Category Archives: Technique

The Week in Writing and Publishing 18th March 2012

These are the articles on the Internet that caught my eye this week:

FICTION WRITING: How to Develop Your Style

How To Write a Novel Based on a True Story

The Business Rusch: Scarcity and Abundance

Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing

After 244 Years, Encyclopaedia Britannica Stops the Presses

Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?

How Does a Publishing Auction Work?

Exclusive: How Much Do Kindle Singles Authors Make?

Spurred By Success, Publishers Look For The Next ‘Hunger Games’


The Week in Writing and Publishing 4th March 2012

A roundup from the last week of interesting content from the web:

A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling

Like a Kickstarter for photojournalism, helps finance visual storytelling

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?

Wirecast Pro for Mac 4.1.3: A close look at a powerful webcasting tool

Author Blogging 101: 11 Sources of Organic Traffic

Could Your Self-Published Book Pass THIS Test?

Penguin E-Books Sales Revenue Doubles, Driving Company Profits

E-books, The Giant Disruption

The rebirth of reading

I Almost Bought a Book Today: Why I’m Friends With Amazon

Analyst: Publishers Seeing Steady Print Declines Should Ready for Steep Drop

The top 10 ways to create digital magazines

The Writer’s Job

Writing on the Ether

A Beginner’s Guide to Combining Multiple Fonts

Penguin’s new app wants to build a community of teen vampire fans – and change publishing

Publishing Perspectives : PP Appreciation: Ex-Marvel Man, Pariah, Blogger Jim Shooter


The Week In Writing and Publishing 26th February 2012

Here’s the content on the web that caught my attention in the last week:

Wired article on using GitHub in writing

Denver Post’s Tim Tebow Book Points to a New Business Model for News

Four Tips to Reading Like a Writer!

Why Giving Away Thousands Of Free Books Is A Good Thing

Looking good on web video interviews and such

Romance Novels

The fundamentals of narrative design in a short video

Australian firm doing well with print on demand photography books

‘I was going to be a copy editor!’

Ten Myths About Editors – Theresa Stevens

Amazon Will Destroy You




The First Five Pages – Book Review

The First Five Pages:
A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
By Noah Lukeman
A Fireside Book, Published by Simon & Schuster, 2000
ISBN 978-0-684-85743-5
ISBN 0-684-85743-X

Noah Lukeman is a New York literary agent. He has represented many best selling and award winning authors and has been in a position to read a massive number of manuscripts; ones that have eventually been published and many more that have not.

This book is about how to maximize your chances of being published. It dispels many myths about what it takes to be published. This is highly encouraging, as Lukeman makes the strong point that it is not who you know, family connections, etc. that determine your success, despite what many think. Rather it is an issue of making enough mistakes to get you rejected.

Some of the mistakes authors make cause instant rejection. Others slowly buildup to a feeling by the reader to reject. So many of these mistakes come down to poor craft. This book goes step by step through the mistakes that authors made, in a clearly written way. The book is broken up into the following sections and chapters:
1. Preliminary Problems
• Presentation
• Adjectives and Adverbs
• Sound
• Comparison
• Style
2. Dialogue
• Between the Lines
• Commonplace
• Informative
• Melodramatic
• Hard to Follow
3. The Bigger Picture
• Showing Versus Telling
• Viewpoint and Narration
• Characterization
• Hooks
• Subtlety
• Tone
• Focus
• Setting
• Pacing and Progression

Within each chapter, Lukeman lists the mistakes within that category and then goes on to offer solutions or fixes. He illustrates each with clear examples, showing failures and solutions in use.

This book is brilliant. It is applicable to both fiction and non-fiction writers, even though significant parts of the book are particularly about fiction. Some of the mistakes are obvious but others are not. In all cases Lukeman makes it clear and interesting. I found the book a rapid read and one that I will re-read many times over to make sure that the lessons sink in.

This book belongs on the shelf of every book writer who is aspiring to be published and should be consulted frequently. This is solid, hard earned wisdom that is surprisingly easy to learn from and work with. End of chapter exercises encourage you to work with your own text.

A brilliant book that will definitely make your writing better. Highly recommended.

The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile on Amazon US
The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile on Amazon UK

Setting Targets

Writing a book is a very substantial task. If you are going to get it done you will need discipline and defined targets.

There are two key quantifiable targets when it comes to book writing: word count and time.

Word count is perhaps the easiest to work out. If you have a target size for your book in mind (perhaps easier for non-fiction than fiction), pick an existing book of roughly the size and layout that you have in mind. Count the number of pages (don’t include the blank pages for layout purposes). Take a typical page and count how many words are on the page. Multiply this by the number of pages and you have a very rough word count. A relatively small paperback novel will have around 55,000 words (James Herbert’s The Rats, his first novel, is this size). A more substantial novel may be 90,000 words and huge ones even larger. Non-fiction books typically have a lower word count for the same number of pages because most will include illustrations and photographs. Some books will easily fill over half the space with photographs. Books for young children will have even fewer words.

This word count can be a very useful tool as you write. All word processor programs will display a word count. Microsoft Word can be set to display this in the status area below the active text window. It can serve as a progress indicator and help you meet your writing targets. In the case of non-fiction writing it can help you greatly in balancing parts of the book, as you may, for example, desire roughly equivalent sizes for various parts, sections or chapters of the book. If you select a block of text, Word will display the word count of just that section.

Time is a much trickier prospect but is essential to manage unless you want to be one of those authors with an unfinished manuscript sitting in a drawer or on your hard drive. In his book ‘On Writing’, Stephen King says that he aims to finish a first draft of a book in three months. He believes that over any longer time it is hard to keep the momentum going and take a character-driven approach to writing his fiction. This seems completely reasonable to me for fiction and his approach of not doing editing as he goes but just getting the first draft down as it comes. Three months is 90 days, so if you are aiming for a roughly 90,000-word novel you will need to get down 1,000 words a day, every day. Now as in everything else in life, it is critical to know yourself, to be realistic about your time availability and commitments. It may be that for you 500 words a day and a six-month target is more appropriate. Only you can tell. I find that putting in the hard work is much easier when an end is in sight and the duration is not too long. Three months is probably good psychology, as it represents one season and it seems that much of the way people really work is seasonal. Remember that the way you like to work will affect your output. When writing non-fiction I tend to like to edit and revise as I go, so it may take me longer to get to the target word count but the text is cleaner (I hope).

Writing is no easy task and just how hard it is becomes obvious when you work out a word count and target time scale. Of course for articles rather than books the task is much easier, though still daunting for the beginning writer. Every writer falls into a pattern of work that function for them. You want one that plays to your strengths and works around your weaknesses. I’m still coming to grips with how I write fiction. My non-fiction process is nicely developed:

  1. Basic concept development
  2. Initial research
  3. Outline development of major headings
  4. Detailed research
  5. Filling out the sections, sometimes revisiting steps 3 and 4

Whether this remains my approach with fiction remains to be seen, with outline development of major plot points replacing item three. My intention is to try both this and character driven flow and see which one works for me.

One thing to remember with writing is that it is a mix of skill and creativity. Skill can be learned and benefits from practice. Creativity also benefits from exercise, so as many have said write a lot and it gets easier. It is very hard to write a book if you have trouble writing a letter.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Book Review

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King

Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, 2000

(Hardcover by Scribner, 2000)

ISBN-13 978-0-7434-5596-1

ISBN-10 0-7434-5596-7

Whatever you may think of Stephen King’s writing, there is no denying his huge presence over at least the US and really the English-speaking world’s writing. This book as an interesting as its author.

In On Writing, King sets out to do two things: provide a short autobiography that is particularly oriented to what has impacted his writing career and a very practical book on how to write fiction.

The first 90-odd pages is the autobiography. It is an extremely likeable, very open description of his life, the highs and lows and, through it all, how his writing was going. I am impressed by the openness and honesty of this part of the book. I found it fascinating, relating events in his life to the book he was writing at the time and the motivations and triggers. This is great stuff, as it helps you, to a greater degree than many other books, to get inside the head of a bestselling author and see that they are just as human as you, with the same tendency to stuff up, if not in the same ways.

The second part of the book, some 200 pages, is almost like sitting down with King and having a one-on-one writing workshop. He is quite blunt and to the point, and has little time for pretentious literary writing. Using many examples, King illustrates the common and not so common mistakes people make and how to learn from them and then avoid them. He talks about inspiration and ideas, how he turns them into a story and the ways he has found are effective to work. These may not be valid for everyone but they are well reasoned and make good sense. King is a believer in the character-driven approach to novel writing and makes a good case for it. He also makes a great case for a disciplined approach to writing through writing everyday and working to a set target word count per day. He even shows the first draft of a section of 1408 and the edits he made, as a great learning exercise in tightening up a piece of text.

This is not only a must read, it is also a must re-read fairly frequently. I know I will be. It is a great book and something that I believe any aspiring writer will learn so much from. Buy it and keep it close to where you write.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft on Amazon US

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft on Amazon UK

On Writing Horror – Book Review

On writing horror
Revised edition
A Handbook by The Horror Writers Association
Edited by Mort Castle
Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2007
ISBN 1-58297-420-9
ISBN 978-1-58297-420-0

If you are interested in writing horror, this 260-page book is essential. In fact there is a lot of good stuff in here for people interested in writing any type of fiction.

The eight part book covers the whole spread of writing horror, ranging from core concepts, like characterization and plot, to genre specific details of writing gore and action scenes. The editor has achieved this by sourcing contributions from leading and upcoming horror (and science fiction) authors, editors and publishers.

The book is divided into eight parts:

  • Horror, Literature and Horror Literature
  • An Education in Horror
  • Developing Horror Concepts
  • Horror Crafting
  • Horror, Art, Innovation, Excellence
  • Tradition and Modern Times
  • Genre and Subgenre
  • Horror Business: Selling, Marketing, Promoting

Each part contains from three to ten essays that focus on a particular aspect.

The advice is nothing short of brilliant. I can only hope that there are similar books that are as good for aspiring authors in other genres, and in fiction generally. The editor has done a great job of ensuring that each contribution is of an equally high standard. There are no weak contributions and not one that I did not get at least two great pieces of information from, which is a major achievement in a book of this type. Even essays on topics I was not overly interested in, such as the one on comics and graphic novels, contained useful information I could extrapolate to my interests. Perhaps this just reflects my low level of knowledge, but I really do believe it has hit the mark throughout.

Particular highlights are all of Part Four, which examines the craft of writing and Robert Weinberg’s ‘What You Are Meant to Know: Twenty-One Horror Classics’. This latter was an education in pointing me to particular books, some of which I had never heard of, which are considered classics or have something important to teach. I’ve added them to my existing list of ‘to read’ books and have been most impressed with the ones I have read so far. You even learn something from the individual styles of the essays: each having its own voice and approach.

This is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it.

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association on Amazon US
On Writing Horror: A Handbook by "The Horror Writers of America" on Amazon UK

Learning to Write and the Evils of Spellcheckers

Writing well is a combination of art and craft. Art because it is highly creative and expressive, craft because there are underlying processes and principles that you need to work with to be effective. These are true for both fiction and non-fiction, and even the technical writing that I have spent so long doing.

Just as in all other forms of creative endeavor, there are underlying rules and guidelines. With writing these address spelling, grammar, logic, structure and development. To be an effective writer you need to know these. Over the coming months I will be posting reviews of a series of books that range from essential to extremely useful.

No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. This is as true in writing as it is in everything else. I know I do. I make spelling mistakes, mess up grammar and write convoluted sentences that made sense to me when I wrote them. This is why the concept of a draft is so important. A draft is not a finished piece; it is a work in progress. Now there are two approaches to writing your first draft of anything from a book to a magazine article. The first involves writing the whole thing without revision as you go. You get it down as is, mistakes and all. The second involves making revisions and corrections as you go. I believe which approach suits you will depend on your personality, but also on the way you write. I take the second approach of constant revision as I go. I write at the computer and so it is all there, in front of me as I write. I find it hard to resist re-reading what I have already written and have to fix mistakes as I see them. If you write by dictating into a tape or digital voice recorder, as many do and I am about to start trying, you may not have this option. Also many writers find the editing process too disruptive to the flow of consciousness as they write. Both approaches are valid: find what suits you.

Another area of difference of approach between people is the degree of planning they do before they start writing. Again, there is no right or wrong, just whatever works for you. Some people like to just sit and start writing, probably after a lot of thinking first. Others like to plan and structure things out first, and then start writing with a clear goal and structure already in place. Both can work well. I write both ways. Perhaps that means I am schizophrenic, but I think rather it reflects the different types of writing I do. For example, this piece is being written with no pre-planning, just my stream of consciousness as I write. On the other hand, my current book projects were heavily planned before I started writing and I am constantly reviewing and comparing what is going in with the preplanned structures and approach. For me I believe which approach I like depends on the length of the piece. Short pieces, up to perhaps 2,000 words, I tend to just write. Longer pieces I tend to think out first, structure and plan, and then write.

Good writing requires reflection and self-examination. Writing is a juggling act. On the one hand you need some ego to want to put your thoughts out there. On the other hand too much ego gets in the way of good writing. This is also true of teaching, and I tend to consider writing and teaching as just two different aspects of the same thing (except for fiction). You address this by always being a watcher of yourself, examining your motives, your thinking and how you are expressing yourself. Another thing that is common to both writing and teaching is the need to be entertaining and engaging. If your writing is so convoluted and complex that no one gets it, then you have failed. This is especially a failure of much academic and so-called literature. It is so self-referential and up itself that no sensible person would read it. It is possible to make all writing interesting, entertaining and engaging. You just need to work at it.

Let’s return to the issue of mistakes. Many mistakes in your writing you can catch yourself. Go back and re-read what you have written carefully. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is the language suitable for the intended audience? Check spelling and don’t just rely on the spell checker, as it will not pick the mistake of using loose and lose, for example, as they are both correct spellings, for example. If at all possible get an experienced reader to look over your writing. Ask them to not only spot spelling and grammar mistakes, but to also comment on flow and clarity. When I edited print magazines I always had a sub-editor who would look over my edits. I miss that since moving out on my own and will certainly hire one again as soon as the cash flow allows. But even getting your spouse or a friend to read through something will help. They may not pickup all the subtle grammar issues but they are perhaps more likely to reflect your intended audience and will certainly spot the obvious mistakes. My wife keeps nagging me to do this more, but in the flow of writing on the web I often forget to do this, and then my readers point out the issues. Well, if I were perfect I wouldn’t be on the earth plane.

For many of us formal writing study is in our distant school past. Thankfully it is not hard to compensate for this with a bit of reading. I have set myself the task of developing my fiction writing skills. So I have disciplined myself to read one book of good fiction and then to follow this with a book about writing before I can read the next piece of fiction. I intersperse this with non-fiction reading, both magazines and books (mainly on photography and related areas). My favorite magazines are New Scientist, an excellent UK science weekly, and then a wide scattering of magazines in the architecture, art, religion, spirituality, photography and business areas. I love variety. One interesting think I have discovered is that what I am reading about writing good fiction is also helping me to write better non-fiction. After all, writing is writing.

For a writer, reading is a great source of education. So even as I read for entertainment or information, I also try to analyze the writing. Is it appropriate? How has the writer decided on this approach? What can I learn from their approach? I take notes, I think and reflect.

As I work on my writing I am finding that I am enjoying it more and more.

Getting Things Done – Book Review

Getting Things Done

The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

By David Allen

Penguin, 2001

ISBN 0-670-89924-0 (hardback)

ISBN 0 14 20.0028 0 (paperback)

We are all overwhelmed by all the things that we have to do. There have been many self-help, get organized and get your life in control books and even more calendars, planners, electronic organizers, smart phones and software that aim to help in some way. Despite so many of these we still forget to do key things, get overwhelmed and thus fail to move forward on projects that we would really love to.

David Allen has spent the last 20 years thinking about and helping people organize their businesses and their lives. This book is a distillation of what he knows.

Allen’s method comes from the principle that, in fact, you cannot manage time but you can manage your actions and that if you want freedom to be really creative you have to get all the ‘stuff’ out of your head that you worry about. He believes that it is the stuff floating around in our heads, which we have not taken action on, that causes stress and paralysis.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity on Amazon US

Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity on Amazon UK

How To Write A Damn Good Novel – Book Review

How to Write a Damn Good Novel and

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II

By James N. Frey

St. Martin’s Press, 1987 and 1994

These two books are absolutely brilliant. As a non-fiction author I am still learning about fiction writing and these two books alone have vastly improved my understanding of the writing process and made not only my fiction writing (who doesn’t have a novel tucked away that they work on in their spare time?) but has also improved my non-fiction writing.

Across the two books Frey covers all the common and less common traps, the deceptions of ego, the misunderstandings and the widely taught but wrong ideas about writing fiction. He focuses on effective fiction, not pretentious, not academic but fiction that people will actually want to pick up, get drawn into and want to finish.

Frey covers everything from understanding the need for a well defined premise to characterization, dialog and so much more.

These two books are a must read for every fiction writer. Not only that but you should re-read them regularly to ensure that you do not slip back into bad habits.

Written with humor and from the position of having made many of the mistakes himself and having since seen them in his many students, it is a very enjoyable read that is actually hard to put down when interrupted by life. His discussion of the types of writing support groups and the only type that are worth joining is to the point, accurate and effective, plus I must say had me laughing my head off at recognition of where I had been.

Simply brilliant, read them or your own writing will be all the poorer.