Archive | December, 2010

Are You Too Old To Write Fiction?

How old is too old to write a novel? Are you too old if you’re 75?

Margaret posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Do you think it is a waste of time and energy for a person seventy-five years old to work toward a career (maybe short) in the writing/publishing business? What is the general response of a publisher when receiving a manuscript from a person this age?

Randy sez: Helen Hooven Santmyer was 88 years old when her best-selling novel, AND LADIES OF THE CLUB…, was published. She died at the age of 90.

A mere youth of 75 who wants to write a novel should write a novel.

As for what publishers will think, their opinions will vary all over the board. You’ll find a few publishers who think that anyone over 50 is a lost cause. You’ll find a few publishers who think that a 75-year-old author sounds like a pretty darned good publicity angle. You only have to find one publisher to get published.

In fact, publishers are no longer absolutely necessary. Don’t get me wrong — it’s great to be published by a traditional, royalty-paying publisher who pays you an advance, handles the editing and artwork and typesetting and distribution, and does a bit of marketing for you. I’ve worked with royalty-paying publishers for my entire writing career. For 498 of the past 500 years, publishers were a practical necessity if you wanted to make money as a novelist.

But in the last two years, plenty of authors have found that they can do better publishing their own work as e-books. When I say “do better,” I mean, “earn boatloads more money.” For details on that, go read the last ten blog entries of Joe Konrath. If you can read all ten of Joe’s latest blog posts and still NOT believe that we’re entering the Golden Age for Authors, then you have no pulse.

So Margaret, write that novel. Make it the best piece of work you can write. Then take your best shot at getting it published.

What have you got to lose?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Should You Get a Degree in Creative Writing?

Many writers get a degree in creative writing. Should you? Why or why not?

Daniel posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, Just wondering what your thoughts are on this. I have started to write my first novel, have all the characters, what I think is a good storyline and it’s all coming together nicely, and I’m really enjoying it too.I am considering doing an Associate degree in arts (creative writing) or a Bachelor of Arts degree. Do you think this study which will take two to three years to complete will be worth it to expand my knowledge in the creative writing field or will it be a waste of my time and energy. Looking forward to your reply, Daniel.

Randy sez: A lot depends on you and what your goals are in life. I don’t have a degree in creative writing. I’ve sometimes thought it would be fun to get an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). A few of my novelist friends have done that. I may do it someday.

Here are the reasons I haven’t done it so far:

  • Time. It takes time to put into a degree program. There are plenty of low-residency MFA programs where you only have to be on campus for short periods of time every few months. But you still need to put in the hours at home. And I have lots of other things that I want to spend time doing.
  • Money. This is the same as time, because time really is money for me. (Not for everyone, obviously. If you don’t need to work, then you aren’t trading your time for money.)
  • I don’t need it. My impression is that most people who get an MFA are looking to write literary fiction, not commercial fiction. I don’t write literary fiction and don’t plan to, so an MFA won’t help me there. It might help me write a better grade of commercial fiction, but so would rereading any of the writing books on my shelf.

The bottom line is that I don’t want it enough to take the time and spend the money. But if I did want it, then I’d find the time and I’d scrape the money. When you want something bad enough, you do what it takes to make it happen.

Daniel, you don’t say if your aim is to write literary fiction or commercial fiction (or that rarest of all birds, the commercial literary novel). If you want to write literary fiction and if you have the time and the money, then I’d say to go get that degree.

By the way, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a useless degree. There may be useless people who get degrees, but a degree in anything, no matter how abstract, can be useful. I earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics years ago. Quantum field theory. Non-abelian gauge theories. Schwinger-Dyson equations. Solitons. Constrained systems. All that stuff. It was fun and I enjoyed every minute of it. I don’t use any of it now, but I’d never call it wasted time. It’s part of who I am. It taught me to think analytically. It got me a running start in doing software development. My eight years of training in theoretical physics (six in a Ph.D. program, two as a postdoc) made it possible for me to write fiction with realistic scientists as characters. I got what I wanted out of my education — a pretty clear understanding of how the universe works.

Be aware that you’ll probably learn a lot more about marketing your work at a writing conference than in an MFA program. You’ll probably also learn a lot more about how to find an agent and how the publishing industry works. I base this on comments I’ve had from a friend of mine who has an MFA and is often asked to do guest lectures to MFA students.

So if you want a degree in creative writing, go get it. Education is worth having. You don’t have to justify it to anyone.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Putting a Character Arc in Your Novel

Fiction writers often talk about a “character arc”. What is a character arc and how do you create one for your character?

Rob posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

How do you handle character “arc” in a novel? This seems, for me, the toughest part about writing any story. A character is supposed to change, but how can you do that believably? Not only that, how do you know your character is making the *right* change? What kind of change or arc provides a Powerful Emotional Experience? How do you fuse this change to the actual plot?

I have 1001 questions about character arc, so I’ll stop there. But really, I just don’t know how to make this work in a story. Help!! 🙂

Randy sez: I should apologize here for being off blogging lately. I work part time for a biotech company in San Diego. In August we started a new software project and it was my baby. It began consuming a lot of time in October. By November, I was working on it pretty much full time, which meant that almost everything else in my life had to give. I hate when that happens, but in that kind of situation, the only way through the swamp is to grit your teeth and plow forward. The project is now done and I’m back to normal hours. This happens to me about once every three years, so I’m hoping I won’t get swamped again for a good long time. Such as, for example, never.

In any event, I’m reading a book this week that contains the perfect answer to Rob’s question. The book is PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER, by my good friend Jeff Gerke, published by Writer’s Digest Books.

More about Jeff: Jeff Gerke has published about half a dozen novels and has worked as an editor at three different publishing houses. He now works as a freelance editor and also runs a small independent publishing company, Marcher Lord Press.

PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER came out just recently and Jeff sent me a copy. I’ve been slow getting into it (that darned biotech project has slowed me down a lot), but I’ve been making good progress in the past week and it’s fantastic on the issue of character arcs.

Writing characters comes easy for me, whereas writing plot comes hard. So I’ve spent much more time studying how plot works. Writing plot comes easy for Jeff, and so he’s spent a lot more time studying how characters work.

Jeff identifies five different parts of the character arc:

  1. Initial Condition (“including the “Knot”)
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Escalation
  4. Moment of Truth
  5. Final State

The Initial Condition is the state of the character when he begins the story. The “Knot” is whatever problem the character has that is going to be worked out by the story’s end (or which will do in the character, if it’s an unhappy ending).

The Inciting Incident is whatever happens to get the character’s life moving in a new direction. It’s the event that takes the character out of her ordinary world into the actual story.

The Escalation is the long series of events that try to move the character to resolve her Knot, along with her reactions to those events.

The Moment of Truth is the point at which the character is forced to make a decision to change or not change. Change means a happy ending. Not changing means an unhappy ending.

The Final State is the state of the character as the story concludes.

The above parts of the character arc are tied in to the plot of the story, but generally they are not the actual plot. A fully character-oriented novel can get by with no plot if the character arc is interesting enough. Likewise, a fully plot-oriented story can get by with no character arc if the plot is good enough.

Mystery series or certain adventure series are examples of novels in which there is minimal character arc. Sherlock Holmes never changes. Neither does James Bond or Jack Reacher. Novels with these heroes are about the plot.

It’s of course possible to have a “reverse character arc” in which the character starts out without a real problem and then over the course of the novel gains one. THE GODFATHER is a good example. The protagonist of THE GODFATHER is not Vito Corleone, the “godfather.” The protagonist is Vito’s youngest son, Michael, the only kid in the family with a stitch of morality in him.

Michael begins the novel as an amused onlooker (his initial condition), trying to convince his fiancee Kay that his father and brothers are criminals. When Vito is shot and nearly killed by another gangster (the inciting incident), the family has a council to decide how to avenge the attempted murder. Michael surprises everyone by volunteering to make the hit himself. But once he’s killed the rival gangster (along with a crooked cop), Michael is committed. As the novel progresses, Michael gets further and further enmeshed in the family business (the escalation phase) until he becomes the new godfather. But is he as tough as his father? Is he ruthless enough to kill his own brother-in-law after telling his sister that he’d never think of doing such a thing? (His moment of truth.) In Michael’s final state, his wife Kay has become a Catholic and she prays for his soul every day — like Michael’s mother did for her husband.

There’s a lot more to say about character arcs, but I’d have to type a whole book to say it all, and there’s really no point because Jeff Gerke has said it all extremely well in his book PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER. If you’re looking for a good book on fiction writing to start out the new year, this is one I can highly recommend.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Keeping Focused On Your Novel

How do you stay focused on writing your novel? What do you do when you’ve got so many ideas popping in your brain that you have a hard time finishing anything?

Marvin posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Randy, I am a new writer having only been writing for about a year now. I have written a few short stories, poems and screenplays in that time. I now decided to take the big step and write my first novel. I have started on two projects but abandoned them after a few chapters. I am now on number three. I feel strongly about this one. My problem is staying focused on the novel. I have so many ideas for screenplays and short stories I don’t have the time to work on them. They are a distraction. What is the best way to stay focused on a single project or do you think it is wise to jump around between projects? I really want to complete this novel. I have the characters and the story all laid out because it is a story I have already written as a screenplay. I would really love to hear your suggestions. i need help.

Randy sez: This seems to be one of the most common problems for writers, judging from the email I get.

First, let’s make it clear that it’s a good thing to keep focused. If your competition is working on one novel and you’re working on ten, the odds are extremely high that he or she is going to get a novel written a LONG time before you do. The odds are pretty good that you’ll never get one finished. And if you don’t finish it, you can’t sell it.

So how do you do it? There’s no foolproof way to do anything, but let me make a suggestion that keeps me on track.

Accountability. Find yourself a friend who can hold you accountable. That means four things:

  1. Goals. You’ll make a goal and let your friend know what it is. Example: “I want to finish a novel in the next 10 months.”
  2. Milestones. You’ll define milestones along the way that you must meet. Your friend should help you do the math to make sure that if you meet the milestones, you’ll hit your goal. Example: “I’ll spend 5 hours per week working on this novel.”
  3. Updates. You’ll routinely update your friend on what kind of progress you’re making. Example: “I’ll check in with you every Saturday to let you know if I hit my milestone for the week or not.”
  4. Penalties. You give your friend the power to exact a penalty for not meeting your milestones. Example: “Any week that I fail to hit my milestone, I’ll pay you $50.”

Will this work for you, Marvin? I don’t know. I know it works for me in making sure that I haul myself out of bed at the appointed time every day. Once I get rolling, that’s half the battle.

If accountability works for you, then you’re miles ahead of the game. And if it doesn’t, then you can try something else.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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