Advice from J K Rowling

When J K Rowling spotted a Twitter comment from @beauty_jackson that read:

“HEY! YOU! You’re working on something and you’re thinking ‘Nobody’s gonna watch, read, listen’. Finish it anyway.”

she responded with a memorable series of tweets:


That text in full:

There were so many times in the early 90s when I needed somebody to say this to me.

Even if it isn’t the piece of work that finds an audience, it will teach you things you could have learned no other way. (And by the way, just because it didn’t find an audience, that doesn’t mean it’s bad work.)

The discipline involved in finishing a piece of creative work is something on which you can truly pride yourself. You’ll have turned yourself from somebody who’s ‘thinking of’, who ‘might’, who’s ‘trying’, to someone who DID. And once you’ve done it … you’ll know you can do it again. That is an extraordinarily empowering piece of knowledge. So do not ever quit out of fear of rejection.

Maybe your third, fourth, fiftieth song/novel/painting will be the one that ‘makes it’, that wins the plaudits, but you’d never have got there without finishing the others (all of which will now be of more interest to your audience).

— J K Rowling, April 2017

 

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Check your popularity with n-grams

Y’all know about n-grams, right? Wikipedia nails ’em:

… an n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sequence of text or speech. The items can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text or speech corpus.

So there you go.

Hmm, right …

My introduction to n-grams came in the form of a question: which is used more, leaped or leapt (as in the past-participle of leap)? And the answer came back very quickly: both, depending on your market.

Google’s Ngram Viewer is the perfect tool for this sort of question. Simply input the two words separated by a comma, choose the years to search and corpus (the group of texts) you want to examine, and hit the Search Lots of Books button. Here’s my result for US English from 1800–2000:

And British English for the same period:

So two winners, depending on your market.

Often there’s only one clear winner. When it was first published in 2011, a couple friends thought the title of my book Too Many Zeros was misspelt. Surely it should be Too Many Zeroes? Not according to Ngram Viewer, for American …

… or for British English …

Of course, the answer you get will depend on the question you ask. The old GIGO principle — Garbage In, Garbage Out — applies. For example, if I add ones to my list of search terms, the book was hopelessly misnamed:

Not that I’d ever be fooled by that …

 

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Lee Child on writing and research

Lee Child readingA while back I asked Lee Child a question. Not in person, but via a Goodreads author promotion, and he was gracious enough to give a detailed reply.

I suspect it’s something many writers struggle with, and I revisited his answer because it’s something I bumped up against last week, writing the follow-up to my novel Private Viewing. Like its predecessor, the new novel is set in London, and although I know bits of London pretty well — having lived there on an off for about four years — there’s lots of bits I don’t know.

The internet is a fantastic tool for writers, but it’s also a fantastic trap. You can lose yourself for hours doing “research” — and I did just that. Till I remembered Lee Child’s answer and “researched” that instead. After a quick re-read, I stepped away from my browser and got back to my text …

 

I’m interested in your writing process. You’ve said elsewhere that the final book is pretty much your first draft; that you sit down, start writing and see where the story leads — both you and Reacher. But what about research? A lot of your books contain detailed descriptions of places, weapons, etc. Do you incorporate that as you go? Or do you add these details in later, once you’ve got the story sorted out?

 

Lee Child:

You could say a writer’s whole life is research. Everyone I meet, everything I read or see or experience is packed away for future use. Whether to do extensive research to ensure all your facts line up is an interesting question. When writing fiction, I don’t think accuracy matters as much as whether people perceive accuracy. If I wrote a novel set in New York City, I could make it extremely accurate, but my guess is the more accurate I made it, the more people might find it inaccurate. What matters is not what NYC is really like, but what people generally think it’s like. Readers will sometimes mail me to correct mistakes they’ve found in my books and sometimes they’re right, but surprisingly it’s usually the things I research most carefully that they say I got wrong. All in all, if you’re convincing rather than accurate, you’ll probably please more readers.

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Bad writing for beginners

Toby Litt on bad writing:

Bad writing is mainly boring writing. It can be boring because it is too confused or too logical, or boring because it is hysterical or lethargic, or boring because nothing really happens. If I give you a 400 page manuscript of an unpublished novel – something that I consider to be badly written – you may read it to the end, but you will suffer as you do.

 

Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it may be something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story, they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.

It’s worth reading that last — well written — sentence again …

Bad Writing Quote

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Five quotes on writing from Ian Rankin

IanRankin

  • I still think most writers are just kids who refuse to grow up. We’re still playing imaginary games, with our imaginary friends.
  • I don’t have many friends. It’s not because I’m a misanthrope. It’s because I’m reserved. I’m self-contained. I get all my adventures in my head when I’m writing my books.
  • I used to think that whenever I heard that someone had taken ten years to write a novel, I’d think it must be a big, serious book. Now I think, ‘No — it took you one year to write, and nine years to sit around eating Kit Kats.’
  • I am, of course, a frustrated rock star – I’d much rather be a rock star than a writer. Or own a record shop. Still, it’s not a bad life, is it? You just sit at a computer and make stuff up.
  • My first novel was turned down by half a dozen publishers. And even after having published five or six books, I wasn’t making enough money to live on, and was beginning to think I’d have to give up the dream of being a full-time writer.

Ian Rankin, author of 20 Inspector Rebus novels and around 20 others.

Photo by Tim Duncan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3588034

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Seven things writers should remember

konrathA gentle reminder from Joe Konrath

This post goes out to no one in particular for no particular reason. Maybe it will motivate some. Maybe it will make others think a little bit. Maybe it will irritate you. But it’s good, tested advice, and worth repeating.
 
1. Nobody owes you a living. I’m old school, and I busted my ass to get where I am. But I don’t feel any sense of entitlement. Yeah, I worked hard. Maybe I’ve got talent. But I don’t deserve readers, and neither do you.
 
2. Success is mostly due to luck. You can do everything right, and still not be satisfied with the state of your career. That’s life. No one ever said this would be fair, fun, or easy.
 
3. Stop whining. The internet is forever. No one likes a person who constantly complains. Even if you feel that bemoaning (insert whatever here) is justified, it will always be linked to you if someone Googles your name.
 
4. Don’t Google your name. What people think of you is their business, not yours. Remember, one of life’s greatest journeys is overcoming insecurity and learning to truly not give a shit.
 
5. Never respond to criticism. It will make things worse. And if you apologize, it will get even more worser. Keep out of any discussion about you and your work. You may think you know better, but you don’t.
 
6. Remember your Serenity Prayer. Fix what you can change, accept what you can’t fix, and learn to know the difference between the two. If it is beyond your control, drink a beer, do yoga, go for a run, or bitch to a close friend where it can’t be seen online. And if you can’t stop dwelling on your bad fortune;
 
7. Quit. The world will keep turning without your work. If writing and publishing is so traumatic, go use your time doing something else you can derive some pleasure from. Life is too short.

Read Joe’s original post.

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Secret writer’s tools – The G&O Style Guide

Pacman or Pac-Man? Phony or phoney? Post-modern or postmodern?

At some point in your writing you’re going to need a style guide. Many publishers use the definitive Chicago Manual of Style, but it’s weighty — and expensive! Online tools are quicker — and cheaper — and the best general style guide I’ve come across is the one published by the UK’s Guardian and Observer newspapers. Entries are often short and to the point:

GuardianStyle-zero  and sometimes amusing:

GuardianStyle-poo

The front page  of the guide is a little confusing if you want to look something up quickly. Better to bookmark the A page and go from there.

GOstyleGuide

Here you’ll find:

  • A style-related quote. (There’s a different one on each page, indexed to the letter concerned, from Aristotle to Zeno by way of Vampire Weekend and Yoda.)
  • A plug for the Guardian’s style guide on Twitter, worth following, if only for gems like this:
.

gp112

.

 

  • A clickable A-Z index (much more useful than their homepage).
  • An illustration of one of the phrases therein.
  • And the meat and potatoes, the entries themselves.

 

The guide is slightly English-centric. You’ll find references to the 11-plus and freshers’ week, but it’s well maintained and bang up to date.

GuardianStyle-ebook

.

It’s also a great “grazing” resource. Take these two entries, for example:

GuardianStyle-meatloaf

 

Or this—proof that even tired cliches can still be made to work:

GuardianStyle-elephant

 

(PS: It’s Pac-Man, phoney and postmodern.)

 

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Social media snake oil

Chris Syme of CKSyme Media Group has some advice for authors:

The book marketing sector, more than any I have ever worked in, is full of bad marketing advice.

In a guest post on Writer Beware, Chris takes on a few of the more popular scams.

snakeOil

Hashtags

Research shows that tweets containing one or more hashtags are 55% more likely to be retweeted than tweets that don’t. So the more hashtags, the better. Right?

Wrong!

Other research documents what you might call “hashtag fatigue”. When you use more than two hashtags, your engagement actually drops by an average of 17 percent.

Not a day goes by that I don’t see this scam retweeted by several authors, maybe because they promised to help promote the service for more free tweets that will “reach millions of people generating a truly astonishing amount of traffic.” All these hashtag-laden tweets do is annoy people. To the savvy social media user, they reek of stupidity.

 

Buy thousands of followers

marketingScam

Chris documents another well-known scam in marketing circles; fake accounts that lure thousands of u

nsuspecting followers. These followers are then on-sold as tweeting platforms with supposedly massive reach.

She tried a test. $19 for 375,000 followers. Result: zero sales and zero new Twitter followers.
<blockquote”>Scam artists know what they are doing. They are playing on peoples’ pain points and ignorance. They can build fake followings completely on accounts that follow back automatically. Keep in mind that all you need to start a Twitter account is an email address. It’s an ugly, dark business.

 

Book promotion — for a price

She also takes issue with some book promotion sites. There are good ones — she lists a few — and plenty of dodgy ones.

It is impossible to list all the suspect author marketing services out there … [but generally]these sites ask for money for their suspect services. There is no information on their “about” pages that validates their expertise or existence, just blabbing about the reach of their audience. They are not published authors or even legitimate marketing services. They are product-only.

Very much a case of author beware!

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Test your text for flabby writing

WD-3

WritersDiet is a readability tool with a difference. Enter a text sample — from 100 to 1,000 words — and it will tell you whether your writing is flabby or fit. It bases this assessment on the number of verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives/adverbs and “is”, “this”, “that” and “there” words used, then graphs your result, rating it from Lean, Fit & Trim, through to Heart Attack.

Let’s try it out. Here’s the opening six paragraphs of one of my favourite books, Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, courtesy of the awesome Project Gutenberg:

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17 quotes about writing

writing
Easy reading is damned hard writing.
Nathaniel Hawthorne

…I have this one nasty habit. Makes me hard to live with. I write…
Robert A. Heinlein

Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators.
Albert Camus

Writing historical fiction is a legitimate use of Multiple Personality disorder.
Peggy Ullman Bell

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you’re gone, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.
Benjamin Franklin

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.
Bertrand Russell

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.
Woody Allen

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.
T. S. Eliot

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Mark Twain

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.
Tom Clancy
(paraphrasing Mark Twain)

A great many people think they are thinking when they are acutally rearranging their prejudices.
William James

A witty saying proves nothing.
Voltaire

Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.
Bertrand Russell

Destiny is not a matter of change, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.
William Jennings Bryan

Write drunk. Edit sober.
Peter De Vries

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
Douglas Adams

The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.
George Carlin

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