Welcome to the premiere issue of the WKB newsletter!
Our intention with the newsletter is to provide you with the most popular WKB articles from the previous month and to feature bloggers who have articles in the WKB. We'd love to hear your feedback on what you think should be in the newsletter.
Since this is the first issue I'd like to quickly explain the sections you'll find below:
Featured Blogger -- This section consists of an interview with a blogger whose work ranks among the most popular in the WKB. The questions are from Elizabeth.
This month we have an excellent interview with Jason Black from Plot to Punctuation. Thanks, Jason, for the great kick-off interview and for being our guinea pig!
Popular Links -- This section lists the most popular articles in the WKB as determined by clicks on results links. The website has a list of popular links regardless of month so you'll only find the breakdown by month right here in the newsletter.
Getting to Know a Blogger -- The intention of this section is to highlight an author who has articles in the WKB and to showcase their most popular work. The selection is random.
Popular Links from around the Web -- This section is experimental so let us know if you like it. Like the Popular Links section, this list shows the best performing articles added to the WKB during the month as determined by popularity outside of the WKB. Nice trick, eh? ;-) The "problem" here is that this list is likely to be dominated by big sites such as Social Media Examiner and The Guardian. However, since Elizabeth added these links to the WKB they do have relevance to writers.
Finally, this is all a big experiment so let us know what you like and what you don't. If you like it, please feel free to forward it to those you think might also enjoy it. Thanks!
An Interview with Jason Black
Your blog, Plot to Punctuation, has solid tips for writers for everything from character development to POV. Is your background in writing as well as editing?
It is, although not in creative writing. I ended up with a technical writing degree in college, after I realized that my expectations of becoming some form of engineer were doomed by the fact that I didn't really care for math all that much, but that I was ace at banging out a term paper.
Following that I spent about 15 years in the tech industry doing software documentation. Along the way a friend introduced me to NaNoWriMo and changed my life. I discovered that writing novels was infinitely more fun than writing software documentation--Who knew, right?--and now almost six years later I'm getting close to where I can finally quit the tech sector for a full-time career in publishing.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see writers make?
How long have you got?
I could literally write a book answering that question, except I'm busy writing a book answering that question and I'd hate to spoil the ending. But if I can sum it up into four main buckets (really, really big buckets), they would be:
Of course there are times when you can break the above rules. Here's the kicker--until you understand why those rules are a good idea in the first place, you'll have no idea when and how it's ok to break them.
Failing to understand what "show, don't tell" really means and how to apply it. Pro tip: readers believe the stuff they figure out, not the stuff you tell them. Don't tell them anything, but instead, make them figure out everything.
Failing to understand what it means to "hook the reader," and thus how to create and sustain a hook. Five words of advice: Cut all backstory and infodumps.
Failing to understand the importance of conflict and the relationship of conflict to stakes. Hint: It's hard to have much conflict if your characters aren't pursuing meaningful goals.
Failing to portray characters as realistic, believable people. Emotional responses must fit reasonable norms of human behavior, and choices must be motivated by what the character wants (not what the author's foreknowledge of the plot demands).
How did you become interested in the editing side of the business?
When I started writing novels, I ran into a dilemma that will be familiar to most of your readers: how do I know if they're any good? Or more importantly, how can I improve the work? I gave my manuscripts to friends and family, asking for feedback that I hoped would point me in the right direction. You know, "this section kind of dragged. Shorten it, and create more conflict." Or, "in chapter one, your protagonist is 17 years old, but in chapter 3 she's 15. Which is it?"
Basically, I was looking for substantive critique about story structure, character development, and yes, writing craft.
Almost universally, the response from my beta readers was useless. The best they could tell me was that they liked it, or as one of the beta readers on my first manuscript's first draft tactfully put it, "it's not my cup of tea." Sure it's nice to know when people like something, but that's not feedback I could actually do anything with. Unless I wanted to revise the manuscript to add more tea, I suppose.
So I started hitting various online writing forums, places like Critique Circle, Writers Cafe, and the like. My hope was that other writers--by virtue of having struggled with story structure, character development, and writing craft themselves--would be able to tell me what friends and family could not.
What happened was very surprising. I spent my time on those forums giving other writers the kind of critiques I expected I'd be getting. But in response, most of what I got back was indistinguishable from the feedback from friends and family. Yet time and time again, people on those forums would thank me for my detailed critiques, saying they were among the best and most helpful critiques they'd ever received.
Eventually, somebody said "you know, you could charge money for feedback like that." And during a stint of unemployment after the economy crashed and the company I was at laid off half the company, I decided to see if she was right. And she was.
Have any advice for aspiring writers?
Wow, that's hard. Again, I could write a book, right? (The book will be available this fall, by the way.) But if I had to make it just one thing, it would be a piece of advice about what he purpose of fiction really is. This is subtle, so bear with me.
The thing about novel writing is that the story isn't the important thing. Nor are the characters. Nor is the setting, the stakes, or any of that. All of the elements of narrative writing are just tools that you use to deliver the one thing that is important.
The reader's experience.
Writing a novel isn't actually about telling a great story, with great characters, and hooks so powerful they keep people up way past their bedtime. Writing a novel is about delivering a great experience to the reader.
Readers don't read because they want to listen to you tell them about the exploits of imaginary heroes slaying pretend dragons in a place that doesn't exist (fantasy). Nor because they want to learn a lesson about modern life by watching the struggles of an office worker to achieve some small measure of recognition for excellence within the boundaries of his humdrum cubicle job (literary realism).
Readers read because they want to have an experience. "But it's not real!" you say. "It's all fiction! I can't give them the actual experience of slaying dragons, be they dragons clad in scales or Armani!"
That's true. You can't. But that's ok, because that's not what readers want. There is a real, 100% genuine experience you can give readers while they read your book. It's an emotional experience. The emotions a reader experiences while reading your book are no less real for having been triggered by imaginary things than are the emotions triggered by real life.
The novelist's true job is to elicit the reader's genuine emotions--empathy, concern, love, humor, frustration, et cetera. The story, and all of the narrative elements that go into making up the story, are merely the tools by which you do that. Your characters' clever backstories, the cool plot twist at your book's climax, those are only important to the degree that they help you elicit the readers' emotions.
It's all about the reader's experience.
You're a reader too, right? (Hint: say yes. Successful writers are also voracious readers.) So when you read, pay attention to the experience you're having. When the writer elicits an emotion in you, pay attention. Notice that. Then think back on what you've just read to figure out what the writer did, how he or she did it, how it was set up, to evoke your emotion. Get in the habit of deconstructing what you're reading, as you're reading it, to figure out why you're having the particular response to it that you are.
When you read something that really works, figure out why it worked. When you read something that falls flat, figure out where the author screwed up. If you're serious about writing, you can't just read like a reader. You need to read like a writer. Pay attention to your own experiences while reading, so you can learn how to create a powerful experience for your own readers.
How can writers contact you?
There's my website, of course, at www.PlotToPunctuation.com. My contact information is there, as is my blog, descriptions of my services, and so forth. But the simplest way is just to e-mail me at Jason@PlotToPunctuation.com.
Popular Results from the WKB
Getting to Know a Blogger
Michael is the Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers and blogs about leadership, productivity, publishing, and social media. He currently has sixteen links in the WKB.
Michael's most popular articles in the WKB:
Michael's most popular WKB articles on the web:
WKB Articles that are Popular on the Web
The Writer's Knowledge Base is the search engine for writers. It contains links to the writing-related articles collected and tweeted by @elizabethscraig. The WKB is developed by Mike Fleming and powered by Hiveword which is his web-based fiction organizer.
Elizabeth Spann Craig is a published author who blogs at Mystery Writing is Murder.
Mike Fleming blogs about technology and writers and tweets at @hiveword.