What Makes a Novelist?

All it takes to be a writer is to write, and going by the proliferation of blogs on the Internet, almost all of us are writers.

Being a novelist is something completely different. You need to be a writer, certainly, but you also need to know the elements of storytelling, how writingbto create characters that come alive, how to describe a scene without losing the momentum of the story. And then you need to put it all together into a cohesive whole that engages the reader’s attention.

But most of all, you need to actually write the novel, to put your idea into words and get it down on paper or into your word processor. That takes discipline. So does rewriting the same novel perhaps a dozen times until you get it right. Because, as we all know, there are no great writers, only great rewriters.

You do all that, and then one day your novel is finished. You’re proud of yourself for having accomplished something many people only dream about, then the terrible truth comes crashing into you with all the force of a linebacker’s tackle: no one cares. Perhaps your family and friends will care, but even from them you will hear the same self-absorbed comments you get from strangers.

You know the comments I mean:

  1. I could have written a book, but . . .
  2. I always thought my life would make a good book . . .
  3. I wrote a book: My diary.
  4. I’ve written a book; it’s all up here in my head, I just have to get it down on paper.
  5. So? I’ve written a hundred books; they’re all packed away in my closet.

Taking their lack of support in stride, you send out your opus to find you’ve reached another level of indifference. On this level, you are not the only person who had the discipline, the ability, perhaps even the talent to have written a good novel; you are one of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. And the agents and editorial assistants who have to plow through those mountains of words don’t care; they haven’t the energy.

If you are lucky, one day your manuscript will be on the right desk at the right time, or maybe you’ll decide to forget the traditional publishers and self-publish. And then you really hit that wall of indifference because in this new world of the published, every single person has written a book.

Being published does not make you a novelist. Even the most rudimentary novels can be published nowadays so there is no special accolade to being published, no special sign that you have passed into the realm of being a novelist. Nor does becoming a success make you a novelist since some of the most execrable fiction on the market — bad writing, paper-doll characters, and scenes that hang lifelessly in the background like dusty drapes — make their authors a fortune.

So what does make a novelist? Maybe caring about the craft. Maybe caring to get it right rather than just writing something and throwing it out there in the hopes that no one will notice the lack of skill. Maybe writing the story only you can write and not setting out to be a King/Koontz/Clancy clone.

Maybe just . . . writing.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Happy Bloggiversary To Me!

balloons1I started blogging two years ago, back when I didn’t even know what a blog was. I’d read about how important blogging was for authors, both as a way of getting known and as a way of connecting with readers. Deciding to “act as if” I were going to be published one day, in the hopes of making it happen, I created this blog. I had nothing to say, no one to say it to, no reason to say anything, but I didn’t let that stop me. I started yapping and haven’t stopped since. Although I intended to blog every day, I’ve only managed 372 posts in those two years. I’ve received 2,003 comments. I’ve posted in 36 categories, and used 1,402 tags. In the past year, I’ve had five times as many views as I did the first year. Not bad for someone who’d never even heard of a blog.

Did acting as if I were going to get published work? Perhaps, though there is no direct connection that I know of. Still, I have had two books published by Second Wind Publishing and a third will be published next month. More importantly — at least blog-wise — I am still blogging, still making connections, still making friends. Still having fun.

It amazes me that anyone wants to read anything that I write here. This is so much a place for just letting my thoughts roam, for thinking through problems, and (I admit it) for pontificating a bit. It’s been a kick, writing this blog, and I want to thank all of you for indulging my whims and whimseys.

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So . . .  thank you.

Immigration of Characters

I was sitting here trying to figure out what to write — I’ve had so many guest bloggers lately, I’m out of the habit of writing my own bloggeries — when I received an email from a friend with an attached article that she wanted me to check over. It was so clever and true it made me smile. We all have characters who deserve to immigrate to a better place than in our heads or on our computers. More to the point, she’s letting me post her article, saving me the trauma of having to think of something to write. Here’s what my friend Sylvia McKye say sabout the immigration of characters:

I write, as do many writers, because I enjoy writing.  I take pleasure in telling stories and taking people on adventures via my stories.  I have voices and ideas in my head.  It gets crowded in there; I need these clamoring characters to immigrate.  Onto my computer screen is the perfect new world for them. Rarely are they happy there, though.  They want a larger world.  They want to travel; they want to see and be seen.  These characters are determined; they have visions of the wide world of places like Barnes and Noble in which to sow their wild oats.  A few are truly ambitious and, having a high opinion of themselves, dream of traveling to New York and make the rounds socially-on the ‘A’ list, of course.  One or two have even mentioned being on the ‘A’ list will help them realize another dream, living on the silver screen.  Once they’ve done that, then they want to settle down on a nice little cozy bookshelf somewhere. 

So what’s a beleaguered writer to do?  Help them immigrate, of course. 

As a writer, I’ve in effect given birth to them and I’m emotionally attached to them.  I’ve raised them to be tough and strong, to set goals and dream.  I applaud their ambition.  I love my characters, so I start the paper trail to help them realize their dreams and ambitions.  However, immigration laws for characters have become tough in the past ten years.  There’s so much red tape involved.  Character immigration is a tough business all around. Getting through to the Character Immigration Officers is daunting.  

I get frustrated because some of these CIO’s reject my characters without even giving them a chance.  I polish them, provide my characters with a new wardrobe, take care with accessories-because appearances are everything in this world-and try again.  I provide them with the right background and setting and still they get rejected.  Some of these CIO’s want clear-cut categories to pigeonhole them.  A certain background.  Some of my characters don’t fit into a particular category-they are people after all-much less a set background.  Some of my characters do, but still aren’t accepted.  My characters are upset and I’m frustrated.  Because I’m attached to them, it bothers me when they’re rejected.  Meanwhile, I have a small town of characters living on my computer, and more in my head.  Will I stop creating?  No.  Will I stop trying to help my characters to immigrate?  No, again.  

I have invested in some tough Rhino skin for my characters and myself.  It’s survival.  I have no intention in giving up on finding homes for my characters.  But rejections hurt you as an author.  They can’t help but hurt us because we have created these characters and invested time and emotion in them.  Rejections are a normal process of the querying your novels and stories.  Some published authors say they’ve received enough rejection letters they could’ve papered their bathroom walls.  That’s a lot of rejections. 

Some of these published authors made it through the red tape of Agents and Editors and gotten their stories published with traditional publishing houses, others investigated smaller publishers and went that route, and still others have settled in nicely with POD publishers.  They did this because they believed in their abilities to tell an entertaining story and a desire to take readers on an adventure.  They enjoy writing. 

The point is, these are published authors and they didn’t give up. They obviously invested in some tough Rhino skin as well so as not to be discouraged to the point of not writing or querying their stories.  Persistence has its rewards.   They’ve networked and marketed aggressively. Even after getting a contract, they continue working on building and keeping a strong reader base by perfecting their skills as a storyteller. 

For these published authors, their characters have emigrated from the world in their heads and their computers to New York and hit the ‘A’ list-the Best Sellers list.   Some of the authors have had their books optioned and have seen their characters make it to the movies. Some of their characters have starred in TV movies or series. Their characters have happily found homes in Borders and Barnes and Noble.  Others are happily ensconced on a nice cozy bookshelf in someone’s home.  

There are many success stories out there.  The question is, will you stay the course and help your characters immigrate?  Where will your characters end up?  Will they immigrate or end up spending their life with you?

As for me, I’m determined to help my characters immigrate.

Is Writing Worth the Effort?

A friend asked me if trying to become a successful author is worth the investment of time and money. Not only do writers have to hone the craft, they need to attend conferences, workshops, hire editors and publicists, build websites and promote.

I wish I knew the answer to my friend’s question. Now that my books are nearing their release date, I’ve been spending most of my time on the internet researching how to promote. And I still don’t know how to do it. Blogging, of course. Publishing articles. Making connections on Facebook and Gather. But to become successful, writers need to go beyond the obvious. Nor do I have the money necessary to do all that is required, including attending conferences, joining national writing groups, traveling to booksignings. So I have to do it on the cheap.

Is it worth it? I won’t know for a year or two or ten if I’m going to be a successful author, so right now,  I’ll leave you with the daunting facts: one and a half to two million books are written every year. 150,000 are published (about half of those are self-published), and since many carry over from year-to-year, I figure that at least a million are being peddled as we speak. 75% of published books (including some with big advances) sell less than 500 copies. 85% of published book sell less than 1000 copies. 84% of books in a bookstore sell less than 2 copies. A book is considered successful if it sells a total of 5000 copies. Considering the time it takes to write, edit, and promote, that comes to about $1.00 an hour for the author. Woohoo. (And that doesn’t take into consideration the sometimes hefty amounts people shell out for conferences, editing, classes, etc.)

Because time as well as money is at a premium, we feel guilty when we promote and let the writing lie fallow. And we feel guilty when we write and don’t promote. Juggling with fire would be easier, and less complicated, especially when the fireballs being juggled include jobs and family.

On the other hand, what choice do we have? We are writers. We need to write, and we need readers.

What If People Like My Books?

An odd thought struck me this morning: what if people actually like my books? Over the past few years, I’ve racked up hundreds of rejections. I told myself the agents and editors were only rejecting my query letters, because what else could they be rejecting? None of those I sent letters to had ever heard of me, so they could not be rejecting me personally. Nor did most request any part of a manuscript, so they could not be rejecting my novels. But others did request parts of the manuscripts, and found them wanting. Some did not like my characters, my setting, my matter-of-fact style, my inability to sweep them away. Some did not like that the books could not be easily slotted into a genre. The rest simply said the books did not fit with their list. I had a great attitude through all those rejections, and I didn’t think they affected me, but they must have, because I’ve been steeling myself against weak sales and less-than-stellar reviews.

Ever since More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire were accepted by Second Wind Publishing, I’ve been so focused on figuring out how to sell my books (I even started a new blog, Book Marketing Floozy, to share what I learned and will continue to learn) that it never occurred to me people might read my books. Of course, one-fourth to one-half of all purchased books are never read, so perhaps those who buy won’t read, but what if they do?

Now that my publication date is nearing (actually, it’s not a date, more like a time — end of November), and my novels are about to be made available, I’m getting nervous. Only one person (a free lance editor I met in a writing group) read all four of my manuscripts, and she absolutely loved them. And an author I met through my blog read one of my manuscripts, and she thought it was brilliant. Although many people have read excerpts of my novels, no one else has ever read one all the way through. Soon my novels will be published.

And what if people like them?

Writing Without a Reader is Like Kissing Without a Partner.

Print on demand publishers and publish on demand printers. Co-op publishing ventures. Ebook publishers and self-published ebooks. BookSurge and Lulu. Content providers for websites, personal websites. In this brave new world of publication, there is a way for anyone and everyone who has strung words together to be published.

What is lacking is readers. In fact, I would be willing to bet that many writers read less than one or two books a year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that there are more writers than readers. Whether we like it or not, reading is considered to be entertainment, and the money spent on movies, music, games means less money for books.

The traditional publishing industry is answering this trend by promoting authors rather than titles. If your book is one of a series, you have a much greater chance of being published than those of us who prefer starting with a whole new set of characters for each novel. The publishing industry is also continuing their move toward more blockbuster novels, which stands to reason. It is cheaper to promote a single author than several. They still do publish books from new authors, but it is harder for you as a new author to attract the attention of a publisher, and if by chance you do attract their attention, for the most part they leave you to sink or swim on your own. This could be why so many people are publishing their own books. If you have to do your own promoting, why not reap all the rewards?

The sad truth is that while the self-publishing business is growing, the money earned by most individuals barely counts as an allowance. On average, a self-published book sells between four hundred and five hundred copies, which means that a few people who are good at self-promotion will sell a lot, while everyone else will only sell a few.

The only sane way to deal with this insane situation is to write for ourselves, but many of us feel the same way as John Cheever, who said, “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone.”

The next best thing is to write a fabulous novel that is so entertaining and well-written that any reader who sees it will immediately fall in love with it and spread the word.

It could happen.

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The First Commandment of Writing

I just finished reading a dozen chapters of a book online. It wasn’t bad, merely boring; it read like a synopsis rather than a fleshed out novel. Several people left her comments explaining how to improve her writing, and to each she responded, “This is the way I write.”

She seems to be perfectly content in her little world, writing her little book for her online friends. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we can all write the way we want. We can mix genres; we can have long rambling discourses and internal monologues; we can show off our dazzling knowledge in great passages of exposition. After all, we are the masters of our story universe.

We can do whatever we please. Unless, of course, we want to be published. If so, there are certain conventions to which we must adhere. The novel must have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. There must be a protagonist and an antagonist. There must be conflict between the two of them. There must be enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested.

Readers have certain expectations, and they have a right to have them met. Sure, we can write however and whatever we please, but if we want a wide readership, we must consider the reader. And the first commandment of writing is “Thou shalt not bore thy reader.”

Capturing the Attention of an Editor

 I started to write this blog as an investment in my future, sort of a pre-publicity platform in case I was ever so lucky as to get published and needed a forum.

At first I was satisfied with putting my thoughts into words, and recording what I have learned on my seemingly endless quest for publication, but now I want people to read what I have written. To that end, I am trying to write titles that grab, first lines that compel one to keep reading.

This is a good skill to have if a writer is trying to capture the attention of an agent or editor. We all have this image in our heads of editors and editorial assistants eagerly pawing through the slush pile in search of our literary gems. In truth, all they are looking for is a reason to dismiss our manuscripts. If our first words don’t grab them, too bad. That’s all the time they are going to give us.

And if by chance our first words do entice them to read further? They are going to be looking for any excuse to stop.

So, while I am trying to figure out how to get you to look at my post, I am still investing in my future. Perhaps one day I will write first one compelling sentence, then a second and a third until I have written the literary gem that, all unknowingly, those editors and editorial assistants really are searching for.

Until then? Well, writing a blog is a lot more fun and interesting than playing stupid computer games.