Found Clunkers, Part 1

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile
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I often find some really bad sentences in books I read. I wanted to start a series in which we look at why they are bad and how to fix them.

Unfortunately, I’m a bit stuck on how to proceed. I really want this blog to lift up excellent books and art. I don’t want to tear down people who are probably still learning and getting better. In a year, they might be embarrassed by these sentences themselves and wish their name wasn’t attached to it in some blog post.

I’m sure you can find horrible sentences in each of my books as well.

Hence the issue: use a single sentence without attribution for educational purposes (technically a copyright violation) or attach the name and book to it.

For now, I’m erring on the side of writer anonymity. Here’s the sentence:

That sweet, crooning voice, singing a song I’d been in the room for when he wrote.

We have here a classic example of why I say new writers shouldn’t write in first person. I’m sure this gem popped out in the middle of a writing session, when the author was fully into the “character’s voice.” As it came out, she probably thought: yeah, that’s exactly how he would talk.

It’s important to remember that the way people talk does not make good prose. First, full sentences should be used. The above is a sentence fragment. I wish I could show you more context, but the sentences around this are also fragments.

I’m all for using a sentence fragment judiciously for voice, but I’d never do it more than once per chapter. Too many sentence fragments creates jarring, obnoxious prose. It leads to more confusion than it’s worth.

I once heard it described this way: strong prose leads to a strong voice; weak prose leads to a weak voice. In other words, “breaking the rules,” like forming a sentence fragment, is a weak and cheap way to form narrative voice.

Word order pops out next. There’s something funny about: “I’d been in the room for when he wrote.” Unless I grew up with a strange dialect, I’m pretty sure most native English speakers will hear “when he wrote” and feel it is missing a direct object.

So, it should probably read “when he wrote it.” The sentence also has an implied pause after “for.” Again, I’m not of the old school of thought where you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. But in this case, it creates confusion to have “for when” juxtaposed like that.

All I’m trying to say is that the word order is sloppy, and it could be cleaned up easily by writing something like: “I’d been in the room when he wrote it.”

Of course, this brings us back to the first point. The author put herself into a bind when using a sentence fragment, because she didn’t clearly identify the correct subject of the sentence.

She started with “That sweet, crooning voice,” implying this as the subject, but the second clause wants to use “I” as the subject.

I know people don’t believe me when I say to use third-person and full sentences. I guarantee this mess of a sentence happened because using first person caused her to confuse the narrative voice with the thoughts of the main character (leading to a bunch of sentence fragments).

I’ll reiterate this from previous posts. The prose you use when you write in first person is not some stream-of-consciousness coming from the main character (unless you’ve chosen this on purpose for a piece of experimental writing). In modern commercial writing, thoughts of the main character are usually offset and italicized to be clear about the distinction.

This is what makes first person so difficult.

Anyway, I’ll end my rant about point of view. You can obviously do it if the writing calls for it. You must be extra vigilant, or else sentences like this will pop out and sound good in your head.

Here’s my rewrite. I think the key is to realize there are two separate ideas that should be separated: hearing the voice, and recalling the writing.

His sweet, crooning voice lilted through the speakers. I’d been in the room when he wrote the song that changed his life.

I changed “I’d been” to “I was,” because simple past tense causes no confusion and cleans things up even more.

As always, context will matter. Maybe this doesn’t flow with the sentences around it, and some other alterations will be necessary.

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Are the Self-Publishing Gurus Out of Touch?

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Let me start by saying that I appreciate all the free content people in the self-publishing world put out. It’s quite generous and high quality. There must be ten or more hours of podcasts each week that come to my phone, not to mention blog posts and youtube and e-mails. That’s just me, meaning it’s only a small fraction of what’s actually produced.

If you wanted to be a student of this stuff, you’d have more class time than a full-time college student with no breaks for summer or winter. And there’s so much to learn that it could probably fill an entire major for a college student.

So, thank you to all those content providers.

That being said, I have two theories I’d like to present.

I’m going to call these people “gurus.” You either know who they are or don’t, but I don’t want to name names (google “podcasts for writers” or something if you really don’t know).

Every person I have in mind left their job at some point to be a full-time self-published writer. I think each of them makes at least six figures. This happened years ago for each of them.

Also, each of them has a “thing” they attribute it to: cover design that perfectly fits the genre, great copywriting on the product description, Amazon keywords and categories, Amazon marketing, Facebook marketing, writing to market, price surging, box sets, e-mail auto-responders, mailing list magnets, promotion services, etc.

Note, I’m not saying they push a well-rounded approach to improving each of the above; I’m saying their entire shtick is that once you get that one thing right, you will take off and have huge success.

This seems weird and crazy, so why would they, at least nominally, believe this? The cynical theory would be that they wanted to corner a niche in the market, so they figured this one thing out and pushed it hard as the expert.

I don’t believe this. I think there’s a much more obvious explanation. Like almost all successful authors, they started to gain traction, little by little. They were experimenting with all the above techniques to see if anything could get them a little edge.

As Gladwell explains in The Tipping Point, they just hit a critical mass of followers and readers at some point. This caused them to shoot from obscurity into prominence.

Human brains being what they are, these writers then attributed their success to the most recent major change they made rather than a natural progression to a tipping point. This is how we get people who are convinced you only need to get that one thing right to get success.

And this is fine as long as you don’t take that claim seriously when listening to them. The advice they give on that one thing is going to be pretty solid and useful. It will help keep you crawling upward toward your own tipping point.

I do think some people get frustrated when they work really hard at that one thing, and they only see marginal gains despite doing everything right.

Here’s my second theory based on the first theory. The gurus out there with the biggest platform have been wildly successful for years, and this actually makes them a bit out of touch with how things really are.

My theory is that they could launch a book to number one in their category by doing none of the advice they give: no ads, no pre-release, no notification of the mailing list, a sloppy and vague product description, a less-than-stellar cover, etc.

They have so many followers that news would spread of their release, and it would make thousands of dollars in the first month and be an Amazon bestseller.

If I’m correct about this, that means they actually have no idea if the advice they’re giving is correct. Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying their advice is incorrect (quite the opposite)—but it’s just a fact of their prominence that they can’t know how much of an effect their advice has anymore.

I’m not sure if there’s much of a point to this post. I guess it’s that you shouldn’t put too much stock in any one thing you hear about self-publishing. Success is going to be a slow growth attributed to hundreds of things.

Writing a better product description might get you five more sales. Improving the cover: five more. An experiment with AMS ads: five more. Suddenly, these have added up to enough that you snatch a true fan that leaves a glowing review.

This review converts to twenty more sales, and the new fan starts you one person further along on the next book.

So it’s all interconnected and not traceable to any one thing. After a bunch of books of doing this, you find yourself starting with a hundred fans buying it on launch day getting you to bestseller status and days of free advertising in your genre. These “organic” sales translate to new fans, etc.

That’s the tipping point. It can look like a sudden spike in success, but it’s not the most recent marketing trick you tried. It’s dozens of things synergizing to create the effect.

So, most of all, take everything the gurus say with a grain of salt and don’t be afraid to experiment with your own ideas. What worked for these gurus several years ago may not be working in today’s market or your genre. Or they might. You’ll have to be the judge of that.

Year of Mysteries, Part 8: The Last Place

Woops. I just realized the title of this series changed from “Year of Mystery Novels” to “Year of Mysteries” at Part 5. Sorry. I try to keep this consistent for searching purposes.

The main point of this series was to examine the mystery novel genre. There are people that read a few a week. There’s something about the genre that keeps people coming back.

I feel like my book choices to this point have basically avoided the “typical mystery.” Pretty much every book in this series is considered a “classic” or has been award winning. In other words, there’s nothing typical about them. Hundreds of new mystery novels come out every month, satisfying readers of the genre without the fancy prose of award-winners.

I went to my local used book store and went to the mystery section. I wanted to pick something at random to get a better feel for what a generic, contemporary mystery novel felt like.

This was a bit hard. The first few I picked up were classified as “suspense thrillers.” I wasn’t opposed to this, but I also couldn’t tell if there was an actual mystery from the back cover. I finally grabbed The Last Place by Laura Lippman.

It was by a bestselling and award-winning author, but this particular novel hadn’t won awards. This made it the perfect candidate.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the seventh book in the Tess Monaghan series, even though nowhere on or in the book told me this.

I read it anyway.

The novel definitely references some stuff from previous books, but it is perfectly readable as a standalone. I assume this is one of those slow character growth things that happens over multiple books.

Tess is the main character, and she is a private investigator. She has anger management issues and basically messes up a child molester. So she gets assigned a community service project by the courts and has to investigate a police department. She checks up on five unrelated murders to make sure they followed procedure, etc.

As it goes on, she finds out that all five have major issues and are unresolved and are possibly related.

The first thing I noticed was the solid prose style. I often read literary stuff, which tends to be fancy. I also read fantasy, which tends to be wordy. This book had that pristine, clean style that I tend to call “bestseller” style.

I can’t go into all the details here, but it just means few adverbs, active voice, just enough description, pared down sentences, etc. It really makes the book come alive fast in your mind without any excess thinking or confusing sentences.

This brings up the next point. This was a page-turner through and through. I also can’t remember the last time I read something like that. I’d say it’s almost too polished. If you’ve studied plotting and structure, you can see how each scene is crafted to raise the stakes and complicate the plot just enough to push you along.

One thing I think this book did better than any of the other mysteries was to provide a lot of red herrings. At one point, the investigators discuss the possibility that the male killer could actually be a female. They go into depth on how this could be pulled off, despite being married, by referencing Boys Don’t Cry.

I found myself thinking: what? No way! Wait, but maybe. 

It was never meant to be taken all that seriously, but little things like this added up to keeping me unsettled. Whenever I thought maybe I was getting a handle on things, something would come up to remind me that I just didn’t have enough information yet.

I was thinking about characterization, since I recently wrote a post on it. One character has a quirky “thing” they do. This is often one of those cheap techniques that give readers a false sense of depth.

He’s really into movie quotes and says them all the time. Each time it happens, you think, oh yeah, that’s the guy that does the quote thing. This made the character more into a caricature than a fully fleshed out character.

Overall, this was a fast and enjoyable read. I definitely understand why people tear through these at the rate of a couple a week.

If you’re following along, I really only have one book left on my list: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I’ve been avoiding it, because I’ve heard it has a beastly beginning that’s almost impossible to suffer through. We’ll see…

 

The Character/Caricature Balance

Image result for caricature

One of the most important things we can do as writers is to acknowledge our weaknesses and then work on them. I think too often we get comfortable with “our thing” and then try to hide our weaknesses by going all in on our strength.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time over the past five years or so really studying and working on prose style and story structure. I write a book according to something like the Story Grid method. Then I see what works and what doesn’t for me, and then move on to another technique like John Truby‘s method. Iterating this process a dozen times has brought me a rich understanding of structure.

I think there’s no doubt that characterization is my weakest point. I’ve had a philosophy for a long time that characters should be “real.” This means my characters often act in contradictory or paradoxical ways. They have subtle and complicated reasons for doing things that only come out in subtext.

You might be thinking: wow, that sounds great! But then you actually read it and every character sounds the same and has no interesting characteristics. I tend to write an “everyman,” and they all sound boring and similar.

This is especially problematic in fantasy writing. There is a general trend in fantasy to create caricatures instead of characters. This means one feature is exaggerated to the point of becoming a one-dimensional defining feature. These flat characters can be boring and predictable.

For example, a book might have one character’s defining trait as loyalty, the bad guy as greed, the sidekick as humor, etc. I don’t have to tell you why this is a bad thing, but I will make an argument for how it can be good if done properly.

When writing caricatures, it is very clear how the character changes over the course of a novel. The one subplot has the cowardly character, and they have to learn to be braver. Their arc will culminate in a test of bravery, and yay, they succeed! It’s exhilarating and emotional to read these things.

Another reason caricatures can be good is that they create very clear differences in stories with many characters. It’s easy to keep track: that one’s the trickster, that one’s the nerdy one, etc.

Unfortunately, I see a bunch of positive reviews of books that take this too far with claims like “I loved the variety of characters.” Or worse, that the characterization is great. Caricatures can create an illusion of depth by keeping the motivations clear and consistent.

As I’ve started exaggerating certain traits of my characters toward the caricature breaking point, I’ve seen reviews get more and more positive. So people obviously like this.

I’m still struggling with this balance. It’s bad to have no defining traits, because then the character will be boring and spastic. It’s bad to be all caricature, even if you trick some of your audience. So it’s a balance, and one that’s far trickier than I initially thought.

So far, the best method I’ve come across is to have a fleshed out backstory that is the cause of a character flaw. The flaw gives the character a clear sense of growth as they learn to overcome the flaw.

Then, if you use the backstory to inform character actions, the character will have a consistent demeanor without being focused on a single trait. This will allow the character to still have some unpredictable behavior, and since the backstory isn’t explicitly spelled out, it allows you to keep some of the motivation as subtext.

This balance brings out some of the positives of the caricature while maintaining the depth and richness of a true character.

Of course, the main thing I’ve learned over the years is that everyone seems to have a different method for everything. What one person thinks is the only method could not work at all for another person. That’s why I’ll keep reading and exploring to find my own way.

 

New Site and Future Plans

We’re closing in on September, and since my brain still thinks of Sept-Sept as “the proper year” from all that time in academia, I got to thinking about my plans for this upcoming year.

I decided it no longer made sense to have my internet presence so spread out. I originally created “matthewwardbooks.com” as the professional site containing the information about my writing and career. That way I could spew an unprofessional mess of random thoughts at this blog without worrying about how that would look.

I’ve now migrated that site over to this blog (it redirects). I’ll probably keep experimenting with the look, themes, sidebar, menus, and those things for a few weeks. I’ve gone to a cleaner theme and removed the header image, since that seemed to do nothing but clutter things.

Nothing should change for regular blog readers, but I’m considering changing the name of the site in general. It’s a bit hard to do this without it changing the name of the blog in RSS aggregates and social media, etc, which could be confusing to longtime readers, but I’ll keep thinking about it.

So, why did I do this?

The main reason is that I’m basically killing off my name as a writer. I currently write under three names: my real name, a romance genre pseudonym, and a LitRPG/GameLit pseudonym.

The two pseudonyms were chosen to keep genres separate for advertising and “clean also boughts” (if you don’t know that phrase, don’t worry about it; it would take too long to explain here).

But they were also carefully chosen to be searchable and identifiable. One thing people don’t really think about when they start writing is if their name is “usable.” Well, it turns out my name is not usable at all. It’s about as bad as possible.

Matthew Ward writes the Fantastic Family Whipple series. Another Matthew Ward is a translator of French literature. Another is a dead child whose mother channels him and writes his stories from beyond the grave in his name. Another is a self-published fantasy writer (who isn’t me!!). Another writes cookbooks and diet books. And so on.

Yeah. Not good from a branding standpoint or Google or even just trying to figure out which other books are mine if you like them. Using my real name was an epic mistake.

My real name books are somewhat “arty” and not all that marketable. The books under my pseudonyms are in line with genre conventions and are doing reasonably well. So, it only makes sense from a professional standpoint to stop writing books under this name. Hence, paying for a separate professional webpage for a writer who is going to cease to exist doesn’t make sense, either.

I’ll bring up one more point as a word of caution for people considering self-publishing under their real name.

People know me from this blog, and this has led to some pretty questionable behavior from someone who wants to sabotage me for some reason. I assume they asked for help with something in the comments section, and I didn’t do their homework for them. So they retaliated out of anger by leaving me 1 star reviews.

If that was you, I would greatly appreciate it if you would delete that now that you’ve had time to cool down. It’s easy to forget that this is my livelihood now. I’m a real person. You think that leaving a fake 1 star review is just going to “troll” or “anger” me, but it actually hurts my business. It’s a very serious thing to do.

Anyway, because I have ten years of content on this blog plus people who know me in real life with various opinions on my life choices, things like this are bound to happen again in the future.

So I have to take that into account from a business standpoint. It’s just not worth the risk of spending 1.5 years working on a single work of art to have it get trashed by someone who hasn’t even read it merely because they don’t like that I left math (or whatever their reason was).

Undoubtedly, I’m going to have the itch to produce something strange and important that defies genre conventions within the next year or two. So I’ll have to figure out what to do about that, because I’ll definitely write it. That might mean using a new name that I advertise here, or I might keep it secret. Or maybe after a few years, I decide it’s not that bad to use my real name again.

I’m going to keep blogging here as usual. Nothing about that will change.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on the new setup. Likes? Dislikes?

Why It Works: You’ve Got Mail

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

When I came up with the idea to do a romance for this series, I was tempted to pick a modern romance novel, but thousands come out each year. Even looking at some “best of” lists, I couldn’t find anything I thought most people would have read. I was then tempted to do the classic Pride and Prejudice. But there’s already a lot of writing on that book. So unfortunately, I’m back to a movie.

There’s obviously a lot of pieces that make a romance work. Chemistry between the love interests keeps the story moving. There’s usual a conflict to keep them apart. And so on.

But really, there’s only one thing that has to be done properly in a romance: the proof of love. One character, traditionally the man (though this has obviously changed in the last few decades with m/m or f/f or role reversal setups, etc), must demonstrate convincingly how much they love the other character through a true sacrifice.

The more the character sacrifices to show this, the more emotional charge the scene will have. It’s why people cry when watching or reading romances. The main way romances fail is that all the other pieces are disconnected from the proof of love. The chemistry and characterization and conflict should all develop toward this ending payoff.

This is why writing a good romance is harder than most people think. If you just plug into the formula, it will feel formulaic, and the characters will feel like one-dimensional tropes fixated on the one defining feature that makes the end work.

If you somehow haven’t seen it, here’s a brief summary of You’ve Got Mail (obviously including the ending). Kathleen owns a small bookshop focused on customers and reading to children and things like that. Joe owns a mega bookstore, portrayed as a profit-focused heartless entity. The mega bookstore is going to put the small one out of business.

The movie is a sequence of bad interactions between these characters in real life. This puts the movie in the romance subgenre of “enemies to lovers.” The chemistry comes from the friction and conflict. The two characters accidentally hit it off online under anonymous screen names.

From the premise alone, we already know how the movie must end. Kathleen will have to demonstrate a proof of love by overcoming the real life prejudice she has against Joe for the person he is inside that she’s come to love through the online correspondence. I know, it’s very Pride and Prejudice, and the movie even makes this Kathleen’s favorite book to spell out the connection.

So why does the movie work? Every scene contributes something to the proof of love payoff. The real life conflict ratchets up each time they meet. Writers who don’t keep their eye on the ending can accidentally let the characters start to fall in love outside of the email exchanges. This would totally spoil the ending.

Some might say this is the difference between a “love story” and a “romance.” A great romance doesn’t let up on whatever has to be sacrificed until the proof of love. Many lesser romances would just have the characters run into each others arms as if nothing was going on under the surface for the ending.

Meg Ryan understands the character, and she actually cries in the final scene. There’s a ton going on internally that she has to show for the proof of love. This is the man she hates, but she also loves him. She has to overcome that, and just running into each other’s arms would trivialize the built up tension of the movie. For the briefest moment, we, as the audience, should believe there’s a chance she’ll just slap him for lying and walk away.

Once you come to understand this technique, it can be quite fun to read well-done romances. They are almost like little puzzles. You can look for all the ways the writer drops hints about the proof of love scene. It’s also an effective technique to use, even if the romance subplot of your fantasy novel is minimal.

Why It Works: Primer

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Time travel sucks as a genre. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the whole genre.

Everyone knows about the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he conceives with your grandmother, there would be no you to go back in time and kill him.

But many people misinterpret the paradox as being about specific inconsistencies you can trace, when in fact it’s more of a chaos theory issue: the tiniest change of the past could radically change the “present” in unforeseeable ways.

This could happen if the person goes to the past and doesn’t even physically interact with anyone. Merely being seen by a person could alter their day, which leads to change after change after change…

Pretty much every book or movie I’ve seen with time travel has been terrible. It either ignores this problem, has the problem but tries to explain it in an unsatisfactory way, or it succeeds in explaining it but destroys the story in the process.

I honestly believe no one should ever write a time travel story, because it’s going to be a disaster no matter how hard you try. It’s not worth the effort. If I ran an SF magazine, my first rule of submissions would be: no time travel stories (rule 2 would be: no first-contact stories).

But then we wouldn’t have Primer, which actually kind of works. Let’s look at why.

The first thing is that when the main characters go back in time, it’s accidental. This is very important in not creating a causal loop. If your character has to go back in time to change something to save the world, then when they succeed, there will be no reason for them to go back. Hence, the paradoxical loop. Making the initial travel accidental is an interesting way to solve that problem.

The second thing is the physicality. There’s something strange about old-school time travel (think The Time Machine), where a person and/or machine materializes out of nowhere in the past. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you think about it a lot. If the machine wasn’t there in the past, what does it mean that it suddenly is? This is a much deeper philosophical issue than people give it credit for.

Primer brilliantly fixes this problem by making the machine a box that you have to turn on at the time you want to travel back to. So if you turn on the box right now, you can’t use it to travel back before that time. You get in the box at the future time and travel back without running into the physicality problem. You are physically in the box the whole time you’re traveling back.

Primer also solves the problem of interacting with the world by isolating themselves so that they only interact with the world once. This means they aren’t changing the past. They’re living it out for the first time the time they travel back.

But here’s the most important reason Primer succeeds. It is way too confusing to ever know if they’ve run into a paradox. It succeeds because there’s always more to figure out on subsequent viewings.

This sounds like cheating: make your story so confusing that no one knows if there’s a problem. It sounds like bad writing.

But let’s put it in comparison to every other time travel story where it’s immediately obvious that it all falls apart for philosophical and paradoxical reasons. I’d rather be left with the fun journey of trying to piece it together than a pile of unsatisfying nonsense.

If you’ve read a book that handles time travel well, I’d like to hear about it. Despite being a pet peeve of mine, I still masochistically seek them out in hopes of being proved wrong someday.