Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Under Siege: Notes from a first-time novelist


For the last few days, I have been obsessively checking my email.  I check it when I get up.  I check it during breakfast.  I check it again when I arrive at the coffee shop where I work.  After that, I check it every five to ten minutes during the day.  Why?  What is driving this compulsion?  I am waiting for a particular email: from my editor, Kate.

A week and a half ago, I sent a draft of my novel Eagle to Kate, and like any author, I crave feedback.  I want to know what she thought worked and what she thinks needs fixing.  More than anything, I want to how much she liked the book.  I want validation.  And I do not think I am alone here.  Every writer that I have met shares my desire for positive feedback.  Especially unpublished authors—who don’t have sales to bolster their self-confidence—long to have people tell them that their work is worthwhile.  When I first finished SIEGE, I wanted to show it to everybody I knew, so that they would tell me that I was not wasting my time, that I was talented, that it was only a matter of time before my book became a bestseller.

This sort of feedback is not only gratifying; it is vital in reinforcing our identity as writers.  What’s more, critical comments are important in helping us improve our work.  However, not all feedback is equally useful.  There is a time and place for it.  If you get feedback at the wrong time, from the wrong person, it can be confusing or even harmful.  And the people who give feedback are not inexhaustible resources.  You don’t want to use them up before you really need them.  So let’s talk about when to get feedback, and who to get it from.

I’ll start with “who.”  The short answer is: not everybody!  You may really want to show your manuscript to every member of your family (I actually did), but be prepared for vague, useless, or even dispiriting feedback (i.e. don’t quit your day job).  Your family and friends will be more impressed when you hand them an actual book.  So I recommend only showing your manuscript to people who will give you quality comments that will improve your novel.  They need to be people whose insights you trust.  I showed Siege to maybe ten people.  Half gave me only vague feedback.  Sometimes vague feedback can be good.  More than one person told me the beginning of the early drafts was slow.  That was something I needed to know.  But in general, it wasn’t very useful.  As a writer, you need to identify a good support group: which means finding people whose input you value and trust.

Now for the “when.”  I never ask more than two people for comments on any given draft of a novel.  There are two reasons for this.  First, the more people I ask, the more varied the responses I receive.  Why waste time sorting through contradictory advice?  Second, different people give different types of feedback.  Some are good with plot, others with characters, others with writing.  And if I’m still hammering out the plot, it will do me no good to send my manuscript to a friend whose strength is commenting on my prose.

My wife is always the first person I ask for feedback.  She is the only person I ask to read my first draft.  She is great at telling me what storylines I need to expand on and which ones need to be condensed.  She always spots good characters.  In short, she can tell me what is good and ask for more of it.  This is hugely important when writing a first draft!

Other readers are better at helping me with the mechanics of writing.  My friend Lane, who is a screenwriter, is wonderful at zeroing in on problems with plot or characters.  My agent, Ian, is also good at telling me where the plot doesn’t work and at getting me to think about the larger picture: how my novel might fit into a series, for instance.  I get Lane and Ian’s feedback on my second draft.

I don’t show my third draft to anybody.  By the end of the third draft, I have figured out my character and plot, and in the fourth draft I focus on my writing.  I prefer to polish my prose myself.  Others may work differently, but I have a hunch that too much feedback on one’s prose at too early a date can kill one’s unique authorial voice.

My fourth draft goes to my editor, Kate.  And yes, that means that I’ve written four drafts before my actual editor even sees the book!  Why?  Precisely because Kate gives such good feedback.  She is great at providing holistic advice covering plot issues, logical inconsistencies, slow points, and style.  But nobody can give their best feedback the third or fourth time they have read something.  So I save Kate for the fourth draft, when the sort of all-encompassing overview she provides is exactly what I need.

Do you hear that, Kate?  (Ahem.)  Your feedback is exactly the kind I need.  (Hint, hint.)  So anytime you want to get back to me on Eagle

Next time: Me and Dostoevsky

The Guide to Literary Agents—an extremely useful book that helped me to find my agent—suggests that budding authors go to book fairs to meet potential agents.  So in the spring of 2008, I dutifully hopped on the train from Paris and headed to England for the London Book Fair.  Unfortunately, what The Guide didn’t tell me was how to go about meeting agents at book fairs.  As it turns out, there is a right way and a horribly wrong, painful way.  I experienced them both.

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in London.  I had never been to a book fair before.  It was spectacular in the truest sense of the word: a show worthy of being observed.  If you think of a typical bookstore as a human body—general fiction making up the torso, travel literature the feet, history the right arm, and so on—then a book fair is a bit like twenty bodies that have been massacred and their parts strewn all about.  It’s messy, overwhelming, and while it holds a certain fascination, after a while you just want to look away.

The London Book Fair occupies the entirety of the Earls Court convention center, a sprawling, warehouse-like structure that covers maybe three football pitches.  This space is filled with booths set up by publishers.  They range from tiny cubicles with little more than a chair and a bookshelf, to sprawling platforms with hundreds of books and separate conference rooms.  As far as I can tell, the publishers are there to meet with literary agents and purchase the rights to books, to network with suppliers (printers and the like), to publicize their upcoming books, to make connections with booksellers, and, most importantly, to get out of the office.  While the big publishers—Random House, HarperCollins, Quarto, etc.—certainly had imposing displays, I was more intrigued by the amazing degree of specialization of some of the smaller publishers.  I saw a booth containing only cookbooks, another for a publisher that specialized in books on plants, and a third displayed only children’s books about pirates.  On the one hand, this is great if I ever get around to writing my own pirate book for kids (tentatively titled Argh!  Where’s Me Booty?): I’ll know exactly who to take it to.  On the other hand, I couldn’t help but wonder about the poor editor who must spend all his or her time scouring the globe for the next great children’s book about pirates.  I guess that beats editing books on plants for a living.  “Flowers are so last year… tubers are the next big thing!”

But I digress.  The publishers’ booths are not the part of the fair that interested me.  I was there to meet agents, and they are mostly to be found tucked away upstairs in the relative calm and quiet of the International Rights Center.  Hundreds of literary agencies from around the world have tables here, where they meet with publishers to try to sell book rights.  Theoretically, the space is supposed to be limited to agents and publishers—i.e. unpublished authors like me are not supposed to be able to walk in and harass people.  However, by avoiding the escalator and taking the stairs, I managed to avoid the staffers who were supposed to check my credentials.  (I will leave it to you to conjecture what the lack of stairwell security says about people in the publishing industry.)  I had already made a list of agents that I was interested in meeting.  So, after wandering around a bit to get my bearings and summon up my courage, I sauntered over to an agent’s table and introduced myself.

This was a bad idea.  Approaching people cold is not, repeat NOT, the right way to meet agents at a book fair.  The agents are there to meet with publishers, and most of them have busy schedules.  The International Rights Center is hidden away upstairs precisely so that they will not have to put up with importunate fools like me.  So, in hindsight, I should not have been surprised when the poor old fellow that I approached reacted to me like I was some sort of venomous snake.  As I told him about my book, he refused to make eye contact, shied away, then eventually asked me “how did you get in here” before getting up and peremptorily walking off.  Needless to say, at that moment I had rather grave doubts about the wisdom of meeting agents at book fairs.  I was starting to think that I had wasted good money on my train ticket to London.

Luckily, I had also set up two meetings with agents the right way.  Several months before the book fair, I had sent out query letters to a few agents, describing Siege and informing them that I would be at the London Book Fair if they were interested in meeting.  After several emails back and forth, two agents agreed to meet with me.  Both eventually offered to represent me.  Did showing up at the book fair make the difference?  I don’t know.  But it definitely showed that I was serious, and it gave me an opportunity to meet two extremely nice, professional agents who, even had they not offered to take me on, still provided some great advice on both Siege and my career.  Most importantly, I got to meet my future agent, which is something I highly recommend.  After all, it’s nice to have met face-to-face the man or woman who will be holding the fate of your precious book in his or her hands.

In the end, I left the London Book Fair happy, and I have fond memories of it.  Just don’t ever make me go again.

Next time: Feedback (on knowing who to listen to, and when to listen)

Last week, I finished draft 3 of my next novel, Eagle (pats self on back).  The third draft is my favorite one to write.  Why?  Well, in my second blog entry (Finishing the Novel), I wrote about how producing multiple drafts makes writing easier.  Instead of worrying about plot, characters, and my prose all at once, I can focus on one thing at time.  It’s easier, faster, and in the end, produces a better product.

So on draft 1, I just work on getting the bones of the story down and finding each character’s voice.  This is a lot to do: the first draft of Siege took about a year; that of Eagle took five months.  The plot will still have some holes.  The characters will not be perfectly consistent or fully developed.  And while I try to write as well as possible, I don’t fret over every line.  The results are far from perfect.  In fact, they are often comical.  I have a tendency to subconsciously insert malapropisms into my writing, which always bring a smile to my face when I catch them later.  Two good ones from Eagle: “he knelt before the author” instead of “before the altar”; and “two-dozen writers in silver chainmail, broke from the hills” instead of “two-dozen riders.”  While the mental image provided by the second malapropism is wonderful, I like the first even better.  Obviously, I think very highly of my craft.

The first draft is a work that is still in progress.  As I write it, I make a list of all the things that I know will need to be fixed in the next draft.  These range from plot details to insert, to scenes to add, to information that I need to research, to chapters that I know will need to be deleted or condensed.  After draft 1 of Eagle, I had about fifty points in my list, ranging from “more on the Bedouin — have them save Yusuf in chapter 10” to “look up the dates of Ramadan for each year and make sure the Muslim characters don’t eat during the day.”

In draft 2, I incorporate all of these changes, and I focus on perfecting the plot and pacing.  I start by doing a reverse outline, which includes four to six word description of every chapter and scene in draft 1.  This outline is much easier to work with than the full text when it comes to making sure that scenes are in the right order or finding scenes that need to be cut.  Once I have the reverse outline down, I go through the text, cutting slow or unnecessary scenes and writing new ones where needed.  The goal is a fast moving story wherein every scene contributes to the plot, and where the details of the plot all make sense.  In a lot of ways, this draft is the most intellectually challenging and the most important.  It ensures that I avoid plot holes or dead spots in the book.  The second draft of Eagle took me three months.  It was time well spent.

As I said above, draft 3 is my favorite.  Here, the focus is on characters and themes.  I want to make sure that my characters are properly motivated, and that they behave consistently from scene to scene.  They shouldn’t be fine with their lot as a slave in one scene, only to have them plotting to escape five pages later.  (This happened in one of the early drafts of Eagle.  Oops.)  They shouldn’t make advances on the king’s wife, only to then to react with horrified indignation when she suggests they sleep together.  And, if they are shy, brave, or witty, then they should be consistently shy, brave, or witty.  Otherwise, the reasons for their personality shift need to be clearly laid out.  Each character also needs to have a clear voice, so that the reader can identify who is speaking, even when I don’t tell them.  Draft 3 is my favorite because for me, developing characters is the most satisfying part of writing.  Plot is fun, but characters are what will make your work come alive.

The fourth draft—the one I’m working on now—is where I finally start to focus on the actual writing.  I make sure that my descriptions are vibrant (i.e. “she had emerald eyes and smooth, golden skin the color of the desert sands,” not “she was beautiful”).  I make sure to show, not tell (“his jaw clinched,” not “he was angry).  I declare war on adverbs.  I avoid clichés like the plague.  And I try to delete every instance of “he said” or “she said” in dialogue.  “He said” / “she said” is a space-filler that adds no information.  The quotes already tell us that someone is speaking.  If you want to tell us more, then tell us more: “he groaned”; “she spat”; “he roared”; etc.  There is no sense doing all of this in the early drafts, because I know I will end up cutting a lot of what I write.  So I save the polishing for when I am completely satisfied with my plot and characters.

After draft 4 is done (next week!), I send the manuscript to my editor.  And then, someone else gets to tell me what parts of the book I need to fix!

Next time: Ye Olde Book Faire (in honor of the impending London Book fair, I will discuss what it’s like to attend a book fair, and whether or not young writers should)

In honor of the Academy Awards next Sunday, I have decided to write on one of my favorite subjects: movies.  And while this blog is mainly a convenient excuse to discuss my favorite films of the year (see the list below), it is also an opportunity to discuss how to become a better novelists by watching movies.  Before I wrote my first novel, I wrote several screenplays.  None of them were very good, but writing them did teach me three things that proved very useful when I began to write novels.  These are the same three things that every good movie has to teach.

First, visualize every scene you write.  In film, the writer, director, and cinematographer work very hard to get the visuals just right because part of what makes movies great is the beauty and grandeur of the spectacle that they afford.  The deserts in Lawrence of Arabia; the T-Rex dropping a goat leg on the car in Jurassic Park; the athletes running on the beach in Chariots of Fire: these are powerful images.  Even without the benefit of cameras, novels can and should produce images that are equally powerful.  When I write a scene, I always start with a very specific image in my mind of what it should look like.  My characters are not just in a room; they are in a windowless room in which the dark stone walls are lit red by the light of a banked fire.  Even if you are not going to describe it in detail, you should start every scene with a precise image in your mind—preferably one that looks cool.  This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to get so caught up in dialogue or advancing the plot that you lose track of the setting.  If you focus on visualizing each scene, your novel can be a “filmic” as a movie… and that’s a good thing.

Second, concentrate on action, not narration.  In movies, action is everything.  There is no internal dialogue.  (Yes, movies can use voice-overs, but generally the more they are used, the worse a movie gets.)  Everything must be shown, so plot and character are developed exclusively through action and dialogue.  All novels do not need to replicate this: there’s nothing wrong with books like Crime and Punishment, which take place largely inside a character’s head.  But if you want to write the sort of genre fiction that will land you on the best-sellers list—thrillers, historical epics, sci-fi, romance—then focusing on action and dialogue is the way to go.  Get rid of narration.  Don’t tell us that a character is sad; show us their tears.  Don’t tell us that time has passed (i.e. “she spent months preparing the fields for planting”); give us one or two detailed scenes to show us what happened (struggling with the plow, for instance).  Think of your novel like a movie: a series of scenes in which each one either develops character or advances plot.

Third, listen to what your characters say.  I know that when I write, I’m often so wrapped up in getting a plot point across or in developing the arc of a scene that I lose track of what the dialogue sounds like.  In movies on the other hand, when the dialogue is bad, it is painfully obvious.  For all that I love Avatar, it is a perfect example.  Some of the lines may have seemed fine on paper, but when spoken, they sound ridiculous.  So take a tip from the movies and make sure to read your dialogue out loud after you write it.  And prepare to be dismayed at how clunky some of it sounds.

Visualize; concentrate on action; listen to your dialogue.  Every movie you watch is a chance to think about and to work on these skills.  Notice how the director and cinematographer frame scenes: do the same thing when you write.  Concentrate on which scenes advance plot or develop character, and which ones could be cut.  And most of all, listen for good dialogue and use what you hear to improve your own writing.

Which movies should you watch to do all of this?  Well, I just happen to have compiled a list of my favorite films of 2009.  Just to be clear, these are not what I consider the “best” films (whatever that means); these are the movies that I must enjoyed watching.  And, of course, there are a number of films that I still haven’t seen, which might someday make this list (most notably: A Single Man, Invictus, The Road, The Last Station, Un prophète, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans).

And now, without further ado, my favorite films of 2009 (feel free to comment):

1)      Avatar – One of the best theater experiences that I have ever had.  A brilliantly creative world provides the setting for a rock-solid story.  Yes, the dialogue is occasionally off (i.e. “It was time to take things to a whole new level.”).  But the plot is very well-crafted.  Cameron introduces an entire world without ever slowing down the flow of the story.  The movie has some absolutely brilliant scenes—the first night in the forest of Pandora and the fall of the home tree in particular.  For all that people say the story was predictable and trite, it still kept me guessing: I had no idea how the avatar / real Jake issue would be resolved.  On that note, the idea of making the entire planet an interconnected neural network was quite brilliant.

2)      Star Trek – So much fun, and the idea of creating an alternate timeline as a way of rebooting the franchise was quite clever.

3)      Inglorious Basterds – A series of exquisitely crafted scenes that might not add up anything that makes sense.  But who cares!  The ride is exhilarating.  This is the best Tarantino has been sense Pulp Fiction, and in some ways, better.

4)      Food, Inc. – This movie made me stop ordering Domino’s pizza.  Ok, it was only for three weeks, but still, that’s impressive!

5)      Up – The montage at the beginning was perhaps the most powerful piece of filmmaking in 2009.  The rest of the movie was pretty darn good, too.

6)      Coraline – A perfectly magical tale and a beautiful film.  Those button eyes are damned creepy.

7)      Zombieland – There are a few small mistakes at the end, but for the most part this is a very fun movie based on a wonderful concept.  Two men—a nerdy college student who runs from conflict and a brawny redneck who embraces it at every turn—are poorly suited for modern life… but turn out to be perfectly suited for Zombieland.

8)      Orphan – A well-written, taut thriller.  Not even occasionally clumsy directing can overcome the wonderful script.  The film not only provides a wonderfully creepy antagonist, it also transcends the horror genre by creating well-drawn characters that make you care about them.

9)      Crazy Heart – Jeff Bridges is wonderful, and the songs sound just right.

10)  Away We Go – If you believe that true love—real, true, perfect love—still exists in our modern world, then you’ll enjoy this movie.  If you don’t, you probably won’t.  I do.

11)  Moon – Let’s hear it for models!  Moon shows that you don’t need a giant special effects budget to make a great sci-fi movie.

12)  An Education – A nice story about an old truth: the most important things in life are not learned in the classroom (although the classroom still turns out to be pretty important).  The characters are beautifully drawn, complex, and every thing they do seems both believable and understandable.  That’s surprisingly rare in movies these days.

13)  Goodbye, Solo – Solo is by far my favorite film character of the year.  The subject matter (suicide) is depressing, but Solo is so charismatic that he transforms sadness into poignancy.

14)  The September Issue – I don’t think I’ve every read a copy of Vogue, but I found this film surprisingly entertaining.  The characters are so good, it’s almost hard to believe they’re real.

15)  District 9 – Creative, well-shot, and surprising: not something one sees a lot in sci-fi action films.  I do feel like the film lost a bit in the second half, when it shifted from social satire to action, but still, it was loads of fun.

16)  The Hurt Locker – I liked the Hurt Locker, but I have some bones to pick with it.  It’s well directed, has good acting and showcases a very interesting world, but it doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, and what story exists is painfully obvious (who didn’t know the doctor was going to die, or that Beckham would show up again at the end).  It’s also a little offensive.  The Hurt Locker is ambitious in attempting to answer a very interesting question: if war is so horrible, then why do people go back?  Judging by the main character, the answer seems to be that soldiers are socially maladapted (the guy struggles to buy cereal) adrenaline junkies (breaking rules to put themselves in danger) who are only really good at war.  Er, ok.  Thanks for the insight.

17)  Up in the Air – The film is a bit breezy, but like its lead George Clooney, also quite charming.  Who knew a movie about firing people could be so much fun?

18)  Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – I don’t remember the book version having much of a plot.  Amazingly enough, the movie not only has one, it works.  Cloudy starts out with lots of wacky humor, but almost every zany joke has a plot payoff later on.  All in all, a surprisingly good time.

19)  Sin Nombre –  A well-crafted story about people whose paths cross while they are trying to escape to a better life.  It is set in a fascinating world that I knew little about: that of Mexican drug gangs.

20)  Sherlock Holmes – I didn’t expect a lot from this film, but I thought it was both surprisingly good and surprisingly true to the books.

21)  The Time Traveler’s Wife – I will readily admit that I probably enjoyed this movie far more than the average filmgoer.  What can I say?  I loved the book, and I thought the film did a nice job of bringing it to the screen.

22)  The Hangover – An brilliant premise and a very funny movie.  It loses its way a bit in the middle, but still, a very fun ride.

23)  Adventureland – A good year for Jesse Eisenberg and films with “land” in the title.  I found this movie equal parts sweet and funny, and absolutely endearing.

24)  In the Loop – A fun, snarky movie, but in the end, I don’t feel like it added up to much.  Maybe that was the point?

25)  State of Play – The plot has two too many twists, but it’s worth watching to see Russell Crowe’s performance.

Next week: Draft 3 (more on getting the most out of editing)

I have grown tired of winter.  The Friday before last, it snowed twenty inches (that’s 50 centimeters for those of you across the pond) in Washington, DC.  Three days later, the city was hit with another blizzard that dropped fifteen more inches.  Plows have pushed most of the drifts off to the side, creating mountainous piles of dirty, gray snow that are slowly turning to ice.  Walking the streets is like living inside a giant freezer.  I’ve had enough of it, and my disenchantment with winter seems to have infected my attitude towards blogging.  For the past week and a half, I have come up with any number of excuses to put off writing my blog.  I found myself longing for simpler days, when authors didn’t have websites or blogs.  Alexander Dumas got by fine with no web presence.  So did C.S. Forster, Robert Graves, and Hemingway.  All they had to work on was their novels.  Wouldn’t it be nice to return to those simpler days?

Well, on second though, not so much.  In Dumas’s day, writers lost all rights to their novels after they sold them.  The solution was to write serially for a newspaper, publishing a chapter each week.  If you could build up a big enough audience, then the papers would pay handsomely for your services, but you had to produce continuously.  Dumas wrote up to ten novels at a time this way.  Personally, I’d rather blog.

What’s more, in Dumas and Hemingway’s day, writers did a lot more than just write.  Before the internet, they went to salons, parties, or bars where they spent a great deal of time doing more or less the same thing I do on my website: creating a brand for their audience.  Hanging out with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a Parisian bar would no doubt be more fun than blogging, but it was also an exhausting way to live.  Hemingway rarely got home before 2am.  Dumas didn’t do any better.  Then they started writing.  Is it any wonder that these guys met tragic ends?

The author’s website is the modern equivalent of all this boozing and networking, and while it might not be quite so much fun, it is easier on the liver.  It has also become a necessary part of being an author.  One of the first things my publisher asked after they signed me was if I had a website.  And while I had planned on eventually creating one, I never thought in a million years that I would write a blog.  Yet here I am, and I am far from alone.  Go to your local bookstore and try to find a new book that doesn’t include the address of the author’s website.  Or better yet, save yourself the effort.  These days, it seems like every novelist has a website, and many have twitter feeds or blogs.

Is all of this really necessary?  Well… yes.  Websites are here to stay, and if you are planning on writing for a living, then you probably need one.  This isn’t a top priority: write your novel first.  But while you’re writing, you should be thinking about how you will create your website and what you will put on it.

Let’s start with content, because you’ll need to know what you want in your website in order to build it.  Some things are essential: a brief author’s bio; info on your books; a link to amazon.com where the books can be purchased; and some way of contacting the author.  After that, what you put on your site is up to you.  I recommend listing your favorite books: it will give visitors unfamiliar with your work an idea of what to expect from your books.  Blogs help to attract visitors to your site, and I have found mine to be a great way to force myself to think about what makes writing good.  (Until last week, for instance, I had never really thought about what makes for a great story.)  On the other hand, blogs are a lot of work.  I have seen several websites where authors take a less time-intensive approach, writing occasional articles related to their books (i.e. travel guides to places in their novel or recipes drawn from their books).  These are all good ideas, but the best way to get a feel for what you want on your site is to check out the sites of some of your favorite authors.  I think Stephen King and Conn Iggulden both have great sites, and I used them as models in creating my own.

Now for the hard part: how to go about creating your website?  I took the easy way out and hired someone to build it for me.  I provided the content and some design guidelines, and they did the rest.  I’m a writer, after all, not a programmer.  And while I have built websites before, I wanted something a cut above my foosball league website (don’t ask).  Think of how important book covers are in attracting readers.  Websites work the same way.  It’s worth paying for a nice one.  If you are lucky enough to have a friend who will design your site for free, then even better.  Otherwise, to find a designer, go to websites you like and check who they used.  Prices for designers very widely, so you can probably find someone within your budget.  And if you’re reluctant to pay for your site, just remember: the site will be up forever, and you only have to pay for it once.  If you really want to create your website yourself, then go for it.  WordPress is a good platform for building sites with blogs.  A note of caution, though: even if you are a programmer, building a site takes lots of time, time that could be spent writing.  And writing is, after all, your first job.

For the extroverted authors out there, a final option is to eschew a website and spend more time networking in bars and at parties: i.e. to become a personality.  If you choose this option, then I recommend adopting a distinguishing trademark: a pipe; a strange haircut; a monocle; or perhaps a very bright jacket.  Strange hobbies (like bullfighting or collecting umbrellas) work too.  It is a good idea to cultivate a mysterious silence, which you only break to talk about your book or critique other authors.  (“Hemingway?  Hmph!  A fool!  Now my book…)  Otherwise, you can go for the loquacious and urbane approach, but be warned: this requires a lot more work and a fair amount of wit.  Being silent is much easier.  Most importantly, becoming a personality will work best if you live in New York, London, or Paris.  No matter how charming you are in Omaha, Nebraska or Dallas, Texas, you’re not going to become a literary personality and best-selling author.

I don’t think I have what it takes to be a literary celebrity (and besides, I live in DC), so I think I’ll stick with my website.  In next week’s blog–Movies, Movies, Movies—I’ll discuss how to become a better novelist by watching movies.

Finding a story is not hard.  There are thousands upon thousands of them.  In fact, I have far more stories that I want to write than I have time to write them.  I found most of these stories without looking.  I’m an historian, so when I read about an historical event or person that might furnish the story for a good novel, I sit down and write up an outline.  That’s how I found the story for Siege.  Long ago, during my university days, I took a class in which I had to write a narrative history of the fall of Constantinople.  My professor liked my paper, but said that I had introduced to many elements of fiction, such as assumptions about the sun glinting off cannons (I had no way of knowing if it was sunny during the siege).  Very well, I thought.  If the problem is too much fiction, then I’ll turn it into a novel.  Problem solved.

I have stumbled across other plotlines while reading the paper or during conversations.  Some stories seem to come to me completely out of the blue—often during long walks.  I always carry a small journal with me so I can write these ideas down as they come.  More than once, a story has come to me in the form of a dream, and I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to write it down.

The hard part is not coming up with a story.  There are plenty out there.  The hard part is knowing if the story you have is worth writing.  Several of those plots that I dreamt up at night turned out to be decidedly uninspiring when I took another look at them in the light of day.  They lacked that key component, the one that makes people say, “Wow, I want to read that.”  But what is it that makes some stories more appealing than others?  What makes a story great?

To be perfectly honest, this is not a question that I had ever really considered before.  I knew greatness when I saw it.  Harry Potter: great idea.  Simon Scarrow’s Roman legions in Britain: brilliant.  As for my work, I simply picked stories that I loved and hoped that others would love them, too.  And that is important.  The number one requirement of a great story is that the writer think it is great.  You need to be excited to tell your story.  You’d better be, since you’ll be spending at least a year with it.  But there is more to finding a great story than just loving what you’re writing.  So, after much thought, I present my Six Ingredients for a Great Story:

1)      Find a great title.
This may sound trivial, but a great title can be the difference between people wanting to read your book and passing it over for something else.  The Devil Wears Prada is a great example.  That is a bestselling title.  And sometimes picking a title can help you to decide whether or not you should write the story in the first place.  Which of these books would you pick up first: Defender of Rome or Defender of Athens (or any other city not named Rome)?  Most people would go for the first title, because ancient Rome sells.  So does Britain, and to a lesser extent Egypt.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write a book set in medieval Russia or Mongolia, but you should be aware that it will be a harder sell.

2)      Find an interesting setting.
The setting can be the difference between a decent story and a story that people cannot wait to read.  There are countless murder mysteries and love stories, but a mystery set in ancient Rome or a love story set at a school for wizards instantly becomes much more appealing.  In some cases, setting makes the book.  The Harry Potter series is all about setting.  The plots are pretty typical for the fantasy genre, but Hogwarts is absolutely brilliant.  The same could be said for the smash hit Avatar: a movie with a simple plot but an incredibly creative setting.  The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is a collection of more or less typical mysteries, made much more interesting because they are set in Botswana.  So give some serious thought to the setting of your novel.  Instead of placing your police thriller on the streets of New York, why not set it in Spain during the Inquisition, or on an intergalactic spaceship?

3)      Make the stakes high.
The higher the stakes, the easier it will be to engage your readers.  A coming of age story is not intrinsically interesting, but the coming of age of Caesar or Genghis Khan is a different matter.  Their lives mattered on a huge scale, and so there are high stakes in even the trivial moments of their childhood.  Similarly, a detective story will usually be better if the detective’s life is a risk.  A love story will be easier to sell if more than just a relationship is at stake.  Or, if you are writing a military epic, then make the battles count.  The siege of Vienna in 1529 might be a fascinating military conflict, but what makes it interesting is that if Vienna fell, then western Europe would have been overrun by the Turks.  Drive up the stakes, and you’ll engage your readers.

4)      Know your genre.
There are certain expectations attached to stories in genres like science-fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, or mysteries.  Playing against those expectations can be effective, but don’t overdo it.  People like having their expectations fulfilled.  That’s why they buy genre fiction.  If you are writing an historical epic and have set two characters up as mortal enemies, then while it may be surprising for readers if the characters do not fight at the end, it might also be highly disappointing.  Know your genre and use its conventions wisely.

5)      Have at least one strong character.
Your story will only be as good as your protagonist.  Make sure you have at least one character who is likeable, interesting, and who has an arc.  They need to start in one place—psychologically, socially, romantically or otherwise—and end in another.  If your lead character never changes, then that is a sign of trouble.

6)      Know the beginning and the end.
Nothing is more important than knowing the endpoints of your story before you start writing.  You can blow almost everything else, but if you have a solid beginning and a powerful ending, then you’ll be alright.  This is especially true for endings.  How many movies have you seen that start great, then blow the ending (Eastern Promises being the ultimate example)?  How many books have you read that drift aimlessly in the middle, not sure where they are headed.  These are unforgiveable mistakes.  All great stories must have great endings.

There are three classic ways to satisfactorily end your story:

–          Emotional resolution – The romantic couple at the heart of the story get together, or are separated forever.  One character sacrifices his life for another.  The man driven by revenge finally triumphs over his arch enemy.  There are a hundred ways to do this, but the constant is that the emotional tension that has run throughout the book is resolved.

–          A twist / big reveal – New plot details come to light that alter the way the reader understands the preceding events, or that allow the reader to finally understand the plot in full.  Every mystery must have a big reveal.  Every story benefits from one.

–          Catharsis – A final conflict in which the book’s major conflict—whether within the protagonist, between two characters, or between two armies—is finally resolved.

The best endings will combine a bit of all three.  Regardless of which type of ending you choose (or even if you use one that I neglected to mention), make sure that you know where the story is going when you start writing.  It will save you time, prevent your plot from dithering, and improve your story.

Once you know your genre and have a solid title, an interesting setting, high stakes, good characters, and a brilliant ending, then start writing.  You’ve got a great story on your hands!  Even if you can check off only four of the six ingredients for a great story, then you’re probably ready to get going.  All you have to do now is tell the story.

Next week: Let’s get digital (on whether or not writers need a website)

“Write what you know.”  I haven’t been to a lot of writers’ workshops or taken a lot (or any) courses on writing, but that is one piece of advice that I have heard plenty of times.  “Write what you know” makes sense.  You can best tap into your characters’ emotions and states of mind when you have felt something similar.  I call on my experience playing American football when I write battle scenes.  I try to visit all of the cities that I write about so that I can convey what if felt like to walk their streets for the first time.  This is all well and good, but there is a danger in taking “write what you know” too far.  Obviously, if you are writing a science-fiction book, you should not attempt to build a rocket and shoot yourself into space to get a feel for your subject matter.  And time machines are (unfortunately) out of the question for writers of historical fiction.  This seems obvious enough, but all too often writers of novels set in contemporary times take “write what you know” to mean they should write about themselves.

While living in Paris, I attended a writers’ workshop in the musty attic of a suitably atmospheric English-language bookstore.  In the first meeting, when we went around the room to introduce what we were writing about, it sounded more like group therapy than authors sharing the plots of their novels.  A twenty-something guy who bounced from relationship to relationship as he struggled to find himself was writing about a twenty-something with little direction in life, bouncing from relationship to relationship.  A middle-aged man with fond memories of his trip to Cuba in the ’60s was writing about a young man in the ’60s who takes a trip to Cuba.  A retired diplomat was writing about an aging diplomat.  You get the idea.

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with semi-autobiographical novels, but writing them does run the risk of degenerating into a sort of literary masturbation.  The problem is that most people’s lives are simply not interesting, at least not to anyone other than themselves.  Would I want to read the fictional version of my life?  Um, no.  Not unless it was written by Richard Russo, Graham Swift, or the like.  A great writer—one with cutting insight into human nature and an ability to breath life into characters so that they seem more real than the people we pass on the streets—can make just about any story into a thing of beauty.  Books like The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy or Russo’s Bridge of Sighs are great examples.  The plots of these books are not particularly interesting.  What makes them great is the writing, the authors’ ability paint settings in vivid colors and to bring characters to life.  For authors like Roy and Russo, plot is a secondary consideration.  I think I would happily read a grocery list written by Arundhati Roy.

Unfortunately, most of us (and I definitely include myself in this category) are not great writers.  We may be competent, skilled, even highly talented, but very few of us are so great that we can get by on only the beauty of our prose.  If our writing is not enough, then we need something else: we need great stories.  And for most of us, that means that writing the fictionalized story of our life is not going to be good enough.  The good news is that being a great storyteller is much easier than being a great writer.  There are a million wonderful stories out there—historical epics, sci-fi adventures, period romances, corporate intrigues, family dramas.  If you’re having trouble making one up on your own, then find a real world even that inspires you—like the fall of Constantinople—and write about that.  Just remember this rule of thumb: you can almost always sum up a good story in one or two sentences.  If you find yourself rambling on for half-an-hour when people ask what your novel is about, then you might have a problem.

Next week, I’ll write more about finding a great story.  Until then, don’t forget that “write what you know” is not an invitation to literary masturbation.  Use your experiences but don’t stick to them.  After all, I didn’t have to be an Italian mercenary bent on revenge or a headstrong Byzantine princess devoted to saving her empire in order to write Siege… and thank God for that!

Last weekend my wife and I went to the Crystal City mall to return some clothes.  (I love the name “Crystal City.”  It’s evocative of The Wizard of Oz or maybe Superman’s fortress of solitude.  In fact, it’s an ugly, concrete, soulless suburb, filled with hotels for business travelers.  The mall is nice, though.)  We arrived a few minutes before the stores we wanted to visit were open, and so we headed into the Apple store to browse.  While playing with one of the i-phones on display, I had a brilliant idea.  I opened my webpage and then put the phone back, so that the first thing the next person who picked up the phone would see would be Jack Hight… Siege.  I did the same with the three other i-phones, and then with the i-pods.  The marketing campaign for Siege had officially begun.

Next up, I’m hitting the public computers at the local library.  Then, who knows?  Maybe I’ll head over to the Georgetown campus and pull up Siege on all the computers there.  There’s a whole world of possibilities.  Lately, I find myself slowing down when I pass computer or cell phone stores.  Now that I’m looking, opportunities for my underground advertising campaign are all around me.

This is not exactly the sort of thing I imagined doing when I used to dream about becoming a novelist.  Mostly, I thought about writing.  I figured that once I finished my book, I would sell it and that would be that.  I occasionally allowed myself to dream of a huge advance.  Lauren Weisberger, the author of The Devil Wears Prada, got a $250,000 advance for her book (the title alone was worth that much).  Stephenie Meyer got $750,000 for Twilight.  I spotted a trend here.  $250,000, $750,000… was I in line for $1.25 million?  Um, no.

Huge advances are not normal, particularly for first time novelists.  What’s more, advances are not what I once thought they were: a lump sump payment for the book.  Writers are paid through royalties, and an advance is money given in advance of royalties earned.  Writers receive no royalty payments until they have earned back their advance.  So in the case of The Devil Wears Prada, the first $250,000 that Weisberger made from royalties went towards the advance.  The good news is that the publisher will not take back your advance if you don’t sell enough books to cover it.  However, it is a very bad thing not to fulfill your advance, because it means that the publisher is not making money on your book.  This is unlikely to win you a second book deal.  So, the first goal of any book is to earn back the advance.  After that, every time a book sells, the author gets paid.

In my case, I received an advance for both Siege and Eagle, the first novel of the Saladin Trilogy.  So great: I’ve been paid!  I’m a working writer!  Only I didn’t get the advance all at once, because that’s not how it works.  Wisely, the publisher keeps the carrot dangling before me.  The advance is divided up into chunks, which are doled out as I complete certain goals: so much for signing with the publisher; so much when Siege comes out in hardback; so much for turning in a draft of Eagle; and so on and so forth.  In the end, the bits and pieces of the advance are not enough to live on.  (Thank God for my day job—academia—where they let me eat my carrot before I’ve written anything.)

But the size of the advance is not really important because in the end, (prepare for a shocking revelation…) what makes an author money is selling books.  If the book is a bestseller, then the author will earn the same amount of money, regardless of how much he or she got up front.  It works more or less as follows.  The author receives royalties of around 10% on the first ten-thousand or so hardback copies sold (the numbers are subject to negotiation); 12.5% on the next ten-thousand; and 15% on every book thereafter.  Royalties are lower (5 to 7%) for paperbacks.  If the author is lucky, then these royalties are based on the sale price.  However, sometimes royalties are based on the publisher’s net earnings.  Since publishers have a lot of people to pay—copy editors, managing editors, publicists, marketers, etc.—the net earnings are often only a fraction of the cover prices, maybe $4 for a $10 book.  At that rate, the author would make only $4000 if they sold 10,000 copies of their book.  Even if they were getting paid based on the sales price, they would still make only $10,000.  That’s not bad, but it’s also not exactly a guaranteed road to riches.

The point is that in order to make lots of money, an author has to sell lots of books.  And this is where my underground marketing campaign comes into play.  As the release date for Siege (May 27) approaches, look forward to seeing my website popping up on an i-phone or computer in a store near you.  You can do your part, too.  Tell your family to buy Siege.  Tell your friends, your co-workers, your enemies.  And don’t be afraid to stop in your nearest Apple store and bring my website up on every i-phone you can get your hands on.

Tune in for next week’s blog: ‘Write what you know’ does not mean write all about yourself.

After weeks of gloomy days and bitter cold, D.C. is once again sunny and (relatively) warm.  It’s a great day to be outside—a not so great day to be sitting in a coffee shop.  Today is one of those days where the last thing I want to do is to write.  (Well, maybe not the last thing—it beats cleaning out septic tanks or working in a coal mine—but you get the idea.)  On days like these, I think of what my high school football coach used to tell me: “When you don’t want to do the work, and you do it anyway, that’s when you get better.  Think of the other players sitting at home on the couch while you’re out here busting your butt.  Today, you took another step towards beating them.”  So now, when I don’t want to write, I think of those other writers at home on their couches, and I attack the keyboard with renewed vigor.

Or, I do the next best thing and take out the proofs for Siege.  Proofs are a mock-up showing what the printed version of the novel will look like.  It’s my job to go through them, correct any errors that I find, and make cosmetic changes where necessary.  I also have to check to make sure that I approve of any changes the copy editor has made.  Since my publisher is British, the changes sometimes seem rather odd to me.  For instance, I have learned that in British English “dead-end” is apparently not a verb.  So instead of saying “the alley dead-ended,” the copy editor inserts, “the alley became a dead end.”  Huh?  That’s no good either, so it’s up to me to find a third option.

I find this sort of work therapeutic.  It’s a kind of problem solving that exercises a completely different portion of my brain.  It’s something to do when I don’t feel like writing.  And luckily, it’s a never-ending process.  After I send back the first set of proofs, the publisher sends me more proofs to look over, and then another set, and so on until the book is finally printed.  Novels, I am learning, truly are never done until they finally end up on the bookstore shelf.  I find this comforting.  It’s nice to know that Siege is still there after all these years, ready for me to work on it whenever I want.  I wonder what it will be like when it is finally gone?  I suppose I’ll still have Eagle: Book One of the Saladin Trilogy.  I finished draft two last week (hallelujah!).  It’s looking good, and I have high hopes for avoiding the curse of the second novel (knock on wood).

Next time, I promise to get around to how authors get paid, aka Sorry, writing a novel is not a quick path to fame and fortune… For now, it’s back to writing.  Those other writers are a bunch of lollygaggers, taking it easy on their couches.  I’ve got to beat them!  (Beat them at what?  How?  I don’t know.  I just know I’m on the path to victory!)

On the weekend before Christmas, Washington, DC was hit by a blizzard that dropped sixteen inches of snow on the city in twenty-four hours.  DC is not equipped to deal with that kind of weather.  Cars were buried.  The roads were impassible.  Even the subway ground to a near standstill.  At the end of the storm, I braved the weather and went downtown to see Avatar.  The streets of the city were empty, covered in a blanket of untouched, powdery snow.  Most of the restaurants and stores were closed.  Only a few tourists were out trudging through the snow, the uncertain footing and their resultant stumbling gates making them appear zombie-like.  The city looked positively post-apocalyptic.

It was the perfect evening to escape to the richly detailed world of Avatar.  Say what you want about the simplicity of the movie’s storyline, but their can be no denying the beauty and originality of the world that James Cameron has created.  I am a big Cameron fan, and after seeing Avatar, it struck me that perhaps one key to his success (besides having gargantuan budgets) is that he produces, writes and directs his films.  This gives him a level of creative control that is rare in the film world.  A bad screenplay or poor producer can undermine even the best of directors (think Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).  More commonly—or so my screenwriter friends tell me—perfectly good screenplays are ruined by incompetent directors.  And a bad lead actor or actress can doom the efforts of all involved, as Ben Affleck has made a career of demonstrating.

This is yet another reason why I love writing novels.  As a novelist, I have total control over the end product; I play the role of writer, director, and actor.  There is no one to blame but myself if things don’t turn out as I planned.  I get to be James Cameron for every one of my books.

However, writers still need “producers,” and that is where editors come in.  Editors perform many of the same functions as movie producers, who select projects (i.e. purchase the rights to books, screenplays, TV shows, or other properties that can be turned into movies), commission screenplays, and oversee filming.  First, editors read the manuscripts that agents or writers send them and pick the ones that they think can sell as books.  As regards first time authors, they’re (I think) looking primarily for two things: 1) a great story that they can sell; and 2) a writer who will do the hard work to make that story even better.  Editors are not in the business of fixing flawed manuscripts.  Editors edit; they do not rewrite.  That is the job of the novelist.  The editor will provide vital feedback (sections that might be cut; places where more is needed; plot issues that need to be worked out), but the writer does the rewriting.

This is because editors are busy doing other things.  They have a never-ending stream of manuscripts to read and other books to edit.  And, once they have edited a book, they still have to serve as the coordinator of its production, publicity, and marketing.  An editor works with artists and designers to produce the cover.  (And I think they did a wonderful job for SIEGE.)  She works with the production editor, who oversees the copy-editing and the process of getting the book printed (picking the type; delivering the proofs; scheduling the printing).  She works with the publicity director to make sure that the book gets reviewed.  And, she coordinates with the marketing and sales department to try to get the book displayed as prominently as possible in as many bookstores as possible.  If you’ve ever wondered who decides which books end up on the newly released shelf or on that table you see when you first walk into a bookstore, well, editors have a lot do with that.

In short, editors are the “producers” of novels, working with the author and the publishing house personnel to guide novels from manuscripts to the hardbacks sitting on the shelves at bookstores.  They have a huge role in a book’s success… which is why I thank my lucky star (and my agent) that I have a great one.

Tune in next week to learn how authors get paid, aka Sorry, writing a novel is not a quick path to fame and fortune…

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Siege

"The greatest battle the world has ever known is about to begin!"

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