Q&A: On Writing

What do you try to accomplish in your writing?

The first thing, I guess, is to write something I would like to read. I like books that make me think and feel. I like books that are emotionally and intellectually honest, that tell a good story, but also strive for depth. I like to see the author’s heart in their work, and to get a sense of the flavor of their mind. So I try to put all that in my work.

How would you describe your writing style?

At the sentence level, I would say it’s journalistic. Journalism focuses primarily on the questions of who, what, when, why, where, and how. For me, the substance of a story and its characters are in those questions.

Some writers practice a more florid style, evoking emotion and meaning through rich description and metaphor. The ones who are really good at that are justly revered as masters. But there are few masters, and lots of writers who lard their prose with pointless description and clichés, which are metaphors that have lost their meaning through overuse.

I look at writing the same way I look at cooking. If you have really good ingredients, your job is to let their flavor and texture come through. They can stand on their own. You don’t do that by smothering them in sauces and spices. Bad ingredients need smothering to distract you from the fact that they’re bad. Bad stories often employ lots of adverbs, adjectives, metaphors, and similes for the same reason.

If you’re willing to do the hard work of getting to the heart of a scene, a character, or an event, you find yourself using mostly nouns and verbs. The story has a stronger impact when you put it in concrete terms.

When did you start writing?

When I was a kid, around seven or so, I used to write episodes of my favorite TV shows. At fourteen, I started writing fake news stories. The kind of stuff you see in The Onion.

I attended a Jesuit high school in Washington, DC, and we spent an entire year writing sentences. We had a workbook called Links to Forceful Writing that was full of exercises where you’d have to arrange a set of ideas into a single sentence. And then rearrange it, again and again and again, changing conjunctions, swapping out dependent and independent clauses.

I learned from that not only the mechanics of writing, but also how little variations in sentence structure can shift the focus of the reader’s attention and affect their ability to absorb detail.

We spent an entire year arranging and rearranging sentences. I don’t know if any school does anything like that today, or if the standardized tests even allow teachers to take the time to do that kind of teaching. But I credit my ability to think deeply to the Jesuits, and my ability to write clearly to Anne Obenchain’s Forceful Writing workbook.

In college and grad school, I studied English and American literature. Later, I taught myself to write software, which is what I do professionally. I put writing aside for many years, knowing I’d come back to it. When I finally did, I was surprised at how much the practice of software development helped me in the practice of writing.

How did developing software help you as a writer?

Big software projects, like novels, are too sprawling and complex to tackle all at once. You have to break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. You write the pieces, and then you put them back together to make the whole.

Much of the art of writing, both software and literature, lies in figuring out how to break the whole into parts. Which pieces do I need? How do I know they’ll fit together when they’re done?

The pieces you need are the ones you can actually write. If you write in short bursts, you need chapters you can write in a single sitting. As for fitting them back together… well, the reader actually does most of that work. Just give them the right cues when you make transitions. Help them get grounded in time and place before you lay another scene on them.

There’s a saying in the software world that your source code represents your best understand of the problem at the time it was written. That saying implies that your understanding improves as time goes on. It does. That’s why existing software is constantly being rewritten.

The same is true of writing. Your first draft represents your best understanding of what you’re trying to say. As soon as you get that out, you understand a little more clearly what you’re trying to do, and you rewrite.

Rewriting is probably the hardest part of the process, but years of writing software helped me get comfortable with it. It helped me understand when I’m forcing things and when I should walk away. It helped my understand the rewards of patience. I got used to the practice of spending a year or more on a single project, just to get all the pieces right.

In software, you have to be able to keep track of how numerous details fit into the big picture. And those details change all the time.

After you’ve been writing software for many years, you get so adept at managing all the pieces, you can do it in your head. You wind up working out a lot of design issues while you’re walking or biking or showering or cleaning the house.

For fiction, I do all the essential writing in my head, because it’s so easy to rearrange things there, and I don’t have to commit to any of it. It’s all open for revision, and I can try it a thousand different ways before I set it down on paper. By the time I sit down to write, I know the core of what I want to say.

I also write out of order. In software, your program might need to read a configuration file as soon as it starts up, then connect to the internet and perform a handful of other tasks. But you don’t write the program in the order that it executes. You identify the essential operations, and you write those first.

It’s the same with fiction. Certain chapters and scenes are essential. They’re the turning points in the story, or the parts that reveal character. When I understand them, I write them. Those scenes require inspiration. You can’t force them. So whichever part I’m inspired about is the one I work on.

The bulk of fiction writing, though, is like brick laying, and it just requires a lot of patience. When people read a really good book, they tend to think of the author as this brilliant architect. But remember that the architect just drew a picture of the building. The guy with the trowel and the mortar and the aching back and the calloused hands actually built it. That’s the writer.

What are you working on these days?

The final edits to Impala. I’m interested to see what readers think of that one. It’s funny how you can work on something for a year and have no idea how people are going to receive it.

Q&A on Warren Lane

Where did the name Warren Lane come from?

Warren Lane is the name of a tiny street in Charlottesville, VA. It’s only a block long. I passed by it one day in 2006 when I was biking to work and the first thing that popped into my head was, “That’s the name of my first book.”

For many years, I told myself that I’d write a novel someday. Now I had the title. Two words down, fifty thousand to go.

Did you know then what the book was going to be about?

No. I had no idea what it would be about.

So what made you finally write the book?

An old friend who had helped me through some hard times had cancer, and I knew she didn’t have long to live. She was a librarian and an avid reader. I had made a promise many years before that I would dedicate my first book to her. So now I had a sense of urgency. I wanted to get it done.

Did your friend like the book?

I think so. A few weeks before she died, she was making annotations in the margins of the draft I sent her, and when her husband asked her what she thought of it, she said, “He knows I’m on my deathbed. And he sends me a f***ing manuscript to edit!”

Where did the story come from?

I still don’t know. These characters appeared in my mind, and they were all very present. Very real. The good-hearted young man who drinks too much because he doesn’t quite believe in himself. The gifted young woman who’s too promiscuous and self-destructive. The sensitive, intelligent woman who chose what she thought was a good path, and then finds herself in middle age struggling with the questions, “How did I get here? And where am I going?”

To me, the story is about the characters, who are all slightly damaged and dysfunctional, but very human and likable. The most interesting people I’ve known have all been lost and struggling. They’ve all been seekers, and they often make really bad decisions that complicate their lives. But if they’re lucky, that’s how they find what they’re looking for.

The book is a twist on the traditional detective story. It has a strong, fast-moving plot, but as you read, you find you’re more interested in what’s going to happen to all these characters than in simply unraveling the mystery of what Will is up to.

I’ve talked to many readers, and the one thing that all of them have said is that they don’t know how things are going to work out. They get eighty, ninety percent of the way through the book, and they don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Where did the name of your press come from? Stolen Time Press?

I have a full-time job, a wife, and three school-age kids. When you’re at that point in your life, you find that all your time is owed to someone else. Any time you take for your own projects is stolen time.

Who did you steal time from when you were writing Warren Lane?

Ask my wife, and she’ll say from her. Ask my kids, they’ll say from them. Ask me, and I’ll say I took it out of my sleep. Everyone’s a victim. Or, what is the word? Contributor. Everyone gave up a little something for this book.

Warren Lane is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Kobo. The ebook is on sale for $0.99 March 20-27, 2016.

On Being a Self-Published Indie Author

Are you a self-published indie author by choice, or are you one of those losers who couldn’t get a book deal?

Yes.

What’s the process like? What happens between conceiving a book and getting it into the marketplace?

You get an idea, and you turn it over in your head for a while. You write a draft, and you think it’s great, so you show it to some friends. Then you think it sucks.

You do some major revisions, throwing out whole chapters and adding new ones. When you get to the fourth or fifth draft, you give it to an editor. Ideally, it should go through a developmental edit and a copy edit. The dev edit addresses big issues like plot development, pacing, character development, and themes. The copy edit addresses line-level issues, like sentence structure, clarity, and word repetition. Then proofreading catches typos, spelling errors, and other minor issues.

I’m lucky because my wife is designer, and in fact, she used to design book covers. She reads the book and comes up with a bunch of design comps. We go through them and pick one to develop. Sometimes she posts the comps on Facebook and asks people to vote on their favorites.

A good cover is a big deal. If your cover is alluring and gives some sense of what the book is about, people are willing to look at it. If you have a bad cover, particularly one that looks amateurish, people will assume you didn’t put much care or effort into the project, and they won’t look at it.

After we have the cover, my wife sets up an Adobe InDesign project with the interior layout and pours in the text. Then I fiddle with it for a long time, breaking the chapters into sections, making sure the formatting is correct, fixing widows and orphans.

When we have the cover and the interior ready, I assign an ISBN and upload the files to Ingram Spark and order a proof copy, which I actually read, cover to cover. I correct whatever errors I find, send the new PDF to Ingram, and then the book can go into production.

By then, it’s been a year or so since I first sat down to write the thing.

I’ll order a few dozen copies to send to friends and reviewers. Then I’ll create the e-book copies from InDesign and upload them to Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. I stopped selling through Google, in part because they kept changing the price of my book without telling me, and their price changes forced price changes on Amazon that I couldn’t control.

I chose Ingram over CreateSpace because Ingram lets you price your book on standard terms and accept returns. Bookstores require that, or they won’t stock your title. And Ingram is one of the two big suppliers in the US. Bookstores already have a relationship with them.

The production process is long and tedious. You’d better like the book you’ve written, because you’re going to be looking at it a lot.

And that’s just getting the book into production. Then you have to sell it. That part is really hard, especially for an Indie writer who doesn’t stick to any particular genre.

What kinds of challenges do indie writers face in selling their books?

The biggest problem is just getting people’s attention. Many people who would have been readers in prior generations are not readers today. They’re watching Netflix, or playing video games, or spending their leisure time on Facebook and Instagram. In the 1950s and 60s, those people might have been reading one or two books a month. Now they might be reading one or two books a year.

Then, keep in mind, when you write a novel, you’re creating a product that nobody asked for. And it takes, like, a year. What sane person does that? Would you spend all day cooking a big meal on the off chance that a bunch of people might stop by for a dinner party?

You get your book out there, and then you’re competing with millions of other titles on Amazon. Literally millions!

If you’re writing in a popular genre like Romance, Mystery, or Thriller, there are actually quite a few channels to help you reach your target readers. Paid promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily can promote your title to their huge mailing lists. It costs money, but it does help you build a readership.

If you’re not writing squarely within some well-defined genre, you’re going to have a hard time. I learned that the hard way with my first book. There are no readily available marketing channels for general fiction.

One of the most frustrating aspects of being self-published is that many high-profile publications whose reviews could help put your book in front of a large audience will not even consider self-published books. They say so outright in their review policies. Even some of the more popular independent bloggers won’t look at self-published work.

I get why that is. There are too many books out there, and most of them are really bad. Most reviewers don’t want to open the floodgates and drown themselves.

As a self-published indie author, you also don’t have access to the kind of paid placements the big publishers can buy. You can’t purchase prime listing space on the Kindle storefront, or on the new titles shelf at Barnes and Noble. Not because of the cost. Because they won’t sell that placement to indies.

So you have to go out and find as many small channels as you can, like bloggers with modest followings who review books like yours. You share things out on Facebook or Twitter and urge your friends and followers to pass them along. You write a blog to give people a sense of who you are, and you give away books to help build a readership. You have grassroots and guerrilla tactics, and you have to learn to use them.

In many ways, I think it’s a better system for writers and readers. Success shouldn’t be easy, because easy things attract lazy and untalented people, but it should be possible. The old system, in which agents and publishers had to guess what was worthy of publication, was never all that efficient, and its errors of omission–what was excluded from publication–were worse than its errors of commission–the published works that didn’t sell.

Publishers had no interest in the Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces. One of Elmore Leonard’s finest novels, 52 Pickup, received more than eighty rejections, even though he was an established author with a proven sales record. And J.A. Konrath’s novels were rejected over five hundred times–five hundred!–before several million readers got together and overruled the entire publishing industry.

I’m not saying the publishers short changed anyone. Most of what they turned down was probably crap. And who knows how many good books are lost in the current sea of publication?

Being an indie author today is a lot like being a standup comic or an indie musician. You can take your work directly to the people, though you usually have access only to small venues and limited audiences. If your work sucks, people will tell you. But at least you heard it from them. If it’s good, they’ll tell you that too, and they might even buy the next thing you put out. But you have to keep working. Getting people to read your book requires a combination of talent, quality, exposure, and persistence.

What do you like about being an indie author?

Being able to write whatever I want. And the sense of satisfaction when something turns out well. I like working with my wife on the design. I like to hold the final product in my hand. I like to send copies out to my friends.

I’m not in it for the money, because there is none. In fact, like most hobbies, you put more money into it than you get out of it. But when you send a book to someone you like, and they say, “Hey, I really enjoyed that,” it’s priceless.