Some of you may have noticed my WriteTip production has fallen off. I often struggle or fail to produce four new WriteTips a month as I used to every Wednesday. And sometimes I post old classics. The reasons for this have to do with many things but most responsible is the fact that after posting tips for eight years or so, I am running out of fresh ideas that seem worthy of them four times a month, so from now on I am designating the second and fourth Wednesday of each month WriteTips day. I will try and post them regularly those days, though I may do reruns of classics worth revisiting on occasion. I will continue my weekly Writing Fodder posts, as these are compiled throughout the week with links I find of interest and post that might serve as inspiration or education for writers. But the WriteTips have to slow down, at least for a while, and I hope you understand.
You can always revisit all the WriteTips by going to the WriteTips tab under the Blog menu on my site and scrolling through them back to the very beginning. Believe me, there’s plenty there. Hundreds of posts, and I doubt most of you have seen them all. They are probably the most complimented and signal boosted posts I make and many of them served as inspiration for my nonfiction book How To Write A Novel, portions of which I later turned into WriteTips of their own. In fact, I posted 85% of that book in segments as WriteTips. I appreciate your understanding and your interest. Happy and successful writing!
This week I want to look at a technique I’ve begun to use which has really enhanced my writing. One of the areas I struggled with the most as a beginning writer was descriptions. I came from a screenwriting background. I just wasn’t use to going into so much visceral detail, and I struggled to build a vocabulary that seemed authentic to my voice in writing them. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about and examining how to write visceral passages better.
When I started the John Simon Thrillers, I set it in 2029 Kansas City. And I decided to use as many authentic locations as I could for the story to lend it a sense of authenticity and to entertain local readers both. But I figured if I was going to write those locations, I needed to know what they were really like, so I began taking road trips to scout locations, much like they do for films and television. I took pictures, made voice memos, and even wrote a few sample passages describing what I saw, what I smelled, tasted, heard, and so on. This really leant my John Simon novels a nuance that readers seemed to enjoy so I have employed it as much as I can since (COVID period being excepted).
And there are a number of tools besides a map or GPS and my car that have added to my ability to find and scout these locations and write them well I thought I would share with you.
First, Google maps is fantastic because it not only has the geographic (default) mode but a satellite mode that shows actual pictures of places, and in some you can even do street view and view the area in 3D. This, of course, enables you to write descriptions in as much detail as you desire but also to pick out any unique features you want to examine more closely on your scout. Oh yes, you should still scout, because Google maps is only updated so often and it can’t capture the sounds, taste, smell, and so on of the actual place—things that your characters can recall as standing out most to make the descriptions jump off the page.
Second, do you have local film commission or a state one? And do they have a locations database? In Kansas City, the database is fantastic—filled with pictures and addresses of all kinds of locations, many of which I was unaware of and can use in my stories. You can find that here.
Third, good notebook or digital recorder is essential. For one scout, I had a longtime resident drive around with me for a couple hours and tell me all about the city, leading me to various locations that had historical importance or other significance for him and describing his memories. This was also a great way to discover cool locations to use in my stories, many of which I would have overlooked or not been made aware of easily on my own. I also use the recorder/notebook to record my own impressions in person at each location I scout, so I get a fresh bird’s eye perspective of what it’s like to experience them first hand and what really stands out.
Fourth, I recommend checking out the Images of America series of local books to see if there are any on your area. Several cover Kansas City in various detail, including one about the history of all the neighborhoods that really adds fun details you can drop into your story to add depth and nuance. These books are available at any bookstore, especially big chains in large numbers in the travel section but also via Amazon and so on.
Fifth, visit local museums and ask to talk to a curator or historian. Tell them what you are doing and ask if they have any insights or suggestions. You will be surprised what you come up with. And may even find a new friend or source willing to be available as a resource for answering questions and so on.
Sixth, talk to friends and family who live in the area or nearby and ask them what the interesting features are and what stands out in their memories. This is a great way to pick up little real descriptions that sound like people talk which you can drop into your stories.
In the end, putting in this effort will not only enhance your Setting choices themselves but the Descriptions you write about them, making them seem far more authentic than you could have managed using just your imagination or long term memory. For local readers, who can be annoyed by writers who just guess and get little details wrong, it will earn you respect. For nonlocal readers who may decide to go visit favorite locations from your stories, it will do the same when they experience the very same sensations you describe in your books upon their own visits. More than that, you can write with a confidence and surety that you “got it right” on a whole new level that will strengthen everything you write for that project.
That’s how I use location scouting to enhance my writing. What unique techniques do you use? I’d love to hear your ideas in comments. For what it’s worth.
I once had a fortune cookie which read: “Some good things will happen, but there will be bad, too.” I thought: now there’s a writer who’s afraid of risks. Seriously. They covered all their bases and what was the result? A pretty unsatisfying fortune. I mean, I knew that already. Where’s the excitement in that? What do I have to anticipate? More of the same.
I mention this because this is an important lesson for all of us who write: to write with an impact, you must take risks. Seriously.
How many times have you read something and thought: ‘I’ve seen this before’ or ‘how cliche?’ We’ve all been there, right? I think this occurs most often because writers play it safe. They’re afraid to take risks.
Although I’ve gotten really good notices for my debut novel, The Worker Prince, I did get some criticisms. Among them were comments suggesting I could have been more innovative at times. Even the reviewer who listed me Honorable Mention on his Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Years Best SF Releases for 2011 said this. So I challenged myself in The Returning, sequel to The Worker Prince, accordingly. The first book got notices for its complicated plotting. But in book 2, I wanted to step it up a notch and really surprise readers and myself. The fact that I succeeded seems obvious from the fact that as I went back into the manuscript after two months away to edit it, I found myself surprised at plot points I’d forgotten. ‘I didn’t remember doing that! Cool!’ is a good reaction for you to have to your own stuff. It’s even better, of course, when readers react that way. After all, we’re often so close to our own work, we can’t be subjective. Setting aside a manuscript and not looking at it for two months really does help though, but still, the final test remains what will readers/reviewers think?
Not that I’m suggesting we write for readers and reviewers. You can’t do that. But once you put a book out there, that piece of your heart, that part of you, it becomes part of a community who read it, and their interactions with it and responses to it become valid measures of its success, good or bad. That’s all the more reason why taking risks is so vital. We’ve all heard the saying: there’s no new plots, only old ones told in new ways. In Science Fiction and Fantasy, in particular, this is a common quote. And you’ll often find it true. But being original in your basic plot isn’t what gives your book the “Wow!” factor. It’s the approach you take which does that and that’s where risk taking can really pay off.
What are some risks you can take? Here’s a few examples:
1) Kill A Character—we all hate to “murder” our babies. (It’s a good thing to hate, I’m not arguing.) But it’s important to remember, these are fictional beings, not real ones. And sometimes what’s best for the story is what’s worst for them. Bad things have to happen to your characters to keep your story interesting, to raise the stakes. Otherwise, you’re setting readers up for a pretty bland read. So sometimes, killing characters, especially ones readers love, is a great way to add new energy to your story and the character dynamics of those who remain and surprise readers with unexpected twists and turns. In The Returning, the death of characters transforms the story, changing the course of other characters’ lives as well as the conflicts faced by the world itself.
2) Switch Genders—have a character who might fill a traditional role, such as male sidekick to male hero, be female instead or vice versa. You can develop all kinds of unexpected interactions and chemistry from that alone. For example, what if the traditional spiritual advisor to the king in your fantasy was a woman? So often we see that role as a man, a sorcerer or a priest. By making it female, new dynamics come into play. The male/female dynamics which now have a role allow you to examine gender roles in your world. What would the queen or other women think of this woman’s power? How does it affect their relationships? Those are just two examples of the dynamics which might come into play as a result.
3) Use A Non-Traditional Setting—Ken Scholes did this exceptionally well with his Psalms Of Isaak which has a mix of traditional epic fantasy setting elements and postapocalyptic SF elements (swords and bows, blacksmiths, horses, metal men, desert, sand, ruins, etc.) By setting his epic fantasy story in such a milieu, he keeps it fresh and fasncinating, even when familiar elements appear. And the furthermore, the setting encourages risk taking how he uses any traditional elements, including magic.
4) Do The Opposite Of Instinct—if your first thought is to do one thing, search for something else. Often our mind goes to the most familiar or obvious first, but the search turns up more interesting options. For example, in deciding about killing a character, I had to choose between a likable character and one who was more challenging for readers. I chose to kill the likable character because the ideas I had to further develop him were less interesting and his death created all kinds of dynamics for the hero and less likable character to work through. It just made sense. Both of them have dramatic arcs as a result of the death, whereas killing the less likable character would have actually removed tension.
5) Take Unique Approaches To Themes—Especially if you’re using oft-repeated themes (and let’s face it, so many of them are), it’s important to look for a new angle. What hasn’t been done or done the way you do it? Thematic elements add depth and wholeness to your fiction, but they can also be cliche, which makes it important to find ways to infuse your thematic elements with a freshness. For example, the Moses story which inspired The Worker Prince is about slavery, and to me, a big part of that was founded on ideological bigotry, so when I wrote the book, even though my main goal was to provide a rip roaring old fashioned space opera adventure, I worked in themes dealing with ideological differences and used real world religion as an example of how our own egos can lead us to judge ourselves better than those who don’t share our ideals. It can be a very subtle thing we don’t even realize we’re doing. But what if we did it so much it became normal and grew larger and larger? Could we really believe others are not equal to use as human beings as a result? Would we actually enslave them? It’s an approach I hadn’t seen taken to the story before, and so far reader response has been positive. Ironically, using Christianity as a real religion in my book, even though it’s not preachy or trying to push religion on anyone (their words) was a risk. I’ve had a few people who shy away from the book because of it. Ironically, those people often admit if I’d written it as Christianity but called it something else, they would have been fine. So there’s two examples of risk in regards to themes. (For more on Themes, click here.)
I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples. Please share them the comments so we can all learn.
My point is that risks are what keep your writing fresh and unpredictable not just for readers but for you. And the result of having to make risky or unexpected choices is being led to unexpected places in your character arcs and plotting. These, in turn, pull more out of you and push you in ways you’d never have been pushed. The result is a better book and you becoming a better writer. Recently I saw a friend’s debut novel get slammed by some reviewers who focus on fantasy. The reason? They said it was too much like what they’d seen before; too predictable; not risky. I’ve read the book and enjoyed it far more than they did, but how would you feel if this happened to you? I’m sure my friend’s next book will be far riskier in many ways. The reviews will push him to strive harder and think more about his choices and the result will be a better book.
We all have room for growth in our journey as writers. Where should you be taking more risks? When are you going to start? Beginning 2021 by taking some risks would be a great way to start, wouldn’t it? For what it’s worth…
When I was first starting out as a writer, I came out of screenwriting, which I’d studied in college, so one of my chief weaknesses was visceral description using the five senses. I wrote entire drafts of novels and stories with no mention of smells or tastes or touch, for example, and only used eyes and ears because they came more readily to mind. One of the beta readers of my first novel The Worker Prince wondered if everyone was naked because I never mentioned clothes, so I did an entire sartorial pass to add clothing descriptions here and there.
Over time, however, I’ve done a lot of work on this area, and learned that one of the most helpful skills you can develop is good sensory observation of the people, places, and things you encounter in the world around you. Like me, this may not come naturally, so here’s a few techniques to help you better develop this skill.
1) The Emotion Thesaurusby Becca Pugliosi and Angela Ackerman is an essential if you lack this natural ability. It is the one single writing book I carry with me wherever I go and might right, just to have handy, and it is the most worn out—page corners bent, cover bent and stained, and so on—of my writing books. This books is broken down by emotions and provides lists of physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and cues of acute long-term or suppressed experiences of that emotion. It is so well thought out and detailed that I have used it to create a whole new visceral vocabulary. Now I mainly refer to it when I feel stuck in a rut. I don’t call many writing books essential but this one is if you, like me, lack natural ability to describe by the senses.
2) Location Scouting—Just like movie crews scout locations for their work, so should you, if you need to improve descriptions. Go to the location or somewhere similar if you can, sit quietly, and observe. Take note of what you hear, what you see, what you smell, what.you taste, and so on and write them down for later reference. Then you will have distinct descriptive cues to pull from when writing that location or one similar. Obviously, if it’s a specific and well-known location, you are best off to go there directly to make these notes, but sometimes such travel is impossible, in which case, somewhere close can suffice.
3) Web Research—From Google Maps satellite and street views, which can be used to describe visual cues, to eye witness accounts written or on video, the web is filled with resources to help enhance your descriptions with first person accounts of various locations that can enhance your stories. Maybe the lighthouse they describe isn’t the one in your book, but it’s similar enough. Chances are the weather, the sights and sounds, and so on will be close and those fodder for your writing, so browse.
4) People Watching—My go to spot for people watching in the age of fading malls is Costco or Sam’s Club food courts. In a matter of a few minutes, you can overhear dialogue of people from a variety of age groups and ethnic backgrounds just sitting there nursing a soda and a slice of pizza as you jot down vocabulary or snippets of potential dialogue. Out of touch with how young people talk, you’ll get a refresher here. What about immigrants or senior citizens? All of them will be within earshot every few moments at a busy club store like these. I can spend an hour easily just making notes on my iPad as people walk by me. Don’t worry, if it looks like you’re writing, they’ll never know…or care.
5) Reading— Some writers are really good at visceral descriptions. Nicholas Sparks, for example, seems to be an expert at it, love or hate his stories. Regardless of your taste for genre, studying writers like this can give you whole new vocabulary and perspectives on how to approach description effectively in your own work, so don’t dismiss or blow them off just because the books they write “are not for you.” Consider it work research, not reading for pleasure, and take notes. It can greatly enhance your skill set.
6) Practice, Practice, Practice—It’s easy to overlook this last one because you may feel like it’s a waste of time. But you rewrite passages all the time when drafting your books, right? So what’s the difference with sitting down to practice description by writing down as many difference ways to describe a particular person, place, or location as you can come up with, one after the other? By practicing your descriptions, and varying them, you can learn a lot about describing and discover all kinds of new approaches and phrases that don’t readily pop to mind when you write, thus improving your arsenal for when you do write.
7) Patience—Last but not least, let’s remember this is a skill that like any other takes time to develop. Improving any skill is work. Don’t just expect to pick it up over night and move on. You will probably need to work at it. Why else would I suggest so many different techniques and approaches? The best way to improve is to employ all of them multiple times, until you don’t need to any more. And that will be a matter of months or years, not days or hours. Be patient with yourself. You’re trying to become better at your passion, remember? And being better will lead to better success and greater satisfaction—prizes well worth the effort.
So there you have seven ways to improve your sensory observation skills for better description. A write tip I hope is truly worthy of the name. For what it’s worth…
I have had a lot of opportunities to collaborate in my creative life, as a musician, as a writer, as an editor, and so on. I’ve had some bad experiences, and I’ve had some good ones. Thankfully, most of them since I became a writer and editor have been good. And I wanted to talk today about both the art and difficulty of collaborating.
First of all, collaboration requires humility. You have to recognize that you are working with an equal force—someone who is going to have an equal number of ideas and passions going into the project and an equal stake in the result. That requires you to be cooperative and considerate both in how you navigate and respond to the collaborator’s input. Sometimes, it helps to decide up front who will be senior collaborator. For example, when working with Jonathan Maberry in his universe, I deferred to him creatively. After all, Joe Ledger his IP, created out of is head, and his is the ultimate boss of what is canon and what isn’t. Interestingly though, when we did the Joe Ledger anthology together, Jonathan deferred to me more than expected on the editing role. He still edited and had input on story order and of course worldbuilding, but he respected my abilities and experience as an editor enough to let me take responsibility for some details that I could handle on my own without his involvement. We were thus able to divide the labor in some key ways that made it easier for both of us and saved time and back and forth.
Second of all, collaboration requires consideration. You are not creating your own work. It is a group effort. Whether the group is two people or more, the end result will come from both of you, not just one of you, and thus, it is important both of you feel satisfied with the result.Thus it is impossible to be a dictator and control freak when collaborating. You have to find a way to work together and separately in ways that compliment each other. And you must understand and respect that the final result will be something that encompasses both of your creative ideas and visions for the project, not just your own. In fact, inevitably it will be something Neither of you would have created on your own.
Third of all, collaboration requires mutual respect. Don’t collaborate with people you don’t respect. You’ll just be in for trouble. I’ve had the case where someone I collaborated with as an equal instead regarded himself as my superior and expected me to defer to him accordingly. Now, in experience, sales, and so on, we really were fairly much equals. He was not more famous or more respected, nor did he have an established body of work far exceeding my own. He just, I learned later, was a guy who believed he was a better writer than most people he collaborated with, and, as such, would be “in charge” of such collaborations. Needless to say, this made for trouble.
Fourth, collaboration requires deference. There are many times during collaborative ventures when you will find the need to allow the other to take the lead. For example, you divided a story into scenes and they wrote some, you wrote others, then polished each other. Well, when final decisions are made, unless you agreed in advance one of you would be the final arbiter, you will have to defer to your partner on his/her scenes. It’s theirs, and, after all, you’d want them to do the same on your scenes, right? You may have to defer to them on things they have more expertise or immediate knowledge of. If your partner is more experienced with a particular aspect of the project, let them take the lead and see it as an opportunity to learn from them so the next time, you can take the lead. This is appropriate. Let the person who has the experience and wisdom take the lead. They should do the same for you. And so on.
Fifth, collaboration requires mutual commitment. It’s kind of like the biblical concept of unequal yoke in a marriage. You need to be on the same page with your commitment to work level and time deadlines and so on. If not, one of you will feel they are more committed to the project or even doing all the work, while the other slacks off. So agree in advance on when things will be done by each of you and endeavor the best you can to meet these expectations. Otherwise, you are in for conflict.
Sixth, collaboration requires patience. Like any other situation when you might be working with other people, you must learn to be patient with the other person’s different way of doing things, different abilities, different expectations and so forth. You can’t expect two different people to see everything exactly the same or work exactly the same. It’s rare. If you find it, though, run with it and embrace it as the gift it is.
Seventh, collaboration requires communication. You must learn to discuss things more than you might normally. Operating on assumption is a pitfall that can derail any relationship, especially a collaborative one. It’s much better to anticipate and discuss potential problems or concerns before they arise than to try and deal with them after they happen when you are irritated or frustrated with each other. So communicate. Set some expectations and boundaries for your collaboration in advance then commit to meeting them so you are in it together. Most of all, remind yourselves constantly it is a team effort. Not “mine” but “ours.”
So there are a few hard learned tips for better collaboration. Can you think of others? Please feel free to contribute in comments. For what it’s worth…
A lot of people ask me how I recruit beta readers. And while I addressed7 Tips For Being Good Beta Readers in a prior post, I thought maybe sharing my Beta Training Checklist might also be helpful. The goal of the checklist is to help betas identify key types of problems they encounter throughout your book in a helpful way. In some cases, if they have notes to add, those are to be encouraged to clarify. Sometimes what they see as a problem, isn’t one. Other times, knowing their state of mind may help you narrow down a problem you couldn’t identify on your own.
For simplicity, the checklist is built on a lettering system, with each letter signifying the type of critique it is meant to provide. Without further adieu, here they are:
Instructions: Please use the following Checklist to identify any problems or issues you encounter in reviewing my manuscript. Mark the letter in the margin or in between lines at the spot the issue occurs. Feel free to use track changes to add additional comments and explanation if you feel they will be helpful.
Mark (A) For anywhere you feel Anger or some other emotion. Add a note if you feel the emotional reaction is not the one intended by the author.
Mark (B) For anywhere you feel bored. If you are bored a lot, it needs to be addressed. Sometimes it just requires trimming, sometimes there’s a larger issue. If you have an idea what the issue is, feel free to add a note. If not, leave it to the writer to figure it out.
Mark (C) For anywhere you are confused and feel lost.
Mark (Q) For anywhere you have questions that you feel need to be answered and have not been. Keep in mind though that if intentional, the questions will probably be answered later as you keep reading.
Mark (G) For anywhere you laughed, smiled, or really enjoyed. These don’t necessarily require comments but they encourage the author and let them know they are connecting with you as intended in those spots and you are having some fun outside the various criticisms and issues you’ve identified.
Now some of you may think this is overly simple, but it’s designed to be that way. As they learn to read critically, beta readers’ notes will get far more complex and helpful. But starting out, you need to make it as easy as possible for them to learn how to provide helpful feedback. The five areas signified on the checklist should encompass the key problem areas betas will encounter in any manuscript. When employed, they should reveal most of what you need to address to make the book better. Once memorized, the letter coding should also help you prioritize them as you review the notes and employ them in revision.
Like it or not, networking is a necessity for anyone who wants to succeed in the arts. And given so many creatives are introverts that makes networking a big challenge. But as someone who considers networking a key element in my career success so far, I have learned a few tricks I can pass on to make networking easier.
1. Networking is a long haul game. Networking doesn’t happen instantly. It takes an investment. So don’t plan to go to one event or convention and meet all your networking needs with one encounter. Each encounter/event is about laying groundwork that will pay off down the road, and you should approach them accordingly.
2. Networking is not all about you. Don’t approach networking as if it’s like handing out your resume. Networking is far more about other people. What you want to do is be friendly, fun, and interesting as you ask others about themselves and interact. Talk about their work, if you know it, or the latest movie or TV show, and so on. Find out what they do, what they like, where they live, and show genuine interest. Once the ice is broken and they are comfortable with you, they will eventually ask about you. That’s your chance to talk about yourself. And it may not happen in the first meeting but that’s okay. Networking is a long haul game, remember?
3. Networking is easiest if you avoid controversy. Artists are passionate people, and we tend to have strong opinions. But take it from someone who’s learned the hard way, there is nothing to be gained from engaging in controversial conversations with potential contacts. Politics, religion—anything prone to divisiveness—are not your friend and should be avoided. Save those conversations for private scenarios with people you know well and trust. There is a whole lot to be lost here, including not just potential relationships but reputation and so much more in the cancel culture environment. You lose nothing by staying away from those topics.
4. Networking requires taking chances. It’s intimidating to meet new people, especially for introverts. But that’s why you want to focus on what you have in common. Ask yourself “where are we and why are we here?” The answer already points to something you have in common. Build on that. Introduce yourself and ask about them, then take it from there. Let the conversation develop and flow naturally. It’s okay if it takes place in a circle of people or more than one-on-one, too. You are laying the groundwork for what pays off later, remember?
5. Networking can be a lot of fun. Don’t assume that every person you network with is the one who can buy your story or hire you. That’s usually not the case. But networking is all about who you know. Some of the best friends I have I met networking at various conventions or events. We discovered what we have in common, hit it off, and stayed in touch. And since networking is all about who you know, sometimes those people introduced me to people who bought my stories or hired me, and sometimes I introduced them. Or sometimes they just tipped me off to opportunities that I could explore and those turned into work. Networking is about building a network far beyond the “yes men” and power brokers so that you position yourself in the right place at the right time with the right avenue to reach out.
So hopefully this post has helped you rethink the process of networking and devise a new approach. Now you just have to put it into practice. Good luck! For what it’s worth…
This tip isn’t about fanfic of the free kind fans write and post on various online forums for such. This post is about something related but troublesome. This post is about unauthorized novels and fiction written in existing universes owned by others people are planning to profit from and promote.
As a freelance editor, I get all kinds of submissions. But lately I have had to field several of this type, and it was deeply concerning. Here were people who were huge fans who actually had the audacity to think their ideas were so good they had the right to publish material based on a major franchise without permission or coordination with those who own and manage that intellectual property. Folks, if you want legal trouble, this is a great way to go after it. But it’s a lot of effort and wasted at that, for you to go about it this way.
Let’s talk about how tie-ins actually work. Someone, usually a publisher, buys print prose rights for doing tie-in works for a particular property (Predator, Alien, Star Wars, whatever). They then hire writers to pitch stories that they pass on to the licensor who decides which to green light and which get a pass. The next phase are extensive outlines and approval by the publisher and licensor before the person goes off to write. Then, when all that is settled, they write the novel or story, then yet another round of editing and approval takes place, then the book goes to copy editing, layout, proofing, and so on. All this before it gets published. Almost never does it happen from someone writing a novel or story on spec and selling it to a licensor. You don’t know the inside scoop on what else they are developing, the secret rules of either where they want the universe to go or where they want to avoid, and so on. So anything you write on spec will most likely be seen as an intrusion because it was not approved properly first and did not go through the various steps.
Seriously. I can probably count on one hand the number of times anyone successfully sold a prewritten novel in an existing world on spec to a licensor.
So why write it? Seriously. If it ain’t your world, don’t write it. Not without permission.
It takes a long time and a lot of effort to write good fiction. Especially novels. And tie-in novels require extra work—attention to detail, long research and reading everything in the universe you can find, and so on. Additionally, since many fans have different ideas what is best about the IP and where they want it to go, you are very unlikely to write something that the licensor will totally agree with from the start, and once you commit it to a full manuscript, chances are it will feel very final to them in a way that seems past the point of input and revision, at least to the degree they think it needs. So to them it’s easier to just pass than actually try to negotiate and discuss with you how to fix it or have you write it over from scratch. Additionally, many writers are resistant to changes anyway, so that could also be problematic and why risk the aggravation when they have their own ideas and plans and they are the only ones with the right to pursue them anyway?
I get that you are enthusiastic. But there is a difference between enthusiasm and presumption. Presumption is misplaced. Enthusiasm is not. And writing a novel in someone else’s IP without permission is the height of presumption.
It just makes way more sense, if you’re going to put out that kind of effort, to expend it into developing your own intellectual property—characters, world and story—that you can do whatever you want with. That’s something you control and you alone have final say on. Sure, you will want editors and publishers to sign off and help you make it better. And believe me, they will do their best to do that. But in the end you are working for yourself. And all the rewards—credit and financial and inner satisfaction, the most important of all—will be yours.
And speaking of money, here’s the thing. When you do tie-ins in someone else’s IP, it is work for hire. You may get an advance, and sometimes you get royalties (sometimes you don’t), but the bulk of profit is theirs. And usually the royalty amount is much smaller than for an original novel because the licensor will take more than the publisher and force them to accept less so they pass it on to you. Now, if you have not been hired, it’s pretty arrogant to undertaking working for hire on your own. You are assuming a lot. And that’s not necessarily a trait people admire or respect. But more than that, you are risking a lot. Months or years of effort could be a total waste, with a manuscript stuck in a drawer for life with no output for you to share it.
I know you’re thinking: I’ll just post it as fanfic. But what if the licensor hates it and, in fact, hires lawyers because you violated their copyright by writing it without permission and in order to avoid a lawsuit, forced you to turn over all copies to them and promise to destroy all files and never speak of or share it again? What if they force you to sign an NDA or something that you will never publish it or risk a lawsuit? Where will all the time and effort get you then?
Okay, these are worst case scenarios. They are likely rare too. Not worth the effort. But they are possible. And there are assholes out there who might just do it to make a point. It’s happened. So why risk that if you’re going to work so hard on something?
The point is there are way more reasons why it makes better sense to concentrate and dedicate your effort on doing something that is yours and totally benefits you rather than expending it and risking it on someone else’s intellectual property that might not only go nowhere but not benefit or hardly benefit you at all.
So that’s why If it ain’t yours, don’t write it is a good rule to live by, and it’s why when people bring me such projects, I usually decline to work on them. And that’s not even mentioning the liability I could be sued as a coconspirator or something if the licensor gets mad. Those legal matters are a whole separate post.
So just don’t do it, please. If you want to write fan fic, post it on the forums, but don’t dedicate serious effort to producing fan fic you hope to sell. Instead, write something so awesome, the licensor or publisher might see it then invite you to pitch and write authorized fan fic. THAT is the real prize, and having done it, I can tell you it never gets old. But only if you do it the right way.
DISCLAIMER: I am no lawyer. And I am not an agent. So I am not one to give legal advice. This counts more as common sense so keep that in mind. I want to say this about contracts, and it’s learned from experience:
No deal is always better than a bad deal.
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time negotiating contracts, and it’s got me thinking back ten years to when I first started out as a writer. For the first two or three years especially, it seemed like I was never going to get a sale, let alone a pro sale. And that made me feel like my legitimacy as a writer was very much in question. So one day, when a deal came along that paid pro rates and offered me that opportunity, I faced a real delimma. See, they were paying me ten cents per word. And that was at a time when 6 cents per word was the pro standard, so this was great pay. But in exchange they wanted my copyright and along with it the right to rewrite me however they chose without my involvement if they decided to do so.
Man, I really liked everything about that project. I really wanted to be a part of it. Until I heard the deal points. It’s evidence of my desperation that I spent a few days actually weighing it before turning them down. Now a days, it would be a nonstarter, and, in fact, a sign that I should never do business with those people again. That’s outrageous. Writers are not slaves. Our intellectual property is our most valuable commodity, and if our name goes on it, you shouldn’t change a word we don’t agree to. It doesn’t matter how much you pay us—that’s nonegotiable. But as it was, I really wanted to be seen as a pro with a sale to prove it, so I did spend a few days considering what to do before I made the decision to decline. And just to prove what shitty people they were, the editor told me how I’d regret my decision and what a fool I was being—clear signs, I now know, of sharks and jerks I should never go near. But at the time, I had a lot to learn, so I wondered for a period if I should have taken the deal.
Seven years or so later, I have zero regrets about that decision. In fact, I have found myself in the position on occasion as anthologist defending my writers against that very type of rights grab. To me, it’s a nonstarter. And it should be for you and any creative. Unless the work is an exiting IP work for hire situation, you should never be asked to relinquish control of it by anyone. Now, if you are unreasonable about reasonable edits and copy edits and style changes, then they have every right not to publish you. And you should expect as much. So don’t be a dick. Be reasonable. But that’s not the same as rewriting someone’s work without them. I would never want my name on work that was not entirely my own, would you? In work for hire, you might not have a choice but with your own original work, you always should and do.
So, again, I advise you to remember this one thing when it comes to selling your work or negotiating any contract:
no deal is always better than a bad deal.
Of course, I also advise you to seek advice of knowledgeable people so you know what is reasonable and what to expect. After all, some deal points are standard, and you may not understand or like all of them, but that’s part of the business and there are reasons for them. Publishers are in the business to make money, and the goal of each side in any contract negotiation is to negotiate terms most favorable to them. There’s always some give and take involved. But when you know industry standard terms, you can tell when you are being treated fairly and reasonably within bounds and when people step over the line, and to me, that is the difference between a bad deal and a good one. The thing is that the industry standard terms have been negotiated or hard fought by writers organizations, writers, agents, and publishers over a number of years and represent the most reasonable compromise between both groups’ expectations. You are never going to get a deal with a publisher that is not at least somewhat more favorable toward the publisher because they are the ones putting out the money and assuming the financial risk, and they also have more overhead than you do on a number of levels. But over time, writers and their representatives have worked hard to work out terms everyone can live with in regards to not only royalties but exclusivity clauses, options, reversion rights, and so on. So familiarizing yourself with what the standards are can ease your mind and reassure you that you are making the best deal possible, all things considered. (Hint: The boiler plate almost never reflects these standards, so never take the first thing offered. Always expect to negotiate a bit. The exception may be contracts with magazines and such, but most of the time, negotiation is expected.)
In the end, a bad deal is very hard to live with. It will haunt you and come back to make you hurt over it and regret it many times over. Whereas the deal you thought you regretted passing up, will disappear with time. That deal I mentioned that could have been my first pro sale? This is the first time I’ve thought of it in several years. Why? Because I long ago moved past it and had successes and learned what is and isn’t fair and reasonable, and that gave me perspective that I had done the right thing. But bad deals cannot be undone, or at least, they are very hard to undo—and very expensive. So never let yourself be talked into a deal that doesn’t feel comfortable. Because it’s far easier to wonder over and over “what if” than to ask yourself over and over “how could I have been such a fool.”
And that’s why no deal is always better than a bad deal. For what it’s worth.
Today’s WriteTip is a guest post by Desiree Villena from Reedsy.
By Desiree Villena
When every TV show, video game, book, and film these days is competing to out-thrill the public, any author could be forgiven for thinking that “mind-blowing” has lost all previous meaning. But the truth is that writing plot twists well is a careful craft — not a simple escalation of arbitrary shocks.
To get it right, you need to come up with the plot twist in the first place, work it into the plot, cover up your trail appropriately, and then make sure that the sumtotal delivers as you intended. Here are 5 key tips for writing plot twists that actually work.
1. Eliminate the obvious.
All plot twists may be equal in a vacuum, but in actuality, some are more satisfying than others. A good plot twist is one that both surprises the audience and is narratively sound. You want to blow your readers’ minds away, not blow their minds up. Your twist shouldn’t arrive completely out of the blue — but your readers also can’t see it coming from the very first page. Try to strike exactly the right balance for a twist that makes readers enjoy the new angle that it provides.
How can you come up with such a plot twist in the first place? First, get the ‘surprise’ element right. Eliminate the obvious. Don’t underestimate your readers, no matter your genre: they’re smart, and they’ve seen it all already. Some plot twist tropes are more popular than others. Peruse them all to understand what the classic books and films did to make them exciting and original in their eras, and then add your fresh take to it.
2. Make it matter.
To the point of “narratively sound,” a plot twist can make a reader sit up and go, “Wait, what just happened?” It should not then make a reader wonder, “Why did that just happen?” A good twist won’t contradict the established story: instead, it should develop the story’s central premise, moving it in a new direction that absolutely makes sense for the characters. You can tell a poor plot twist from a good one when it’s obviously more interested in shocking readers than in furthering the story.
Spend some time asking yourself if your plot twist actually possesses a purpose and will offer payoff to the reader. If you find that you’re writing a plot twist solely for shock value, you’re probably doing it wrong. To see bad plot twists in action, just watch seasons six, seven, and eight of Game of Thrones and then observe all of the irate reaction posts that they birthed.
3. Clue the reader in.
There are two types of plot twists: those that come out of nowhere, and those that are built up through clues that are carefully positioned throughout the story. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the death of (spoiler alert!) Ned Stark exemplifies the former. On the other end of the spectrum is the second — the kind that tends to induce that famous “Oh, so that’s why all of those things happened!” revelation.
If you’re going for this second type of plot twist (hint: you should be), then you’ll need to get the game of Clue down pat. Work interesting clues into your story that will build up to your plot twist, but don’t be too obvious or draw unnecessary attention to them. Think about it as a breadcrumb trail: readers can successfully follow your path, but only if they’re paying close attention to the tiny crumbs on the floor. The Sixth Sense is a classic example of this; the reveal at the end might shock you, but upon re-watch, all of the clues are there for you to trace.
4. Avoid outright lying.
How exactly can you go about this subtly? Don’t forget the other foolproof trick up any twisty author’s sleeve: misdirection.
The Harry Potter series, for instance, is a minefield of misdirection: Harry thought in Sorcerer’s Stone that Professor Snape was the one working with Lord Voldemort, when in fact it was Professor Quirrell. He believed that the villain in Prisoner of Azkaban was Sirius Black. Spoiler alert: it was actually Peter Pettigrew. Your misdirection, too, can easily go so far as your POV character’s understanding of the events, and any red herrings that you plant can distract readers from the truth. But never forget the golden rule of plot twists: never outright lie to your reader.
Neither should you overdo it. Some writers get so carried away with their own “brilliance” in creating red herrings that there’s ultimately more evidence in the story for the red herrings than for the truth. This is a red flag to any reader — indeed, your manuscript might not even then make it past a discerning literary agent if this is your strategy.
To that end, take a step back at the end of your draft to make sure that your story remains sturdy under inspection. Is it crystal clear what the truth is upon re-read? Did you balance the red herrings and the real clues? Do your details give away too much? Or not enough?
5. Test it on beta readers.
Film studios will conduct screenings months prior to a movie’s official release to test the audience’s reaction to said movie. Negative feedback can send the film back to the set for re-shoots, and even change the script substantially. (Can you say “panicked third act rewrites”?) But the primary goal of such trial runs is to ensure that the finished product doesn’t get any damning reviews on the day of its release, and so you should also share your manuscript with trusted beta readers to make sure that your story delivers as you imagined (after you self-edit your manuscript, of course).
Prepare a tally of questions for your beta readers to answer. Were your plot twists unexpected? Did any of them become plot holes? Did your readers feel cheated at all throughout the course of the story, or was the reveal (and the payoff) satisfying? When they answer to your satisfaction, you can be confident about (no plot twist in sight here) your book release in the future.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of plot twists (when they’re done right).