To the Stars

Astounding Science Fiction August 1940 cover for Lester Del Rey’s “The Stars Look Down”

Non est ad astra mollis e terris via.

The sentence translates to “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.” It is line 437 of Seneca’s play Hercules Furens, and is spoken by Megara, the wife of Hercules, to Lycus, the tyrant who usurped her father’s throne.

The meaning is clear: there is no easy path to fame, to glory.

Recently Jackson Dean Chase posted a link to a blog article, “Stop ‘trying hard’ and produce more if you want to smash it as a writer”. The article could not have come at a more appropriate time for me.

In brief, the article notes that creative people have no concept of the quality or value of their own work. In fact, a creative’s own estimation is often at odds with that of the public.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hatred of Sherlock Holmes immediately comes to mind. He thought the great detective frivolous and the stories not at all great literature. Yet history has proven him wrong. Of the vast number of novels and stories that Doyle wrote, it is Holmes who is associated with Doyle’s name and by which he’s remembered.

George Frederic Handel loved Italian opera and continued to write and produce operas for a London audience that no longer wanted them. He ended up bankrupt and in ill health. Forced by circumstances, he turned to English oratorio and wrote Messiah. Which by the way was hated by the librettist because Handel produced the sacred drama in concert halls!

Handel did learn his lesson and milked Messiah for every shilling and pound he could get from it.

HG Wells thought his greatest work was the world history he wrote. Today, no one knows he wrote one.

I observe my fellow writers frantically following one success guru after another in the attempt to become bestselling authors. They look like sheep in search of a shepherd. Like parrots, they repeat the supposed mantras of success over and over. Usually without giving them any thoughtful consideration.

Every now and then, I find myself caught up in the stampede until a friend graciously pulls me back to reality. It’s easy to follow the crowd. After all that’s what lemmings do when they run over the cliff into the sea.

Seneca is right. The path to the stars is not an easy one. Why? Because there is no easy formula to follow. There is no one how-to manual that works for everyone.

No one knows how a bestseller is born. No one.

What does that mean for us writers? Quite simply, it means we must write. And write a lot. Write until that bestseller is discovered.

Margaret Mitchell is very much the exception and not the rule. In spite of us writers wanting to make her the rule.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and probably had a hand in at least 10 others. But how many can we even name? Let alone the number that are regularly produced?

Because there is no one-size-fits-all formula for success, there is no external help for us writers. As Rainer Maria Rilke noted, there is no one outside of ourselves who can give us strength, encouragement, and support. It is all inside. We must look inside ourselves for what we need to succeed.

Of all that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote (and he wrote a lot), the one character that stands out is Tarzan. The same for Lester Dent. He wrote hundreds of books and stories. His name, however, is forever tied to Doc Savage.

Handel wrote 42 operas and 29 oratorios (amongst many other works). Mention his name and everyone says, Messiah.

Burroughs did not set out to become famous by writing Tarzan. Nor Dent, Doc Savage. Nor Handel, Messiah. It was the public who decided what would be their claim to fame.

Because we writers, and creatives in general, are very bad at predicting our own greatest work, our only recourse is to write lots and give it to the public and let them decide.

In my own case, I expected Festival Of Death, with my private detective Justinia Wright (who I dearly love), to be my “bestseller”. Imagine my surprise when The Morning Star, the initial book in my post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe series, has to date, outsold Festival of Death by an almost 5 to 1 margin.

Never in a million years would I have guessed that to have happened. So my writer friends, keep writing. The public will find your best book for you. That is one thing you don’t have to worry about. Just write and trust your public.

Comments are always welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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Professional Editing — Is It Necessary?

From the New Yorker on Charles Dickens’s 200th Birthday

Is professional editing necessary? The short answer is no. The long answer is maybe.

But before we get into this subject, we need to define what is meant by “professional editing” and what is meant by “necessary”.

What is Professional Editing?

A professional is one who does something for a living. An editor, in our context, is a person who “corrects” a typescript for a novel or story.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of editors: content editors and line editors, or proofreaders.

Content editors edit a book’s content. They look for continuity issues, plot holes, structure issues, character defects, and the like. This is high level editing.

Line editors, or proofreaders, look for typos, misspellings, grammar issues, punctuation problems, and the like.

The purpose of an editor is to alert the author to problems with the book so the author can fix them and supposedly improve the book. However, a professional editor isn’t the only person who can do this. As we’ll see.

Necessary

Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, defines necessary, in our context, as something “that must be done; mandatory; not voluntary; required.”

Is an indie author required to use the services of a professional editor? Obviously not, since they are voluntarily hired in the first place. Therefore a professional editor is not necessary. Is one recommended? Maybe.

The Problem with Editors

The problem with editors is the same problem with any professional: they’re human. They’re people like you and me and that’s the problem with them.

Professionals charge money for their services — but in the end can really guarantee nothing. When I hire an editor, I’m simply hiring one person’s opinion. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

This goes for any professional. Whether your doctor or your mechanic. We all know there are doctors who make bad decisions (I was the victim of one) and mechanics who are unscrupulous. We who are the non-professional need to be as informed as possible, so we aren’t taken for a ride.

Every editor I know, puts his or her pants on the same way I do. Sure he or she may have gone to school to learn the craft of writing. But I know of few editors who make a successful living from writing fiction. If they can’t make a living from writing fiction, then how valuable is their advice?

“But so-and-so — an award winning author — has John Doe for an editor. So John Doe must be good.” That’s assuming the writer’s success can be directly attributed to the editor. And if it can, then I question the writer’s ability to write. If a writer can’t succeed without an editor, then in effect the editor has become a co-author.

At the end of the day a professional editor has biases, prejudices, agendas (just like everyone else) that have nothing to do with my writing or me as an author. Yet those biases, prejudices, and agendas can adversely affect me as author.

The Problem with Writers

We writers, as many in the creative arts, are plagued with a host of self-defeating problems. They seem to go with the territory. I know I’ve had my share. Here are a few:

  • Insecurity issues
  • Inferiority complex
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Procrastination
  • Perfectionism
  • The need of approval by others and from those in authority

These problems open writers up to be easy marks for the unscrupulous.

Writers fall victim to people who provide them with approval. Writers who seek approval from authority figures lose their sense of self.

I think that’s one reason why we still have traditional publishing today. Because the insecure writers need to get “approval” from the “authorities” in order to shore up their self-esteem. Getting a publishing contract makes them feel worthy. And let’s them look down their noses at the indie author “who just couldn’t make it”.

Traditional publishing is an ego trip. My agent. My editor. My publisher. And many writers want that ego drug.

And many indie authors seek the same high. “I couldn’t have done it without my editor.” Or my cover artist. Or my formatter. Or what have you. These people sound just like their traditionally published counterparts.

The point of being an indie is independence. Freedom from all that crap. The indie movement is about the producer marketing directly to consumer. Cutting out the middleman. Kind of like the farmer’s market versus the grocery store.

Solution

Are indie authors therefore free from the task of editing? Heavens no! Not if they’re concerned about putting out a quality product. The question is, do they need to hire a professional editor? And the answer is, no they don’t.

If a writer knows how to tell a good story, there is little need for a high-level edit. The content editor has little to offer. If a writer is concerned about the craft of storytelling and is in the lifelong process of honing his or her craft, then a content editor will have little to offer.

Now that same writer might benefit from a proofreader. But one doesn’t need to hire a line editor to get those services.

If a writer is not very good at telling a story, then a high-level edit may be of great help. But what may be of even greater help is simply more writing. If you’re going to an auto mechanic, do you want the one who is fresh out of school with little to no experience? Or do you want the guy who’s been doing it for 20 years?

It’s the same with writing. Practice makes perfect. It’s why Edgar Rice Burroughs advised writers to write lots. One story has little chance of getting published (in a magazine). But write a hundred and one or more will probably be accepted.

Robert Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing operate on the same principle: lots of writing and the constant submission to market of that writing.

Writers can only improve their writing by writing. No amount of academic learning or professional editing can improve a writer’s work. Bad writing can’t be edited into good writing. It’s just well edited bad writing.

The first novel I wrote, Festival of Death, way back in 1989, was not ready for publication when I finished writing it. I was honest with myself. I read the manuscript and it just did not compare with the novels I was reading. I put it away, also realizing I didn’t have the stuff to rewrite it and make it better. Twenty-five years later, I had that stuff, rewrote it, and was pleased with the finished product. I didn’t need an editor to tell me all that. In the interim I did lots of writing. I gained confidence. I became a better writer.

We writers don’t need to spend any money to edit our own work. There are many tools available to help us and even without all those tools, there are people who won’t charge anything to proof our work and offer constructive suggestions for improvement. And I heartily recommend the people approach.

Here are a few suggestions based on my own practice:

  • Read your story with a critical eye. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes.
  • If your characters don’t make you laugh or cry, they won’t make the reader laugh or cry.
  • Read your story aloud for flow. It’s a great way to catch clunky sentences and sections that are confusing.
  • Have the computer read to you while you follow along. The computer reads exactly what’s there. A great way to catch typos and misspellings.
  • Have someone read the text to you. This combines reading the story aloud and having the computer read to you — with the added advantage of the reader being a human other than you.
  • Use the spell checker and grammar checker in your word processing program or something like Hemingway or Grammarly.
  • Use good beta readers to catch issues you didn’t catch. A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in gold. What is a good beta? One who likes your genre and ideally your writing, who has a good understanding of what makes a story work, is someone you can trust will be honest with you, understands grammar, and knows how to spell. These people exist. Go find them.

That’s all you need, and none of it costs money. Unless you choose to buy some editing software — which isn’t at all necessary. But a nice little luxury.

One other caveat: don’t be in a rush to publish. We’re indie authors. We set our own schedules. There’s no one to tell us what to do except ourselves.

We indie authors are independent authors. Don’t become a victim of the Should Mentality or the You Have To Mentality.

We write for readers, not editors.

Enjoy your freedom from the man. I do.

Comments are always welcome. Tell me what you think. And until next time, happy reading!

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Writer TS Paul – Does He Really Break The Rules?

This past Friday, I listened to Mark Dawson’s podcast which was an interview with indie sci-fi and paranormal writer TS Paul. You can catch the podcast on the SPF website and I’d encourage you to listen to it.

The initial hype was that Paul is a short story writer who’s crushing it with sales. Sorry, folks, that’s false advertising. Paul primarily writes sci-fi novellas and shorter paranormal novels. The visions of waltzing to the bank on my short stories quickly vanished.

The interview then went on to show all the things Paul did that were “wrong” and yet he still managed to reach a point where he’s seeing a half-million a year in sales.

Obviously, TS Paul is doing something right. So what is it?

Last week I wrote about The Writer’s Magic Marketing Machine and presented indie sci-fi and fantasy author Patty Jansen’s road map to success. Very simply, it is:

  • Write well
  • Write lots
  • Write in series
  • Publish often
  • Build a mailing list

As I noted last week, this is standard indie advice. Virtually all the successful indie authors do the 5 points above.

Dawson and his cohort, James Blatch, were dumbfounded by Paul’s success. They couldn’t explain it. On reflection, I think Paul’s success is very easy to understand — and, in fact, I’d say he’s doing most everything right.

First of all, TS Paul writes lots. A short story a week and 31 books in a couple years. Writing lots is crucial for every indie author who even hopes of being successful. It’s the key to not being forgotten.

Secondly, he writes in series. This is also critical for indie authors. Because indie readers are series readers.

Third, he publishes frequently. Publishing often keeps your name in front of readers and helps to pump up the Amazon algorithms.

Fourthly, he knows his audience. He targets the YA crowd. There is no sex or bad language in his books and the covers appeal to the eye of a young audience. I’d also hazard a guess that the shorter lengths of his books appeals to the YA folk, who primarily read on their phones.

So what does he do that is actually controversial? In the big picture, not much. He doesn’t believe in freebies. So he doesn’t give away his books. But he’s not the only writer in that camp.

He doesn’t do a lot of advertising, although he does more now than when he first began. About a $1000/month on Facebook.

He doesn’t have a mailing list. However, he’s not alone here either. What he does have is an active blog and Facebook page. Effectively, they are taking the place of a mailing list. Through his blog and Facebook page he keeps in touch with his readers and lets them know of new books.

The most controversial thing, in my opinion, about Mr Paul is his cavalier attitude towards the quality of his writing and the physical product.

He doesn’t give a fig about typos or bad grammar or lousy formatting. He says so in the interview. And the critical reviews testify to his devil may care attitude. It also appears his writing style is not all that stellar, according to the reviews.

I noticed in looking at his offerings, quite a few book blurbs note the book is newly re-edited and formatted. So maybe Mr Paul cares more about what readers think than he’s willing to admit.

The mystery for me is how a brand new nobody writer can go from $150/month in sales to over a $1000/month in the span of a few months — with no advertising. Paul didn’t say. Blatch didn’t ask. Too bad.

Based on what Mr Paul did say, my thought is that his friend, the popular author Michael Anderle, who encouraged Mr Paul to start writing in the first place, gave him a boost. Just a guess, but if correct it shows that who you know is still a very powerful means to success.

The bottom line is, TS Paul is doing everything he should be doing — except writing well and producing a quality product. But in spite of all the criticism he’s received, and there is a lot on Amazon, he’s laughing his way to the bank.

Comments are always welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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Nothing Beats A Book

Last week I talked about being a multi-genre reader and writer. This week I’d like to focus on the reader part and next week on the writer part.

There are readers who basically read just one genre. Whether it’s romance or mysteries or fantasies or westerns or horror, they are satisfied with the variety their chosen genre provides. And there is a certain comfort in knowing what the book will be like even before you start. There are enough writers out there that one will not exhaust the possibilities in any given genre.

Other readers like variety. They’ll read a horror novel and follow it up with a mystery and then a mainstream novel and will read a biography after that. These readers like to experience the limitless variety that is the reader’s world. And, as they say, variety is the spice of life.

I liken it to the person who wants meat and potatoes for every dinner and the one who wants spaghetti one night, cabbage curry the next, sausage and potatoes on the third, and Lobster Thermidor on the fourth.

We like what we like, after all. It is a reflection of who we are. And whatever one’s choice of reading material, if it works — it works.

From my perspective, when it comes to reading, less does not equal more. For me, more genres equals more pleasure. More adventure!

This partly reflects, I think, my broad range of interests.

After a long period of not reading non-fiction, I’ve started to get back into it. I’ve picked up a biography of a WW II German U-Boat ace. The travelogue of the R34’s flight from England to America and back. I’ve read a book and articles on marketing. I’m getting back into philosophy. I’m partway into a book that is part biography and part history of the zeppelin by Ernst Lehmann. And recently my nephew was showing me his copy of the Encyclopedia of Ships and I know I have to get myself a copy so I can read it in more detail. These books reflect some of the wide range of topics I’m interested in.

On the fiction side of things, I’ve been reading horror and dieselpunk of late, but also some libertarian science fiction, a fantasy mystery, and am currently reading a coming of age literary novel.

And I don’t just read what I like. For example, I’m not partial to YA (young adult) literature. Yet one of my favorite authors is YA writer Daniel Pinkwater and one of my all time favorite books is his Wingman. Last year I read Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’m also not partial to coming of age novels or stories and yet I bought and am currently reading Billy Maddox Takes His Shot by Jay Lemming. And again, am enjoying this read by a new indie author.

Reading is, in my opinion, the best way to explore possibilities. Movies can do that to some degree, but not as well as a book because of how one approaches the two forms. With movies, the viewer is essentially passive. He or she is acted upon by the film.

With a book, the reader must use his or her mind. There is a collaboration between reader and writer that is needed in order to reach an understanding of the text’s meaning. No matter what the author intends, I as reader can’t approach the text with the author’s experiences. I can only do so with mine and therefore what I get out of the book is unique to me.

A friend of mine and I were discussing a poem I’d written. He made the comment, “I don’t think you understand what you’ve written.” He clearly saw something in the poem I didn’t. His experience picked up on the words I’d written and he saw something that I didn’t intend in writing the poem, which came from my experiences.

I don’t think that happens very often when we watch movies due to the passivity of the experience. Movies are passive entertainment and books are active entertainment.

Because of the active engagement, I think reading is the best form of entertainment — and it needn’t be a solo endeavor.

Family reading time is a wonderful way to spend time together. With or without popcorn!

I introduced my daughter to some of my favorite books during family reading time. She shared books with all of us that she wanted to read, such as Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster. An aside here. Jean Webster’s heroines are strong young women in an age when women weren’t expected to be. Her books are very readable today. Webster died in 1916 at 39 years of age in childbirth.

My wife and I read The Hunger Games out loud together. A great way to spend an evening or several evenings.

If you aren’t an avid recreational reader, I encourage you to rediscover books. Add books to family or couple time. Like bread, books really are the staff of life.

Comments are always welcome and until next time — happy reading!

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What Type Of Writer Are You?

Not everyone is a writer, but every one of us has a book within. Of course, some of us have more than one book and even then there may not be enough for us to be professionals. But that is alright. Because in this wonderful day and age, we can get our books published and not worry about anything else other than sending them out into the world.

Every occupation has hobbyists, amateurs, and professionals and that includes writing. Let’s take a little deeper look into each of these categories and see what they mean.

Hobbyist

What is a hobbyist writer? A hobbyist is one who engages in an activity for the fun of it. I enjoy playing board games. They’re fun. They constitute one of my hobbies.

People can write for a hobby, as well. I think most fan fiction writers are hobbyists. They write for the fun of it. So too many writers who are on platforms such as Wattpad.

These folk enjoy writing. However, they have lots of other interests and little to no desire to make writing number one in their life. Perhaps like bike riding for me. I enjoy it, but I have no desire to go on a road trip or engage in racing or participate in a club. I just like to ride my bike every now and again.

Writing as a hobby twenty or more years ago was pretty much a solo activity. Perhaps you shared your poems and stories and novels with family and friends. Perhaps got the shorter works published in magazines or fanzines and got a couple contributor’s copies for payment. Anything beyond that was pretty difficult.

Not today, however. Today, it’s easy to share your work with the world. If you want to. And who knows? You might decide you like writing enough to move to the next level.

Amateur

I’m not referring to someone who’s a bad writer. As in Oh, my God. He’s such an amateur!

No, I’m referring to a dedicated person who loves writing, has to write, but chooses not to make a career of it.

Many vocations have people who make an interest an avocation instead of their vocation. Why? For any number of reasons. For one, unless you are a tech writer employed by a company, you will probably be self-employed as a writer. And not everyone wants the uncertainties of self-employment. Others may truly love their day jobs and don’t want to give them up for a career as an author. So writing may become a part-time job for them.

For many years the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, was an amateur writer. Even after he started achieving critical acclaim and a sizable income from writing, he held onto his post office job. He liked working at the post office and he liked the security a regular paycheck gave him. It wasn’t until he was passed over for promotion that he became disgruntled and quit the post office. By that time, however, he was earning a very large income from writing and felt secure to make his living solely as a novelist.

Being an amateur isn’t a bad thing. It simply means you don’t want to write for your day job. Not that you aren’t good enough.

Professional

Many writers, however, dream of earning their living via the pen (or keyboard as the case may be). And many people do indeed support themselves by writing. But most do so by writing non-fiction, rather than fiction. And this has been the case for many, many years now.

I remember back in the ‘80s the sage advice, if you wanted to be a freelance writer, was to write articles for the women’s magazines. The market was large and the demand was high.

When Woman’s World was new, I recall an article on growing orchids. At the time I was a serious orchid grower, with hundreds of plants. What was quickly obvious was that the writer of the article didn’t really know anything about orchids. He made too many factual errors. I began tracking that particular writer’s articles and noted two things: he was good with a camera and he wrote lots of articles. He was a pro writer. Making his living selling to women’s and other non-fiction magazines.

Making a living from fiction is difficult. It isn’t impossible; there are, though, far easier ways to make a buck.

Recently, I’ve noticed more and more indie fiction writers moving over to non-fiction by offering lessons on how to write or market your books. Claiming Amazon or USA Today bestseller credentials, they offer to tell you (for a hefty price tag) how you can do it too.

Why are they doing this? Because it’s easier than writing and publishing and marketing 4 or 5 novels a year. All you do is create a course, video record it, and you’re done. Simply advertise said course, collect the fees, and press “play”. And then “repeat” for the next group and the next one after that.

Now I don’t mean to be cynical. I’m simply saying these writers have found it’s easier to make a living via non-fiction than fiction. Something pros have known for over half a century.

What Kind of Writer Are You?

I make no bones about it. I want to be a professional novelist. Hopefully, one day I’ll succeed.

However, I won’t be sad if I end up being a serious amateur. Why? Because, due to today’s technology and opportunities, even as an amateur, I can publish and market my books and make at least some money doing so. And which I’m doing right now. Every month I earn a few buck from Amazon and the outlets I’ve signed up for through Draft2Digital. And that is a nice feeling. A very nice feeling.

What about you? What kind of writer are you?

A hobbyist? Nothing wrong with that. Have fun and share your fun with the world.

An amateur? Good for you. Self-employment is not for everyone. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be serious about your poetry, short stories, or novels. And who knows? You might end up just like Anthony Trollope.

Maybe you’ve scaled the mountain. You’re on the peak. You’re a pro. Congratulations! Your hard work paid off and you deserve your reward. I envy you and also am inspired by you. Onwards and upwards!

As always, I look forward to your comments. And until next time, happy reading!

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Where Has All the Money Gone?

One advantage of being older is that we oldsters have a perspective not available to youngsters. Now I’m not ancient. I’m “only” 63. However, my interest in writing and being a published author goes back as long as I can remember. It’s an interest and a desire that’s always been with me. I’ve actively followed the publishing scene for fifty years or more. I’ve ingested so many how-to books and articles I will never hunger for several lifetimes.

And I’m here to say, for all the change in the publishing world, nothing much has changed.

My friends Sarah and Alice commented on my last post and I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of loss as to how to proceed in what is perceived as a publishing maelstrom.

I want to repeat: nothing much has changed in 50 years.

Sure we have the internet. And I’m glad. But let’s take a little techno history ride. A ride that shows why I’m so enthusiastic about the present and the future. A ride that hopefully will give some perspective.

When I was in school during the ‘50s and ‘60s there were mimeograph machines. You typed a stencil, put it on the drum of the machine, filled the machine with fluid (always blue), and produced your printed document. Freshly printed paper was best because you got to smell the mimeo ink. Yes, we sniffed our test questions!

Then photocopiers appeared on the scene. Yippee! No stencils! No mimeo fluid! And you could even get color on some machines. Photocopiers were faster and cleaner and spawned a fanzine revolution. The editor only had to get the cover printed at the print shop. A new age was dawning!

I remember many fanzines from back in the last few decades of the 20th century and even slim books produced on the photocopier. It was certainly the best of times.

Then along came desktop publishing. Oh my! That took indie publishing to a whole new level. The things we could now do on a computer that had been impossible on a typewriter. Desktop publishing was almost as revolutionary as the printing press itself.

Then print on demand technology became practical in the first few years of the 21st century. Writers had now reached the gates of paradise. No longer did we only have the dreaded vanity presses. We could actually produce our own paperback books. We indie authors were able to go to a whole new level. But we hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.

On November 19, 2007, Amazon introduced the Kindle. It sold for $399 and the initial lot sold out in 5 1/2 hours. Restocks weren’t available for five months. Author/publishers had achieved Nirvana.

What the future has in store, who knows? But over the past 50 years, I’ve seen nothing but better opportunity upon better opportunity. I’ll take my stories on epub and mobi any day over those old, faded mimeograph pages.

From my perspective, as a writer/publisher, I’ll take the plethora of options available to me in 2016 over the dearth of options that were available in 1965. For in 1965, I could only run the gauntlet of traditional publishing if I wanted the chance to have an audience greater than a few hundred people – at best – self-publishing. And have a quality product. Of course, there was always the dreaded vanity press. Back then. Today the vanity press is passé.

Another thing to consider. Back then, because the fiction magazine market had virtually dried up to nothing, novels were the only way to go if one hoped to make money. Novels are still the fiction writers best chance at the big bucks. But, due to epublishing, novellas and short stories are making a big come back. And I, for one, am very pleased. I love the short story.

However, with ease, comes the tsunami of fortune seekers. The get rich quick mentality. Not unlike the California Gold Rush. The first ones in, got the easy stuff. Those after, only made the middleman rich.

Not unlike the Kindle revolution. Those in first got the easy money. By 2014, the easy money was gone. Now, like those old Smith Barney commercials from the ‘60s, if we want money — we have to earn it.

Today, in 2016, the middleman is alive and well just waiting to part the wannabe author from his or her money. And the desperate are easily parted from their cash.

But there is no need to be among the desperate. The Golden Age may have passed, but we are surely in the glorious Silver Age — and silver spends as well as gold.

What can we author/publishers do in 2016 to make a living from our writing? I’ve been asking myself that question for the past 20 months. I’ve read the blogs and books, I’ve observed what others are doing who have been in longer than I and who are making a living. I think there are lots of things we can do and the first is to have patience. The easy money maybe gone, but the money is still there if we’re willing to do a little spadework. Here are some further thoughts.

  1. Write well. This always has and always will be number one. The ebook revolution hasn’t changed the fact that while sloppy books will get published, the well-written ones will have a better chance at survival. Learn grammar. Learn how to spell (spell checker is fallible). Learn how to tell a story. Good grammar, good spelling, good storytelling are always in demand.
  2. Write every day. Treat your writing as though it were a job. If you aren’t writing every day, you aren’t serious about your writing. It’s just a hobby. Hobbies are okay, but not if you want to make a living.
  3. The indie formula is still alive and well. Namely, write lots, publish frequently, publish series, and write in a genre. Unfortunately, literary fiction, the stand alone novel, and fuzzy genre books don’t do that well in the indie market. If that is what you want to write, go ahead. Just realize you are setting yourself a higher hurdle to jump.
  4. Learn marketing. Whether you go indie or traditional, knowing how to sell your books is what will make you money in the end. Unless your name is Patterson, Michener, Dan Brown, Sandra Brown, or Sue Grafton, the publishing house isn’t going to spend advertising dollars on you. You are unknown. The money is spent where the publisher knows they’ll get many dollars in return for each ad buck spent. What’s more publishers never did spend advertising on new authors. For some reason there is a myth that is very popular about the supportive publishing house. They are in it for the money. If the writer can’t make them money, he or she will be kicked to the curb — because there is always the next one in line to take their place. So learn marketing.
  5. Be willing to spend some money to make some money. You don’t have to spend a lot, but you will probably have to spend some. Advertising isn’t free for the most part, although some is.
  6. Build your mailing list. This is the one thing I’ve learned recently that makes me wish I’d started two or three years ago laying the foundation for my writing career. Better late, though, than never. A mailing list is indispensable for indies. And also traditionally published folk. Don’t be dependent on anyone but you. Not Random House, MacMillan, Amazon, FaceBook, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords — not anyone. When you have your own mailing list of fans, then you can direct market to them, mobilize them, get them to work for you. It takes time and money, but no one seems to regret building a strong mailing list.
  7. Social media doesn’t sell books. Not directly anyway. Tweeting “Buy My Book” 20 times a day is going to get you ignored or muted. I’ve never bought a book from one of those tweets or from one of those companies that will do it for you. However, I have purchased books from people I’ve gotten to know on Twitter.
  8. Spending time on social media is largely a waste of time. It’s time you could be using to write your book or your next book. I’m not saying one shouldn’t be social or connect with people. One should. But spending hours tweeting drivel or playing games or what all, is time stolen from writing your book. Books will make you money. Twitter games won’t. Mainly because people buy books. They don’t buy Twitter game tweets.
  9. For indies, don’t bother about advertising your book until you have at least 4 of them. Indie readers like series, tend to be high volume genre readers, and don’t want to wait for the next book.
  10. For traditionally published folk, it’s the reverse. Advertise that book as if it will save your soul, because if you don’t earn back your advance — the publisher will kick you to the curb and take the next writer in line.
  11. Publish widely. And use Amazon. Yeah, I hate Amazon too. A giant monopolistic behemoth. But before you get on your high horse, remember 80% of ebooks are sold through Amazon. If you aren’t on Amazon, 80 buyers out of a 100 won’t see you. Can you really afford to give up that large of an audience? In addition, Amazon controls 2/3 of the print market. If you aren’t on Amazon, you basically don’t exist. And, yeah, I hate Amazon. They are like any other big company — they exist to make money. Period. But reality is reality. Publish widely and play with the 800 pound gorilla on the block.
  12. Draw up a business plan. Plan your work and work your plan. You are an author/publisher. You are your own publisher. If you don’t want the hassle of publishing, then try to run the traditional gauntlet. You’ll only get 10% and still have to do all the work as if you were an indie. This is reality. Magic doesn’t work in the real world. You need to plan for success.
  13. Don’t give up and don’t despair. Be thankful you don’t have to choose between Random House, the vanity press, or the mimeograph machine. There are over 4 million books on Amazon’s Kindle store. And yours are unique. Your readers are out there and want to be found. Learn marketing so you can find them. Be proactive. Don’t rely on magic. It doesn’t work.

This is the best of times and this is the best of times. Life is always easier for the other guy. You and me? We have to work. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. No silver spoon was in my mouth when I was born and none appeared when I started self-publishing. And the real kick in the butt? Oprah had retired.

So I’m learning how to market what I write. There are a lot of resources out there. I found one I think makes sense and am going to give it a try.

Believe in yourself. Treat the days of no sales as a challenge to build your fan base — because they are out there looking for you. Don’t let them down.

Circling back around to the title of this post, where has all the money gone? Nowhere. It’s right there. Ready to be traded for quality entertainment.

Comments are always welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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Being Indie

In 2014 I made the decision to become an independent writer/publisher, or indie for short. Two factors weighed heavily in my decision. One was the difficulty of going the traditional route. The other being freedom.

I don’t write much on the writing life, because I don’t have much, if anything, to add to the veritable mountain of information that’s out already. Nor is my personal journey all that unique. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and I am slowly correcting them. I’ve also done a few things right.

Today, I’d like to put out into the aether a few thoughts about being an author/publisher. These are my own reflections. For the writers in my audience, I hope you find something of use or encouragement. For the non-writers, hopefully you’ll find applications to your own lives.

Traditional Publishing

Sometime in the middle 1960s I got my first copies of The Writer and Writer’s Digest. Let me be frank here, nothing much has changed in the traditional publishing world during these past 50 years. The most noticeable differences between then and now are these:

  • There are fewer publishers
  • An agent is virtually mandatory
  • The wannabe author has to secure his/her own editorial services
  • There is the internet

Everything else is the same. The same advice on how to write. The same adulation of critics, pundits, and publishers. The same narrow gate whereby only the few may enter. And once within the hallowed walls of authordom, the same lousy contracts and all the same self-marketing if you want to sell books.

My late friend and author, John J. Koblas, used to have his van filled with boxes of his books to sell at every speaking engagement and signing event. And to whoever might happen by. He made an okay living—but had to hustle to do it.

In truth, very little has changed in 50 years. For all of the perceived change, so much has stayed the same.

Freedom

I value freedom. Robert E. Howard, in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, confessed the reason he wanted to be a writer was because of the freedom it gave a person. I couldn’t agree more.

A writer is a self-employed artist. A creator and a business person all rolled into one. Unfortunately, the business piece of the partnership usually gets forgotten. The writer leaves that to the agent; or, if self published, too often to magic. When Weird Tales had trouble paying Howard for his stories, Howard followed the money and moved on to the western and fight magazines. He was a businessman as well as an artist.

Any writer can tell you, if he or she is actually writing stories and books, the act of writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. It’s work. It might be fun work, but it’s work nonetheless.

So why do so many writers—myself included—simply toss their books onto Amazon and then conduct tweet barrages to try to sell them? Or think blogging will get them noticed? Or hope that those 10,000 downloads of their free book will automatically turn into book buying fans? Because we want to believe in magic.

After being in indie author for over a year and a half, I’m here to tell you magic doesn’t work.

The freedom of being an independent author/publisher comes with a boatload of responsibility. The responsibility of being your own business person. Of being the one who directs your career, not some money-grubbing middleman (aka publisher) directing it for you.

The Black Hole

I read somewhere 3,000 books a day are published. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I’d hazard a guess it’s at least close to the truth.

Recently I went through a free course on book marketing with Nick Stephenson. Several times he mentioned writing into the black hole. In other words if you’re unknown, just writing books won’t bring you fame. They’re going into the black hole. Because no one knows you exist.

Marketing on social media is kind of doing the same thing. So is offering your book for free. There are lots of people out there who will grab anything for free and that includes books. They may never read those free books. Which means downloads of free books don’t necessarily mean readers, much less fans.

Dumping into the black hole isn’t going to do much to get you noticed. Remember, 3,000 books a day are being published.

Becoming a name, a recognizable name, is the struggle every author has had since authors first stepped onto the career playing field. And we are talking millennia here, folks. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides weren’t always famous. How many more classical Greek playwrights never became famous? We don’t know. Their names are dust. Anthony Trollope got the attention of a few critics with his fourth novel. He made some money and got a name with his fifth. It was Hugh Howey’s eighth book, Wool, that gave readers cause to sit up and take notice. Very few authors ever hit the big time coming out of the gate.

When I look at Twitter or Facebook or Google Plus or Goodreads, I see writers grouping together primarily with other writers. And that is not all bad. But it won’t necessarily get you out of the black hole. Why? Because we writers want readers to buy our books. There are more readers out there than writers. Somewhere along the line I think we forget that. Although, I do keep hoping Marcia Muller or S J Rozan will discover and plug my Justinia Wright mystery series and I will rake in the dough on the Oprah Effect. I do keep hoping. Magic is alive and well.

The sad fact of the matter is most of us will be swallowed up by the black hole. Why? Because name recognition is much more difficult to obtain then writing a book—and writing a book is difficult enough.

Marketing

To climb out of the black hole, we need to be business people. We need to plan our work and work our plan. We need to become proficient at marketing and self-promotion. And because many of us are introverts and shy, we see self-promotion as something akin to torture. And who wants to willingly lie on the rack or step into the Iron Maiden?

Nevertheless, we need to learn how to sell our books and ourselves—if we want to make a career of writing.

For myself, I’m 63 and retired. I don’t need to replace the dreaded day job. But I would like to supplement my income and get that Rolls Royce I’ve always wanted.

So how does one learn marketing? There are lots of ways:

  • Business courses at college
  • Observation of successful indies
  • Getting personal advice from successful indies
  • Reading marketing blogs
  • Reading books on marketing
  • Taking courses offered by indie writers who are successful or marketers who cater to indie authors
  • Trial and error
  • Paying a marketing firm (making sure you observe what they do so you don’t have to hire them ongoing)

I’ve observed successful indies, read a few of the marketing blogs, read a few books on marketing, have tried and erred, and am now taking a course.

What I’ve Learned

What have I learned over the past 20 months of being an indie author that I can pass on to you? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Write. For indie authors, less is not more. More is more. Readers of indie authors expect a lot of product. All of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  2. Write in series. Readers of indie works expect a series or at the very least related books in a universe or series characters. All of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  3. Have at least 3 books written before you start seriously thinking of marketing.
  4. Write in an identifiable genre. This makes it easy for indie readers to identify you. The genre doesn’t have to be large. It could be, for example, romantic space opera. While small, that subgenre is identifiable. Once again, all of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  5. Write well/Edit well. This should go without saying. Unfortunately it can’t. Pay someone to help you if you have to. Investing in yourself is always worth the money.
  6. Use social media to make connections with your peers. Don’t use it to sell. It’s a poor sales channel—unless you are paying for ads on the channel.
  7. Learn marketing. If you’re going to be an author/publisher, then you’re going to have to know marketing if you want to sell books. I wish someone had told me this 2 or 3 years before I started. This is critical. Marketing sells books. Wishful thinking and magic do not.
  8. Live by Heinlein’s Five Rules. If you are a writer, then you write. You don’t do anything else. Unless you’re an author/publisher and then you are going to have to also do the business end of things, like marketing, as well. But first and foremost, you write. Robert J Sawyer sums up the Five Rules very well. Do read them. Do follow them.

I hope this has been of value. Comments are welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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Just the Facts, Ma’am

“Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Those of us old enough to remember the original Dragnet TV police procedural show from the ‘50s will remember Sgt Joe Friday’s “All we know are the facts, ma’am.”

Facts, of course, are important to the plot of any good mystery. Factual integrity is also essential to any good story. As a reader, nothing yanks me out of a story faster than the author not knowing his or her facts. And in this day and age of easy research on the internet, there is no excuse on the part of the author for him or her to be guilty of gross factual errors.

Recently, a friend was telling me of a book she read that had 13 5-star reviews on Amazon. Aside from the fact the author broke most of the rules of good writing, the author (who shall remain nameless, as also the title of the book, to protect, in this case, the guilty) failed to do adequate research.

Now one would think 13 5-star reviews would indicate the book was going to be a fabulous read. Unfortunately, not so. Which goes to show how flawed the review system is on Amazon (and probably other vendors, as well). In spite of Amazon’s efforts, writers can still scam the system. Unless, of course, those 13 reviewers have such a low quality threshold they wouldn’t know what a well-written story was even if it jumped up and kissed them.

So what did the writer do, aside from the mediocre writing, that got my friend up in arms? Lousy research on Tylenol poisoning and hospital procedures regarding a person who’s attempted suicide. My friend, by the way, happens to be a therapist and knows something of procedures regarding attempted suicide.

A mere half-hour research, the old 5-click Google, gave me more information than I could possibly use, including case studies, on severe Tylenol poisoning. The result? Given the amount of Tylenol our ignominious author had the main character take, that character most likely would have died in a few days and not left the hospital the next day, all fine and dandy, as the author wrote.

But that’s where the second error comes in. A person suspected of attempted suicide, once in the hospital, would not be released the next day, but would be put on a 72-hour hold for observation and talks with mental health staff to prevent a repeat attempt. The main character in the book would not have been released the next day, even if okay, because the hospital wouldn’t want to be sued should the person make another attempt and succeed.

As a reader, such egregious errors on the part of an author make me stop reading and toss the book in the trash can. And I would not read another book by the author. There are, after all, a plethora of good books available to read and time is short.

In this day and age, conducting research has never been easier. The internet provides everyone with a surfeit of information on a wide variety of topics. Back in the late ‘80s when I wrote the initial version of Festival of Death, the first book in my Justinia Wright mystery series, any research I needed to do I had to go to my local library. If they didn’t have what I needed, the material had to be gotten through interlibrary loan. A very time consuming process and some of the information, such as that on the caves under Minneapolis, wasn’t even available.

When I rewrote the book two years ago, I never left the house. More information than I could possibly use on the Aztecs was found on the internet. Pictures, dozens of them, of the caves under Minneapolis and St Paul have been posted on the internet. The cave scenes, which previously had to largely be imagined, I was able to base on reality and thus minimize the use of creative license.

There is no reason for a writer not to get the facts straight. No reason other than laziness, that is.

My impression is today’s writer, this is especially true of indie writers, is in such a hurry to get his or her book published, and thereby get rich quick, he or she isn’t taking the time to edit, proof, and properly research the book. Such a practice is inexcusable. We readers deserve better treatment.

For myself, as a reader, because I’ve been burned once too often by shoddy editing and proofing and even worse by the often poor writing, I no longer buy indie books sight unseen. I at least read the “look inside” sample on Amazon or download a free sample. If the book passes muster on the sample read, then I will plunk down my hard earned cash. (As an aside, I no longer buy new traditionally published books because the cost is prohibitive. I only buy them used. And they too have too many errors for the cost. Gone are the days of the line editor, it seems.)

As a reader, I plead with writers to be quality conscience. Know how to tell a good story. If you need help, get it. If you can’t afford an editor, find a few good friends or relatives who know English grammar to read through your text. Read aloud a sample of one of your favorite authors and then read your text aloud. Does your text flow as smoothly as your favorite author’s does? Reading aloud is the quickest way to find clunky sentences and those which make no sense.

Writers, be proud of your work. Take the time to write well and accurately. Impress your readers and you’ll have a loyal following for life and maybe, just maybe, for the lives of your children and grandchildren. A legacy that lives long after you do.

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Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing for Indies

The other day I was wandering around Dean Wesley Smith’s website and noticed he has an online workshop covering Robert Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing. It had been quite a while since I’d read them (we’re talking decades here), so I refreshed my memory. I found a discussion on Robert J Sawyer’s website.

Both Heinlein and Sawyer direct the rules to those who want to be traditionally published. For Heinlein, he had no option. For Sawyer, he is entrenched in the traditional world and has no need to change them. However, I have little desire to pursue the traditional publishing route and thought I’d adapt them for indie authors. So here they are:

Heinlein’s 5 Rules for Indie Writers

#1-You must write

This should go without saying and yet so many writers don’t ever actually write anything. They talk about writing, take courses, frequent writing forums, or dream of the writer’s life. But when it comes to putting pen to paper or fingers to the keys — they don’t do it. Or if they do, and actually finish something, they are forever rewriting it because it isn’t quite good enough.

To be a writer, YOU MUST WRITE.

#2-Finish what you start

You can’t be a writer or even learn the writing process unless you finish what you start. Weak beginning? Flabby middle? Dull ending? Unless the work is a completed whole, you can’t see what works and what doesn’t.

In my forth coming novel, But Jesus Never Wept, I knew I was having problems in the middle. I resisted the urge to stop and fix them and bulldogged to the end — and then went back and fixed the problem areas, which were fewer than I had thought.

#3-Don’t rewrite, unless your editor says so

Rewriting is not writing. Writing is writing.

When I was submitting and getting my poetry published on a regular basis, I’d watch many poets on various forums rewrite the originality right out of their work. They’d end up with a flabby, lifeless thing done to death by committee.

Resist tinkering. We can tinker endlessly. There is always something that can be improved. But at some point you must resist the urge and say, “It is good enough.” And then move on.

However, if your editor (and all indie writers need an editor, whether paid or volunteer) says something needs to be fixed — pay attention. Ultimately, you are the publisher and may decide to reject your editor’s advice. But if he or she is saying something needs to be fixed, there is a good chance it does. Only then, do you rewrite.

Remember, rewriting is not writing. It’s rewriting. And we are writers, not rewriters.

#4-Put your work up for sale

In the old days, this was submitting your work to editors and gathering rejection slips. Thank God we don’t need to go that route anymore.

Today, the indie version of Heinlein’s point is to offer your work for sale and see if the reading public likes it or not. This is the publishing part of being a writer/publisher. Get the work out there. Promote it. Let the reader decide. Not some biased editor.

And if the public is not enthralled, listen to what they’re saying. But don’t automatically kowtow to their whim. Not everything we write will appeal to everyone. Sometimes you have to go with your gut. If your gut is telling you the work is good, then go with it. Realizing your audience on that particular work may be a small one. Leave the work up for sale and move on. The worst thing you can do is to remove work from sale. Build your backlist.

Which brings us to

#5-Leave your work up for sale

Maybe your book or story isn’t selling today. Or maybe the sales have fallen off. Don’t give in to the temptation to take the work down. That’s the beauty of being a writer/publisher. You can leave your book or story available forever. There is no publisher who is going to remainder it on you. No publisher telling you it isn’t selling enough copies. No editor rejecting your current work because your past work didn’t sell enough.

We can leave our work up for sale for as long as we want. We can market on our own schedule. We are writers and publishers. Our writing career is in our own hands.

Just remember: what isn’t selling today, may very well sell tomorrow.

#6-Start your next work

This is Robert Sawyer’s addition to Heinlein’s rules. And it’s a good one.

You can’t be a writer if you aren’t writing. And rewriting doesn’t count. Because it isn’t writing. It’s rewriting. The prolific authors of the past and those of today, the one’s who are writing to make money from their writing, start a new project upon completion of the old.

Write, publish, and start writing your next work. It is what Anthony Trollope did. When he finished one book, if there was still time left in his morning writing session, he took out a new sheet of paper and started the next book.

Like a mother robin, kick those babies out of the nest to make room for the new ones.

Writer’s write. If you’re stuck on a book or story, start a new one. A writer can always write about something. Don’t let writer’s block be an excuse not to write. I always have several books in progress. If one is giving me trouble, I put it aside and work on a different project. I am always writing. No day goes by that I haven’t written something.

Your mission

Follow these six rules and you will have a steady stream of work coming off our pen and hitting the virtual bookshelves. And with a little bit of luck and marketing handiwork, you may end up earning more money writing than from your day job. That’s my goal.

Happy writing!

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Justinia Wright and the Maltese Falcon

Who doesn’t enjoy working a puzzle to a satisfying ending? That written, I have to confess I’m not a big fan of puzzles. I enjoy mahjong and I play chess and that is about the extent of my puzzle solving endeavors. So why do I enjoy reading mysteries? A good question that.

I have to confess, when it comes to mysteries, I’m pretty fussy. They pretty much need to be private detective stories told in the first person by the “Watson”. Third person narrative puts me right off. I’ll accept a story told by the detective in the first person. It’s just that it bugs the life out of me when he or she says he or she knows who did it but it won’t tell us.

The other thing I’m fussy about when it comes to mysteries, is that I don’t care a fig about the mystery. We all know the detective is going to solve the crime. So big deal. No matter how puzzling, the detective will undo Gordian Knot.

What I find fascinating is the detective him or herself. If he or she isn’t an interesting person, then the author has lost me. That’s because any story I read must have interesting characters who deal with the nitty-gritty of life. Machinations of plot hold no interest for me. It’s the people. After all, isn’t it people who make life interesting? And if people make life interesting, it is also people who make fiction interesting as well.

So if I don’t particularly like puzzles, why do I write mysteries? After all mysteries are considered to be literary puzzles. I write mysteries because crime and murder are part of life. The dark side of people interacting with people. Macbeth murders the king and sets off a chain of events. We know he won’t get away with it. What interests us is how his life falls apart.

We know Sherlock Holmes will solve the problem. What’s interesting is his interaction with Watson, the suspects, and how he goes about collecting clues.

When I watch a movie directed by Yasujiro Ozu, there is barely any plot to speak of. What’s of interest is the interaction of the characters and how they go about attempting to solve whatever is the problem in the story. And the problem is usually rather mundane.

For me, writing a mystery is no different than writing any other novel. I either start out with the characters or I start out with a scene and then people it. Then, as Ray Bradbury advised, I let my characters do their thing and the result is the story.

In writing my forthcoming Justinia Wright mystery, But Jesus Never Wept, I started with a scene: Tina and Harry’s client has just been murdered by seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide. That is what I started with. Along the way my daughter told me about the Yakuza, Japanese organized crime, I liked the color it could provide, and it entered into the story. How the Yakuza fit in I wasn’t sure, but figured that’s Tina’s job. She’s the detective, after all. I was over halfway through the book and had pretty much exhausted my list of characters before I figured out who did the murder and why. I was on pins and needles wondering if I’d finish the tale without solving the murder. Not really. Because Tina gets the culprit. It’s what detectives do.

Near the end of my short story “Minneapolis’ Finest”, Tina tells Harry:

“First off, Harry, you read too many mystery novels. Every case in those books is a complex puzzle and things blow up and people are being murdered left and right. Real detective work is, for the most part, dull routine. Boring even. If mystery writers wrote what really happened, they wouldn’t sell a damn thing. Cozies are the worst. I pray to God you don’t read cozies.”

“I don’t.”

“Good. Detective work is dull routine mostly because criminals are dull and boring twits with big egos.”

And I think that is very much the case. Real crime is boring. Therefore mysteries, to be interesting, are for the most part fantasy. Fictional murders are complicated, done by a mastermind for nefarious ends. No mystery writer writes about a normal murder. If they did, who’d read it?

Because most mystery readers are looking for the puzzle aspect, I don’t specifically call my mysteries “mysteries”. Justinia Wright is a private detective. The books are subtitled “A Justinia Wright, PI Novel”. The focus is on her as a person, not the puzzle. I think of it as I’m writing character-driven private eye stories.

In some ways I see The Maltese Falcon as the model. The Maltese Falcon is full of interesting characters, none of them, including Spade, are particularly likable. I think the mystery itself is weak, overshadowed by the MacGuffin. Did Brigid really kill Spade’s partner? Or did Spade just throw her under the bus? The story is a classic not because of the plot, the puzzle, in my opinion, but due to the interesting characters. And that’s why I read mysteries. And write them, too.

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