Tag: authors

Characterization and its Value

Characterization and its Value

After years of writing this blog on and off, I came to the startling realization yesterday that I hadn’t written an entry regarding characterization and what that means for authors and books. In light of this horrible mistake, I am writing this entry now!

Characterization is telling the reader about characters (or even places). It’s the meat and potatoes of the “getting to know you” part of the story, and it can be extremely powerful. This blog ties directly into last week’s topic: description, so if you haven’t read that yet, I’d catch up!

Over and over again in groups and with individuals, I see folks struggling with how in the world do you help readers understand things without beating them over the head with it. We are told often to show, not tell, and while this advice has value, it’s missing a lot of the “how” of the statement. Part of the how is characterization.

I’m going to start with indirect characterization here rather than begin with direct because, frankly, I like indirect more. In some ways, you can think of it like the way Sherlock Holmes deduces facts about a person based on things like their shoes, watch, colors, clothing style, and all other details. While what he does is an exaggeration, it reflects something we as humans do every day when we meet people. It’s the reason why “long-haired freaky people need not apply” became a thing. We form understandings of people based on details about them. Whether these opinions are accurate or not is an entirely separate discussion, but it is a real thing that occurs in the world, and we can capitalize on it in our storytelling.

Characterization can happen beyond just describing a person, too. Describing their space or things around them can add a lot to the understanding of an individual. Let’s take a look at what I mean through two descriptions:

Morgan’s office was so clean it looked as though nobody could really work there. Every paper sat in a precise spot on the glass top of his desk (which was so clean it gleamed and didn’t so much as bear a single fingerprint), and his pens were organized into several containers by color. The wide windows behind him looked out onto the university campus grounds from the height of several floors, affording him the view of an eagle in its nest.

Office One

Richard’s office perpetually smelled like Indian food. Piles of books covered every surface, many with extra papers stuffed into them–notes often tangentially related to the book he’d filed them in. The dark wood paneling and many bookshelves gave the space an almost cave-like feel, and the incandescent bulbs he used in his many lamps only heightened the sense of dark and warmth. He refused to use the overhead lighting, finding the buzz of the fluorescents unendurable.

Office Two

Now, we know nothing about Morgan or Richard or what they look like or even what they teach. But these two offices tell stories about two radically different people, and we can gather bits of their personality through their spaces. This is characterization. While it doesn’t always require a large description to get a point across, you are giving readers an insight into a character’s head when you talk about their clothing, their choices in music, their cars, the way they arrange their bedrooms, and the way they use language in dialogue.

The way you use language, too, can indicate to a reader how they should feel about a character. If you use warmer, more caring language to describe them, readers will pick up on that. Even subconsciously. While most readers don’t enjoy a book with an exceptionally analytical eye, they are more perceptive than you might expect. You can rely on this and know that readers do typically pick up on subtext pretty well so long as you don’t bury it.

This use of indirect characterization is half the puzzle. Using a character’s spaces, clothing, and other such things is considered “indirect” characterization. As you may imagine, it’s the less overt way telling the reader who these characters are as you can probably glean from the name.

Direct characterization are things you tell the reader outright. These are things you tell the reader such as describing someone as “a tall, thin woman with confidence that hung on her like a mantle.” Too much of this will breach into “telling” territory, but it is the most efficient means of giving readers information. If a character is only going to be on scene for a short period of time, or you need a reader to know some very specific details about them for story purposes, this is a good bet.

Also, direct characterization includes things like a character telling someone something about themselves or thinking it if you’re using internal dialogue as a method in your story. It isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, and if you only use indirect characterization in a novel there’s a good chance you’ll hurt your pacing by having to tell readers an overwhelming amount of detail about the character to get your point across.

My definitions of direct and indirect characterization here differ from some other examples I’ve read where they say direct characterization is only the author telling the reader specific things (like me mentioning the confident woman) rather than any sort of reveal about a character through direct thoughts or dialogue, but I’m going to posit that anything that is equally obvious to the reader would fall under direct. While indirect is more environmental storytelling or telling the reader things about the character through the use of their clothes and other such markers.

Regardless of how you choose to discern direct and indirect characterization, we can all agree both types are vital to a story and provide a backbone to how your characters are viewed by the reader. The same actions taken by one character might be viewed very differently when taken by another based on the way you as a writer choose to display them.

Beyond this, characterization also happens with every action a character takes in a story. The reader gains more insight into them with every word devoted to that character. While, obviously, some methods are more effective and useful than others, recognize that readers absolutely will pick up on things.

This leads us to discussing issues where, for example, people hate your main character or don’t understand their motives. While some of this might come down to having a main character who relies on tropes or behaves in ways abhorrent to a reader’s sensibilities, some of it could well be lack of characterization on the part of the author. After all, to us, our character’s motives and intentions are crystal clear. If a reader just cannot connect with a character at all, there’s a good chance you’re missing some of the pieces that give a reader insight into them.

This is not to say characters cannot have secrets or big reveals, but remember, readers are gathering information on every single action a character takes. If they don’t have enough information for them to understand why a character is taking the action they are, you’ve missed a beat somewhere. Fortunately, adding that in may be as simple as providing a few lines of dialogue or a paragraph where a character ruminates on their intended purpose.

However, there are some characters where no amount of characterization will make them not sketchy down at their core. I’m sorry, Twilight fans, at no point does Edward Cullen being over a hundred years old and perpetually in high school and stalking a seventeen year old girl become less creepy. No matter how you frame it. Nor does Jacob deciding that Bella’s unborn child is his mate and that he’s going to groom the kid to be his perfect lady. The facts of the matter are still horrible.

Head Hopping and Why It’s A Problem

Head Hopping and Why It’s A Problem

Hey, it’s me, your friendly neighborhood editor resurrected from the dead. My hope is to make this blog a monthly thing. We’ll see if I can make that happen how I intend, but let’s give it a shot at least. I know I’ve said that about a million times, but maybe this time it’ll stick.

We can only hope. 

So, to dig into this, let’s start with discussing the important parts of POV.

First, the POV character is the one who informs the reader. Everything filters through them, their biases, their experiences, and their knowledge. That means we only know what they do. Now, you can have multiple POV characters in a book separated by scene breaks or chapters, but you should only have one POV at a time (if you change on the fly in the middle of a scene, that’s called “head hopping” which we’ll get into later).

Choosing your POV character is important–it informs your whole story. Can you imaginee reading the Dresden Files books from the perspective of Michael? Actually, some of you can, if you’ve read Jim Butcher’s numerous short stories from the other POVs. It’s a very different feel than from Harry’s experience.

The POV character is, typically, the main character of your book. If your book is about multiple main characters, it may end up with multiple POVs at different times, but don’t get crazy with this. Readers who jump from character to character to character don’t form a relationship with most any of them, so getting them to care about your character and their journey will be more difficult.

While there’s no hard and fast rule, you should probably not have more than three or four primary POV characters. If you throw in a chapter or scene written by an incedental NPC here and there, that’s all right, but don’t overdo it. Think of it like salt. If you add some salt, it can really enhance a dish. Some people like more or less of it, but if you just dump all of it in, it will become inedible in its entirety.

Whether you’re writing from first person or third person, you shouldn’t write about things your POV character doesn’t know. For example, if she doesn’t know the person across from her plans to kill her, you shouldn’t tell the reader that. What you can do is have your character put pieces together, notice things like body language, tone, things like that. Neurotypical (people who are not, for example, on the autism spectrum) people are capable of reading facial expressions and body language to put together someone’s emotional state most of the time. If your POV character isn’t neurotypical, then you, as a writer, need to account for that in your handling of such things.

Let’s write a sample scene to show you what I mean:

Mary slouched in the diner booth, staring at Bobby. He’d been quiet today, and he was thinking of breaking up with her. He frowned at his pancakes and sighed. “I think we should see other people.”

The words hit Mary like a fist, and her jaw dropped. “What? It was going so well!”

“Yeah, well. I just think I’d be better off with Joan.” Bobby really liked Joan, and whenever he thought of her, he smiled. Like he was now.

Mary felt like someone had kicked her in the belly. “Oh.”

You can see, immediately, that I’ve jumped between POVs here (Mary’s and Bobby’s). The first paragraph starts implying it’s in Mary’s POV, but we have the revelation that Bobby was thinking of breaking up with her. Which also has the effect of robbing the last line of the paragraph of any power, since we know it’s coming.

The second paragraph is squarely in Mary’s POV, describing how she feels the impact of the breakup.

In paragraph three, it goes back into Bobby’s POV, since Mary (we can assume) is not in Bobby’s head and doesn’t know exactly what he’s thinking or feeling.

Then, paragraph four returns to Mary’s point of view.

This small scene is indicative of head hopping. There are authors who get away with this. A dear friend of mine recently mentioned she was reading an Ann Coulter book where this happens, and it’s somewhat common in the Romance genre. This head hopping robs the reader of any mystery of what’s happening right here, and you don’t really know which character you’re in deep POV with.

In this case, it’s not particularly confusing, but if you added more characters, it could end up a catastrophe. Fast.

So, how do we fix this poor scene? Well, first, we choose a character to write from. I’m going to go with Mary. Then, let’s rewrite it focusing on what Mary can see, feel, taste, touch, and so on. What she knows.

Mary slouched in the diner booth, staring at Bobby. He’d been quiet today, and she wasn’t sure why. He frowned at his pancakes and sighed. “I think we should see other people.”

The words hit Mary like a fist, and her jaw dropped. “What? It was going so well!”

“Yeah, well. I just think I’d be better off with Joan.” A small smile curled the corner of his mouth when he said Joan’s name.

Mary felt like someone had kicked her in the belly. “Oh.”

Now it’s written from exclusively Mary’s point of view. It describes a little of what she can see regarding Billy’s feelings (paragraph three), but it doesn’t give the reader any knowledge they wouldn’t have already. This means the reader doesn’t have warning that he’s going to break up with her immediately, so when it happens, the reader experiences it along with Mary, rather than trying to do it splitscreen.

Let’s try it from Bobby’s POV:

Bobby felt the weight of Mary’s eyes on him from across the diner table. He’d spent the day trying to figure out how to say what came out next, but it was best that he just say it. He sighed. “I think we should see other people.”

Mary’s jaw dropped, and she let out a huff of air. “What? It was going so well!”

“Yeah, well. I just think I’d be better off with Joan.” Bobby really liked Joan, and whenever he thought of her, he smiled a little.

Her lower lip quivered a little, and Mary looked at the table. “Oh.”

Now we can see what’s going on in Bobby’s head, and Mary’s reaction is described through what he can see (her quivering lip, her sigh). This is still written solidly from Bobby’s POV, but it doesn’t mean the reader ignores the impact on Mary.

Finally, a note on Omniscient POV:

Omniscient POV isn’t accounted for in this article because it is both pretty uncommon these days and it is quite different than the limited POV varieties (first, third). Omniscient writing requires different things, but it, too, does not head hop. It is written with less intimacy to the individual characters, but what it sacrifices in depth, it makes up for in perspective.

Omniscient POV is very much its own thing. If you have read books like “Lord of the Rings” by JRR Tolkein or “Rocket’s Red Glare” by my dear friend Cy Stein, you’ll notice that you aren’t deep into any individual character’s head but instead see everything more or less all the time.

This blog has run pretty long already, and I’ve covered POV before on this blog, so I think I’ll just summarize by saying: head hopping bad. Don’t do it.

“Character Autonomy”

“Character Autonomy”

I’ve been gone awhile due to my health, but I’m hopefully back now. I’m going to write once or twice a week until I find my stride again, but I haven’t abandoned the blog. Life has just been distracting me from my work here.

So, this particular subject created a hotbed of contention in a writing group I’m part of today, and it’s one I’ve seen all over the place. When a writer says, “My character did ‘x’, and I had no control over it at all! I had to write his story that way,” most of the rest of us head for the hills because the belief that your characters have a complete life of their own, over which you as the writer have no control whatsoever, is a sign of mental illness. Now, that isn’t to say our stories can’t surprise us, or our characters might go in ways we hadn’t initially planned, but suspend your judgment until I have a chance to explain my assessment of both sides of this coin.

So, on one hand, our characters are creations of our mind. We made them. We chose their parts (even if it was an unconscious decision which I will get to later), and they do not exist outside our heads. At least not in their entirety. On the other hand, our characters are comprised unconsciously out of bits and pieces of people or other characters we have seen or encountered in our lives. We are, after all, repositories of information. People whose characters just sort of appear in their heads fully formed (rather than created deliberately) are accessing their memories in a less structured manner, though they are doing similar things. Even when we choose attributes, we often are creating mirrors of people we’ve encountered in our lives. The reflection is unconscious in either case, and the only thing that differs is the method.

I am, perhaps, somewhat unique in the sense that I experience both methods of character creation. Sometimes, I build a character with each aspect intentionally designed for a purpose or chosen with care. Other times they walk out of my brain and onto my mental “stage” fully formed.  Neither method is more valid than the other, but they both stem from the same places.

Now the big difference in “my character dictated the scene” and “I dictated the scene”—not counting mental illness—is that in the first scenario the writer’s subconscious or unconscious mind is writing the story. They might not know it at the time while they daydream about their characters, world, and plot, but that’s what they’re doing. Their mind is chugging away and utilizing their memories and experiences to create stories based on things they’ve read, seen, or experienced. They are also extrapolating what could happen next. Usually, this takes place while the writer is daydreaming or letting their thoughts wander rather than dictating the exact details of a scene.

The other scenario means the author is constructing the scene like an architect. They plan every aspect of it and write each word with intent and deliberation. While they often have lines or details that come to them while they write, their experience is rather different from those who just have experience of everything appearing in their head as though by magic. The architect is drawing from the same well of inspiration; they are just accessing it through different channels.

When it comes to writing a book, both methods are important. Being able to unchain your thoughts and let your imagination wander and paint pictures you may not have expected is a valuable tool. When we daydream we are at our most creative. We are letting our mind roll over what matters to us, and come up with all kinds of different possibilities. On the other hand, being able to plan and construct our scenes and characters as needed is an important skill as well. In the end, a blending of both of these tools will make you a powerful writer. Both have their time and place.

Returning to the “my character did ‘x’” and “I made my character do ‘x’” conversation, what we are seeing is a lack of realization on both sides of what the other is saying. Not counting the potential mental instability where delusions are a condition, we need to recognize what is being said because in some ways, both are right and have merit. Most of us are very aware that our characters don’t exist outside our sphere of control and outside our minds. And yes, we have control over them. At the same time, many writers (particularly those young in their journey) don’t know how to access their creativity without daydreaming. Being able to do that and willingly create in that way is a skill that is learned rather than daydreaming which is instinct to us–most folks do from the time we are children.

Also, learning to articulate the differences and understand exactly what’s happening with each style of writer requires a little more understanding of both writing and of the way we think and process information. If I know someone to be mentally stable, and they talk about how a scene wrote itself, or a character “made a decision”, I usually chuckle with them. Largely because I know what they’re trying to communicate. I can also bemoan alongside the architects when a scene just will not congeal the way we’re trying to write it. Or rejoice when something comes together exactly as it was planned.

We really are all doing the same thing; we’re just approaching it from different angles and using different language to describe the same process.

The Spark of Life: Character Development

The Spark of Life: Character Development

I recently had a friend contact me about how to develop characters. He was worried all his characters are too much like him, and what he does to divorce them from him turns them into a farce of themselves. This is something writers struggle with, I’m sure, and character development and growth is tough. It’s not something that comes naturally to most people, and creating “real” characters is a challenge.

So how do you do it? How do you breathe in that spark of life? The first part of that is to make your characters real people. I don’t mean that in a creepy way, but give them hopes, dreams, flaws. These flaws should be real to them—just like ours are to us. My main character in my fantasy series, Archimedes, is stubborn to a fault. He’s pushy and overbearing sometimes when he wants to get his way. At the start of the books, he’s also a bit of a coward and is running away from his obligations rather than fulfilling them. He’s also loyal, honest, and kind. He really wants to do the right thing, but he’s having trouble making it happen.

Regardless of whether your characters are in an alien world or a mundane one, fantasy or reality, they need to be relatable. They will contain archetypes that humanity posses. There are many theories of archetypes out there floating around in the study of psychology (which I recommend researching, by the way—it’s going to help you create more believable characters), but I tend to lean toward using the Jungian archetypes when writing if I need to categorize my characters. You can start with these archetypes because they are based on real people. These are common types of people throughout the world and throughout history. You aren’t limited to them, but they should help you as a place to start.

The second key is to give your characters places to grow. Archimedes, through the novel, faces some of his fears and stands up for what’s right, becoming stronger and driving away his cowardice and fear. He transforms over the course of the novel because of what he experiences. As with real people, we encounter things in life that change us. A loved one’s death, a lover who sees things in us we don’t, war, poverty, fear… all kinds of things change us as we go through life both good and bad. Your novel will, naturally, have these experiences in it for your character. Let them grow and change organically as they faces these trials.

I know many people say their characters take on a life of their own and so on, but that’s only partially true. While, yes, our characters do sometimes reveal themselves in unexpected ways the person ultimately controlling your novel and your characters is you. I do not ascribe to the theory that characters do their own thing because, frankly, they are nothing more than imaginary creations of the writer. While our imaginations might run away with us, our characters are entirely of our own design. To think otherwise is, frankly, verging on mental illness.

As far as divesting our characters from ourselves goes, that’s harder. Each character we create is a mirror for some aspect of ourselves, however small. We wouldn’t have invented them otherwise. These characters collectively are reflect slivers of our souls. If your characters aren’t doing that, and they’re coming out flat, that may be why. I feel for and with my characters as I write. When they suffer pain, so do I. When they feel triumph, I feel that rush. That flow of emotion is something readers pick up on, also. Assuming your writing is good, that is.

That emotion, and that reflection of the soul, is what creates the spark of life. I identify with Archimedes’ struggles, to some extent. While I don’t face the same things or react the same way, he show some of the things that I want to be at my best. He also faces some of the fears I have at my worst. Other characters in my world are similar. That includes the villains. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I am secretly an evil person, it does mean that there is a piece of humanity in that character. A fragment of a soul that the reader should, hopefully feel.

Playing Nice With Others

Playing Nice With Others

A dear friend of mine recently had an experience at a bardic circle (a musical event where folks sit around a campfire and perform to each other) where a group of semi-professionals who didn’t care that it was someone else’s turn decided to shout her down and sing over her. Now, my friend is a wonderful singer (you can’t tell me  otherwise—I know you’re going to see this, too), and she is working to overcome dreadful stage fright. These people, on top of being unthinkably rude, could have damaged a less confident person’s sense of worthiness to perform. Luckily, my friend is as stalwart as they come and recognized these folks were just being horrid; it had nothing to do with her.

So how does this relate to writing? Well, I’ve seen authors do this exact thing. We live in an over-saturated market where, despite ourselves, we jockey for positions of dubious merit. We fight for review time, advertising space, interviews, and any other scrap of exposure we can collect. Unfortunately, that kind of pressure often brings out the worst in people. There is also, at times, an inherent egotism that comes with the status of “author” that leads others to think their opinion is somehow more valid just because they’ve been “published”.

Let me pop that bubble right now: at no point are you ever more valuable than someone else. Your opinion may be better-informed and worth more in that regard if you have experience and study, but that doesn’t mean you deserve to treat others like crap. In fact, it will only harm you to treat others like that. Could I walk up to a newbie author or editor and tapdance on them with my five years of experience and several publications? Sure. It wouldn’t make me any better than them, though. It also wouldn’t endear anyone to me because, frankly, who likes a bully? Instead, I’d rather encourage, mentor, and inspire other people. It’s similar to the difference between being a “boss” and being a “leader”.

I also want to note that, while I am technically in competition with other publishers and editors and writers… I’m not really. No matter how much I want to, I can’t publish all the books in the world. I can’t edit all the books in the world. I can’t write all the books in the world. I might be publishing science fiction right alongside other presses, but you know what? Good for them. I’d rather support their sales and develop a good rapport. Particularly in the indie game, that networking can be a huge help. The same goes with author-to-author relationships. There might be another fantasy author whose books are technically in direct competition with mine, but I’d much rather be friends with them than try and sabotage them.

We can all win this race. It’s not as though we’re competing to have someone purchase our car. After all, with cars you only really need one, and it’s a huge investment. Books? Well… if the number of books I own is any indication, I’m probably going to be buying and reading books for a long, long time. That also means that if I see an author I enjoy recommend a book (or a movie, or…) I’ll probably check it out. If I like that author I’ll read what they recommend and so on. You can see where I’m going with this.

Now, in addition to just being jerks, how many of you have seen (or, be honest, done) this: Join a group on social media, drop an advertisement for your book, and leave? That’s kind of like trying to sing over everyone else at the campfire. Particularly since, most of the time, the rules say differently. It’s disrespectful to the people who are there because, in essence, you’re saying: I don’t care what you have to say, just listen to me! You aren’t contributing anything; you’re not even really participating; you’re just throwing out your piece to the detriment of the group as a whole. Don’t be that guy (or gal).

The only way authors, publishers, and editors are going to succeed in this increasingly-hostile landscape where we have to fight for every shred of recognition we receive is to do it together. You can all sing at the campfire. We will all applaud and be happy you joined us. We’ll pass around the marshmallows and moonshine and have fun together. I’d rather eat s’mores with my friends than shout them down because if we’re all yelling no one is heard.

How To Write Without Inspiration

How To Write Without Inspiration

We’ve all felt it. That dreaded, slow, sticky sensation when our inspiration and excitement for a project drains away like the tide, leaving us beached on the unforgiving shores of reality. Yeah, I know, I’m waxing poetic, but we all really do know that feeling. As Jack London infamously said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” So many writers spend their lives and time waiting for their muse to whisper to them, but that’s just now how it works.

Like any art, writing requires dedication and practice. I can’t count the number of times that I, as a child, whined about having to practice violin. I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t want to. I just wanted to go play video games. I still want to go play video games. Some things don’t change. But I practiced and dedicated my time to it even if I didn’t “feel like it”. Twenty (mumble) years later, I still play. I know creating something new is a little different than practicing someone else’s piece, but art is art in some ways.

So when that “I dun wanna” feeling slinks in, you confront it. Waiting around for inspiration or for feeling ready means you won’t finish anything. If you lose energy on a project or lose passion you’re probably at the middle. Or you’re editing. But if you want to finish something and have it stick? You need to ride that out. Keep working on it. Dedicate your time and make yourself write, make yourself work.

The shelves and streets are littered with half-finished manuscripts waiting on “inspiration to strike”. If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably have more of them on our hard drives than we want to admit. I have ‘em too. I think every writer has projects they’ve hit walls in and abandoned to deal with “later”. The problem with that is, so often, “later” never comes when you wait around on something as ephemeral as inspiration. Instead, you need to put in the long, hard hours pushing through it.

The good news is that if you push through that “UGH” feeling, one of two things will happen: you will finish the manuscript and have that sense of accomplishment or inspiration will return before you finish. Either way, you’ll hit your end point. Don’t worry about what you write being terrible; every first draft is crap. Every. Single. One. That’s from every author everywhere of all experience levels. The first draft is crap. That’s what editing is for. But you’ll never write a book if you don’t trudge on through the feelings of, “I hate this and wanna play video games.”

But this all sounds like work! Well duh. I wish I could give you an easy answer—a placebo you could take or apply and have it work. There isn’t an easy answer or a sneaky way out. All we have is the reality that we need to keep moving forward. Either you have it in you to do that or… well there you go. Like so many things in life, you have to plant your feet, duck your head, and keep on keepin’ on.

You Can’t Eat Exposure

You Can’t Eat Exposure

Freelancers, artists, and creatives have this nasty situation where the world thinks we aren’t worth paying because we are “just” artists. I could rant about that for thousands of words, but let’s suffice to say that is utterly and completely absurd. Yes. It’s so absurd it warrants two adverbs. Worse yet, many folks seem to think it’s okay to pay us in the ever-elusive “exposure”.

Let me start by saying sometimes doing something just for exposure (like having a giveaway or free weekend or sale) isn’t entirely bad. However, if you are busting your backside for “exposure” then there’s something very wrong with that situation. I think I speak for all artists when I say we deserve to be paid. That isn’t to say I think everyone deserves equal pay or that everyone deserves to be hired, but if we are doing work then it’s not wrong to expect payment. Folks who pull fries out of the oil at McDonald’s get paid, but artists who spend years honing their craft and work for hours, weeks, or months often are told we don’t deserve to be paid.

Increasingly, blogs and e-zines, and other such media tell us they’ll “get our name out there”. But I can’t eat that. While I sometimes will still submit a story that I’m not being paid for (particularly if it’s to a large outlet), I can’t eat that so-called exposure. Now, if that exposure translated into sales of my services, books, artwork (insert-your-own-art-here), then that would be worth something, but so often this so-called exposure translates into precisely nothing.

So how do we deal with this? The first step is to realize your own worth. If you are freelancing (in any capacity) you need to do a cost analysis. That means looking at your costs of living. Sit down and write up how much you need to make per month to survive. Hopefully you have a “day job” to help, at least in the beginning, because you’re going to need it. Once you have that magic number of how much you need to make per month you start looking at how much work you can do per month and start examining other people’s pay rates. Not all workers deserve equal pay, so make sure you are charging what’s proper for your skill level. Are you a beginning editor? Chances are you aren’t going to be charging what I charge. I don’t charge what people who’ve been in the industry a decade charge, either. This process of setting up your pay rates and so on sounds an awful lot like running a business, and (surprise) that’s exactly what it is.

This attitude that creatives aren’t worth much isn’t limited to the writing world. Unfortunately, the arts have grown less and less respected over time. Understanding the power and importance of the arts is a dying thought pattern. I have a friend who is a musician. He’s played for decades, and he’s one of the finest guitarists I know. These days, when he books a gig, he’s often told, “Well, I can get a five-piece band for that price!” The price he’s quoting isn’t high. It’s enough to cover gas, his equipment, wear and tear on his car, plus a little extra for him. That’s not asking for more than a business-savvy wage. But a five-piece “band” with no experience, no credentials, and crappy gear can show up and crank out atrocious music for that same price, so he’s been turned down despite his resume, skills, and knowledge. It’s just not right.

So how do you survive in a world that thinks what you do isn’t worth a whole lot? That’s something we’re all working through, let me tell you. I’m still trying to figure that one out, but when I do I’ll write a book and make millions. (Cue evil laughter here.) What I can say is it’s worth it—it’s very worth it. Our world would be nothing without art, and if art is in your spirit, don’t deny it. What I can tell you, is you probably will need a “day job” for at least awhile.

It’s hard to make a living in this world using the arts when people don’t consider them as valuable. That’s a sad, sorry state of affairs I don’t know how to fix, but it’s a reality for most of us. I won’t tell you it’s impossible to make a break because it’s not. It’s not impossible. I have friends who have made a fair amount and support their rent or supplement their income. It is possible. I know folks who write and edit and make a living doing it. Don’t be discouraged. Just recognize the reality and soldier on.

Asking “Stupid” Questions

Asking “Stupid” Questions

I’m not going to lie and say there’s no such thing as a stupid question. There are definitely stupid questions. “Where are my sunglasses?” when I’m wearing them is a stupid question I ask with more frequency than I’d like to admit. However, when it comes to writing there are fewer “stupid questions” than we’d think.

I’m in an awesome editors’ group on Facebook, and as of about half an hour ago someone asked the question of whether or not it’d be a good idea to have newbie editors create their own group (in addition to the main group) to support each other and not have to be afraid of asking silly questions. Just about all the editors in the group balked at the idea of relegating new editors to a corner, though it sparked an interesting discussion about the merit of “stupid questions” or “noob questions”.

What came out of the discussion didn’t surprise me, but it reinforced why I’m a member of the group: just ask the question. There’s this stigma around asking questions because we’re afraid of being viewed as less qualified or less intelligent because we have to ask other people for information. That’s an inaccurate belief structure and a damaging one.

As creatives, we (editors included) are prone to crippling self-doubt and impostor syndrome where we think we aren’t as good as we say we are and feel like we’re full of crap. While it’s good to have an ego check and consider that we aren’t all mega-geniuses who know everything, we aren’t complete morons, either. Asking questions pokes that little voice that says “you aren’t all that great” and sometimes turns it into a full-blown choir. However, the people reading those questions aren’t the ones singing that line. They’re usually thinking, “Oh, I’ve been there. Here’s how I dealt with it.”

As an editor, I act as a teacher for many of my clients. I’ve worked with many first-time authors who don’t quite know what the three-act structure is or exactly how to identify and slaughter passive voice. I’ve heard many questions, and I’ve asked even more. I have someone I consider my mentor, and I have guides who answer questions when I have them. That’s the secret: there’s always someone better than you to ask questions of. Your questions will change as you go along, but you’ll always have them, and it’s okay to ask.

To be honest, I think the only “wrong” question is the one unasked. There are definitely times when the answer is going to be “you’re not ready for that yet”, but asking the question isn’t a mark against you in some ethereal ledger where we keep our opinions of others. Even if the question is something we already know (or should know). I can’t count the number of times where I’ve been editing at 3am and just can’t decide where to put the damn comma. I’ve had to ask other writers or editors. Of course, that’s about the time I realize I need to put down the pen and go to bed (or have another cup of tea…).

In addition to you not crippling yourself by not asking questions, sometimes answering the question is a learning experience for another person. I’ve developed new understanding and ways of explaining things when I’ve taught people because I’ve had to. The act of teaching someone else does a great deal for one’s own learning, and that’s something you can take to the bank with you. When you begin teaching you immediately realize how little you know and start learning because, by gum, you aren’t going to leave your students in the lurch. By asking me tough questions (or even simple ones) my students are doing me a huge favor.

So, the real bones of the matter is, you aren’t an impostor for asking questions. You aren’t an idiot. You aren’t a moron. Anyone who treats you as lesser because you asked a question has an ego problem and isn’t probably a great teacher anyway. Just keep asking and learning. It’ll do you more good than it doesn’t. And ignore that chorus in the back of your head–you’ve got this. Keep at it.


Subsidiary Rights–A Rebuttal

Subsidiary Rights–A Rebuttal

To speak as a publisher for a moment, I want to talk about rights here. A lot oauthors want those thrown out because they think they deserve complete ownership and financial gain should the book end up as a movie/TV series/comic book etc. because it’s their intellectual property. This is only half true.

If you are going with a traditional publisher we want (and earn) a portion of these rights for several reasons, but I’m really going to focus on one. During the course of this post, I am going to assume you are working with a legitimate publisher, not an author mill, and are working with a publisher who is taking proper care of their authors to the best of their ability.

Publishers want those rights because we earn a cut of that pie.

While authors often think they do the lion’s share of the work just by writing the manuscript (the work doesn’t end with “the end”), the publisher does the lion’s share of the financial investment, if not all of it. If you go traditional, the publisher pays for everything, and properly producing a book costs literal thousands of dollars. Keep in mind, we professional editors like to be paid for our time, and those costs are typically over $50/hr. The length of the book and how clean it is when it arrives determine that cost.

Then, we have to pay for the cover art which may also include paying for rights to stock photos, fonts, or paying for artwork to be created from scratch. This is not a cheap process if you want good quality artwork. Poor quality artwork is cheap, but having a cover that will sell a book is worth the investment. While there are good artists who aren’t “cheap”, it is still a pricey venture.

We also have to pay for typesetting and marketing (which can end up more expensive than anything else) as well as our overhead of doing business in general: taxes, keeping lights on, website hosting, health insurance for employees if we are big enough, legal advice for contracts, electricity, internet, and about a billion other things both large and small. We also like to eat, so paying ourselves is important. All of those things go into the cost of creating your book. Were I to calculate the average cost of properly producing a book, I would come up with around $10,000 (or more for marketing) in resources. Yes. That is PER BOOK. I am not factoring into that the overhead costs of operating a business because those differ per publisher and depending on the business model.

In a traditional publishing arrangement, the author pays no penny of that, though that is why we generally provide royalty rates of about 15-20% because all of our overheads come right out of that 80%. To be honest, I haven’t drawn a paycheck yet from my company, though we are in the black in the bank. Our authors have been provided payment for their books, but none of the staff have been paid a cent because we are putting the rest of that 80% straight back into the production of other books to try and create a strong platform for all our authors.

There is a strong business reason for that, starting with the old adage “you have to spend money to make money.” Startup businesses oftentimes end up in the red because the spending comes before the making, and the making often doesn’t happen. To show that, I’m going to give you real numbers based on a book. I am going to use real costs and percentages here, though I’m rounding up the paper cost by a penny.

Books Sold: 100
List Price: $16
5″x8″, 300 pages, Createspace Physical Copy

Gross Income: $1,600
Author Income 15%: $240
Amazon Royalties (unsure percentage; calculated on their site): $515
Marketing: $400

Remaining: $445

That remaining $445 has to pay  the editors (who have often invested $1,500 worth of time or more), typesetter, and managerial staff. So we are often looking at four people, so if we give each of them $50.00 which would only pay for about an hour of an editor’s time, we are left with $245 to go toward taxes, cost of our internet hosting ($75/year), ISBN numbers ($200/for 10), subscriptions to various professional organizations we use to market books, and maybe to pay ourselves. Maybe. The money, as you may notice, goes FAST when you start adding in the cost of doing business.

At this point, you are looking at an author who has invested time and experience in writing the book – something I very much respect – and a publisher who has invested a great deal of money. In a traditional publishing arrangement, the ending “who has done more for the book” ends up being about 50/50, which is exactly how we split the sale of movie/comic/etc. rights. The company who has done so much work for this book deserves a portion of that kind of money for themselves because they darn well earned it. Particularly since the vast majority of books DO NOT EARN OUT THEIR PRODUCTION COSTS. Many books fail to sell more than the hundred copies to friends and family. Even if we sold three-hundred books, that wouldn’t even pay for the cost of typesetting, editing, and cover design.

This trend of demonizing publishers annoys me. While I cannot, and will not, speak up for the business practices of fly-by-night operations or companies who treat their authors without respect, the rest of us who aren’t like that deserve and earn our portion of the proceeds.

Giving Up Rights

I have been seeing a lot of misconceptions about contracts in the writing community lately, and I thought I might take a stab at pulling back the veil. One of the things I keep seeing is writers upset that contracts favor the publishing company and not the author. While the publishing company shouldn’t be predatory, the contract should favor the publisher. Before you close this blog in a fit of rage, let me explain why.

Writers are protective of their work, and that’s understandable, commendable, and a good thing. However, when you approach a traditional publisher you need to realize a few things. The first is that when you are traditionally publishing you must understand that you will be giving up some things. This is a reality – a contract must involve both sides giving something up and gaining something, and that is something many writers appear to forget. You give up certain rights to the work in exchange for the support of a traditional publisher. Assuming you are working with a good publisher you are going to be gaining more than you are losing.

Also it seems to be a trend that writers think that publishers should be a service to authors. That’s not how the business works. A publisher is in business to make money and benefit themselves. That’s the crux of the matter – they aren’t in it for you. While they may be altruistic and work to the good of the author they are looking to pay their people, make a profit, and continue working. That means they are going to write contracts to their advantage. That, however, is also because in this deal they are assuming the most financial risk.

Despite the fact that writing the book is an integral part of the process, the writer does not need to pay the overhead involved in publishing it. That’s squarely on the shoulders of the publisher. They pay for editing, typesetting, marketing, distribution, printing, ISBN numbers, cover art, and a hundred other things besides. They are investing a lot of money into this book, and they would like a return on their investment. They don’t want to break even, they want to make a profit. Does that sound mean? In some ways, but if they have half a dozen employees involved in the project they need to pay them, they need to pay the author their royalty, they need to pay for their location, their website, and all the other pieces of doing business. Unlike the author, they have overhead to cover that isn’t even directly related to the book. If they are big enough they have to pay for employee health insurance, retirement packages, taxes, and all sorts of other fees that writers never encounter.

Many writers hate the idea of giving up rights to their book. They argue that publishers don’t deserve subsidiary rights, that they shouldn’t get a penny more than they “deserve”. Unfortunately those people don’t take into account that the publisher, if they are doing their job right, is going to be both the launch pad for their book as well as their partner. The work of writing may be on the author, but the publisher is at least a 50% partner, if not more, in the actual work of publishing.

I don’t mean to make this sound like authors shouldn’t be cautious about giving away their rights. You should, and you should really consider everything you are giving up. But you can’t expect the publisher to foot the bill for everything and then eat scraps from the table of the sales. That’s not really how things work  nor would it be fair.

Assuming your book does amazingly in sales and you skyrocket up to fame don’t they deserve a part of that? If you get a movie deal or people want to translate it internationally, your publisher has been an intimate part of that experience and is the reason you have gotten where you are. Without that help you would either have had to learn how to do all of that yourself or paid others to do it. If you have approached a traditional publisher I assume that’s not what you wanted to do, so you have already made that decision. In that case, doesn’t the person, or group of people, who worked so hard to get you where you are deserve some form of remuneration? I would say it’s only fair.

Of course, all of this is assuming you have a reputable and legitimate publisher who isn’t taking you for all you’re worth and treating you like nonsense. I can’t account for that.