Sunday, June 17, 2018

Want to Improve as a Writer? Step One.

This is Lake Sakakawea, up in North Dakota. We just got back from a super long road trip to there from New Mexico to spend some time camping, boating and fishing with family.

This week at the SFF Seven we're asking: How do you level up as a writer?

It's a great question and I look forward to reading everyone else's answers - but I'd like to address something else first. This question makes the basic assumption that all writers want to "level up" - or improve. And improving can mean a lot of things to different people.

I suspect the person posing the topic is asking about becoming a better writer. How do we hone our craft and stretch ourselves as creators. I also suspect that many writers, if you ask them how they'd like to improve, are going to talk sales figures - dollars or numbers. Maybe they'll mention targeting their audience better, or switching up covers for better sales, maybe creating a new series and back-burnering an old one.

But the focus of "leveling-up" is often - distressingly so, to my mind - on selling more books for more money.

This is on my mind because I recently read a book by an Indie author that had me wanting to take the writer by the throat. I'll caveat this by saying I'm super pro-Indie. I self-publish this fantasy romance series, this contemporary romance series,  this contemporary romance stand-alone, and I'm continuing this fantasy romance series on my own. I'm also on the SFWA Self-Publishing Committee and serve as the liaison to the Board of Directors. I'd say I'm tremendously committed to self-publishing as it allows me to be a full-time writer (which I could not be doing solely on my trad income), and I think it's a great option for all writers.

That said... it really annoys me when craft is sacrificed for financial gain. In this case, I was reading the book - and I really like it! The magic system is cool, the characters compelling, the quest and conflict poignant, the love affair tense and full of hope and anguish. I've been looking forward to recommending it. But the prose keeps slowing me down. I finally started paying attention to what the hell felt so clunky and I realized: the author almost never uses contractions.

This was an Aha! moment for me because I've seen Indie authors telling each other this "trick." If they don't use contractions, it inflates word count and thus page count, making the book a longer read in Kindle Unlimited, which pays by pages read. And, yes, this book is in KU. I don't KNOW that this is what the author did, but I'm pretty certain. There's no good reason to have "could not have," etc., and never contract it. It's crazy.

Now, I know most readers won't notice this. Or, rather, they won't notice it consciously. The book has done reasonably well, but some of the negative reviews refer to it being choppy and repetitive. A LOT of that perception comes from not using contractions. There are some other issues, too, but I think as the writer grows, those will smooth out - but this not using contractions?


Seriously, if you're artificially inflating word and page count, then your attention is in the wrong place. There's a reason we have contractions and that's to make the words and story flow. Yes, yes - some writers have characters like androids who don't use contractions and that's a deliberate choice to reflect a lack of humanity. Even then it's a challenge to keep them from sounding, well, ROBOTIC. Also note: lack of humanity. The author I'm talking about used contractions in dialogue, which is critical, but the rest of the prose needs to sound like not-a-computer, too.

All of this comes around to Step One in Improving as a Writer: CARE ABOUT THE WRITING.

Don't make choices that elevate being paid by page over what makes the story good. It might work for one book, maybe even a few, but readers *will* notice. Tell a good story, yes - which this author did! - but tell it well. This whole idea of doing what you love and the money will follow? That idea presumes that when you LOVE doing something, you'll do it to your utmost. If you love the money more, the writing will show it.

Want to level up? First step is to care about being the best writer you can be.


  1. Isn't there are saying that you have to write 100,000 words for no one but yourself before you can write 1 piece to be published. As in you have to care enough be brave enough to put yourself out there. And if your faking it you cheat everyone including yourself. Gota keep it real.

  2. I'm going to guess that author didn't read any of their work out loud...

    1. omigod, I can't even imagine how it would sound! reading silently to myself, I could kind of blur it and get past that for the story, but...