Writers

In twenty years of teaching writing classes, I’ve answered a LOT of questions! These are the questions I’m mostly frequently asked:

Q. If I take one of your classes can I work on a story I’ve already written?

A. If you’d like to work with a story you’ve already partially written, that’s fine, as long as you’re willing to start from a blank slate. But don’t try to create your story structure to fit that existing material. That will just hamstring you.

The purpose of each class is to learn techniques you will use again and again, for all of your writing, not just this story.

Even if you have to rewrite your existing material, it’s better to view your story with fresh eyes. After all, rewrites are a part of the writing process; most novels go through several drafts. So start from scratch, and structure the best story you can.

Q. Can I base a story on real events?

A. It’s fine to base your story on real life events, as long as you’re willing to bend the facts to create the most dramatic fictional version. There are other classes about writing biography, but this one shows you how to create a well structured, moving piece of fiction. Fiction that draws on real life is always the most compelling, but real life itself isn’t always structured! So just be ready to use your creative license to bend the facts, and it will work fine!

Q. Will your structuring techniques work on a short story, or are they only for novels?

A. My structuring techniques work well for novels, play, screenplays, and all but the shortest and most experimental of stories. That’s why I use the generic term “long form” in most classes.

Q. How do you overcome writer’s block?

A. I’m not sure there’s really such a thing as writer’s block. Professional writers always write. If they aren’t inspired it may be junk, but part of the routine is to write, even when they don’t feel like it. If it turns out to be junk, then you simply redo it later, but you still write.

A lot of people call it writer’s block when they get stuck. But the reason they get stuck is that they didn’t have a plan. If you make a plan before you start writing, you will know every single scene in your novel. It’s then impossible to get stuck, and in fact you can work on any scene you feel inspired about at any time, because you know they will all fit together; you can follow your muse.

By the time you finish one of my courses, you will have such a plan for your novel.

Q. If I post my work in the discussion areas or share it with a critique group, how do I know it won’t be stolen?

A. It’s time-worn saying that there is nothing new under the sun. Modern authors constantly draw inspiration from what has gone before and combine it in new ways. So it’s unlikely that your idea is unique, but the way you will create it will be unique.

In my experience it is so much work to write something good that no one would bother to write a novel about someone else’s idea. If they’re going to invest that much effort, they’re going to do it with their own idea.

And frankly, ideas are a dime a dozen. What’s rare is to actually complete, edit, polish and market a manuscript.

Of course, someone could steal your exact words, but they are protected by copyright. So if they did that and made any money, you could actually collect it from them, and thank them for all their marketing efforts! I’ve never seen that happen though.

But there is a tremendous benefit in sharing your work. It gives you feedback on what is working and what isn’t. But if you’d rather not share, that’s fine, too.

Q. Can I write my story starting with the protagonist’s birth and ending with their death?

A. Note that stories are not biographies of an entire life. They are about short, life-changing moments when a person changes to solve a problem. They typically occur over days or weeks, perhaps a year at most. 

 Q. My protagonist is a good person. Why do they need a flaw?

A. Without a flaw, there can be no story, just a collection of events. Stories are about how a person changes to solve a problem. So the most important thing to include in a character sketch is a flaw that will be used for story structuring.

For the Protagonist, this emotional shortcoming is what must be overcome at the end of Act 2 in order to solve the problem.

On the other hand, the Antagonist is incapable of overcoming their flaw in the Climax, thereby leading to defeat.

Here are some good character flaws to choose from:

lack of self-confidence
lack of self worth / low self-esteem / insecurity
naivety
inability to put the past behind
inability to face the past
inability to trust
stubbornness
rashness
prejudice
selfishness
arrogance / smugness / hubris / pride
greed
envy

Some of these flaws work great for both Protagonist and Antagonist, but the more sympathetic ones, such as naivety, are better for a Protagonist, while the less sympathetic ones, such as greed, are better for the Antagonist.

Remember, just focus on one for each character to structure your story.

Q. Why do I need an antagonist? I want my protagonist to battle a group or situation or a natural disaster.

A. Even if your plot circumstances create conflict, it still works best to have a human antagonist.

Groups of people, the elements, diseases, wars, famines: those all can cause hardship. But it takes an individual to focus that conflict and make it personal. The Antagonist gives your protagonist someone to fight or argue with.

There are instances when conflict can be provided solely by the physical world — being marooned on a deserted island — but it’s much easier to create conflict with an Antagonist.

Q. If my protagonist is evil does that mean he is really the antagonist?

A. The main character is, by definition, the Protagonist. But that doesn’t mean he’s the good guy. The story is about the Protagonist, regardless of his or her actions.

‘Pro’ doesn’t mean ‘good,’ it means ‘for.’ And ‘anti’ doesn’t mean ‘bad,’ it means ‘against.’

So the Protagonist works for a goal (good or bad) and the Antagonist works against it.

Q. Can I start with a prologue?

A. Publishers don’t like prologues and epilogues. They are usually an attempt to fix something about the story, such as create a Hook for a story that has a boring beginning, or explain information the reader needs that the Protagonist doesn’t know.

It’s always better to simply write life as the Protagonist experiences it. If your Protagonist doesn’t know it, your audience doesn’t need to, either.

 Q. What if my story is a series of books?

A. You can stretch a story into a series, dividing it up into multiple novels.

Since a story is a character’s emotional journey, you’ll use the same Protagonist all the way through if you want to create an overall story arc. Otherwise, each story will be part of a larger plot, but not a larger story.

J. K. Rowling does a good job of this with Harry Potter, where each book has its own flaw and theme, such as lack of self-confidence, inability to put the past behind, unwillingness to ask for help, hubris, etc. Then the overall series has a theme of coming of age, built upon a flaw that Harry is reluctant to grow up and take on the huge responsibility of saving the world.

Q. How long should each act be?

A. The lengths of the acts can vary a lot. In extreme cases, the first or third act might only be a few paragraphs, but they could also each be a third of the book. In an action novel the third act is sometimes the longest, but usually it’s the second act that is the longest. Some of the checkpoints – especially the crisis and epiphany – are very short, often mere sentences. But the struggle will almost always be long.

Q. How long should each chapter be?

A. Chapter breaks are arbitrary boundaries. There might be none or a hundred. The only real requirement is that if you insert one it should be at a spot where the reader can’t put the book down. This is typically after a disaster in the ‘scene and sequel.’

Q. How long should my book be?

A. Different publishers have different length requirements, but 100,000 words is a nice round number for mainstream novels, and maybe 60,000 words and up for young adult novels.

Q. Can I quote a song or a line from another book?

A. Fair use is a doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. Note that fiction isn’t explicitly listed.

Fair use provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author’s work under a four-factor balancing test. Unfortunately, these tests are quite vague, and particularly slippery when applied to fiction.

So it’s best to only quote very short excerpts. It’s also best to mention where it is quoted from in the text, if at all possible.

In any event, you should list the source and its copyright holder in the front material of your story. Of course, it’s even better if you also ask for and receive permission.

Q. How do I pick a title?

A. Publishers have an annoying habit of changing titles, and authors have no control. However now that we’re moving toward a world where authors don’t need publishers this subject becomes more interesting.

The ideal book title should be: Short, Memorable, Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Storytelling. Of course, there are great exceptions to all of these.

Also note that titles can’t be copyrighted, so it doesn’t matter if other books have the same title. Just avoid the famous ones, and trademarks, like Harry Potter.

Q. Can I use real people in my book?

A. Libel laws provide harsh penalties for slander. Of course, you can say anything you want about someone if it’s true. Just be prepared to defend yourself in court. That can be expensive.

Since we’re writing fiction anyway, this isn’t really an issue. Just change the names, and make sure there’s nothing in the description that’s so specific a reader would guess what real person your character is based on.

It’s also always a good idea to include boiler plate on your copyright page that says ‘All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’

Q. How do I copyright my work?

A. Modern copyright law states that you own what you write. You don’t have to file any paperwork for that to happen. All you need to do is place a copyright notice on it.

Remember, though, that copyright protects your specific words, not ideas. There’s nothing to prevent anyone from writing a book about a wizard named Perry Hotter.

In my experience it is so much work to write something good that no one would bother to write a novel about someone else’s idea. If they’re going to invest that much effort, they’re going to do it with their own idea.

But if someone chooses to copy your work, whether or not they make changes, your only recourse would be to sue them, which can be very expensive, or to file a take down notice with a web provider if it is online. In the Internet era, people don’t pay enough attention to copyright.

One form of protection is DRM — digital rights management. This can be applied to some formats, such as Kindle books, to make them hard to copy. If you publish using Kindle Direct, I suggest selecting this option during the publishing process by checking the appropriate box.

Q. Should I pay for someone to edit my book?

A. Having someone proofread your manuscript is an excellent idea, because there is always one more typo!

Copy editing, which is careful editing at the sentence level, tends to cost a few dollars per page.

Will a professional editor improve your manuscript? Certainly. Will it pay back the money invested? Probably not.

If you get conventionally published, your advance will likely be $1K-$5K. If you self publish, you can make about $10 per book, but you’ll need to sell each one yourself. So that investment is unlikely to be repaid. But you’ll get a better book out of it.

Q. Should I enter a writing contest?

A. Writing contests can be fun. They might give you the incentive to finish something, or provide some satisfaction if others like your work. But contests are not an effective way to market a book, and many contests are run simply to make money. I would not enter any contest that charges a fee. And don’t expect much from the feedback some contests provide. The more feedback, the more likely the reader isn’t really qualified to provide it!

Q. Should I attend a writer’s conference?

A. They aren’t cheap, but they can be helpful. I’m skeptical of the opportunity to pay to meet agents, but they can help you network and learn about marketing. Will they pay back the investment of time and money? It’s hard to say.

Q. Should I pay an agent or service to represent me?

A. No. real agents make a percentage off their sales. Never pay for representation; you’ll receive nothing in return.

Q. Should I self-publish?

A. The world of publishing has changed dramatically in the past ten years. There used to be a stigma against self-publishing, but now it is often the best approach.

Because Amazon is the dominant bookseller, it is particularly attractive to use them to publish both paperbacks and ebooks. Amazon is not a vanity press because they do not charge to publish your work. Specifically, their createspace division and Kindle direct division publish paperbacks and ebooks, respectively. Amazon will sell your books, fulfill the orders and pay you a much larger royalty than conventional publishers.

The thing they don’t do is market your work, beyond the website listing. However that is also true of traditional publishers, who no longer market the work of most new authors.

Another advantage of self-publishing is that your book remains in print forever, whereas most traditionally published books have a shelf lifespan of only a few months before they are returned to the publisher or cleared out as remainders.

So most authors, if willing to do even a small amount of marketing, can make more money from Amazon than conventional publishing, especially over the long haul.


 

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