If I Knew Then

I often say I learned the business of writing uphill both ways in a snow storm.

There are advantages of doing everything at least twice.  You learn it really well, which makes you a great teacher later on. The disadvantages are rather more obvious though, and they’ll come to you when you try to pay for your kids’ college or major medical care or something.

One of my favorite daydreams is of going back in time and telling young idiot me what she needed to know to succeed higher, faster and better.  Alas I can’t.  But I can tell you.

We’ll assume here you’re writing to sell, not to “educate the public”, advance your political agenda, show your mommy how smart you are, impress your college teachers, or any of the myriad things you could be doing by putting words on screen (or paper, if you wish.)

It’s not that there is anything wrong with any of those purposes, but holding fast to one or more of them will make it harder for you to sell vast quantities of books, which, frankly, if you do, will also help you advance any of those purposes if you have them.  Now, you’ll need to finesse it more and make it fun and interesting.  Yeah, I know.  But… It will pay off, both literally and metaphorically.

So  first:

1- Write for a reader
This one was very difficult for me, first because I think my “dark” and “icky” filters are broken, and second because I was, of course, a stranger in a strange land.  So I had no clue what was in the heads of the people I was trying to engage with.

Yes, I know that publishers will tell you they’re looking for the new, the fresh, and the diverse.

It’s not PRECISELY that they lie.  It’s more like they’re so immersed in the status quo and what crosses their desk everyday that what they consider new and/or startling different is something not very far off.

When I started writing I set everything in Portugal.  Makes a certain sense, right? I knew nothing else of anywhere else.  So, when I was starting out I was doing that thing that every editor later would want me to do “write authentically Portuguese fiction.”

O, brother.  (Can you spare a dime.)  Yeah, it was authentically Portuguese fiction.  Which would sell to an authentically Portuguese audience.  Mostly it just puzzled an American audience.  And it wasn’t even the big stuff, like pastries being kept on a counter unrefrigerated which led an editor (I kid you not) to call me a narrow minded and xenophobic pain, for thinking other countries didn’t refrigerate.  No.

It gets back to base assumptions and things that you haven’t even noticed are not common here, yet.  20 years of living in the US and I wrote a story set in Portugal in which someone is burning all the family papers after her grandmother dies.  This got interpreted as the character being crazy.  Uh… no.  Portugal has been inhabited since before humans were humans.  What it’s mostly built on is Portugal.  You don’t save every precious scrap of old letter/ paper.  You’d be trying to grow corn on them by now.  But I had no clue and the throw away line startled my writers’ group almost to death.

So, be aware of who you’re writing for.  Be aware of what they expect.  Yes, reading a lot in the field you want to write in helps, but also get your butt out there and meet people.  Yes, this might mean a job or volunteer work, but you’ll be better off for it. Forget write what you know.  Write halfway to what the reader knows.

2- Don’t Fight Stereotypes

This one is very difficult for me.  I’ve been known to write one-line walk on characters with fully developed stories.  One of the things that caught my husband’s eye in my first (thoroughly unpublishable) novel was that my walk on kitchen-cleaning slave had a personality.

Yeah.  It’s not a good idea.  Look, it’s like being original.  You want a bit of it but not a ton.  Sure your main characters have stories and ideas and original quirks.  But what do you gain by making the tavern master skinny and sour faced?  Oh, sure you can do it, once, and it’s amusing. But must you do it in everything?  It becomes a tiresome schtick after a while, if your German is excitable and not punctual at all, your Spaniard is disciplined and runs like clockwork, your cat chases your dog, your rat isn’t afraid of anything, etc etc etc.

Know what the stereotype is in your readers’ mind and play to it or opposite it, but don’t mix and match.

3- Don’t fight genre.

Yes, I know, you have a unique idea, uniquely yours.  Uh.  Bet you a dime it isn’t.

Yes, yes, genre is an invention of booksellers in order to know where to shelve books.  Guess what? We’re not past that yet.  The idea of shelves, the idea of lumping similar books together is so that you can find a book “sort of” like the last one you saw, so you can read it again but new.  (Yes, that is how most book addicts read.)

Thing is, your romance might have a little sci fi and a little mystery, but if you class it as one of those, you’re going to upset the devoted readers of the genre.  And if you class it as romance, you’d best know what you’re doing.  It’s not JUST having a couple in it fall in love.

And if you have a mishmash of the three of them, you’ll please no one.  At best you can sell it to “literary” readers, and honestly, as an indie you’re not what they want. They want the writers their professors raved about.

Pick a genre.  Learn its touch stones.  Mix in other genres cautiously and sparingly.  “Cross genre” is mostly a myth.  It can happen if you mist two genres in exactly the right proportions and cater to both.  But even then mystery readers will resent fantasy in their mystery, and fantasy readers will get impatient with the interrogation round.  It’s very difficult to do right.  While doing primarily one genre with a nod to the other will get you all the cross genre plaudits, and far less work.

4 – Tone down the depression.

No, really.  Even if it’s a sad book, have some wins.  No one wants to be battered to death with despondency.  At least not in a novel. Certainly not in a novel series.

Stay away from no-wins, no one is clean, etc.  Unless your book becomes an HBO series, your chances of selling are low.

So try to leaven the dark with some sparks of light, at least.

5- Beware people have different ideas of ick and horrible.

This is particularly important if you’re an historical fiction writer.

Take the custom of beating women, which pervaded most places in most times.  You might have grown up in a village where this was still “normal.”  And you might want to show how brutal times were in say Elizabethan England that this was considered perfectly normal even by a decent guy.

Having him make an off-hand mention of slapping an hysterical woman will MAYBE work.  Having him beat the tar out of his wife, won’t unless you’re going to kill him in the next ten pages, and want the reader to cheer.

And that’s minor.  If you’ve been doing research, you might think human sacrifice or cannibalism are just local color.

Your reader is unlikely to.  It’s not that you can’t use these, particularly to deepen the threat/horror.  It’s that you should be careful you only use them for that.  You should realize some things are very strong notes and if you put them in, people won’t even hear the other ones.

5- Don’t Make it a Futile Ending.

The caveat to this is that you can have a futile “it was all a big cosmic joke” in a short story, the shorter the better.  In a novel? A series of novels?

Well, if you do it well, you might sell them, but I hope you didn’t intend to sell to those people again.

I’m not saying you can’t end a book or  a series on a defeat. — look you, for popular fiction, I’d not make a practice of it, but…  — I’m saying you should make it worth it.  Sure, the last panning of the battlefield shows all our heroes dead, but over the rise a farmhouse is doing fine, and it wouldn’t have if our heroes hadn’t lay down their lies to stop the dread overlord.

Make it worth while.  The reader just invested hours (or days) of his life on your story.  Make the reader feel it was worth it, somehow.

Let a ray of light in.

Make your readers happy.  And they’ll buy you again.

82 thoughts on “If I Knew Then

  1. “One of my favorite daydreams is of going back in time and telling young idiot me what she needed to know to succeed higher, faster and better.”

    Young 1970s me would not have listened to Old Guy me. I’d have told me to cram it and kept going.

    Although, it would have been nice to know that the Soviets weren’t going to kill us all before 2018. Thinking back, that would have been a major plus. I used to worry about that a lot.

    And now I’ll actually read the article. ~:D Ghod forbid maybe I might learn something.

    1. I would listen to old me if I knew it was me. If it was a super short message I’d have to really think about how to say it, but with time for some conversation I’ve no doubt that I’d get through at least a little bit.

      Because my personal hang up has always been “I don’t want to work this hard if it’s not going to succeed.” Since we can’t see the future that’s a complete dead end because how do you convince yourself that you’ll succeed?

      Oh, I’d probably also tell myself… self, you got the highest score on your ACT test in Earth Science… just DO that. (Move that degree up 30 years…) Which was another case of not being able to see the future, not being able to know where the end was before starting.

      Not knowing the end before I start brings out all my control-freak oldest-child “issues.”

      1. I was an ornery know-it-all when I was a kid. Totally grew out of that, right? Now I’m just ornery. ~:D

        1. I was weirdly unrebellious, but very prone to figuring out all the ways that something could go wrong and extremely worried about making wise decisions.

          Mostly that was a Very Good Thing in the long run

    2. I’d include some winning lottery numbers for next few days in the message to help convince myself. Maybe not for the big win, though – that might be too selfish, or distracting, or something.

  2. but also get your butt out there and meet people

    Oh. Ick. Well, I guess I’m just going to have to give up this business then.

    I tried to be an introvert once, but it involved too much dealing with people.

    1. “I love meeting new people. Its the part where they run screaming and try to kill me that I don’t like.” Frankenstein’s Monster

    2. I’m the introvert’s introvert. When the introverts all get together, I’m the one sitting in the corner trying to make myself invisible.

  3. there have been several recent video games made in … let’s say, Eastern Europe… that I don’t care for because they have too much grimdark and a futile ending. Heck, I didn’t finish the last Deus Ex game i bought because i found out it had that kind of ending.

  4. 4 – Tone down the depression.


    For crap sakes people, are there no good aliens that will visit Earth just to hang out? Are there no benevolent but lazy AIs who could take over the world, but can’t be bothered? Is Frankenstein the only story anyone is allowed to tell about robots?

    Is every human in the future a lying, cheating, scumbag drug addict who lives in some slum with exotic alien diseases?

    Do children never have competent parents?

    You know what? I already read 1984. I’ve seen the boot kicking the human face for all eternity, okay? Its a stupid idea, and it has already been done a fricking zillion times.

    Let some fricking sunshine in. If only for the sheer novelty of it.

    1. “Amen!” cried the congregation, leaving unsaid, “I’m hungry! Can we adjourn to the pancake house yet?”

      It strikes me that if you wanted to make an Important Observation About the Human Condition, you might be more successful if you write it as a comedy, rather than a depressing tragedy. Worked for Sir Terry Pratchett.

      1. I’ve heard a rumor that it’s now a house of burgers. No more pancakes for you!

    2. For crap sakes people, are there no good aliens that will visit Earth just to hang out? Are there no benevolent but lazy AIs who could take over the world, but can’t be bothered? Is Frankenstein the only story anyone is allowed to tell about robots?


  5. Okay, just gotta say…that pastry thing baffles me. I mean…born and raised USAian here, and I…don’t refrigerate my pastries. Put them in a container so they don’t dry out? Yeah, absolutely. But otherwise, well, cold pastry is *gross*.

    I mean, the vast majority of grocery stores don’t refrigerate their pastries (unless they haven’t been baked yet). Is this some weird NYC publisher thing I’ve never heard of…? 😀

    1. These were cream pastries. I ate a ton of them, btw. I find the refrigeration fetish of born-AmericansTM bizarre. My husband is like “The eggs have been out three hours. We gotta throw them all out.” I’m like “Dude, we used to just leave eggs out. A week and a half is a problem, if it’s hot. Three HOURS?”

      1. Ha! Eggs have a coating from the chicken butt that protects the pores in the shell to keep contaminants out.

        Americans wash that off with sanitizers.

        Even so, you can leave the eggs out for a whole lot longer than three hours.

        You can also put the milk back in the fridge if it got left out long enough to get warm. It may take a day or two off the total shelf life, but really… it just gets cold again. I know people who will dump a whole gallon of milk down the drain if it sits on the counter for an hour.

        1. Indeed – ours are out in the henhouse overnight in 90-degree weather sometimes, before we get around to collecting them.

          ITO, I once got a hellacious bout of food poisoning from an unrefrigerated cream-custard filled Napoleon, bought at a Greek bakery. So I am now … very careful about refrigerating stuff. Or not letting it sit in the fridge for more than three days. Either eat it, freeze it, or throw it away.

          1. I’ll admit to leaving the eggs for days sometimes, in the 90 degree heat, before picking them. I washed a whole week’s worth this morning. There’s nothing wrong with them. The air pocket in the end is a bit bigger since it’s so dry here, but they’re far from rotten.

            1. Knowing the float test for eggs is a wonderful thing. Especially since I’m basically quick-trained for food sanitation as part of the camp certification.

        2. Milk is good until it starts to taste off; unless you drop something into it that contaminates it and grows, like listeria or salmonella. If it sours, make bread or pancakes.

      2. And ice in fountain drinks! It comes out refrigerated, how long are you going to nurse that drink? I get why restaurants do it – filler. Self serve? No clue – and I am born-AmericanTM.

        1. I get why restaurants do it – filler.

          The ice is more expensive than the drink. It’s not filler. It’s a percentage of Americans who insist on their drinks being glacial melt temperature.

          “No ice” works fairly well.

        2. I take it you’re not familiar with P.J. O’Rourke’s essay, “Among the Euroweenies”?

      3. In the country where I’m currently living, the eggs in the supermarket are on the normal, unrefrigerated shelves, and you’re not expected to refrigerate them after you buy them either.

        Now, I have heard that once you refrigerate eggs, you shouldn’t leave them out on the counter after that point — because they can “sweat” (acquire condensation on the shell) if they go from cold to room temp over several hours, which in turn can promote the growth of water-loving bacteria on the shell, which can then contaminate the egg when you crack it open. I haven’t been able to personally verify that, but I can personally vouch for how non-refrigerated eggs are still perfectly good (taste-wise) after a couple weeks at room temperature.

        1. We used to buy whole trays of eggs from sellers who had them in the tray, out in the open, or arranged in pyramids according to size and price. They were then kept in egg trays out on the countertop.

          I sometimes wondered if we could get a chick out of one of those.

          1. Now that’s an interesting thought… How many of those eggs were truly unfertilized? I’m sure the seller thought they were all unfertilized, but are they certain that the rooster didn’t get out and cover the hen(s) at some point?

            1. There was someone on Youtube who hatched a bunch of quail eggs that she bought from the store.

              We also would get the occasionally partly grown fertilized egg. And it wasn’t uncommon for us to find a spot of blood – signs of fertilization – in our eggs then.

              When we used to keep chickens we would separate the roosters from the hens by caging the roosters. They would be released when we felt that a new batch of chickens would be a benefit to the genetic diversity of the flock, but they were also tied so they wouldn’t kill each other.

              Except the bantams. The bantams would get attacked by the larger breed of hens otherwise. ^^;

    2. My local bakery says “leave it out or freeze it, but don’t refrigerate it”….and if you freeze their awesome pies, and then re-heat in the oven straight from the freezer, they promise the crust will be extra awesome.

  6. If you knew then what you know now, you wouldn’t be you.

    I go through this every once in awhile. I wish I would have done, this and that, differently. But then I’d lose the experiences that drove me into the things I’m doing now. And while I would like to change some things, there is quite a lot of what I’m doing, and am, now that required me to be in that certain place doing those certain stupid things then.

  7. As far as 2 goes:

    (1) You misspelled “stereotype.”

    (2) A related point that I’ve noticed is that “flat character” has become a serious insult these days, when I don’t think it should be. It should just be a neutral description of a character who doesn’t change over the course of the narrative, i.e. most of them. Your main character should be dynamic. You may have a handful of secondary characters who are dynamic. The rest should pretty much remain the same from first page to last.

    The belief that every character, from the main hero to Spear Carrier #5 needs to be dynamic or you’ve failed as a writer has created some truly unreadable drek.

    1. I typoed. My keyboard was having a fit of “I’m not going to react till two minutes later.” So I couldn’t read what came out.
      Let me look.
      I hate when Keyboard acts up. It also eats letters.

      1. I always thought “stereotyping” was when you had a keyboard for each hand, answering two emails at once. ~:D [running away faster now]

  8. A lot of negative cognitions hold us back. Fear of failure being the biggy. And finding you’ve slaved your guts over something only to fail is a very bad feeling. I tell myself it’s a learning opportunity, pick myself up and try again.

    1. You know, its funny. I don’t mind so much when I do a project, work hard, and then it doesn’t work at the end. The thing isn’t as good as I thought it would be at doing what it is supposed to do. That’s okay. I can learn from that and make it better next time.

      What I hate is when I’m working and I make a stupid mistake. Cut the board exactly, precisely, perfectly 1/2 an inch too short.

      Or the story is going along, and it starts getting stupid because somebody did something ten pages ago that the character would never do. Then the characters are all looking at me, rolling their eyes, waiting for me to go back ten pages and fix it.

    2. I hate the idea of never doing anything at all far more (quite passionately, in fact) than doing things that fail. I’d infinitely rather try (with my whole heart) and fail, than fail by never trying. YMMV.

  9. Maybe a 5b) Everyone has different ideas of “explicit”. Romances should have R, X, XX, and XXX ratings. It’s probably safe to assume that any not-YA (and some of those) is at least R, but some warning, please, when there are blow by blow (pun intended) scenes with sound effects.

      1. Mine are so stupid when I write them out. Far better to leave it all to the reader’s imagination, chances are good they’ll think up something better than I did.

        So my characters exchange meaningful glances, maybe some serious kissy face. Then cuts to a half-chapter of robots building the Trump of Doom out in the Oort Cloud somewhere, cut back to the next morning and she’s complaining there’s no toothbrush for her. Way better.

        1. I’ve found that pretty much all literary sex scenes can be summed up as, “Tab A got inserted into Slot B. It was the most amazing thing ever.” Just extend that out to chapter length and you’re good.

          After a few months of research, I’ve decided that if I ever do write the romance novel I have planned, it’s going to have to be a “sweet” romance, not because I’m a prude but because pretty much every sex scene in the romances I’ve read has bored me to tears.

          1. I skip them. They’re either boring or disturbing. As in “Man I wish I hadn’t read that!” disturbing. “Tab A was inserted into slot B, and then the moved on to…” I -so- don’t want to know.

            Whatever it was the author thought up, Rule 34 says there’s photographic example just a google away. I resist the temptation. Because you can’t un-see stuff.

            1. The first “sex scene” I ever wrote (and the only one that was “couldn’t be read otherwise”) was penned at age 13 with a YA protagonist on his wedding night. Some remarks about his bride’s figure in the twilight and “We had a very pleasant evening.” Cut to following day.

              1. Can’t remember which book it was, but I remember a first-person protagonist going into the bedroom with his wife, closing the door, and saying (in the narration, to the reader), “And the rest is none of your business.” Cut to next scene.

          2. I’ll admit that I like romantic kissing scenes – the description of emotions are things I enjoy.

            If I wanted to read porn, I read porn (and yes, I’ve found that I’ve flipped past sex scenes in romances before and often.)

          3. Which is why I was so surprised that I could read the sex scenes in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife series without flinching, and I figured out that it’s because she’s describing the emotional events rather than the physical ones.

      2. I can give Mrs.Hoyt’s stuff to the Yard Ape. It’s still too emo (romance wise) but give her another year or two and she’ll appreciate it.

        Quite a lot of YA is … not. There’s always been the Go Ask Alice element, but once the usual suspects discovered that it was a thriving market, we got the SJW colonizers, who have sex on the brain.

        It’s a disturbing phenomenon.

        1. “…SJW colonizers, who have sex on the brain.”

          I wouldn’t mind so much if they limited themselves to sex. I can flip past that.

          But because so many of them are depraved perverts, they keep re-defining ever-more-disturbing acts of violence and mental torture as romance.

          “If you love me, you’ll…” OH MY FREAKIN’ EYES!!! Brain bleach, brain bleach!!!!!! Ew ew ew ew ew….

          Its like a fricking mine field. I swear they’re trying to hurt me sometimes. For this I should pay money?

            1. Seriously, Sarah, who associates with these assholes? I’d be afraid to turn my back on any of them. Yuuuuck!

        2. I might be remembering this wrongly, but…

          I believe Go Ask Alice was assigned reading in one of my junior high school classes and I loathed it. I remember wanting brain bleach. Thank heavens the 45 years that have elapsed since then have erased most of the book from my memory, all except the sense of disgust that I felt while reading it.

          1. I remember discovering that book in the spinner rack at my Junior High as well. But I was trading Gor books for Andre Nortons with a pal at the time, so I’d gotten in the habit of targeted skimming by that point.

            So, happily, the only vivid image left from that book is the character ironing her hair: So peculiar.

    1. Ah yes. I’ve read a few of those. Some are downright terrible. Some aren’t too bad, in a corny, over-the-top way.

  10. – don’t fight genre –

    But, but… I want… actually, I want something relatively narrowly defined but done well with compelling characters so that when I pick it up I know what I’m getting. For one thing, a person *reads* differently depending on what they expect. Clues and foreshadowing depend on the reader knowing what is significant and what is “color”.

    But marketing! It might be that we need to find ways to describe our sub-genre in a way that’s not an incoherent mess.

  11. “One of my favorite daydreams is of going back in time and telling young idiot me what she needed to know to succeed higher, faster and better.”

    If I could turn back time (I really hate that song…) I’d go back to when I was a freshman in college and say “whatever you do, DON’T BECOME AN ENGLISH MAJOR! Even if you don’t stick with Psychology, get a degree in a field where you can actually make a living while you write your novel. You’re not going to become the next Tom Clancy right out of the gate. You stick with your current plan, and I guarantee you’ll spend your next six years after graduation either unemployed or stuck in Customer Service Hell. And you should probably transfer to a decent, non-crazy school while you’re at it.”

    Would’ve saved myself a lot of grief, heartache, and self-loathing if I’d been that smart the first time around.

    1. Well, I don’t personally regret the English degree. I never had any illusions that it would do anything but get me in the door in an interesting job. (Which it did – not a high-paying one, but an interesting one.) It gave me the ability to write, at any length, on any topic, in any voice or format, without being tied up in knots. (Which many of my peers were, when it came right down to it.)

      1. I don’t regret the degree per-se so much as I regret my doomed-to-failure plan that centered around the degree: get the degree, get a part-time job for four months while I write the next Great American Novel, publish the novel, make millions of dollars, sell the movie rights, make even more millions of dollars, go to sleep every night on a bed made of gold bars under blankets woven from hundred-dollar bills. No fall-back, no backup. Didn’t think I needed any because I KNEW I was gonna succeed.

        Yeeeeeah…. didn’t exactly go the way I’d known it would.

        1. Well, that sounds like the exact, and I do mean EXACT opposite of my problem. 😉

  12. I wrote Isabelle and the Siren specifically to write a clinically depressed heroine. I got a short story out of it and promptly wandered about telling everyone who would listen that I was NEVER doing that again. In spite of such temptation to the muse, I have kept that pledge.

    It is so, so, so hard to write a non-depressed story about a depressed heroine.

  13. I actually did go back in time and talked to the younger me.
    It scared the kitty water out of both mes, but it didn’t change my younger me’s behavior.
    And it made the friends of both mes think I was crazy.
    Waste of time, really.

  14. Let’s be honest, younger us would say after we left,”I knew those pizza toppings seemed off”.

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