The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical

Giving grammar short shrift is a surefire way to get shot down.

Recently, I was invited to enter an online writing contest, one in which the competitors posted partial or completed stories on a website. Contestants and the public alike could then read and rate each piece of fiction.

I confess I didn’t make it past the synopses of most entries. Awkward sentence structures, misplaced punctuation and more clichés than I could shake a red pen at — such obstacles prevented me from taking a chance on stories that clearly scrimped on the fundamentals of strong writing.

For instance, if you are not 100 percent sure you know how to use a semicolon, please don’t use one!

I couldn’t bring myself to submit to the contest. It just screamed “amateur hour.”

Maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, grammar is the one aspect of writing that has always come easy for me. Just about every job I’ve had since college included proofing among its duties. This scientific, rules-based side of the craft appeals to my left-brain proclivities.

There are many, many ways to screw up a story, and I admit I have my share of weaknesses. But since every writer has the same set of guidelines when it comes to parts of speech, punctuation, and so forth, I can’t wrap my mind around why so many of us slack off when it comes to grammar. This should be low-hanging fruit!

Or maybe every writer doesn’t need to be a whiz when it comes to grammar. I’m certain some of the best authors depend heavily on editors to take a great story and make it even better by removing errors of all kinds. But because we live in a DIY era of publishing, I sometimes worry that self-published writers don’t realize the poor impression they make when their dialogue is marred by missing commas or when misplaced modifiers confound the semantics of sentences.

Maybe the average reader is more forgiving than I give them credit for — or, at least, more forgiving than I am — but I have to believe grammar and usage matter. If nothing else, it adds polish to any given plot.

For me, fixing sentences is like a game, but since proofing isn’t every writer’s idea of fun, I’ve been kicking around the concept for a grammar-based video game as far back as March 7, 2012. I envision the app would help writers of all kinds could become more comfortable with punctuation in particular.

The odds that I’ll ever find the time (and the developer talent) to create this game are admittedly slim, but I thought I’d share these early notes. Reading on probably won’t make you a better proofreader, but it might make you smile.

*

Cowboy on a horse

Lawlessness didn’t necessarily work out so well in the Wild West. Y’all better tame your syntax. | John C. H. Grabill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who is the target audience?

I’m reluctant to make it too childish because I think a lot of adults could benefit from a brush up on their punctuation. But I also believe that an adult (whether a writer or some other kind of professional) will be more likely to try out a grammar tutorial if it’s clever and fun. So, off the top of my head, I’d say this game is aimed at middle schoolers on up.

What is the genre?

I want to keep this simple, in no small part because I’ve never designed a video game. Also, if this is going to be an app, it has to be small enough to download to a smart phone. That means a crazy, comprehensive game that blends/bends several genres isn’t going to work. Also, I don’t want there to have to be much, if any, typing because it’s a pain in the butt to type for any significant amount of time on a tablet or smart phone.

The first thing that comes to mind is a story-based shooter (e.g., blasting away improper punctuation and then selecting the character, if any, that belongs in the slot). But I’m not sold on that.

What is the tone/theme?

Due to the small scope of the project, I want to dive into a pre-established trope, thus avoiding needless explanation/development. Plus, being a fan of puns, it opens the door for some real groaners. My first thought was a sword-and-sorcery setup because the pen is mightier than the sword, and I could have a full-fledged grammar wizard teaching his young apprentice. Too “Harry Potter,” methinks. Besides, a grammar wizard sounds too much like a computer wizard program that checks for grammar.

After writing the descriptions for a couple of the “enemies” (below), I am envisioning the bad guys’ bios in the form of a wanted poster, which opens the door for a Western. And like the settings of most Western stories, I expect the humor will be very, very dry.

Who are the heroes?

Perhaps the player chooses among three characters. If there’s no difference between their skills/attacks, then it doesn’t make sense to offer three choices because it’ll just take up needless space. However, if each hero has his own approach (time trials vs. strategy vs. something else), then I would advocate for the following three crime-fighting characters:

  • Johnny Redpen — a hot-tempered quick draw, Johnny Redpen’s speed with a sixshooter is matched only by his hatred for good punctuation gone bad.
  • Edith Goodword — kindly schoolmarm by day, vigilante typo-hunter by night, Miss Goodword isn’t afraid to spread the gospel of good grammar in even the seediest of sentences.
  • Dominic “Doc” Proofer — the retired sheriff of Syntax Springs, Doc isn’t ready to hang up his shotgun, not when unruly marks are running amok and he can help make the West a little less wild.

Who are the villains?

  • Slim Semicolon
  • Dash Dastardly
  • Miss E. Lipses
  • Colon McClock
  • The Savage Slash and his half-wit of a half-brother Backslash
  • James Trouble (with a capital T)
  • The Quote-Crazy Kid
  • Old Man Apostrophe, the grocer

Who is the final boss?

  • Mr. ? (pronounced “Mister Huh?”) — The mysterious mastermind, he believes rules are meant to be broken and covets the mythical “Poetic License,” which will allow all manner of ne’er-do-wells to swarm previously perfect grammatical constructions.

What’s the concept?

The storyline unfolds through the poorly punctuated sentences our heroes are correcting.

*

Whether or not you think The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical would make a worthy video game, I encourage any writer who lacks the basic understanding of grammar (and/or lacks a professional proofreader) to find some way to brush up on the subject.

If you don’t fix bad grammar and poor punctuation, you’re just shootin’ yourself in the foot.

Period.

4 Comments

Filed under Writing

It’s important to look back occasionally while on the long road

Yesterday morning, WordPress congratulated me on my blog’s third anniversary. There was even a fancy little trophy icon by the announcement.

Never mind that I hadn’t posted an article in nearly three months—or in this calendar year.

TrophyIt’s not that I had given up on One Million Words; I simply have prioritized the heavy editing/rewriting of my novel, If Sin Dwells Deep, over blogging. I knew I’d come back to this blog at some point, and I almost broke down last month and wrote the clichéd I’m-taking-a-break-but-stay-tuned! post to let all of my readers know that I’m still alive, but to be honest, I didn’t think anyone even noticed my silence.

After all, I know most (if not all) of my author’s Facebook page’s 85 “likers” on a personal level, so they’ve probably seen my non-writing-related comments on my other account. And the majority of my 58 followers on Twitter have hundreds, if not thousands, of other tweeters to fill their feeds each day.

Also, no one really reads this blog.

Well, that’s not entirely true. According to WordPress (the content management system upon which my website is built), I have 127 followers. Now, I can’t say with certainty that any of them actually read my posts (except those precious few who take time out of their busy schedules to comment on them), but they cared enough at one point to click the “Follow” button.

Delving into my site stats, I also find that there have been 357 comments over the past three years, and even if I estimate that half of those were mine (in reply to others’ comments), that still leaves more than 170 times someone read and replied.

While these aren’t big numbers compared to many, many other blogs, I take some solace in them nonetheless. I’m a big fan of measurable goals. I’m also a progress junky. Every now and then, I need to take stock of what I’ve accomplished, even if they are small successes.

Because most of the time, I’m terrible at acknowledging my accomplishments, especially modest ones. Every silver lining has a storm cloud and all that…

For example, while reviewing my early notes on my current project, I noticed a timestamp that caught me off guard. My very first ideas about this novel—the sequel (maybe) to If Souls Can Sleep—was dated 7/14/10.

Sweet sassy molassy, I’ve been working on this book for more than four and a half years?!

What’s worse is that I still have a ways to go with the editing, which means it could end up being five years or more from inception to completion.

To prevent myself from hyperventilating, I reminded myself that I tackled a number of other projects between July 2010 and March 2015: starting and populating this website, editing and publishing a children’s chapter book with my wife, writing a new short story (“Ghost Mode”), attempting to get that and another short story published. Oh, and real life happened somewhere in there too.

Perhaps it was a bit masochistic of me, but after seeing how long I’ve been working on Book 2, I opened my notes file for Book 1, did the math, and discovered that that novel took me four and a half years to plan, write, rewrite, proof, and submit to my agent. That means, when all is said and done, I likely will have pumped close to a decade into the first two books of The Soul Sleep Cycle.

And I still have at least one more book to go!

Then there are the four sword-and-sorcery novels I wrote before diving into a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid world of The Soul Sleep Cycle. Add in the experimental children’s book, and I’ve written seven novels. None of them are available for purchase.

I doubt there’s a word to describe the combination of emotions I experience when I consider the situation. I’m at once impressed with what I’ve done, amazed at how much of my life I’ve dedicated to this project, and disappointed that I don’t have more to show for it. “Impressamazappointed”?

If nothing else, the fact that I’ve put so much time and energy into my fiction without a significant return on investment indicates I have the thick skin and tenacity it takes to make it as a writer.

Or maybe it just proves that I am a masochist, after all…

Some aspects of my writing are quantifiable. As for this blog, I can easily conjure up this statistic: Over the past three years, I have published 51 posts (not including this one). And while that’s not a ton of content compared to some other sites out there, that’s 51 posts more than I would have written if I hadn’t overcome my prejudice of the medium and decided to add my perspective on the topic of fiction writing to the Web.

Other attributes are not so easily quantified, such as the satisfaction of transforming an idea in my head to a full-fledged story on the page or the frustration and guilt I feel when I go too long without a writing session.

If this were only a numbers game, I wouldn’t have much to show for my 17 years of being a dedicated writer. But every experience within that span has made me a better writer and wiser when it comes to the publishing world.

Were I to keep my eyes fixed solely on the destination, which always seems just beyond the horizon, I probably would have swerved off of this wonderful and terrifying road by now. But even when I’m enjoying the journey for the journey’s sake, I know I need to look back at the milestones I’ve passed along the way, if only to remind myself of the distance I’ve already crossed.

Even if that reminder comes in the form of a cheesy trophy graphic.

6 Comments

Filed under Writing

Should you care if readers care about your characters?

Once upon a time, I described my fiction as character-oriented.

I’d bandy about that phrase in conversations with friends (or anyone, really) who asked about my writing. I used it in query letters to agents and editors while precociously comparing my early sword-and-sorcery fiction to the works of Margaret Weis, R.A. Salvatore, and other authors of books with dragons on the cover.

“Character-oriented” just seemed to be the logical expression for my work because, at the root of it all, I loved creating characters. Back when I was I writing medieval fantasy—and attending to the world building that went with it—I created countless characters to fill roles from lowly peasant to powerful tyrant across a centuries-long timeline. (Though there weren’t any invincible protagonists, I’m happy to report.)

It was an easy exercise:

Step 1: pick a name.

Step 2: pick a personality.

I spent more than a little time creating character profiles so that the people who populate my stories transcended a mere two dimensions. Because I wanted my readers to understand the characters and to see them as clearly as I did.

I also wanted readers to care about them.

In fact, I’m confident I said this very line at writing workshops in college: “If I don’t care about your characters, I won’t care what happens to them.”

These days, I don’t know if would use “character-oriented” to describe my fiction. I look back at The Renegade Chronicles and some of my other early work, and it’s clear there was a lot of focus on the different personalities. Perhaps that’s inevitable when you write about a motley group of freedom fighters thrown together by fate and forced to get along…or die trying.

But once I turned the page from straightforward sword-and-sorcery fantasy to something more nuanced, I find most of my ideas start with “What if…?” and not “Who is…?” Inklings of the story—the plot, that is—tend to come first, though the types of people who will weather these scenarios come in at a close second.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

The more I think about it, the more a term like “character-oriented” seems superfluous. Characters are but one element of a story. Like setting and plot, they are essential ingredients of a story. But are they any more important than the rest? Shouldn’t a story be character-oriented, plot-oriented, setting-oriented, and so forth?

More to the point, can a reader care what happens in a story if he or she doesn’t care about the characters?

The question haunts me because I’ve been accused of creating unlikable characters. Vincent, the protagonist of If Souls Can Sleep, isn’t the nicest guy. He has a lot of problems. He treats people poorly. And the fact that something supernatural seems to be happening to him does nothing to make him a better-adjusted citizen, particularly in the short term.

Whenever a beta reader would remark how they just can’t bring themselves to like Vincent, I’d argue (if only to myself) that it doesn’t matter. My goal was to make him realistic, and, realistically, people can be jerks.

Yet I also wanted him to be relatable and maybe even sympathetic.

While it wasn’t important for Vincent to be likable, it was arguably important for people not to dislike him so much that they dismissed his fate. Apathy is the enemy of every writer. So I suppose I had a decision to make: either make Vincent utterly unlikable so that my reader roots against him or take steps to make him more likable so that they could root for him.

I confess that I did soften him up a big in the rewrite, and reducing the intensity of his bad behavior not only made him more sympathetic, but also refined his character arc. Maybe he isn’t the most likable guy, but he has enough qualities now to make the reader care what happens to him.

A similar criticism arose for the protagonist of my short story “Going Viral.” A friend and fellow writer commented, “…I didn’t feel one bit connected to Sam by the end.” Also: “As a character, I found Sam neither relatable nor empathetic…the first syllable of ‘character’ is ‘care.’”

Come to think of it, I made Quentin E. Donovan (the Quentin E. Donovan), the “star” of another short story intentionally unlikable…

But in the case of Sam and “Going Viral,” I’m willing to chalk up Sam’s shortcomings to the fact that I struggle with short fiction. I also agree with my friend when he acknowledges that character development is even more challenging within the confines of short fiction.

It raises an important question: if the rest of the story is successful, does it matter whether the reader gives a damn about Sam?

A storyteller’s only job is to con the reader into turning one more page. We can’t directly control how anyone feels about anything, though, yes, a fair amount of manipulation comes with the territory. Writers have a handful of devices at their disposal to capture and keep a reader’s attention.

I already mentioned plot, setting, and, of course, characters. We also have themes, backstory, subplots, tropes that comes with various and sundry genres, tension, pacing—in short, anything and everything that could possibly compel a reader to travel from front cover to final page.

One could argue whether or not characters are the most important aspect of a story, but few would content that it’s OK to skimp on character development. If a writer neglects the work that enables the average reader to form a connection with the protagonist in particular, the rest of the literary elements are going to have to work that much harder to hook and hold the reader.

So how exactly can an author make his characters “connectable”?

  • Make us like her.
  • Make us hate her…or love to hate her.
  • Make us pity him. (A creative writing professor once told me you can instantly make readers pity characters by putting them in denial.)
  • Make us root for him because he’s an underdog.
  • Make her relatable…just like somebody we could meet on the street.
  • Make her utterly exceptional…someone we could never meet in our real lives.
  • Make him have big problems.
  • Make him have depth.

For more advice, there’s a nice, in-depth look at how to make readers care about your characters at novel-writing-help.com. And here’s five more tips at writersrelief.com.

Now it warrants mentioning that not every character will resonate with every reader. We all have different preferences and unique backgrounds. You can’t please all of the people any of the time, but as a writer, you should aim to please as many as possible.

And even if characters on the whole aren’t your strength, just make sure they aren’t a weakness.

6 Comments

Filed under Writing

I should be thankful, and…

…I am…in spite of so many obstacles on the path to my destination as “successful writer.”

Two years ago (“I should be thankful, but…”), I griped about the many challenges facing writers in the modern, Wild West-like world of publishing. I took positive, prevailing thoughts and poked holes in optimists’ arguments.

Every silver lining has a storm cloud, right?

So many of my posts over the years have outlined the challenges and frustrations that go hand-in-hand with being an aspiring author, an up-and-comer, a struggler starter, and so forth. From finding time to write to promoting one’s fiction to ultimately getting compensated for one’s work, there are no shortage of injustices to bemoan.

And it didn’t help that 2014 began with some bad news

Today, however, I endeavor to do the opposite of 2012’s exercise. Rather than harp on the struggle, I will embrace the spirit of Thanksgiving by acknowledging the advantageous and affirming aspects of being a fiction writer in 2014 (and beyond):

1. I’m thankful for stories that demand to be told.

Despite the many characters’ voices clamoring for attention in my head, taking me to task when I allegedly slack off, and even though I have more story starters ricocheting within my gray matter than I could ever make time for, I can’t imagine living in a world where random “What if?” thoughts don’t bloom into myriad plots and would-be worlds as I traverse the here and now.

2. I’m thankful for progress.

Every writer could use more time for fiction writing, and none of us would turn up his nose at a few more acceptance letters (and advances). I haven’t accomplished nearly as much as I wanted to this year, but in spite of an unrelenting calendar, I can look back and see how far I’ve come. Even small, measured steps take us forward.

3. I’m thankful for support.

I’ve compared writing to an addiction in the past; if nothing else, it’s a habit, and I’m blessed to be able to rely on family and friends for support—whether for feedback for specific projects or simply for encouragement when the struggle overshadows the enjoyment of the craft. Additionally, I’m honored to be a part of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin (because writers groups still matter).

4. I’m thankful for success.

Despite the woeful fate of The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers, the children’s book my wife and I self-published, I still count that project as a victory—a learning experience, yes, but a victory nonetheless. And even though neither of the short stories I’ve been shopping around have been published, “Going Viral” received an honorable mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest in June, and I was notified recently that “Ghost Mode,” which I submitted to that same contest for the fourth quarter of 2014, made it to the next round of judging, so…fingers crossed!

5. I’m thankful for opportunity.

I’ve spent a lot of space on this blog pointing out some of the misperceptions and missteps inherent in the self-publishing arena as well as the traditional publishing model. But at the end of the day, thanks to modern technology, we writers have never had more channels through which to reach our audience. Moreover, we’ve probably never had so many literate people on the planet at one time. Just imagine trying to be a writer in the Middle Ages?

6. I’m thankful for living in the heyday of speculative fiction.

It’s everywhere, folks, and that’s good news for someone who not only consumes sci-fi and fantasy books, movies, and video games, but also who can’t seem to write a story that doesn’t go someplace weird.

7. I’m thankful for the world outside my head.

OK, that’s an odd way of putting it, but what I mean is that all of my ideas in my head, all of the words I type, and all of the readers I may one day reach don’t mean much without the embarrassment of riches that make up the rest of my life. All of my needs are met, as are so many of my wants. I have an amazing wife, two awesome kids, and so many other people around me that make life at least as fun (if not stranger) than fiction.

When I stop dwelling on supposed shortcomings and impediments to where I want to go, I realize that the journey has been one heck of a road trip so far and promises to stay that way. “Thank you” almost seems too small a sentiment to pass along to the Author of it all.

What are you thankful for—as a writer, a reader, or simply a human being? Share below!

7 Comments

Filed under Writing

The pros get paid, plain and simple

Grocery shopping as a kid was a decidedly dull affair.

Wandering up and down the food-laden aisles took a big bite out of play time. And since most desserts and sugary cereals were considered contraband in my house, there wasn’t much to look forward to. The grocery store was Boredom Central.

Except on Saturday.

That was the day most of the local grocery stores enhanced the shopping experience with free samples. What a big difference those surprise snack stations made. Yes, I’ll try some smoked sausage. A new kind of potato chip? Don’t mind if I do!

And if you happened on by the frozen foods at just the right moment, there’d be a small square of pizza waiting for your eager little fingers.

While I can’t promise those free samples impacted my family’s purchases, offering free samples must still a viable marketing tactic. Why else would HBO and the rest of the premium channels promote free weekends if not to get you hooked with bite-sized portions of their TV shows and a limited-time smorgasbord of blockbuster movies?

Now imagine if a new network popped up and decided to give away its programming indefinitely but with a vague notion that at some point in the future, once it had enough regular viewers, it would put a price tag on what it provides. By that point, people would be so in love with its series and films, they would happily fork over money to get more.

Right?

I doubt it.

There’s a big difference between handing out a few free nibbles and serving up meal after meal at no charge. Just ask the many newspapers that tried to incorporate payment gates on their websites after making every article free-to-read for years. Most of them now limit the number of free clicks per month, but the damage had already been done. Very few folks believe they should be charged a fee to read about what’s going on in the world.

A $10,000 bill

No sane writer expects to get rich from his or fiction, but it’s equally ridiculous for professionals to expect to make profit by giving away their product for free.

Once you establish the worth of a product—whether it’s a frozen pizza or national news—it’s awfully difficult to convince people they should have been paying along.

The strange dynamics of creative pursuits and their corresponding value have been on my mind for many months, probably ever since I made my first foray into self-publishing. With regard to writing and the democratization of distribution (i.e., self-publishing), the power is placed in the hands of the writer to decide how much he or she wants to charge for a book.

But the subject of how much one’s time and talent is really worth stretches beyond articles and blogs about writing specifically. We live in a DIY world, and while some might rejoice at breaking down the barriers that kept the everyman’s creative endeavors from reaching the public, there are some unfortunate side effects from the Rise of the Amateur.

Take this article in the New York Times, for example, which reports that the need for imagery in newspapers and magazines is quickly being satisfied by stock photography and amateur contributions. The role of professional photojournalist is fading.

In the article, a photojournalist says, “People that don’t have to make a living from photography and do it as a hobby don’t feel the need to charge a reasonable rate.”

What exactly is a “reasonable rate”? Should people who invest in an education and work hard to improve expect a fair wage for what they do—or even a full-time job, for that matter? Why should a do-it-yourselfer be vilified for believing that sharing a photo with the world is reward enough? These questions and many more are worthy of consideration.

In his blog, author Scott Roche explores whether a writer should give away his or her fiction for free. There seems to be a theory out there that if aspiring authors give away their stories and novels for free, they will build a fan base, and with that boost in popularity, they will eventually be able to start charging those same readers later on for new fiction. Or, better yet, a traditional publisher will see how popular the author is and offer to purchase the existing series and/or future works.

I don’t buy it.

For one thing, there’s a lot of free content out there. Folks who prefer free fiction have plenty of other options; rather than change their habits and take out their credit card to buy your fiction, they are far more likely to seek out the next struggling up-and-comer or hobby writer willing to give it away.

Even if your “free readers” really, really like your characters or your style or your personality, you’ve already set a no-fee precedent. People don’t like surprises when it comes to payment. In fact, the only industry I can think of where that free-now-pay-later approach works is illegal drugs. Customers get the first taste for free, and they love the experience so much that they will pay just about anything for more. But even in this scenario, it’s more akin to the grocery-store samples than what some writers are attempting today.

And sorry to be the voice of reason, but no matter how good you are at your craft, the odds are that no reader will ever become chemically addicted to the words you put to page.

While Mr. Roche does put his content out there for free, the big difference between the free-now-pay-later paradigm and the author’s personal approach is this: he just wants readers and isn’t holding his breath while waiting for a major publisher to pounce.

Ultimately, every writer—every artist, for that matter—must decide what he or she wants out of the craft.

  • If you create for the sheer joy of creation, then feel free to crank out as much content as you want, whenever you wish. Keep it to yourself or share it as you see fit.
  • If you are satisfied with simply sharing your creations with the world, and you don’t want anything other than the knowledge that other people are potentially enjoying your work, then go ahead and give it away.
  • If, however, you believe your writing (or photography or whatever) is as good as or better than the stuff produced by people who do get paid—and certainly if you have costs you need to recuperate—you had better start charging for it from Day 1.

It’s not necessarily an easy decision to make.

As for me, I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to make a living off my fiction alone. (So few writers do!) But my time is valuable, and I’ve made an investment in the craft by way of a college degree and thousands of hours devoted to honing my skills. For every hour I spend in front of my computer, I’m losing an hour I could have spent with my wife and kids or volunteering for a worthy cause or catching up on sleep or enjoying a hobby just for the fun of it.

For me, writing is a job. I make a weekly commitment to it with the hope that someday I’ll be compensated for my hard work. If I just give away my books, I’m telling the world that, to me, they have no value beyond my enjoyment in the process, that they are worth less than other books, that it was all just for fun.

I decided long ago that the life of a dabbler wasn’t for me. Yes, I want readers, but not at any—and not at no—cost.

9 Comments

Filed under Writing

An old short story for Throwback Thursday

Back when I worked in a newsroom, a colleague of mine was wont to say, “Everyone loves old photos.”

A (sneaky) monkey

“In his mind, there was but one rule: survive.”| “Mantelpavian female 2 db”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

While the accuracy of any absolute statement is debatable, I don’t remember readers complaining when the newspaper printed black-and-white photographs. On the contrary, we tended to get positive feedback from folks who then took the opportunity to wax nostalgic about yesteryear.

I believe the Throwback Thursday (#TBT) trend serves as further proof of mankind’s fondness for looking back.

Why do we do it? To remember the Good Ol’ Days, I suppose. To laugh at our questionable taste in fashion. And to take measure of how much has changed.

In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I’m sharing a very short story I wrote in college. As I reread it, I can’t help but wander through the scenes of my young adulthood, chuckle at my cumbersome loquaciousness and overt penchant for alliteration (OK, some things haven’t changed), and to marvel at how much my style has evolved.

If you want to indulge in a bit of frivolity with me, read on or download a PDF for your e-reader.

Monkeys

By David Michael Williams

The chorus of a popular R&B song rent the morning, ripping me from my blissful slumber. Motor memory launched me from my mattress, across the cluttered hardwood floor, and over to where the alarm radio blasted its musical message at a mind-reeling volume. After turning various knobs and fiddling with a few buttons, the dream-destroying decibels were banished back to the black and brown box.

The bedroom door was open, as it always was. I lived alone and had no need for privacy. Still half asleep, I proceeded into the living room, where I began to search for the remote control in all the usual places. When the clicker could not be found lodged in the recliner or atop the computer desk, I wandered over to the couch.

That’s when I saw it, a baboon regarding me with more than a passing interest. He sat there, perched on the middle couch cushion, following my every movement with those brown eyes of his. Eyes that looked as thought they could have belonged to a person. Eyes that harbored intelligence without the burden of conscience.

I couldn’t move.

I hated monkeys, secretly feared them. Their very existence is a sick parody of humanity. I knew the little brute, despite his diminutive size, had in him a barbaric strength that could easily overpower my best efforts. In his mind, there was but one rule: survive. No social mores or rules restricted his behavior.

He was capable of anything.

I began to back away slowly, but that only seemed to earn his ire. I recalled that dogs could sense fear in people and wondered if all animals shared this skill. In spite of my growing fear, I took another step backward and practically fell on top of the recliner.

At this point, the deadly primate rose from his crouched position into a more-or-less upright stance. I considered making a break for the apartment’s only exit. How fast could the little bastard be? Would one kick send him reeling into the television, causing it to explode and, at the very least, render the hairy fiend unconscious? Or, would my desperate flailing only provide him a limb to sink his yellowed teeth into?

Monkeys have little concern for personal hygiene. They only groom their fur in order to find insect snacks. This baboon represented everything mankind left behind in climbing up onto the throne in the Animal Kingdom. Humans are at the top of the food-chain. Not only do we possess opposable thumbs, but we have the intelligence and integrity to use our skills responsibly. Homo sapiens are the rightful owners of the planet, the chosen genotype.

I just wish someone would have explained all that to the monkey.

I couldn’t have told him even if I had thought it might do me some good. I couldn’t even manage a scream as he vaulted off of the low-riding couch, long baboon arms swinging, and shrieking like a banshee on a sugar high.

I reached for the nearest weapon—my lava lamp. I always wondered what the mock-magma actually was and whether or not it would burn on contact with skin. Now seemed as good a time as any to find out. The monkey-turned-missile sailed through the air, honing in on his human target. His eyelids all but disappeared as his unfeeling eyes bulged out. A stream of saliva trailed from his lower jaw.

He was probably hungry, as there was no food in my refrigerator.

I swung the lava lamp, bludgeoning the baboon, bashing in the side of his hairy little head. He was too stunned to counterattack, so I pressed my advantage. Dropping the lava lamp, which was unwieldy and hadn’t even shattered, I reached for my left shoe. I had to finish the job. It was Man vs. Beast, and I didn’t intend to let my species down.

As I brought the black shoe down upon his huddled, unmoving body, I went into some sort of frenzy, experiencing a bloodlust that the Neanderthals must have felt as they brandished their clubs against their rivals for survival. By the time I finished, it was 9:52 A.M., and I was in no mood to go to work.

The baboon’s body was an unrecognizable mass of blood, entrails, and dirty hair. I ended up throwing the dripping carcass off my back porch. Then the gravity of the situation hit me all at once. I fell into the recliner, shaking, terrified of the animal I had had to become in order to defeat the baboon.

And what if there was another one tomorrow morning?

Now don’t you dare feel sorry for the monkey. They are not the cute, innocent little creatures you want to believe. They are wild. Dangerous. Capable of anything. But you won’t believe me. You’ll continue to write children’s stories about them, continue to visit the zoo and wave to them. Only when one sneaks up on you, on some unsuspecting Tuesday morning, will you admit your err in judgment. But by then, it might be too late.

7 Comments

Filed under Writing

4 reasons why fiction writers struggle with marketing

Please excuse me while I make some excuses.

You see, I’ve read 3,009 articles about how fiction writers need to become savvy marketers and self-promoters if they want their books to succeed commercially, and I fear I’m becoming a convert. (This very blog is evidence of that.)

Many of these how-to editorials cover common ground, but every now and then I discover one that contains tidbits I hadn’t uncovered before, as was the case with “10 Things Authors Ought to Know about Book Marketing.”

And even though writing advice is often rife with contradictions, one theme rears its draconian head again and again when it comes to writers and marketing: you should start your marketing strategy well in advance of your book’s publication.

Blocks of Swiss cheese

No time or interest in marketing your fiction? How about some cheese with that whine? | “Swiss cheese cubes”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Even if you don’t have anything else published yet.

Despite the chicken-and-egg paradox this presents—how can I get fans when I don’t yet have anything for them to be fans of?—I can appreciate the proactive approach presented in articles like “When should you start marketing your book?”

With so many marketing tips for fiction writers out there, I’ve come to a couple of deducations:

  1. Self-promotion must be important.
  2. Writers, apparently, aren’t inherently good at it.

But why don’t fiction writers approach marketing with more gusto? Read on.

Disclaimer: These are not universal facts about the fascinating and complex animal that is the Earth-dwelling author. They are possible truths about most fiction writers…or some fiction writers…well, at least, one fiction writer.

Excuse #1: We don’t have time.

Just about every writer I’ve met wishes he or she had more time for fiction writing. So when it comes to finishing that short story or meeting a novel’s daily word-count quota, that must come first, and writing blog posts, participating in forums, and engaging in other social media inevitably fall to the back burner.

Or off of the stove entirely.

On the other hand, I’ve come across very successful bloggers who seem to prioritize their marketing strategy above their fiction, periodically lamenting about their lack of progress on the latter. I suppose procrastination takes many forms, including other potentially productive, writing-related activities.

Certainly, there’s a balance to be maintained when it comes to creating a writing schedule—not this!—and even small steps can reap benefits.

Another thing to consider is that while promotional writing and fiction writing share some commonalities—including the arrangement of words and punctuation—the two disciplines have significantly different skill sets. Just because someone can crank out a novel, it doesn’t mean he or she innately understands or will excel at marketing writing. (Just ask anyone who has ever reduced a 100,000-word manuscript down to a single-sentence synopsis in order to hook an agent or editor.)

Learning how to promote one’s writing and oneself as an author takes time too.

Excuse #2: We don’t like talking about ourselves.

If fiction writers thought they, as individuals, were particularly interesting, they would be writing memoirs, not novels. Self-promotion (especially if done heavy-handedly) can sound an awful lot like bragging.

Fiction writers might sprinkle autobiographical details throughout their plots and into their people, but it’s far more comfortable to couch personal thoughts and emotions in imaginary scenarios.

While putting a piece of fiction out into the world does open us up to criticism, how much more vulnerable is an author when he or she puts him- or herself out there…as him- or herself?

It’s one thing to weather the blow when a reader bashes our characters and quite another to endure venom directed at our own character.

Excuse #3: We’re a little antisocial.

Writing can be a very solitary experience, and I suspect the craft attracts more than its fair share of introverts.

Think about it. We don’t need anyone else when it comes to thinking up ideas, performing our finger exercises at the keyboard, or tinkering until we’ve hammered out a full-fledged novel.

(Which isn’t to say that there aren’t advantages to letting others assist in the process, such as joining a writers group. Also, if you want to go from being a dabbler to a bona fide published author, you’re going to have to depend on others somewhere along the path from final draft to sale-worthy book.

These days, marketing—when done well—requires a certain level of networking. However, we authors generally prefer one-way narration to two-way conversations. And if we are engaging with the masses, we find that we must become “fans” (or “friends” or “followers”) of others in order for them to even think about being “fans” of ours.

One hopes that there are other motivations and rewards for networking with other writers and readers of your genre (other than just future sales), yet there is something inherently predatory when it comes to joining online communities, in particular, with the ulterior motive of building a fan base—even when you do it “right.”

Plus it can be difficult not to take it personally when forays into the marketing arena don’t pan out—such as when an insightful and time-consuming blog post doesn’t garner any comments. (HINT HINT!)

Perhaps worst of all, networking blurs the lines between author and audience as well as creator and creation, when we really just want to be appreciated our work. Because at the end of the day…

Excuse #4: We want our writing to speak for itself.

Yes, it’s naïve, but I believe there’s a part of every fiction writer that thinks if he or she writes something wonderful, a handful of people will read it and love it, and then news will spread faster than a virus in a zombie flick.

Sadly, that’s almost never how it works, and even though the popularity of self-publishing has put an awful lot of power in writers’ hands, that doesn’t necessarily diminish the challenges of getting your story to the reader. Even authors who go with traditional publishers have to pitch in when it comes to promotion if they want their books to get noticed.

With an ever-increasing amount of competition for readers’ time and transactions, there is no shortage of other writers who are trying to do exactly what you’re doing.

“If you write it, they will come” just doesn’t work.

No more excuses…

Even if there’s some merit in these excuses, it doesn’t change the fact that marketing one’s fiction is essential.

If we ignore the business side of writing, we might as well keep our manuscripts stored safely in a box under our bed or on a hard drives and forget about publication altogether. A book that isn’t nurtured by a deliberate marketing plan—or, at least, exposed to some occasional sunlight—is bound to wither.

What’s the best way to approach marketing? There are at least 3,009 articles out there to answer that question, but I’ll add this: when it comes to the challenges of marketing, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach—not so unlike fiction writing.

Good thing you’re so darn creative!

2 Comments

Filed under Writing