Writers War Room—Blog

The Writers War Room is dedicated to two pursuits. One is commentary on the experiences of thriller writing—what’s involved, what works and what doesn’t, and tips for improving your product and chances for success. 

Also, stay tuned to this page to follow developments involving Whelan, Larsen, Stensen, Kirkland, Thomas, Almeida…and Christie, Levell, Maksym, Federov and others in the Sleeping Dogs series. CAVEAT: I'm not a daily, or even weekly, blogger. Unless I believe I have something of interest to share, I don't spam my own blog site.

Some Thoughts on the Use of Dialogue

Ratio of Narrative to Dialogue. For some unknown reason, a thought popped into my mind from left field: Is, or should, there be a ratio of dialogue to narrative in a novel? Dialogue, of course, occurs when your characters converse with each other, although there is internal dialogue which is when the character’s thoughts are spelled out. Narrative is the part of the novel that describes settings, actions; in other words, storytelling. 

Having an inquiring mind, I naturally turned to Google to find the answer. It turns out there is a lot of material on this subject, but little advice on an actual ratio. Those willing to offer an opinion generally said “about 50-50.” From my personal experience as a novelist, I’d say don’t worry about a ratio. Be concerned instead with whether your narrative is merely an information dump or effort to reach the 100,000-word level. Your real concern regarding dialogue should be whether it’s slowing or advancing the development of the story.

Dialogue Tags. An area where I do frequently see writers spoiling their stories involves the proper use of dialogue tags. These are the “he said/she said” that attribute the particular section of dialogue to a particular character. The human mind is so accustomed to the word “said” that it doesn’t really pick it up. In other words, its use doesn’t interrupt the reader. And that’s a good thing. I too often see writers, even bestselling one, mess up what may otherwise have been a good section of dialogue by straying from this rule. For example, I just finished David Baldacci’s latest novel End Run. He distracts the reader in the book’s dialogue with tags like, “he pointed out,” “she exclaimed,” “Reel observed,” “pointed out Reel,” “countered Robie,” “persisted Robie,” “conceded Luke,” “noted Robie.” And these weren’t the most egregious examples. Baldacci’s been around far too long to make such amateurish mistakes. The characters’ dialogue would have been so much smoother if the author had written: “Robie said,” “Reel asked.” 

For more information on this area, please review Arlene Prunkl’s blog at: http://penultimateword.com/editing-blogs/dialogue-in-fiction-part-iii-the-nuts-and-bolts/

Self-Publish or Traditional?

I’ve heard some writers say that they really don’t care if their book is published. I believe that’s just an expression of their insecurity, a fear that they won’t be “good enough” to be published. When you invest the time, energy, and money to write a book, your hope (expectation?) is that it will be published. Otherwise, it’s like having a child and keeping it locked away in the cellar.

Currently, there are two major approaches to publishing—the traditional path and self-publishing. Based on the from-the-heart comments I’ve heard from many of today’s bestselling writers, the world of traditional publishing is far different from what it was. There are only six major publishing houses today. They appear to support only their A-list writers. All others are physically and financially responsible for marketing and promoting their own books. Just like self-published writers.

The royalties on ebooks published through the traditional houses are 12% to 15 % of sales revenue—and you have to pay your agent’s commission out of that. If your book sold at $9.99 (high for an unknown), you’d realize $1.50 per book. That becomes about $1.25 after your agent’s commission. If your self-published book sold for $3.99 (more appealing to readers), at a typical 70% royalty (Amazon) you’d earn $2.80, AND with no agent involved. PLUS, in either event, you’ll have to do your own promoting and marketing. Intuitively, it seems the number of books sold is probably the same.

No less a bestselling author than Lee Child has advocated going the traditional route. But he also admits that the business has changed substantially since he started. He even expressed his concerns whether he would be successful if he was starting out today. Conversely, another major bestselling author, Hugh Howey, who has published both ways, strongly suggested going the self-publishing path over the traditional one.

My own observation from studying my fellow writers is that the majority of them want to be traditionally published. That’s because they haven’t yet realized that the royalties are less and the demands of marketing successfully are the same either way. I believe it’s mere egoism, the desire to say, “I’m traditionally published.” But the chances that you’ll get a top-notch agent who can connect you with a Big-6 publisher are on a par with picking the winning Powerball number. Even then, if you’re not an A-lister, you’ll have to carry the burden for generating sales of your book.

There are hundreds of small publishing houses, of course. But they have neither the resources nor the industry connections to offer you anymore than you will accomplish by self-publishing. If a writer absolutely must be able to say that he or she is traditionally published, let me offer a good faith suggestion. Set up your own LLC and publish through it rather than in your own name. You’ll have the best of both worlds, as things currently stand in the industry.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY—The Truth About Agents and Publishers

When I wrote my first book decades ago, I learned how the literary business works, at least from the writer’s perspective. Unfortunately, if it has changed at all in the intervening years, it’s been to the further disadvantage of the writer. Let’s take a look.

First, publishers are clueless. They desperately want to believe they’re savants and can divine what the reading public wants. They can’t. Essentially, they look to the immediate past to see what sold, then try to push more of it. A good example is the publishing world’s recent fetish for novels that have the word “Girl” in the title: “Girl with A Dragon Tattoo,” Girl on A Train,” “Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest,” “Gone Girl.” The situation is analogous to the Progressive doctrine that individuals are idiots and can’t make good decisions. Thus, Big Brother (the State, as administered by the elitist Progressives) must make decisions for the masses. In my books, those types always are killed off in unpleasant fashions (What? I write political thrillers!).

Second, agents are whores. That’s not to say that some of them aren’t successful at what they do. After all, Heidi Fleiss and Xaviera Hollander were quite successful in the world’s oldest profession. Before you rush to defend literary agents, stop and think about where their money comes from. The writer? No. No one involved in the chain trusts writers to voluntarily and regularly stroke a check for 15% of their royalties and send it to their agent. Not the publishers, and certainly not the agent. No, that 15% goes directly from the publisher to the agent. Also, consider this. Agents depend on their relationships with publishers in order to pitch their writers’ efforts, which, if done successfully, results in that 15% of the royalties earned from the sale of the writers’ books. The best way to accomplish a sale to someone is to offer them what they think they want, not what you think they should want. Too many unsuccessful pitches and the agent may become persona no grata at the publishing house. No contacts, no sales; hence, whores.

There’s obviously more to this story, like “under these circumstances, how does a writer ever get published?” but that’s a subject for another day.

What’s the Big Deal with Pacing?

Most reputable sources of advice on constructing a well-written novel include the following key craft elements:

·      Theme

·      Plot

·      Character

·      POV (point of view)

·      Setting

·      Conflict

·      Story Structure

Surprisingly, most lists don’t include pacing. Writer’s Digest has defined it as: A tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events. It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story.”

Why is pacing critical to the successful telling of a tale? In a short story, the writer has to get the point right away. You simply don’t have the luxury of length or wordiness in which to spin your yarn. Longer works, such as novels, need the proper pacing to build tension and conflict, to embed the reader in the story from the opening paragraph to the dénouement. The challenge in a 90,000-word novel is to capture and retain the reader’s interest throughout. But that doesn’t equate to an un interrupted breathless ride from page one to the final word. First, it would be extremely difficult, at best, to sustain that pace. Also, an experienced reader probably wouldn’t enjoy it (Remember: good reviews are critical to your book’s success).

Pacing in a novel actually should vary—building toward and including action scenes, and slowing the pace in between in order to give the reader a figurative opportunity to catch his or her breath while you set up the next point of acceleration. A pacing trap that captures many writers is the degree of detail they engage in when explaining how something appears or works. For example, I sometimes go into too much detail in my novels when describing weaponry or power systems or technological devices. It may be okay to do that, depending on where it fits into the narrative; but if it has the effect of slowing down an action scene, it can be distracting to the reader. Too much distraction and the reader tosses the book aside.

Who Are the Best Writers in the Genre?

Some of the biggest of the bestselling novelists in my chosen genre may be slipping, based on their latest efforts. Others are getting even better. That realization on my part gave me an idea—rank my favorite writers. So, with that challenge in mind, here is my assessment of some of the top novelists in the political/espionage thriller genre in reverse order.

7. David Baldacci—Any writer who has sold over 130,000,000 books in more than 80 countries must be doing something right. And this man has done lots of things right. He is well-educated, highly productive, and has a charitable nature. My issue is with his most recent novel in the Will Robie series. It reads like it was written by someone else, not Baldacci. It seems wooden, contrived, and disjointed; not a typical Baldacci effort, certainly not on a par with the previous Will Robie book, The Guilty. It’s not the equal of his latest book in the John Puller series, No Man’s Land. This latest Robie book makes the amateurish mistake of tagging dialogue with “she intoned,” “he interjected,” “she retorted.” The best writing is always “he said,” she said.” I hope he’s not at the point some writers reach, where they seem to be merely mailing it in.

6. Brad Thor—His sales record, productivity, and recognition as an expert on black operations is unparalleled. He also is very charitably minded. His books are solid adventure. He and the next two writers currently are about equal in my assessment.

5. Brad Taylor—Here is a writer who has lived the action he describes—a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lt. Colonel who spent time in the super-secret Delta Force. He’s prolific—18 novels in 8 years. His main protagonist, Pike Logan, is an interesting character. And Logan has a love interest that kicks ass right along with the boys. On the negative side, his books tend to be longer than seems necessary for the plot, and jump back and forth from first person to third person several times in a given chapter. That’s distracting.

4. Lee Child—The first question that should come to mind is “Why isn’t he in 1st Place?” There’s no question that he’s one of the most popular authors of his time, and deservedly so. He has created an iconic character in Jack Reacher, and usually spins a page-turning yarn. But Reacher has become more than human—invincible, indestructible. He never gets more than a scratch at best, knows no fear regardless the situation; yet, there’s no attempt to explain how that can be. At least in my Sleeping Dog books, I researched genetics thoroughly enough to develop a plausible basis for the Dogs’ being stronger, faster, and smarter than their fellow humans. And they get shot and cut up just like everyone else. A disturbing development in the latest Reacher book, The Midnight Line, is the dialogue. Every character, including Reacher, sounds exactly alike—no accents, nuances, or anything that distinguishes the various speakers.

3. Alex Berenson—This guy can write! His John Wells is a more vulnerable, more realistic version of Jack Reacher. I’m not sure why Berenson chose to have Wells convert to Islam while killing Muslim bad guys all over the planet. Maybe I’ve missed a bit of irony.

2. Ben Coes—It seems impossible, but each Dewey Andreas book is better than the one before. He is a much better writer than his current recognition in the industry would indicate. His plots are downright terrifyingly real. I worry that somewhere a jihadist is taking it all in and planning accordingly. His books will keep you up all night reading them. Then keep you up the following night in a cold sweat.

1. Daniel Silva—Here is the consummate thriller writer. His writing clearly is superb, better than any contemporary writer. Sentence structure, word selection, pacing, plot development, characterizations, voice—he’s the best at his craft. Aspiring writers should study his style and polish their works accordingly. Unlike the rest of us who are penning thrillers in the genre, he achieves success with a protagonist who is small in stature, carrying a lot of hard miles—anything but Reacher-esque. Yes, Gabriel Allon has spent a lifetime in the Mossad and knows weaponry and hand-to-hand combat, but he’s no invincible six-foot-plus young stud who rips bad guys apart with his bare hands. He uses guile and treachery to achieve success—a thinking person’s protagonist, but the action is non-stop, as well as cleverly developed.

Series vs One-Off

Writers of fiction often face the dilemma whether to write a series or  stick with writing one-off novels. Is one preferable to the other? Aside from the fact that each individual writer is unique and may have a personal preference, there are factors that are worthy of consideration in choosing between writing a series or sticking with separate stories for each successive book.

My first ever novel was a stand-alone action-adventure novel, The Quixotics. It was based of  story that I developed in law school. In fact, it was completed while I was still in law school. Why didn’t I develop it into a series? I was satisfied that I put the whole story into the one book. It’s true that I did end it in a fashion that left the door open for sequel(s), but I never really considered going there.

Every novel I’ve written since that first one has been a part of my Sleeping Dogs series. Why? Partly because I’m fascinated by the characters I’ve created. I enjoy taking them into new adventures because I know them so well. I’m inside their heads. I know how they think, how they react to situations. Hell, I just plain like those guys. And that’s one of the compelling reasons for writing a series. You don’t have to invent a new cast of characters in each book.

Another important consideration is that your readers become familiar with your characters too, and want to continue the investment they’ve made in them. There is a caveat, however. Don’t become so enamored with your creations that you stop telling a riveting tale. There’s a story I heard about a famous bestselling writer who became so infatuated with a character in a blockbuster book—actually a monster, but a fascinating one—that he wanted to keep writing about him, but tried to justify the horror of the character’s actions. Naturally, it was a huge flop. The readers just couldn’t buy it.

I think the best, most levelheaded statement I’ve heard from an author on this subject came from Lee Child. Everyone knows and is fascinated with Jack Reacher. But Lee told me he “doesn’t like Reacher.” He sized his creation up as “a bully, a criminal, a thug, and a killer.” He recognizes the character’s fallibility, but appreciates the hold Reacher has on the reading public.

Literary Agents: Part Two

Literary agents are a principal avenue to becoming published in the traditional fashion—through a publishing house, as opposed to self-publishing. Last week I wrote about how to identify agents who may be receptive to your manuscript. I suggested using QueryTracker or a similar service to do this. Let’s assume you’ve compiled a list of agents that are receptive to submissions in your specific genre. In the interest of keeping that list manageable, you’ve also filtered it by location (USA, for example) and query method (such as email). You probably still have a very lengthy list.

My initial list had 239 agents on it. Some of them were closed to submission at the time. Many were with the same literary agencies, and agencies are clear that they don’t want more than one of their agents queried at the same time. As a result, I ended up with a list of 59 prospects. So, how many should I query at any one time? There are arguments against doing more than a few at a time. I don’t subscribe to that position. J.K. Rowling—yes, the Harry Potter lady—had over 250 rejections before a publisher took a chance on her. I take two lessons away from that experience: expect rejections; thus, query as many agents at a time as you can.

Alright, you have your list of agents. Now, you need a query letter, but agents get dozens to hundreds of them a day. As an unknown entity, the odds are against you, so you must have an attention-getting query letter. You can Google “query letters” and find immeasurable amounts of materials. After sorting through a lot of it I learned that the subject line of your email should start with “QUERY” followed by the title of your book (in caps) and the genre. You should be querying only agents who are looking for books in your genre. The subject line tells them you’re not trying to waste their time by pushing a book in a different genre. Consequently, they probably will move on the body of the letter.

Start by addressing them as “Dear (Mr./Ms.) Whoever:” Hold the content of the body to three SHORT paragraphs. In my query letter, the first paragraph identifies my protagonist, the peril he must overcome, why his success matters, and the challenges that stand in his way. The second paragraph states the number of words in the book, why people would want to read it, and identifies bestselling authors whose books are very similar to mine. The third and final paragraph is biographical. It mentions how many books I’ve written and published, what my sales numbers, reviews and ratings are, and that Lee Child was very complimentary about my latest novel (he was).

I signed off by thanking the agent for his or her time and consideration. Finally, I made sure to list my pen name, four earned degrees (also for biographical reasons), mailing address, phone number, email address, and website.

There is one more thing you need to know before you fire off that query. Go to each agent’s website and read what they require in addition to the query letter, if anything. Some want a SHORT (read, 1-page) synopsis, some want your first 5 or 10 pages. Some want the first 1, 2, or 3 chapters. Some want the first 25 or 50 pages. CAVEAT: whatever they ask for they will want it copied into the body of the query letter, NEVER attached. Agents have learned the hard way not to open attachments. They’ll simply delete your query letter—unread.

What About Literary Agents?

I don’t recall ever discussing the important topic of agents on these pages. I believe that’s because I have always favored self-publishing over the traditional method. That stems from an unfortunate experience with a senior vp at what was Harper & Row. He liked my first novel, The Quixotics. He asked me to make a single change—lose my protagonist and replace him with minor character, a dweeb. His reasoning was that my protagonist was an antihero, and readers didn’t like antiheroes. Apparently, he’d never heard of Jack Reacher.

Writers rarely get published traditionally without first securing representation by a literary agent. The problem, as Lee Child correctly articulates it, is that there are good agents and there are bad ones. Unfortunately, there’s no handy, reliable Google list to categorize them. Sure, you could Google “Literary Agents.” But little of what you’ll get is empirical information. It’s mostly self-serving and anecdotal. So, what’s an aspiring author to do? First compile a list of prospective agents. How?

Research Lots of it. Here are the main keys you’re looking for:

Information available on the Agency’s website:

  • Is the agent currently accepting queries or proposals?
  • Is the agent looking for books in your genre?
  • What does each specific agent ask for—Only a query letter? A synopsis too? How long is the synopsis to be? A sample too? How large is the sample to be? DON’T SEND ANYTHING NOT SPECIFICALLY ASKED FOR!
  • Your fiction book must be complete, double-spaced, edited
  • Your query letter must be masterful (more about that at another time)
  • Do not query two agents in the same agency at the same time.

You’ll also need information from sources other than the agent’s website, such as:

  • Does the agent respond to queries a high percentage of the time?
  • Does the agent actually respond (even negatively) to books in your genre?
  • Who are some of the clients represented by this agent? Any in your genre?
  • What percentage of the agent’s responses are positive (asked for more materials)?

Where can you  get this information? There probably are a number of sources, but I prefer QueryTracker (https://querytracker.net/). It offers a free version and a premium version for $25/year. I like the premium version—more useful goodies. With its filters, you can narrow your search down from thousands of agents to only those actively soliciting queries and looking for materials in your specific genre. While it provides answers to all of the above questions and more, you still should review your selected agent’s website. They may no longer be accepting queries. Or they may no longer be looking for books in your genre. It also helps you avoid sending queries to two or more agents in the same agency simultaneously. Most important, the agent’s website will tell you exactly what to send and how to send it.

NEXT: The perfect query letter.

Writers Wednesday War Room—Where do you start?

Do you ever worry that you don’t know your full novel—characters, storyline, subplots, POV, etc.—before beginning to write it? That’s not as big a problem as you might fear. Do you assume that all writers of consequence have a detailed out line of the novel prior to starting it? Not so. It’s commonly said that there are two approaches to writing a novel: plotters and pantsers. In simple terms, plotters are the writers that do the outlines first. Pantsers “fly by the seat of their pants.” They may or may not have a good plan for what the book will be about. There also is a hybrid—writers that have a general outline, maybe a page or two of bullet points, or a list of chapter concepts.

Some of the top bestselling writers, Lee Child among them, say that when they sit down to write their next book, they have no idea what it’s going to be about. Not even what the first chapter will be about. That may be an exaggeration, but there’s more than a grain of truth to it. Child says he approaches the book with the goal of crafting a really good first sentence then moves on to the next one. He says that about the time he approaches the middle of the book, he has written sufficient material that he knows what he has to start wrapping up in the second half of the book.

I sometimes use a system that approaches the hybrid style. In my current project, I have on several occasions in Part One used chapter prompts such as the following:

  • Where is Larsen?
  • Why is he there?
  • What’s driving/motivating him to be there and do that?
  • How does he intend to deal with the situation?
  • What events occur that force him to change those plans?
  • Who else becomes involved? Why?
  • How does it end for Larsen?
  • What’s the hook for the next chapter

To see how those prompts became a chapter, click on “Previews” above.

Writers Wednesday War room—Is There A Formula for Writing Books?

First, what happened to the weekly War Room posting? And today isn’t Wednesday?

What happened was a combination of things, principally Hurricane Irma. It scrambled a lot of schedules and routines for those of us who live in Southwest Florida. Although we’re still dealing with roof repair issues, I’m happy to be able to return to the War Room even if today is Friday, not Wednesday.

Is there such a thing as formulaic writing? Yes. Do many writers use it? YES. Wikipedia defines formula fiction as literature in which the storylines and plots have been reused to the extent that the narratives are predictable. But it’s been said countless times by countless “experts” that there are no new plots, only variations on a theme. Other observations hold that it is “a type of fiction where multiple books or fictional works share many common elements, to the point of being ultimately predictable.” Also, that “formula fiction is a fixed set of characters.” But I would argue that any sequential series, as opposed to books in a stand-alone series such as the Jack Reacher books, utilizes many of the same characters in each successive novel. 

Sequential series in many genres probably require a certain degree of formula writing. For example, my Sleeping Dogs series intentionally involves some formulaic elements. The novels are sequential and involve a number of recurring characters such as the Sleeping Dogs, Cliff Levell, and Mitch Christie. Because a new reader may not begin with the first book in the series, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, it’s necessary to introduce the characters in each book. I try to accomplish this in a different manner each time. Also, an explanation of why the Dogs are a bit different genetically from you and me is required.

And then there is that “rule of good fiction” that says a novel should be written in three acts—a beginning, a middle, and an end. That truly is formulaic. My first book, The Quixotics, was probably a 3-act novel although I didn’t realize it, but all the books thus far in the Sleeping Dogs series have been in four or five acts, underscoring my belief that most rules for writing are bullshit. Your foremost obligation is to entertain the reader, not follow “rules for MFAs,” most of whom will never write a successful novel.

In most genres, a certain amount of formulaic writing is all but impossible to avoid. The critical aspect is to avoid writing the same novel each time, just moving your characters to a different local. Your readers will quickly catch on to that and abandon you.

Next: How do you actually start writing a novel?

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