Escher 120I happened upon a blog entry the other day that asked why J.K. Rowling hadn’t self-published her new crime books. The blogger went on at great length to illustrate the advantages Rowling could have enjoyed if only she had hired her own editor, publicist and so on. The decision of the famous author, evidently, was too inexplicable and wrong-headed to be believed.

Leaving aside the fact that the Amazon-Hatchett incited war between the published and the self-published has become so heated that each side is no longer able (sorry – make that willing) to hear what the other is saying, there’s a serious point that is being missed here, which is this: any time a writer has to spend turning her manuscript into a successful book is time that could better have been spent writing.

I’ll leave it to a later day to expand on that observation, because the point I want to make today is a bit more subtle: every hour self-published authors spend reading about how to be successfully self-published and how to become more effective at marketing is an hour that could have been better spent learning how to be a better writer. And that’s equally regrettable.

As a quick check to see whether that point might be relevant to you, reflect for a moment on the blogs you follow and the books you read that relate to your vocation or avocation as a writer. What percentage of them focus mostly or entirely on the trade as compared to the craft? If you’re like me, the answer is that the percentage is too high.

I’ve been trying to reverse that disparity lately, and it’s surprisingly easy to do. I walked past a used book store supporting a public library yesterday and picked up a bag of books on writing I’d not yet read for $10. I’ll skim and read them to look for the good stuff, and then contribute them back to the same store, saving any that merit future reference.

I’ve also begun paying more attention to the many blogs that provide really useful guidance – not just theoretical, but also very directed, such as this one I happened upon today, called Flogging the Quill. It’s one of several offering to critique the first page of an author’s book (another is Under the Microscope), and inviting readers to offer their helpful criticism as well. The first page (and chapter that follows) that’s posted there at the moment is really very good, by the way.

But the more general ones can be extremely useful as well, and also offer an almost embarrassingly shaming alternative to the Twitterverse version of writing advice. You know the kind I mean – the “10 Rules You Must Follow To Achieve Writing Success NOW!” variety, that runs one screen’s worth of obvious truisms, which are then endlessly retweeted by those selling promotional services until the echo chamber effect becomes too deafening to bear.

That’s what drove me back to my own site just now, to share an excellent example of the good kind of blog post, called (ironically enough) Top Ten Writing Mistakes Editors See Every Day. It’s not only very useful, but it’s beautifully written as well, offering a splendid example of that enviably lucid presentation that seems to be the hallmark of someone that’s enjoyed an English classical education.

Indeed, the author (a creative writing professor from East Anglia and also a vetter of unsolicited manuscripts) notes at the beginning of the piece that excellent writing is a prerequisite standard to be met before the rules themselves matter. To that same end, I would offer that every author should first learn to write as well as a professional, and not waste their time flogging the marketing machine until they have achieved that goal.

The entire post is more than worth your while to read, but here are a few gems to whet your appetite:

On “Unplanned Characters and Obvious Self-Portraits:”

…Fictional characters can grow out of stories, or stories can grow out of characters, but either way if you look at successful examples then you’ll realise that you understand what drives them, while a decent plot will place barriers in the way of whatever goal they wish to achieve or crisis they must overcome. Good characters feel like they’re us, and you achieve this by creating a credible, well-researched and meticulously planned life for them, and then not showing all of it in the pages of your book.

On “Bad Dialogue and Too Much of It:”

Good dialogue is a function of good character creation. If you put the hours in on your character biography then, eventually, they will start to talk to you. It can take a while to tune in, a bit like channelling a spirit, and you’ll have to redraft some dialogue scenes many times to get them right, but the individual voices will come with practice and patience….

The biggest mistake I see in dialogue, however, is the quantity. Even though novelists have all the tricks and tools of narrative prose available to them, many still insist on writing screenplays by mistake. It’s as if we all watch so much film and TV that when we block out a scene we imagine it not as real life or units of a narrative, but as a scene in a movie, when character is revealed only through what they say and do in front of the camera. Break it up and cut it back. Worry about the film version after you make the bestseller list.

On the inability to distinguish between story and plot:

Failure to recognise this basic conceptual distinction can lead to novels that are as rambling and digressive as a family anecdote related by your grandmother at Christmas; the real story does not start for several hundred pages, if at all, while similarly ending only when the protagonist dies of old age. If you have that much good material, consider a trilogy, because most publishers will not touch a novel by an unknown author over an absolute maximum of 100,000 words.

There’s much more, all equally good, that follows (Mistake #9, by the way, is simply summarized as “Bad Sex”), so do give it a read.  That link again? Why, here it is and enjoy.

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