Tag Archives: journalism

Coming soon: Renegade Chronicles compendium

An editor of mine once said, “No one wants to know how the sausage is made.”

He was referring to journalistic processes—the hoops reporters jump through in order to research, interview, and write stories as well as edit, paginate, and publish them. Readers care only about the quality of finished article, not all of the work that went into it.

That might be true of newspapers, but as a lifelong fan of fantasy, I know that those who venture into fictional realms often appreciate additional glimpses into the wider world, including supplementary explorations of characters and cultures and even the author’s method for creating them.

Think of them as travel guides.

In the spirit of giving fans a more in-depth look at the people, places, and peculiarities of The Renegade Chronicles—and an excuse to return to Altaerra—I’m in the process of creating a (FREE!) compendium called Capricon and Beyond.

While I put the finishing touches on the e-book, please enjoy this excerpt. It’s a character profile I composed for a certain rogue knight prior to writing the first draft of Rebels and Fools.

Black and white sketch of Dominic Horcalus, Knight of Superius

While I’ve never been more than a dabbler in drawing, I occasionally made time to sketch the natives of Altaerra.

Dominic Horcalus

Horcalus comes from a long line of Knights of Superius. Like his father and his father before him, Horcalus stands tall—about 6’2”—and keeps himself in excellent physical shape. The muscles on his arms, legs, and chest are well-defined, and there’s hardly any fat on his body. His eyes are gray; his hair, brown. A full, neatly-trimmed mustache graces his upper lip. Despite a rather hawkish nose and sharp chin, Horcalus is a reasonably handsome man.

Horcalus’s usual garb consists of combination plate-and-chainmail armor, a shield of some sort, an open-faced helmet with a nose-guard, and his trusty longsword.

Horcalus presents himself with an air of quiet dignity. He acts and speaks proudly, though not haughtily. He has excellent posture, looking comically stiff at times. He doesn’t fidget, and maintains a composed, stoic exterior unless something has him greatly discombobulated. His tone tends to soften, and he is more likely to smile when interacting with women and children.

Horcalus’s speech is the epitome of proper. He’ll almost always use two words in lieu of a contraction. He may use an outdated or archaic phrase or expression without realizing it.

Horcalus’s childhood was not so unlike many other boys borne of Knights. His father was stern but loving, making sure his son was well-disciplined and teaching the boy everything he knew about life and the Knighthood. Horcalus became his father’s squire at a remarkably young age and then went to Fort Splendor to train as a novice when he was fifteen years old.

Horcalus loves a challenge and delights in a hard-fought victory, though he is ever a gracious winner. He spends much time engaged in mock-combat, honing his skill, teaching others what he knows as well as learning from their techniques. Aside from physical trials, he likes games that improve his intellect and sharpen his wit (e.g., solving at riddles and playing chess). He has little interest in games of chance and shuns gambling.

Horcalus is not quick to laugh, but that is not to say he is devoid of humor. He’ll laugh at clever joke but seldom at another’s expense. He hates lies and engages in a lie only when it’s unavoidable. He’s a very bad liar, actually. His conscience holds a tight reign over his actions.

Like most Knights of Superius, Horcalus is extremely patriotic, but Horcalus does his best to accept people of every nation. Like many humans, he has his misgivings about the other races, but he is never less than polite to the occasional half-elf or gnome who crosses his path. He distrusts magic-users, but his greatest prejudice is against people who foment disorder and take advantage of their fellow man.

Horcalus is a stalwart optimist. He became a Knight to help make the world a better place. So long as he is fighting for the side of peace and justice, Horcalus enjoys life. Conversely, when he becomes a member of the Renegades, the disgraced Knight finds life nearly unbearable.

Horcalus serves Pintor the Warriorlord by adhering to the virtues outlined in the Knighthood’s code of conduct. He knows several prayers by rote. More often than not, when he prays, he is asking for guidance or forgiveness. Horcalus also honors the other Gods of Good, though he doesn’t really address these other deities by name.

While Horcalus did have a childhood sweetheart, he won’t fall in love until many years after the Renegade War. Horcalus thinks love is important, and he wants a wife and family, but the quest for a soulmate is far more difficult than anything the Knighthood has ever asked of him. He always figured the gods would provide him with a capable woman when and if they see fit. Horcalus wants children too—particularly a son to follow in his footsteps as a Knight of Superius.

Horcalus made many friends while in the Knighthood. His best friend and mentor is Chester Ragellan. He develops relationships with Klye Tristan, Arthur Bismarc, and Lilac Zephyr during the Renegade War.

More details about the release of Capricon and Beyond as well as other exciting news for The Renegade Chronicles will be released soon. Until then, may the Warriorlord watch over you!

It’s here! Download Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium for FREE.

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Infrequently Asked Questions

Writers spend a lot of time talking to themselves.

Portrait of author David Michael Williams

“Are you ready for the interview, David?” “Yes, David, I am.” | Photo by Jaime Lynn Hunt

We invent conversations between imaginary people, imagine a series of actions, and then transcribe what happens in our mind to the page. The hope, of course, is that one day there will be readers to hear that proverbial tree falling in the woods.

In addition to millions of words of fiction, I have written hundreds of pages while planning and plotting my novels. When I go back and read through those notes, I come off like a crazy person, sharing ideas and options with no one but myself.

And yet I felt even more like a lunatic when composing the author Q&A for my online press kit.

The goal of the Q&A is to provide reporters with an easily digestible document for learning more about me as an author as well as my books. In the exercise, I play both the role of interviewer and interviewee, asking myself questions to which I already know the answers.

In the spirit of embracing the insanity, I’m going to share the dialogue (or is it a monologue?) below. Maybe someday I’ll have partaken in enough interviews to compose a true FAQ, but in the meantime, please enjoy my Infrequently Asked Questions:

What are The Renegade Chronicles about?

On the surface, The Renegade Chronicles is about a civil war in the magical, medieval world of Altaerra. The most powerful peace treaty in history is on the verge of collapse, and a certain band of rebels has made it their mission to learn who is really pulling the Alliance of Nations’ strings—and why.

The series is firmly entrenched in the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre, though there are elements of mystery, suspense, and even comedy. While the world of Altaerra is populated with mythical creatures like elves and ogres, the series focuses primarily on humans caught up in political intrigue and matters of life and death.

In a nutshell, The Renegade Chronicles is about war, unexpected alliances, magical swords, unholy crusaders, redemption, and hope.

Whom are The Renegade Chronicles about?

The series features a wide array of characters, including thieves, knights, pirates, wizards, and assassins. Everyone has his or her own agenda, and most people believe they fight for “the side of right.” But a major theme woven throughout the series is that the truth tends to fall somewhere between black and white.

The main characters are the Renegades, a ragtag band of rebels brought together by a twist of fate, including Klye, a former thief and self-proclaimed leader; Ragellan, a disgraced Knight of Superius, and his protégé Horcalus; Othello, a taciturn forester; Plake, a former rancher who thinks with his fists; Scout, an explorer who knows the island better than most; the pirate king Pistol and his loyal first mate, Crooker; Arthur, a young runaway; and Lilac, a mysterious woman with an enchanted blade.

You can learn more about them here: david-michael-williams.com/renegade-chronicles/meet-the-renegades/.

Who is your favorite character?

That’s like asking me who my favorite child is!

I suppose I have many favorites. Klye Tristan, the Renegade Leader, is probably the easiest for me to write; I’ve known him the longest. Characters like Scout and Noel are gems because they provide comedic relief. I have a lot of respect for Horcalus and Stannel Bismarc, both men of principle. And as obnoxious as Plake can be, he’s undeniably a catalyst when it comes to the plot. Zusha is a lot of fun, too, because of her unique perspective.

What is the setting for The Renegade Chronicles?

The story takes place in the fantastical world of Altaerra, which is home to many different peoples, including humans, dwarves, elves, ogres and a few other traditional fantasy races. And there are a few species that are unique to Altaerra alone, such as the dreaded midge.

Readers of The Renegade Chronicles will traverse the breadth of the island of Capricon, which is populated primarily by humans and defended by the Knights of Superius. The island is home to temples, castles, foreboding mountains, abandoned settlements, and no shortage of secrets.

You can see the map of Capricon here: david-michael-williams.com/renegade-chronicles/capricon/.

Who will enjoy The Renegade Chronicles?

Fans of fantasy fiction who like fast-paced, action-packed plots, a robust cast of characters, and plenty of plot twists will appreciate The Renegade Chronicles. The focus is on the individual adventurers, most of them humans, and while the series borrows from established fantasy tropes, folks who have never read fantasy books before should be able to grasp and enjoy these stories.

The Renegade Chronicles would be a good stepping stone for teens who grew up on Harry Potter and are looking for a series that features more mature characters. They’re ready for something with a little more grit—but not something as brutal as George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Having said that, I also believe adults of all ages can appreciate these adventures.

What makes The Renegade Chronicles unique?

I’ll be the first to admit that the series is something of a throwback to the sword-and-sorcery stories I grew up with. It’s not as arch and grueling as Tolkien, and it’s certainly more lighthearted than the gritty urban fantasy that has gained popularity in recent years.

I published The Renegade Chronicles for people, like me, who want a healthy balance of high-stakes danger and good, old-fashioned fun.

What are The Renegade Chronicles “rated”?

If this were a movie, I’d say a hard PG or a soft PG-13. There is mild language and a few sexual innuendos. There’s also violence, and characters do die occasionally. But blood and gore are not the focus.

Where can someone buy The Renegade Chronicles?

All three paperbacks are available at Amazon.com. The e-book editions—including a three-in-one collection with a bonus appendix detailing the people, places and particularities of Altaerra—are exclusively available at the Kindle Store.

You can find a series of direct links here: david-michael-williams.com/renegade-chronicles.

How long did it take you to write the books?

The first book, Rebels and Fools, took the longest. I wrote the first draft while attending college and rewrote the entire manuscript my senior year. Volumes 2 and 3 took a year apiece to write (two drafts each).

When I came back to the manuscripts in late 2015, I dedicated a month to each one, refining them and making substantial edits.

What do the titles mean?

Don’t get me started on how difficult it is to come up with compelling novel titles!

All three titles hint at the duality of the characters. For example, Rebels and Fools—does that mean the enemies of the rebels are the fools, or are the rebels themselves fools? The same goes for Heroes and Liars and Martyrs and Monsters. The ambiguity is intentional and, in fact, integral.

Why do fantasy series always seem to be trilogies?

That’s an arcane secret…kind of like why every potion requires “eye of newt.” In all seriousness, I don’t think I set out to write three books specifically. I always knew where Volume 1 would end, and after I finished Volume 2, I realized it would take only one more installment to complete the main story arc.

But it’s altogether possible additional volumes could be published somewhere down the road. The Renegades have many adventures ahead of them.

Why did you decide to publish all three at once?

We live in an age of instant gratification. I know I hate waiting for a writer to finish the next installment in a series. Since I already had written all three novels, it didn’t make sense to stagger the releases of Volumes 2 and 3. If someone enjoyed Rebels and Fools, I didn’t want anything getting in the way of their buying Heroes and Liars and Martyrs and Monsters immediately.

It’s a similar philosophy to Netflix series in which an entire season is released all at once. People like to “binge watch,” so why not “binge read”? The Renegade Chronicles is like House of Cards—only with magical swords.

Why did you decide to publish The Renegade Chronicles yourself?

I wrote three complete manuscripts before searching for an agent to represent the series or a publisher to buy it. And, frankly, no one was interested. To be fair, the first book was bloated—175,000 words is too long for an unknown author’s first book—and all three books needed copious edits. The decade in between finishing the third book and revisiting the series provided me with the skills and the objectivity to go back and fix the manuscripts.

The bottom line is I had faith in the stories and the writing, and I wanted others to be able to enjoy them. Creating my own independent publishing company, One Million Words, was a means to that end.

Why did you name your publishing company One Million Words?

A good friend of mine once told me that anything an author writes before one million words are just “finger exercises.” It’s a derivative of a familiar adage that proclaims a writer must put in a ton of practice before he or she will be any good. After he told me that, I did a word count and was pleased to report back that I had, in fact, already written one million words of fiction.

There are also roughly one million words in the English language. Plus I thought “One Million Words” had a nice ring to it. I had been using that phrase for my blog and social media accounts for years, so when it came time to create my own imprint, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate name.

Where did you find inspiration for this series?

I’ve been a fan of fantasy since before I even knew what fantasy was. Books, movies, television, video games—I always gravitated toward medieval settings and magical adventures. I wholeheartedly fell in love with the DragonLance books when I was in high school, and I was a big fan of the Final Fantasy video game series before that. I wanted to create a rich world of my own, a mystical playground for the characters that popped into my head.

Who are your favorite authors?

Some of my favorite fantasy authors are Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, not only because of their contributions to the DragonLance saga, but also for the Death Gate Cycle; R.A. Salvatore, primarily for his DemonWars series; Neil Gaiman; George R.R. Martin; and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, the grandfather of the fantasy genre.

Beyond fantasy, I’m a big fan of William Faulkner, and one of my favorite novels of all time is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

What was the biggest challenge in publishing The Renegade Chronicles?

When you are preparing to publish three novels in two formats (print and digital), there are a lot of moving parts. On top of that, I held myself to a very aggressive timeline. When things are running that tight, even a minor setback can impact a lot of other tasks.

To tell the truth, I think my greatest challenge still lies ahead: marketing the series and reaching new customers.

Will there be any future books in The Renegade Chronicles?

I’d love to write more stories about Klye Tristan and the gang. I have plenty of additional plots already mapped out, so jumping back into Altaerra wouldn’t be difficult. I’ve written a complete draft of a novel starring a young wizardess who will eventually cross paths with the characters from The Renegade Chronicles. The epilogue of Martyrs and Monsters hints at that storyline.

By and large, sales of the first three volumes will determine whether I can afford to return to this world.

What is your next project?

I’m stepping away from Altaerra for at least a little while. I’m in the middle of writing a science fiction series called The Soul Sleep Cycle. While my agent looks for a buyer for the first two books in that series (If Souls Can Sleep and If Sin Dwells Deep), I’ll be working on the third novel, If Dreams Can Die.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Oh, I have lots of advice—mostly lessons I’ve learned along the way. I include writing tips on my website, david-michael-williams.com.

What I will say is I’m glad print-on-demand publishing was not available when I was in my early twenties. Self-publishing almost makes it too easy to put one’s work out there, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of dabblers and amateurs publishing before they are ready.

I fear that I would have been among them; if I had published The Renegade Chronicles before 2016, they would have been an inferior product. My advice to young writers is to wait until you’re prepared to treat your fiction as a business before considering self-publishing.

What are your long-term goals?

First and foremost, I want to continue to publish my novels, whether through a traditional publishing house or through One Million Words. I have a lot of ideas, so here’s to hoping I find readers who appreciate my stories and will support my dream of getting paid to do what I love.

In addition to novels, I’d love to write for a video game or a graphic novel. My wife says I should produce a pun-a-day calendar. At this point, I’m keeping everything on the table.

Any other questions for the author? Shoot them my way in the comments section!

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A different class of writing

Spending time with young people can make you feel old, but it can also make you feel young, too.

I had the pleasure of talking with students at Waupun High School yesterday. My mission: to share my educational background, professional writing experiences, writing advice, and tips for getting published with the fledgling writers—in 45 minutes or less.

waupun-warriors

Despite my best efforts, I might have uttered “when I was your age” at least once.

In all seriousness, it was a very casual environment, and even though I did most of the talking, I couldn’t help but be a little inspired as we went around the circle, and the students told of their current projects and future ambitions.

Because I’ve been up to my (pointed) ears in editing a certain fantasy trilogy, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a shortcut here by repurposing my notes from yesterday’s spiel—quasi-transcripts, if you will.

Hopefully, you’ll find a nugget or two of wisdom regardless of where you are on the path to authorhood.

My story

I started writing in earnest in high school. My fantasy tales bore a resemblance to the books I was reading at the time: DragonLance, Forgotten Realms…you know, books with dragons on the covers. Mostly, I engaged in world-building exercises and episodic storylines, though there was at least one false start to a novel

By senior year, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. At UW-Fond du Lac, I signed up for an independent study writing course. It turned out to be a one-on-one with a professor, where I delivered a chapter for her to critique each week. This was one of the most valuable college courses I ever took, and I learned an awful lot about the basics of storytelling, the importance of word choice—and how to meet deadlines.

In those two years, I wrote two-thirds of what would come to be Volume 1 of The Renegade Chronicles. When I transferred to UW-Milwaukee, I completed the first draft and then rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch senior year since my writing style—not to mention skill level—had dramatically changed since freshman year.

I submitted chapters of my book for various writing workshops, and peer review also proved incredibly valuable. (Though in one class, I had to convince the professor that genre fiction had merit before we were allowed to present fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc.)

Meanwhile, I took as many literature and linguistics classes as I could. Beyond English courses, I signed up for philosophy, psychology and a ton of history courses. An all-too-common adage dictates one should write what one knows. Ergo, the more you know, the more you can write about.

I somewhat regret I didn’t take any journalism, marketing, or radio/TV/film classes. At the time, I wanted only to write fiction, so none of those related disciplines appealed to me. Then again, I picked up many of those skills later in life.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing, I taught for a year in China, where I had my favorite job title to date: foreign expert. While overseas, I wrote a sequel. I also tried to publish a short story I had written in college (to no avail) and researched agents to represent my fantasy novels.

When I returned to the U.S., I got cracking on Volume 3—while racking up rejections for Volumes 1 and 2.

I was fortunate to find an entry-level position at a newspaper. As a news clerk, I mostly was responsible for formatting lists, such as marriage licenses and school lunch menus. (Have you ever questioned the proper spelling of “tri-tater”?) I typed up letters to the editor, too.

But I also got to do some proofreading and wrote an article here and there. In less than I year, I was promoted to entertainment writer and editor. I picked up a slew of skills in the newsroom—writing and proofing using AP style, headline writing, lead writing, pagination/layout, the basics of photo editing.

Most importantly, I learned the virtues of brevity.

After a few years, I went to the “dark side”—public relations and marketing. At UW-Oshkosh, I wrote press releases, coordinated interviews with faculty and staff, wrote articles for the online news publication and the alumni magazine, became a wiz at Word Press and other content management systems, taught myself project management, and supervised student interns.

I learned even more when I became an account executive at BrownBoots Interactive, including more website skills, search engine optimization (which injects a lot of science into the art of writing), writing for TV and radio commercials, managing multi-channel marketing campaigns, estimating on projects, blogging, and much more.

That’s right, the guy who couldn’t care less about journalism, public relations, and marketing in college grew to appreciate them and, if I do say so myself, excel at them.

But my dream has always been to be a novelist…

About 10 years ago, I joined Allied Authors of Wisconsin. Because I couldn’t get an agent to bite on The Renegade Chronicles, I decided to go outside of my comfort zone and wrote a sci-fi novel that got very good feedback from my beta readers. An agent, who is also a member of AAW, elected to represent If Souls Can Sleep.

And because I didn’t learn my lessons with The Renegade Chronicles, I wrote a sequel before selling the first one.

My wife and I wrote a children’s chapter book to test the waters with self-publishing. (More on that here and here.) But between a full-time career and family obligations, I always felt as though my fiction got short shrift.

Earlier this year, I decided I to take a chance and put my fiction on the front burner. I transitioned to a new role at the agency to allow for larger pockets of time for writing and editing fiction. I created a business plan and am committed self-publishing The Renegade Chronicles in 2016.

My long-term goal—my dream—hasn’t changed remains the same: I want to make a living writing fiction.

Writing advice

There’s no shortage of writing advice out there (and sometimes tips contradict). But here is some advice my mentors gave me “back in the day”:

  • Margaret Weis: “Treat your writing like a job. Write on a schedule.”
  • R.A. Salvatore: “If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t, you’re a writer.”

I’ll add a few of my own observations to the mix:

  • Embrace a variety of life experiences—everything is fodder for your writing.
  • Learn as much as you can about the industry and gain related skills. Even traditionally published authors have to be business-minded marketing experts.
  • Write as many different kind of things as you can because you might be surprised at what you’re good at…and what you might enjoy.
  • Don’t turn your nose up at any writing gig—even if it’s the company newsletter—because everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Get feedback from others (e.g., writers groups, online forums) but realize that not all critiques are created equal. Not everyone is your target audience, and ultimately, it’s your story.
  • Always write what you love and do whatever you can to hold onto that passion.
  • Most importantly, don’t give up.

Tips for getting published

A lot has changed since I was in high school. Back then, you were supposed to write and publish short stories (which I sucked at), and you couldn’t hope to publish a novel without an agent. Also, self-publishing was for losers, and vanity presses that preyed on amateur writers made it expensive, too.

Today, self-publishing is both respectable and profitable. Print-on-demand means publishing a book is relatively inexpensive, though there are outside costs like proofreading and cover design. The biggest challenge is getting noticed above the noise.

As someone who is still on the path to publication, I don’t have any surefire secrets for becoming a bestseller. I do, however, have a couple of tips:

1. Don’t publish before you’re ready. After more than a decade between drafts, I’m now hacking apart The Renegade Chronicles, and they’ll be much better for it. And do your homework to avoid wasting your time…or getting sued.

2. Don’t be afraid to take chances. By the time you’re ready to publish a novel or a comic book or your memoirs, a lot is going to have changed. It’s never been a better time to be a writer, but it’s also the Wild West of publishing right now. If you want to get noticed, you have to experiment.

If you follow the crowd, you’ll always be behind.

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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.

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When it comes to dialogue, don’t trust the word on the street

One of my earliest college writing assignments involved a little espionage.

Having spent plenty of time playacting the part of spy in my youth and, in later years, transplanting such imaginative adventures to written page, I eagerly embraced the challenge my professor put forth.

A mysterious-looking man in a trench coat and fedora...the Dialogue SpyMy mission: to choose a random conversation between two people, eavesdrop and write down every word.

Later that day, I lingered in a classroom building’s lounge where fellow students were wont to while away time between classes, catching up on reading assignments, cramming before quizzes, or just chatting with classmates.

Today, I couldn’t tell you much about my marks other than the fact that they were young women.  I recall even less about subject of their conversation.  Their gossip meant very little to me because I knew nothing about them or the people they discussed.  Nevertheless, I surreptitiously jotted down every word.

Every false start.  Every verbal crutch.  Every grammatical violation.

When reviewing my transcripts later, I came to a few conclusions. For one thing, most people are far from eloquent.  When engaged in casual conversation, we interrupt one another.  We even interrupt ourselves.  Occasionally, we use the wrong words.  And if counted how many “ums,” “ahs,” and “actuallys” sprinkled throughout our speech, we’d be amazed.

In other words, if a writer were to accurately capture human communication and translate it to the written word, he/she would end up with a string of fragments and incomplete thoughts through which a reader would inevitably struggle.  Most of the time, the result would be an incoherent mess.

Which, of course, was the point of my top-secret assignment.

This lesson was reinforced in later years when I worked as a reporter.  Oh sure, some people are capable of providing the perfect quote, a sequence of phrases that succinctly sums up their perspective on a given topic.  But most of us use far more words than we need to.  We ramble.  We utter copious pronouns because, in the context of an interview, the reporter understands what is meant by “he,” “she,” and “it.”

Yet when the reporter goes back to his/her desk to rearrange the interviewee’s answers and evaluate which quote belongs where in the article, it becomes obvious that there is often a chasm between what people mean to say and what they actually say.  It’s truly a treasure when a reporter gets that perfect, impactful quote.  More often than not, however, the phrases and clauses between quotation marks remain rough-edged, unrefined.

When I made the switch from journalism to public relations, writing press releases allowed me to do something I never dared to do as a reporter: I reworked spokespeople’s quotes.  Quite often, I was encouraged to create such quotes from scratch and later run them past my “sources,” who might add a thought here or make a word swap there.  But the finished result was almost always a clear, coherent (if, at times, clearly artificial) collection of clauses that efficiently and effectively communicated the point.

Unlike how people actually speak…

In fiction, nothing takes a reader out of story quicker than stilted, sterile, and/or sloppy dialogue.  The good news is that you have full control over the words that come out of your characters’ mouths.  Here are some tips for how to handle the infuriating idiosyncrasies of human speech and deliver effective dialogue:

1. Shorten, streamline, then slash some more

Even though people in real life prattle on and on, a writer must be mindful of his or her “word economy.”  That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be reduced to a simple, subject-predicate construction, but short and snappy does wonders for pacing.  A reader’s attention has to be earned, and once you lost it, you might not reclaim it.

Consider each situation.  If two characters are passing each other in the hall at work, they wouldn’t likely engage in a twenty-minute conversation.  But if they’re unwinding at the local waterhole after hours—while imbibed a few alcoholic beverages—then a few run-on sentences might be just what the doctor ordered.

A common error I’ve encountered in rough drafts are conversations that simply go on too long.  Not only do the characters say in three sentences what they could have said in one, but also the subject itself circles back on itself again and again.  The chances of this happening increase dramatically if these artificial people are having an argument.  Real-life bickering is repetitive, but no reader wants to endure page after page of repetitive back-and-forth.

When in doubt, err on the side of fewer words.

2. Intersperse action

Dialogue can be like swarm of locusts, hungrily devouring a scene or even an entire chapter.  That might not be the worst thing in the world, just as long as it doesn’t leave the rest of the narrative desolate and devoid of life.

When a writer really gets into a verbal exchange between two (or more) captivating characters, it’s easy to lose track of everything else.  However, if the result is several consecutive pages of pure quotations, you end up with what I like to call Voices in a Vacuum.

Readers want to experience the story through as many senses as possible.  If a long conversation is needed, remember to plant some action in between speech tags so that the reader has something to” look at.”  And don’t forget the setting.  Where are these people?  Have they really been sitting perfectly still on a couch this whole time?  Is the rest of reality on pause while they bear their souls to one another?  Not likely.

Unadulterated dialogue appeals to just one of the five senses: hearing.  And when we speak in real life, our mannerisms convey meaning as well.  Indeed, body language often says more than our mouths!

Sometimes it can be difficult to silence loquacious characters, but unless their words are moving the story forward in a significant way, get ready to press the backspace key.

3. Replace action

Bad dialogue bogs down the pace; good dialogue encourages momentum.

In an effort to smooth out transitions between straightforward action and dialogue (because dialogue actually is a kind of action), it can be helpful to replace an ordinary description of motion with a voiced reference to an action.

Take this (admittedly ridiculous) excerpt for example:

Professor Improbable laughed wildly.  “With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”

He turned to his slump-shouldered assistant, Rogi, and asked, “Bring me the thermal calibrator at once.”

Rogi reached for one of the many tools scattered on the table and handed a gadget to the scientist, who curtly informed him that he asked for a thermal calibrator, not an infrared coupler.

Rogi tried again and, luckily, got it right.

“Thank you, Rogi.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

Here’s an alternate approach:

 “Mwahahaha!  With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”  Professor Improbable turned to his slump-shouldered assistant.  “Rogi, bring me the thermal calibrator at once.  No, no, no!  That’s the infrared coupler.  Ah, yes, that’s the one.  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

The action is implied in the dialogue, and Professor Improbable—whom we suspect always monopolizes the conversation—can recap his master plan without needless interruptions.  Just make sure you don’t waste the reader’s time by having the dialogue and the narration convey redundant information.

4. Develop voice

Dialogue is perhaps the most intuitive element through which one can execute characterization.  A person’s vocabulary and delivery say an awful lot about him or her.  Casual chats, heart-to-hearts, quarrels, exchanges with random strangers—all of these present opportunities to add dimension to a character.

The goal is to give each character an individual voice, a strong voice that will inform the reader who is speaking even before they get to speech tag (e.g., “said Professor Improbable”).  Consider your character’s culture, education level, disposition, etc. when determining which words ought to come out of his or her mouth.

Just don’t get carried away.  Even if Rogi ends up having a speech impediment, a reader isn’t going to w-w-w-w-want to h-h-h-h-h-have t-t-t-t-t-t-to n-n-n-n-n-n-n-navigate a-a-a-around too m-m-m-m-m-many v-v-v-v-v-v-v-visual h-h-h-h-h-hurdles.  The same goes for representing accents.  Put in an affectation here and a native word there.  Please don’t pump each paragraph full of apostrophes to imply clipped sounds or otherwise butcher perfectly good words.  Subtlety is key.

Dialogue should round out your characters, but rarely can talk-heavy scenes exist solely for character development.  Every word needs to move the story forward, including quotes.

5. Read it out loud

The best way to gauge whether your dialogue rings true is to read it out loud.  Better yet, have someone else read it to you.  Listen for tongue-twisting syntax and garbled semantics.  Listen for flow.  Are the transitions logical?

Listen for sentences that are just too tidy.  Unless your protagonist is a grammar teacher, he or she is going to end a sentence with a preposition now and then.  For that matter, the rules of proper grammar don’t apply within quotation marks.  Awkward, unconventional sentence structure in dialogue won’t reflect poorly on you as a writer (if the rest of your sentences are grammatically sound), though it will send a message about the character in question.

Every good spy knows the best lies contain at least an ounce of truth.  The trick with dialogue, as with any aspect of fiction, is making something artificial come off as natural.  To become adept at writing dialogue, listen to how the people around you really talk and then make it better.

But not too perfect.

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What every writer needs

Someone once said, “A writer is not a writer without an audience.”  I don’t necessarily agree, but I will say this: A serious writer will not be satisfied until he or she finds one.

In one of my college writing courses, I had to read a book the craft of creative nonfiction.  I vaguely recall how the author harped on the importance of selecting a cause you’re passionate about and then presented a very formulaic approach to making your case.

While struggling through page after page, I kept thinking, “Nothing about creative nonfiction seems very creative.”

I was a purist, you see, a storyteller whose tales were rooted firmly in fiction.  I wanted to write novels, get my books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and maybe sign an autograph or two.  Newspapers, magazines, journals—these media interested me not at all.  And blogs?  Don’t even get me started.

Fast forward a decade or so, and I find myself in my ninth year of writing for The (Fond du Lac) Reporter.  Having served a few years as a true journalist—mostly focusing on features, not hard news—I now write a lifestyles column for Sunday editions as a freelancer.  After working full-time for the newspaper, I went to the Dark Side (media relations and marketing), authoring feature stories for a university magazine and many more articles for the school’s online publication.  These days, I regularly contribute to this blog and another blog for my current day job.

On average, I spend at least as much time, if not more, writing creative nonfiction than fiction.

How did this happen?  For starters, I’ve been fortunate enough to find paying gigs where I can leverage my writing skills.  Don’t we all want to get paid to do what we love—even if it’s not exactly like what we planned?  Remembering next to nothing from that college textbook on creative nonfiction, I took would I could from my courses on fiction, particularly my solid grasp on grammar, and learned the rest along the way.  Trial and error, patient colleagues, and a fair amount of reverse engineering were my tutors.

I like to think that my foundation in fiction translates to more engaging copywriting, but the truth is it works both ways: Working with editors in the realms of journalism, PR, and marketing have made my prose tighter; my syntax, more succinct and impactful.  In short, writing on a daily basis—and on deadline—has made me a better writer, regardless of whether that story is based on real events or borne of my imagination.

Perhaps more importantly, creative nonfiction has given me a crucial ingredient that I would not have had otherwise: readers.

Truth be told, I don’t get a lot of online comments for my newspaper column, but I know people read it because friends, relatives, and complete strangers mention various topics I’ve tackled.  Even on the occasions when people disagree with my stance on an issue, I’m honored they’ve taken the time to read what I have to say—even more so when they take the time to chime in.

And at some point along the way, I’ve gone from believing I’m a good writer to knowing it.  I have creative nonfiction to thank for that.

Every writer who wants to be published ought to keep the proverbial reader in mind when honing his or her craft.  But having real, actual readers makes a huge difference.  The traffic on this blog is modest at best, but when someone takes the time to subscribe or comment, it’s incredibly rewarding and motivating.  A “like” on Facebook lets me know I’m not wasting my time.

That’s something my fiction has yet to yield.  My early sword-and-sorcery novels garnered no interest from agents or editors; neither did a vignette I wrote in college, the only piece of short fiction I ever bothered to send out to magazines.  With one of my novels under lengthy consideration by a major publisher, I find myself increasingly eager to share my fiction with the world.

Barnes & Noble might not be around by the time my novels see the light of day.  And I no longer fantasize (much) about autographing the inside of my book covers.  Getting paid to do what I love—in my genre of choice—will be a fringe benefit.

What I really crave are readers.

Self-publishing sounds less and less like a dirty word as time goes on.  Nevertheless, I understand that my best shot at getting the most readers is going the traditional route.  Which is why I’m tipping my toe in the murky waters of fiction publishing and sharing a certain short story with a select few—my first “fans.”

I’ve posted the story behind a password at https://david-michael-williams.com/viral/.  If you want to join the elite ranks of my fiction readers, send me an email at onemillionwords@hotmail.com, and I’ll send you the password.

(Why the cloak and dagger?  I’m considering submitting this short story to magazines and/or other appropriate venues, and I don’t want to preempt publication elsewhere by technically self-publishing the story here.  Hence, these steps to keep it relatively private.)

Even if only one or two people take the time to read it, it’ll be worth my effort.

Meanwhile, as I work and wait for my fiction to take off, I feel privileged to have other channels—my creative nonfiction—to connect with readers.

—Editor’s note: what else do writers need to succeed?  Find out here.

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