Category Archives: Writing

The Indie Author Dilemma

Ah, technology. It makes possible so many wonderful things. And so many terrible things. And so many mediocre things. And so many books.

Today, anybody can write and publish a book, so everybody does. Far more published authors inhabit the world now than ever before, and most of them are independents–indie authors. They don’t need no stinking traditional publishers. By vanity press, print-on-demand publisher, or online tool, they fearlessly bring their creations to life. How great is that?

Well…

Once upon a time, it took a lot of work to achieve publication. Self-publishing is nothing new, but the vast majority of books were brought forth by publishing companies. The occasional genius notwithstanding, most writers suffered under this system, spending years collecting rejection slips before making a sale. It hurt, and often the hurt never ended. Not every writer entered the paradise of publication. Most suffered in the hell of endless rejection.

But that wasn’t all bad. Because through those long years of failure, writers gained experience, honed their craft, grew from novice to expert. They didn’t get published. They became publishable.  And then they were rewarded.

Today’s indie writer may think she’s got it good, because she can skip all that, but actually she doesn’t. Because it’s horribly tempting to skip all that. It’s not uncommon to hear an indie ask, “I’ve just finished my first novel. How do I get it published?” The occasional genius aside, the answer ought to be: “Please don’t.”

Disclaimer time. I’m not trying to insult indie writers. Conceiving and writing a book is no small feat. Beyond that, it takes a lot of courage to send it out into the world for people to read. Anyone who gets that far deserves respect and encouragement, and they definitely have mine.

But let’s face it: nobody is born capable of writing great literature. Some people have greater aptitude for writing than others, but even they learn through years of reading and writing.  I’ve never heard of a four-year-old writing a deathless novel, and neither have you. Very few 20-year-olds have done so, for that matter. Writing is a skill that must be learned, practiced, improved. And that takes time.

Consider me. I spent years writing, principally science fiction short stories. I never sold one, although near the end of those years I got a few words of encouragement from editors, including one from Shawna McCarthy at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. She rejected my story, but told me I had promise. Oh, that felt great! I’d never enjoyed a rejection so much. I wrote one mystery almost-novel after that. (Almost because it was too short for a novel.) I then wrote an SF novel, a fantasy novel, and two mystery novels. My SF novel almost found an agent, except she was going out of business. Rats!

By this time, I think I was very close to publishability. I hadn’t hit the big time yet, but my writing was starting to get the attention of at least a few editors and agents. And then disaster struck: I landed a contract with a con artist claiming to be an agent. I won’t go into details now. Suffice it to say that I stopped writing fiction for ten years.

Ten years later, I pulled myself out of the writing doldrums and wrote my first Howard County mystery, The Fibonacci Murders. By then, the indie revolution was in full swing, and my wife Kathleen and I had started our own publishing company. So we published it. It was a pretty easy sale, even though Kathleen didn’t let me off easy. She wields a mean editorial pen. Since that time, I’ve written two more novels in the series–True Death which we also published, and Ice on the Bay which we hope to have out by the end of the year. I’ve also written an SF/humor novel, Space Operatic, which is with some beta readers now, and started two more novels: Howard County mystery #4 and a crime/humor novel.

Now here’s the thing: In reviewing my recent work, I find that only HCM4 and my crime/humor novel are equal in quality to the last things I wrote before my ten year hiatus. Those dead years set me back, and I only got back up to speed by writing several more novels.

Think about that, all you indie writers. Scads of short stories and five novels to almost become publishable, then a decade without practice, then three more novels to regain my skill. And someone who  has just finished their first novel wants to publish it?

It’s been said that a writer must write a million words to become a good writer. That’s ten 100,000 word novels. The exact number isn’t important, though. The point is practice, practice, practice. The traditional publishing model forced most writers to practice. The indie model does not. Which means, fellow indies, we must force the practice on ourselves.

I can see a possible new paradigm emerging here. We publish book after book. Some of us pay attention to our writing, commit to learning, and over time get better and better. The trail of books we leave behind us is public testimony to our development as writers. Scholars might appreciate that someday, but meanwhile readers have to wade through piles of trash before they find one of us emerging from it with a gem.

The only question is, how many readers have the patience for that? Curious, isn’t it: before, the writers had to have patience, and the readers got instant gratification. Now it’s the other way ’round. Hmmm.

Get Real

In literature, realism has a technical meaning. Or two. Or maybe three. In a general sense, it refers to representing characters as they really are, or would be if they weren’t fictional. It means writing about people without glamorizing them, without glossing over their failings, presenting everything–even the most banal aspects of their lives–exactly as it would be.

Realism renders characters, well, real. That’s good. We relate better to real characters than to stereotypes or caricatures. Even superheros have to be real in a certain sense: they must have weaknesses. Even “truth, justice, and the American way” characters sometimes struggle with the impulse to lie or the desire for revenge rather than justice.

But like anything else, realism can be carried too far. Do you want to watch every character go through every trivial moment of their day? Of course not. You don’t care what they had for breakfast Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday… You might care if Joe had an argument with his wife during breakfast. Or if he received a shocking text message while munching on his toast, choked, and ended up at the hospital. But if nothing happened except he ingested some crispy bread? Nah.

Even the details of most people’s jobs make for bland reading. I write computer software. You might think that would be interesting. To me, it generally is. But if I led you step by step through a typical day on my job, you’d be yawning before the first half hour was up. Some fiction–such as the mysteries I write–does follow people through their work days, but not in excruciating detail. I may show a detective doing their paperwork, but only as background to something more interesting. Nobody wants to watch somebody fill out forms. Moreover, not being a detective myself, I’m sure I don’t get everything right. Probably some of what happens in my novels would not happen in real life. How important is that? It depends. If you’re a detective or know more about detective work than I do, you might gripe. But to be honest, so long as I don’t make any gross errors, it’s not all that important. I’m telling a story, not documenting a day in the life of a cop. If you’re pulled into the story, then it works, unreality and all. Don’t believe me? Consider how much unreality works its way into novels and TV shows and movies. Real crime scene investigators sometimes wish they had all the gadgets their TV counterparts do. Quite honestly, unreality can keep us on the edges of our seats more effectively than reality.

So there is a balance to be struck: stories should be real enough to be convincing, but not excruciatingly real. Fiction is, after all, fiction, not reality. I sometimes compare writing to another art I practice, bonsai. In bonsai, one trains the growth of a small tree grown in a pot in such a way that it gives the illusion of being a full-grown tree. But many of the principles bonsai artists follow are entirely artificial. Branches should not cross, for example. In nature, branches will grow any way they can to get to the light, but in a bonsai the branches must be carefully pruned and shaped. It’s not a natural tree. It’s a contrived tree that gives the illusion of being natural, which the best bonsai actually do. Same with stories. They aren’t reality, but when well written, they can give the illusion of being real.

In the process, a lot of reality is necessarily left out.

A Serious Influence

To the extent that I’ve been consciously influenced by any writer, it would be Ray Bradbury.

When did I first encounter Bradbury’s stories? I don’t exactly recall, but it was a long time ago. I read his short story “A Sound of Thunder” in either eighth or ninth grade. That was during my family’s brief stay in Sacramento, California, and is the earliest clear memory I have of his work.

Also about that time, my English class screened the 1963 TV documentary Ray Bradbury: The Story of a Writer, which in part follows the author through the development of a short story called “Dial Double Zero.” That story never appeared in print, but the documentary provides a solid glimpse of it through Bradbury’s musings, dramatic presentations of portions of the story, and his reading of the ending.

When I grow up as a writer, I’d like to be Bradbury. That thought has been stuck in my head for many, many years. Of course, in a literal sense it’s impossible. Authors have to find their own voices, their own styles. We each have a unique life, a unique set of experiences upon which we draw, so none of us writes exactly like anyone else.

But if I write even a third as well in my own way as Bradbury did in his, I could be pleased with the results. Sometimes I think I come close. Example: in October 2015 a story called “In the Butcher Shop” spilled out of me in a single hour. I suspect he might have given me a bit of help that day.

October, anyway, was his time of year…