Is a love of writing the mark of an amateur?

A long, unbroken, solitary afternoon before me; sunlight in my window or rain and a fire laid in the stove, as the case may be; a cup of tea at my elbow; and best of all, a blank screen in front of me—that’s what writing is on a good day.

There are few prospects I relish with more delight. But that isn’t something you want to admit lightly among writers.

It isn’t just that it’s fashionable to play the tortured writer persona. I’ve seen dozens of blog posts about the grueling nature of professional writing and the amateur nature of all enthusiasm. Writers forums are full of the self-important, who will tell you that the easiest way to tell an amateur from a professional is to ask if they really enjoy writing.

The typical explanation goes something like this, “When a small child first encounters a piano, they bang away at the keys in delight. It’s great fun and they think it sounds beautiful. They want everyone to be quiet and listen to their noise. But it is only painful, boring practice that can turn that banging into real music worth listening to. Writing is the same way.”

Creative Commons image by Richard Patterson

Creative Commons image by Richard Patterson

The proponents of this line of reasoning also like to insist that there is very little real artistic, musical or writing talent innate to anyone. Everything is learned and can be learned through practice, they insist. Writing at a professional level or playing music at a professional level must always be a carefully calculated task. and while some satisfaction in one’s skills is permitted, enthusiasm and passion is the mark of an amateur. And this holds some internal logic.

Except that it doesn’t fit my experience.

My daughter first got to sit at a piano when she was two. She’s a particularly active child and I was concerned that she would bang away at it. Instead she gently touched the keys, heard the sounds and began working her way up and down the keyboard. I have seen countless numbers of children pound on a keyboard, but not her. She immediately found that some notes go better together than others. Within a few minutes she was making cords.

I can’t do today what she could do at two. I can’t hear the sounds that way. Once in a while, I come across a writing student who is that way with words and story. The sense of it is there before any teacher. So, I don’t believe in the “talent doesn’t exist” theory.

At the same time, I know that talent isn’t everything. Talent won’t get you much of anywhere without practice. And for most people both solid musical skills and good writing proficiency are there for the learning. There are countless technical assists in writing, things that could almost allow a computer to generate infinite variations of entertaining stories using standard plots, characters, devices, dialogue norms and tension points.

A lot of modern fiction reads like that too. I could swear someone plugged in an algorithm and churned out a series of thrillers or romantic mystery novels with artificial intelligence. They all have perfect pacing, neat and tidy plots and snappy dialogue. But they also have predictable characters, transparent plot devices and lack-luster climaxes.

And yet. as the purveyors of writing as a miserable profession are eager to tell you, those cookie-cutter novels make money. Publishing houses recognize the same elements I do and readers are so accustomed to the standard fare that most of them, those who still read books at all, continue to read them.

There is a lot to be said for practice and the rules of the craft. Without a lot of practice my daughter will never have the full freedom and experience of music. And without a solid understanding of the rules, writers who break them do so badly. I have no quibble with that.

And there have been many times when i didn’t want to write and had to anyway. I would go so far as to say that that experience—writing under pressure when you are tired and disoriented—is probably a necessary step in honing the craft of writing, or at least a way to significantly speed up the process. I spent ten years as a journalist, forced to crank out endless “copy” on subjects that I usually found boring and almost always on too little sleep.

It was called “copy” but we never copied anything. Every sentence had to be crafted and polished. It took energy and determination and focus. Doing it while tired and bored ingrained the rules deep.

I learned the trade, so that I could sit down and write anything quickly and easily, conforming to whatever standard was required, short or long, technical or atmospheric, any structure, any voice. But that doesn’t mean that all writing must from then on be unpleasant or that all of the learning and practice was unpleasant. I still remember my days as a young reporter fondly. Despite the difficulty and tedious stories about small towns and the machinations of the ministry of transportation, I got to go to work every day in a room where I sat with other people furiously writing and I got to write all day long.

I grew up doing heavy chores. Then I spent years in academia, studying and taking tests. I worked at jobs that didn’t give me purpose or fulfill my intellectual needs. And the reality of writing every day, even if it wasn’t very exciting writing, was wonderful for several years.

Even today, while I prefer to write things closer to my interests, if offered a job at a cash register or a job writing technical manuals, I’d still take the technical manuals any day. But sitting down to an afternoon of writing on a subject I enjoy, or better yet fiction—that is pure pleasure.

Is it always easy? Certainly not. That is a good part of why it is fun. I don’t really go in for easy, even in my hobbies.

That feeling you get when you’ve been writing for two hours and you get three quarters of the way through a key chapter and the plan you had isn’t working and you feel a heavy drag on you because you ,know you’ve got to go back to the plotting board and probably rewrite several major scenes to make it work—yeah, that feeling—that’s when you know you’re in the thick of it. I do tend to go get another cup of tea but I eagerly plunge back in. It’s a challenge, a battle with word counts and plot holes, and victory is that sweet zing of a successful line of tension running through the story from beginning to end.

The preachers of the miserable writer theory probably believe what they are saying. It seems likely that they have followed a path of genre writing that leaves them burnt out and frustrated but in possession of certain skills. They assume that these two things must necessarily coincide. If someone comes along and argues that writing can be a lot of fun, even at a professional level, it is the easiest thing in the world to paint that writer as an amateur. No one wants to risk that, so few ever try to argue.

Getting past the beginning of a novel - Advanced writing tips

So you’ve got a bodacious idea and you’ve written the first 20,000 or 30,000 words! You’ve got the gumption to start and the grit to put your butt in the chair and write through the wee hours of the morning or on your coffee breaks or whenever it is you have manage to squeeze in your writing time.

Congratulations! You’ve already beat out 99.75 percent of the competition. A lot of expert writing coaches like to quote the “Five percent rule.” The five percent rule says that of all the potential novel writers with an idea only 5 percent of them will ever start on it. And only 5 percent of those who do anything with their idea will make the time and discipline themselves to sit down and write regularly.

Creative Commons image by Misticsartdesign via Pixabay.jpg

Creative Commons image by Misticsartdesign via Pixabay.jpg

I’m not sure if the numbers are actually that exact. But if you’ve reached this point, the end of the beginning of a novel, you have fortitude and courage. That’s undeniable.

And you have also just run into the steepest and scariest writing hurdle yet. According to the five percent rule, getting past the beginning should only cull out another 95 percent of the prospective authors out there, but this one feels bigger to a lot of us somehow.

Maybe it is because the people who didn’t make the first five percent cut really weren’t serious at all, so there was no pain involved. They just had an idea and didn’t pursue it. And the people, who didn’t get around to making a real start and didn’t manage the discipline or time to put their butts in their chairs. didn’t really sacrifice anything beyond mental anguish and a fair amount of whining.

On the other hand, the writers—yes, now really anyone who got this far is a writer—who falter at around the 30,000 word mark have worked hard. They’ve disciplined themselves, made real sacrifices to get the time to write and faced down fear and shame. And still… only a few will make it.

Writing coaches are supposed to make it seem like all the others will fail but you personally are the star who will not. I’m not making that call. You’re one reader and the bitter reality is that if one hundred writers at this stage of a novel read my blog, only about five of you will actually finish that novel. Fewer yet will ever see it published.

BUT… (And this is a big but.)

These statistics are about the novel, not about you. Most writers—I might even say, “hopefully all writers”—will start at least one novel they toss before they finish their first book. If you don’t, how do you learn and become an awesome writer?

We need ten thousand hours of writing to make a master, just like every skilled craft or art. So, if your novel falls by the wayside, that doesn’t mean you fail as a writer—just that you need to succeed with a different novel.

But this post is for those who have an idea they are convinced is a winner, those who have reached the end of the beginning and have the proverbial genitalia to keep on.

Let’s face it. It’s heavy going. No one gets past this one without some sweat, tears and likely some blood, whether fictional or actual.

If you are an expert plotter and have spent years on world building and have a detailed storyboard, maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about and you’re sailing through your manuscript without any trouble. But then again, if that were the case, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

If you’re like me and most other intrepid wordsmiths, you know the dreaded 30,000 word marker. Very possibly you’ve been here before. Maybe several times. And it might as well be the grim reaper.

There is something about reaching this point in a manuscript that makes writers wilt like that houseplant you forgot to water since you started this novel. No, you didn’t just run out of gas. It happens to all of us.

You start with an exciting idea and all the enthusiasm that goes along with it. There is very likely at least one early scene and possibly an ending and several other scenes firmly in your head before you start. You have a character or characters you like, a great setting and a unique premise. That can get you through 10,000 words without breaking a sweat.

You’ve got the opening description, the initial action and the premise to describe. In short, you’ve got clear goals that anyone with a couple of years of dabbling in writing can handle.

But I hate to break it to you. That’s the easy stuff.

Beginnings are important and must be brilliant and all that, but you know you can go back and edit, so you probably didn’t sweat rivers over it. Now, however, things get hairy.

You get to a certain point in writing your novel (usually somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words depending on the type of plot you’re using and how much plotting you did early on) and you suddenly feel like you’re slogging through thick mud while carrying a fifty-pound pack.

How did this happen? You didn’t start out carrying a pack. Did all that positive energy just evaporate? Are you just a wimp without staying power?

No and no.

There is some small comfort in knowing that your exhaustion is completely justified. And it isn’t just that you’ve been cooped up in your basement staring at a screen for too long, although if that’s the case, remember that pacing yourself applies to writing as much as it does to running a marathon.

The 30,000-word marker is a different sort of exhaustion though.

Here’s the first key to getting through it: That fifty-pound pack is real.

OK, you can’t actually weigh it on a scale. But you are carrying a massive load after writing 30,000 words. You are carrying around in your brain all the bits and pieces, character traits, setting details and subplots that you subconsciously or consciously know you are going to need to remember later on. Depending on how many notes you’ve been keeping and how organized you are, this mental burden can be enormous.

Hopefully, even if you’re a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser, you have written down some notes about your major characters and main plot, at least the basics up until now. Pantsers are more likely to collapse at this point than plotters. It is one of the places where plotters can be justified in a bit of their smugness.

But plotters will have a burden too. Even if you write everything down scrupulously, you will be memorizing where you wrote what and how to find each piece of information. And there are always details you didn’t put in your notes, which is why your notes are not actually the novel, though their word count may be pushing a close second.

So, the first thing to do when you feel the sluggish doldrums at the end of the beginning descend upon you is to update your notes. Even if you’re an avowed pantser, now is the time to do a bit of plotting. Write character sketches if you haven’t yet. Make an outline of your plot or a story board, if at all possible. As you put down some of these burdens on paper, you will feel lighter.

If you have extensive notes, look through them. Make sure they are organized and remind yourself where to find things. Think through any plot holes that may have cropped up. Untangle and discard what has turned out not to be useful. Lighten the load.

The end of the beginning is also a good time to take a break from writing if you’re an intensive writer, spending hours writing each day. Get out in nature, spend some time with people or sleep all the hours you want for once, whichever meets your needs.

But don’t let go entirely. Many a good book has died because the writer went on a break at this point and didn’t actually come back. The break may feel way too good.

Set a limit or a deadline to get back at it. And then sit down and get back into it, no matter what.

OK, not entirely “no matter what.” As I said before, some projects need to die. Every writer needs to leave a few unfinished novels on their creative compost pile. So, don’t break yourself on something you have realized wasn’t a keeper. But if you are still convinced this is a keeper, put your head down and power through.

That is the third thing—and possibly the most crucial—about the end of the beginning. To some extent, you just have to push through this difficult time. It is likely that your plot or your characters are more complicated than you thought. You’ve realized you need to go back and change some things. Or you’re worried because you still haven’t figured out some major plot points coming up.

Whatever the specifics, this is a tough stretch. It’s uphill and there is no second wind yet.

Remember again that you can edit later. Keep in mind that this is normal for writers. It’s a natural part of the process of writing a novel. Take your best shot at how the plot needs to go and write it.

When you get to the 50,000- or 60,000-word mark and those last few puzzle pieces drop into place in your plot conundrum, you can go back and fix whatever you’re messing up now.

Yes, puzzle pieces dropping seemingly of their own accord happens far more often than a purely rational view of the writing process would indicate. And yes, you are messing things up at this point. It’s pretty much impossible not to. Don’t fret about it.

Getting past the end of the beginning is almost always messy or rugged or both. But by putting down some of your mental burden, taking a carefully limited break and pushing through the urge to throw it all in the recycling bin, you can crawl over this hurdle.

How much is too much (or too little) description in fiction?

The echo of automatic gunfire bounced off the gray, cement buildings, making it impossible to pinpoint the direction of the threat. Trash scuttled along the gutter in a stiff jab of wind. Sand stung her eyes.

The girl crouched in a doorway, the stench of sour cabbage and old grease washing over her from inside. She gnawed on the nail of her little finger and tried to remember the map of streets between here and the old railroad yard. She couldn’t afford a mistake now.

The rapid cracking of more shots just a block back along the street forced the matter. She darted out, along the wall and away, slipping through the rubble like a little brown squirrel, lightning quick and nearly silent.

Some of the most common questions I get from students are on the issue of description in fiction—how much, when and where?

Creatove Commons image via Pixabay

Creatove Commons image via Pixabay

Budding writers often receive lavish praise for description in school. Most general education teachers and even a distressing number of creative writing instructors, view almost all description favorably. It is creative, after all. It fills up assignment page quotas at a gallop and the students who use description are refreshingly motivated.

What isn’t there to love about it?

Well, lots actually.

Writing description is like playing the piano. Unlike most musical instruments, pianos make nice-sounding notes with the press of a key. All you have to do to feel like you are playing the piano and making nice sounds is to play the keys with a bit of grace and not bang on them. Once a small child learns to stop banging and to press individual keys, the sound is relatively pleasant and even pretty at times. It is motivating because it is easy and it garners praise.

But just as playing real music on a piano is a far cry from that gentle random tinkling, writing great description is complex, requires long practice and is immeasurably more rewarding than the initial experiments.

Here are the crucial questions to consider when writing description.

1. What is description and why do you need it?

After they discover that their initial descriptive prowess does not actually make regular people—who are neither their teachers nor their parents—want to read their writing, many beginning writers careen violently in the other direction. They strip all description out of their fiction and stick to action verbs and dialogue, like it’s a fundamentalist religion. Some very stereotypical fiction (and screenplays) can be done this way, but it has the staying power of popcorn.

Description is part of how we convey setting, character and mood to the reader. More importantly, it is the gateway through which the reader enters the world of your story. While a gripping plot and excellent dialogue are arguably more important on every page of a story, description opens the door for your reader.

We experience fiction primarily through our senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It isn’t the actual page we see or even the movie screen. In order for a reader to fall deeply in love with a work of fiction, recommend it to their friends and make sure to read everything else by the same author, that reader must experience the story to some degree physically. It’s description that jump-starts that process.

The reason why narrow genre fiction needs less of it is that there are already a lot of description assumptions that readers come into each story with. The entire genre aids in developing the sensory experience. Even there, description plays its essential role, only in a different way.

2. What description is not

Description is not plot or story and it never can be. It can’t even be character, though it can try.

It’s like the old adage that children do what their parents do rather than what they say. Description is like a parent telling a child to do something. If done well, it may be memorable and valuable. But if it isn’t backed up with coherent actions and purpose it won’t matter for long.

Description may be enough for a newspaper article in the features section. There we describe characters, locations, scenes and social dilemmas and leave them for the reader to resolve. But despite the literary-term “character sketch” description does not make a story.

Problems and actions attempting to resolve problems make stories. Description may help. That’s all.

3. How do I know if I put in too much description?

The grip that a work of fiction has on the reader is like a kite string. When I edit a work of fiction it feels as if I am flying a kite. The kite is the reader and the taut string is the pull that keeps them reading. The first rush of the opening must be a powerful enough burst of speed to propel the kite up. But then if the kite is driven only by the pilot running around on the ground and there is no wind (metaphorically plot), the kite would sail up for awhile and then drift dully to earth, just as surely as it would if you let go of it and let the wind take it entirely.

Tension in fiction is much like the tension in that taut kite string. It is the pull between the wind of plot events and the striving of the characters. It is the only thing that won’t let the reader drift away from your story.

All this is to say that description plays only an indirect role in the basic physics of the relationship between plot, character and tension. Description is crucial to the reader’s experience of the events of the story, but it must not interfere too greatly.

Excess description has the tendency to slacken the tension of that kite string. Too much and the kite falls, the reader loses interest and abandons the story for something more engaging.

So, as you read over your work in editing, keep that kite string in mind. Judging when the string goes slack is somewhat subjective and it certainly varies with tone and genre, but you can develop an intuitive sense for it. If you feel the line of tension through a scene slacken, look to the descriptive phrases in the scene. Too much description is not the only problem that can cause slack tension, but it is the easiest such problem to solve.

If cutting excess description helps then you have likely resolved the problem. Professionally this trimming of wordy text is called “tightening up the prose” and that refers to tightening the tension, just like a kite string.

Some writers today complain that classical writers had it easier, that they were allowed lengthy descriptions of landscape, clothing and the faces of characters, while readers won’t give us the same chance to develop depth in a story today.

There is some truth in this lament. Fiction used to be much more difficult to come by and readers were less likely to put a book down due to a bit of slackened tension. Today’s readers have a lot of distractions and even more options.

It is true that sometimes depth of description is sacrificed today to the gods of reader attention in ways that do not actually make for better writing. But the conditions of entertainment-scarcity of old were not necessarily superior. They allowed for some wonderful depth in some of our classical works, but they also spawned some very long-winded, boring drivel written by privileged white men who only got to be published and even mildly famous because of their random fortune of birth.

The bottom line is that today’s conditions are what they are. They force you to write tight, if you want readers, and that can be a good thing if you focus on honing description to be as powerful and evocative as possible.

4. How much is too little description?

There are modern examples of fiction with too little description. The plot may be snappy but it feels hollow and the reader cannot experience the story sensually. Any trend can become too extreme.

The basic role of fiction still hasn’t changed since ancient times. People read fiction to relax. While fiction often competes with various multimedia entertainments today, many readers seek out reading specifically for the quiet relaxation it offers. That means that we do need some description and quite a lot in literary, fantasy and romance genres.

All description, even in a literary genre where you can theoretically be more relaxed, should strive for brevity and power. The key is to provide a few “evocative” details that open the door of sensory experience and lead the reader’s senses to take over the task of description.

A story must have enough description, given all the circumstances of genre and readership, to start the reader’s brain on the sensory experience. This can often be done with a single phrase or even a single word if that little detail is well-known enough to the readership that the writer can be reasonably sure it will jump-start sensory memory.

If a fantasy author mentions “the smell of leather and sage” it is very likely that most fantasy readers will instantly connect to a sensory memory of just those smells and a lot of other details can be left out and assumed. This is because fantasy readers tend to be the kind of people to own leather items and to have visited places or shops that smell of sage. Such readers will start to see muted greens and earth tones in the clothing of the characters without the writer mentioning color. They may envision natural landscapes or faces roughened by weather, even if they aren’t described.

If a crime or detective author mentions “the blood and vomit spattered on the floor of the interrogation room” their readers will likely construct an entire scene in their minds complete with unfriendly, windowless gray walls, a single lamp, a bare table and a hard chair, even if they have never personally been in such a place because they read a genre in which such descriptions are very common.

This is a bit like cheating, but it is legal and in many cases desirable. You pick just the right detail and thus skip whole paragraphs of description, if your detail evokes a similar scene for your readership.

There are two methods in this kind of cheating—1. banking on reader experience and 2. exploiting genre conventions. The more you know your readership and your genre the easier it is to use details that will evoke sensory experience for those readers and thus free you from the need to provide further descriptive details.

Unfortunately, we can’t always count on enough shared experience between readers to do away with most description. This is another reason why some old fiction feels uninspiring to modern readers. Simply put, the author’s assumptions about our experience and what will trigger our sensual responses are no longer valid due to changes in our society.

There are also plenty of things you may want to describe in fiction which you can be pretty sure most readers have not encountered in physical life. In fact, if you are describing mostly only things that are so common to the genre that they don’t need much description, your work isn’t going to be very original.

So, description isn’t going out of style. Get used to it and use it skillfully.

5. How can I make my descriptions better?

Better in description generally means more “power.”

Power? Like short, snappy sentences?

Well, sort of. Shorter and more varied sentence lengths help, but when we say “power” in description it means the power to evoke and thus bring the reader into the story physically.

Fortunately, there are some fairly easy ways to increase the power of your description. This goes right back to elementary school, where you learned the parts of speech—verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

Verbs are inherently the most powerful part of human language. It is likely they were the first actual words, given that pointing likely took care of initial nouns for prehistoric people. Nouns are the next most powerful part of language, followed by adjectives.

The weakest of the non-grammatical, substantive parts of speech are adverbs. This is why your writing instructors and how-to books tell you to avoid them.

It is much better to use a verb that describes the entire action, as in, “The officers pounded up the steps and charged into the apartment,” rather than common verbs with adverbs, such as “The officers ran forcefully up the stairs and came into the apartment fast and furious.”

The first example happens to be shorter, but even if it somehow wasn’t technically shorter, it would more easily draw the reader’s senses into the story for reasons that go deep into psychology.

The same goes for nouns. It is better to be more specific with your noun than to use a common noun and an adjective. It is better to write “poodle” than “small, white dog” unless your narrative absolutely requires the vagueness.

Adjectives are weak enough that it is better to avoid them, if it doesn’t cause other complications in the text. Adjectives ending in -ly are notoriously the weakest of all. Many writers do a search for “ly” during editing and specifically analyze each adjective with that ending to see if they can safely cut any. This isn’t to say that you should never use them, only that it is worth looking to see if there is a stronger alternative.

If a paragraph was a savory soup, verbs would be the broth, nouns the meat and veggies, adjectives the salt and spices and -ly words would be things like protein powder and vinegar that you add to some soups when it is really necessary but would not want in any significant amounts.

This advice comes with one very large caveat, Almost every writer who has learned this step has at some point realized the wonderful tool of the thesaurus and been put under its evil spell for a time. Don’t get me wrong, your thesaurus is not inherently evil. It is a good tool for reminding you of descriptive synonyms you may have forgotten.

But whatever you do in writing, resist that temptation to go window shopping through your thesaurus and pick out a nice-sounding word that you aren’t otherwise acquainted with and stick it into your sentence because it is more interesting than its common alternative.

A good rule of thumb is that you should not use a word from a thesaurus if you have never encountered it in speech or in a written work that was not intended to describe the word itself. Your thesaurus is for reminding yourself of words you knew already, not for coming up with new words. There is nothing that screams “amateur” at readers more than a writer who appears to be using unfamiliar descriptive words.

Putting it all together

Honing your descriptions to make them brief and powerful will help your current story and boost your overall writing skills. It is also fun and just as description brings readers into the world of the story, it can transport you there as well.

And that crucial for coordinating scenes and writing great dialogue, but those are issues for other posts. Check out my other advanced writing tips here.

Winning fans is more than just hooking readers

As a senior in college I bombed out of my first journalism job interview on the question, "What is the most important thing in a newspaper story?" posed by a small-town newspaper editor.

I had given up on figuring out the "right" answers because the editor had already told me he didn't think a legally blind person (or even just anyone who couldn't drive) could be a newspaper reporter. He only asked this question to confirm his biases, so I told him my actual opinion.

"Good research and real facts." 

And arguably for many readers that is the most important focus of a newspaper story. But of course, I was wrong in journalism orthodoxy.

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

The standard answer to that question is "the hook." The hook is technically part of the lead, the first paragraph. The hook is often, though not always, the last sentence or phrase in the lead, something surprising, snappy, intriguing or shocking enough to force a good portion of readers to keep reading for at least a few more paragraphs. 

Journalism theory has it that it doesn't really matter if readers finish the article. The important thing is that they read enough of it and other articles in the paper to A. see the ads that fund the paper and B. decide they actually need the paper and subscribe. At least that was the theory, back when print newspapers were the primary form of journalism. 

There is a similar theory in the book industry today. The cover art, the blurb on the back of the book and the first few paragraphs of chapter one play much the same role as the hook in the days of old. And we still talk about "hooking readers." 

The idea is to give the reader a little thrill of recognition—"Ah! This is a book I'll like"—a sense of tribe. You play into the desires of the given genre and provide enough momentum and adrenaline to keep them reading. If you want to catch today's readers, swimming around in a bookstore or at an onlilne shop, you need something with some punch because there are a lot of distractions. 

Both the old journalism version and the modern book-selling version are true as far as they go. The journalism lead and hook got readers who were just casually perusing a paper to actually read it. I did eventually go on to learn to write a pretty good hook as an international newspaper stringer. Thank you very much, Mr. Small-Town Editor. 

But there is something that the doctrine of the hook does not take into account—a crucial factor that is the deal breaker in today’s book industry.

Let me illustrate with another story from the trenches. In 2007, I landed a prestigious Manhattan agent for a memoir. The agent loved my book but didn’t love my hook. She insisted that I rewrite it to put the most suspenseful and violent scene first and then handle the rest of the book as one giant flashback. This is done a lot and it isn’t actually as bad as it sounds, if it is done well.

Most of my memoir was about being a blind kid from the back of beyond who got scholarships and somehow ended up in the high-pressure world of international journalism. I started it at a crucial point of no return, while the agent wanted me to start it almost at the end of the chronological story because there was an incident that involved me running from a machine-gun toting mob in the midst of an interethnic skirmish in the Balkans, which is sadly a good part of my journalistic claim to fame.

I love to read memoirs in general. It’s probably the genre I read most and I am not the kind of reader who looks for shock and awe in the hook. I look for character and an engaging narrative voice. But I’m probably not the norm. So my opening, which focused on drawing the reader in through character and voice, made the agent nervous.

I rewrote the hook and made the agent happy. But the book still isn’t published.

It was well written as far as it went, but it was a journalistic memoir by a journalist who was never famous. It should have been a memoir of self-discovery by a blind person with too much to prove, because that would have at least stood a chance in today’s book industry.

But that would have required a different kind of opening, less the traditional hook and more voice and character.

What the editors of 42 publishing houses told the agent, which both of us should have known from the beginning, was that as good as the book was, no one cares if they don’t know the author. If it’s a book about a journalist, that is even more true.

In newspaper journalism “back in the day,” you were assuming the reader already had the paper in their hands. And many readers had no real choice about which paper they were going to read. They read the local paper and possibly one national paper. They could choose among the national papers but they weren't likely to switch just because of less than snazzy hooks. They were much more likely to switch if a paper proved to be either boring overall or full of shoddy research. 

No, the purpose of the hook was first and foremost about the ads around the article. Get eyes on the article and you had eyes on the ads. That’s what advertisers wanted and because they funded the paper, their interests were paramount.

Reporters also wanted to hook readers into their particular story, so their interests coincided with those of the advertisers when it came to writing a good hook. It was more important to a writer that a reader start reading their article than that readers would love them specifically. Bylines were small and usually unnoticed.

Today writers have to contend with a very different landscape. Audiences are much less captive. The hook may get a reader to start reading but if they stop reading immediately afterward because the writing is bad, the content is non-existent or the voice is boring, nothing is gained.

No matter how good your hook is, readers can and do pick up ebooks and stop reading them within a few pages. In some ebook systems, this even means that they don't have to pay for the book. Similarly blogs are only really helpful to the writer if readers come back again and again to the same blog. Hooks are still part of the equation but they are no longer the defining skill of a writer. 

Some ad-dependent bloggers will still use hooks in much the way old-school newspaper reporters did. There are snazzy, intriguing hooks and often a sad lack of any substance or resolution of the mysteries raised.

That isn’t my blogging strategy. The reason for that--beyond the fact that I'd rather work my day job as an ESL teacher than write boring copy--is that things have changed. Today the focus is on readers rather than on advertisers, and that's a good thing for writers. Frankly, writing to the taste of readers is much more fun than writing to the taste of advertisers.

Today a writer's job is not so much to hook readers for a few seconds but to win fans for years to come. We want readers to finish the post or the book and then reach for another one and another one by the same author. That is what keeps the lights on so that writers can keep writing. 

Don't get me wrong. There are still gimmicks out there and people making money off of gimmicks but ultimately readers will figure out when something is a gimmick. There are people cranking out "ebooks" which consist of just a few pages of new material, while the majority of the pages in the book are stuffed with the author’s old material, old blog posts, promos of other work and so forth. The writing, even what new material there is, in these "books" is also not great. For some strange reason, the Amazon algorithms favor lots of releases by the same author in a short period of time, so there are people making some money that way until readers catch on. 

But what is it that will win real fans? What will grab the people who will remember an author's name and seek out the author's work or recommend it to their friends? 

Three things:

  1. Good writing craft,

  2. Consistent delivery of what a specific group of readers wants. 

  3. And a distinct and addictive author voice.

Readers become fans when the book or other material they are reading holds them in a kind of spell that feels very comfortable and which calls to them enticingly when they are doing something else. The elements that go into this spell are voice, character and story, usually in that order.

It can be argued that grammar, punctuation and spelling, the nuts and bolts of writing are an inherent part of voice. If your work is littered with typos, it is like your voice is squeaking. It isn't pleasant and it breaks the spell, no matter how lovely your characters or story are. But of course there is much more to voice than nuts and bolts.

Essentially, "voice" refers to the tone, humor, cadence, dialect and closeness of your narration. People read for a kind of human contact. It's like being friends and as such winning a fan is like being a good friend.

I don't say It's like "making a friend" because it isn't. Writers aren't friends with every reader. But readers feel a bond of friendship with favorite authors nonetheless. And if you, as a writer, can provide the kind of voice that your readers need to hear from a friend, then you're halfway home.

Naturally not every reader needs the same kind of friend or even the same kind of friend at all times. I sometimes read straight forward thrillers, sometimes epic fantasy and sometimes humorous YA, even though I'm over forty. Each of these genres plays a different role, much like different kinds of friends. Sometimes I need a more humorous friend, sometimes a serious one who gets the heavy despair I'm feeling in the world right now and has resilient grit.

So the first thing to remember about voice is that you can't please them all and you shouldn't try. The worst thing you can do to your writing--other than litter it with typos and convoluted grammar--is try to make it for "everyone." Something that is for everyone is necessarily bland. And while some authors may get away with bland, you'll notice that they are already famous. Not-famous writers like me and you will have to stand out and that means deciding who we're talking to (our target audience) and what kind of friend we're going to be (wry, dark, gritty, whimsical, etc.). 

Beyond that, voice is about making the reader comfortable. You don't want to be too long-winded but neither is this a contest to see who can use the least number of words, the way it often was in newspaper journalism. Readers today read to relax more than anything else. So your voice should be one that matches what your specific readers need and makes them feel good.

You want to have a clear and identifiable voice, so that a reader can pick up an unlabeled page of your writing and be able to name the author. That would be the ideal.

Just as the nuts and bolts of writing are a prerequisite in voice, understanding the specific needs and expectations of readers in your genre is crucial. It is possible to write in the gray areas between genres, though finding your readership will take longer. Genres need not be restrictive boundaries, but be aware that readers will latch onto you for something specific and the more you can consistently provide their the fix they need, the longer you’ll keep readers and the more they’ll turn into actual fans.

An old axiom says beginnings hook readers and endings create fans. My last post told you my low opinion of endings. I don't agree with the axiom anyway. It's a cliche that may have been true in another would where reading had a different position in our entertainment industry. Today, when you can access just about anything, anywhere, right this second, you need quite a lot of good stuff between the beginning and the ending.

On the bright side, what is hard for you is also hard for other writers. You don’t need all the fans, you just need your own tribe.