to a free copy. There is no charge for the service. I provide the link and the coupon.
6. Other details you may want to impart such as whether you are prepared to do giveaways or author interviews. This is also a single sentence.
7. A thank you. Whether they accept your request or not, give thanks that they have read your email. They are not robots, they are people.
You may have other things you want to add, but at the end of the day it all must fit on a single page with very limited scrolling. Something a mile long will just get deleted.
So there you have it. A simple guide to soliciting reviews from bloggers. All that’s left is to get started. Good luck with your search.