Being a failed musician, I can attest to the differences between the two pursuits. In many ways, we, as writers have it a lot easier. On the other hand, we also have it a lot harder. In this article, I’m going to compare the two.
Okay, the physical differences should be pretty obvious. A musician is a performer. They get up on a stage and make music in front of people. They must have some kind of talent, at least a talent that people are willing to listen to and watch. I say that because, especially nowadays, for many people, there’s nothing worse than to go to a concert only to watch a human juke box who just stands on stage and goes through the motions. Some people, as in The Eagles, for instance, get off on this. It’s a well-known fact that Joe Walsh, one of their guitarists was often given flack for moving around, making faces, showing some kind of emotion when they played. Personally, I’ve seen their shows on tape and I’ve found paint drying to be more exciting. That’s just me. Some people prefer that, simple no frills. Their huge following is an example of that. On the other hand, there are bands that go all out and put on a real show like Kiss, Alice Cooper, GWAR and even Cher, with costume changes, props and what have you.
The point of this all is that it not only takes talent, at least to some people, depending on taste, but is very physical. It also takes endless hours of rehearsal, a lot of drudgery and paying dues, plus a lot of failure.
As a writer, I’ll go by the old cliché (I love this) of the male author sitting in his den with pipe and slippers, overloaded bookcase in the background, either writing or typing away. If it’s a woman, she’s in her parlor, doilies on the end tables, a tea service at her beck and call, her pen or typewriter in front of her and a cat in her lap. Of course, these images are out of the 50’s, but hey, why not illustrate a point? We, as writers, don’t get up on a stage, we don’t put on a huge production, stand up on a flatbed trailer in some dusty Podunk in the middle of nowhere, dodge beer bottles in a biker titty bar. We can write anywhere, anytime and do it without an audience. Our performance comes when someone reads what we’ve created after the fact. What we have in common with musicians is the failure and paying our dues part.
For the musician, it’s all about the gigs. For someone to know who you are, to get them to listen to your stuff, you need to get out there and play gigs. Especially in the beginning, beggars can’t be choosers. You take what you can get, from weddings to high school dances to special events to beer joints. Some of these gigs can really suck. You can play from a hundred or more hostiles to two people that think you rock. On the other hand, there are those trying for the quick fix like those TV singing shows. I can’t stand them. I’ll admit it’s a great way to get exposure, but at the same time, a lot of those contestants don’t pay their dues and they don’t really get their chops down. Just having a voice, which is another thing I have issue with, isn’t all there is to music. What’s completely ignored are the actual musicians. There are no shows at all for people that actually play musical instruments. People who spend hours a day, years to decades honing their craft are completely ignored for the quick and dirty vocals. Why? Because that’s what people relate to. Why do people relate to that? One reason, which I get into a bit below is that’s all you get to hear. That’s all you’re allowed to hear.
On the other hand, the writer is all about learning the craft (same as a musician practicing). You have to write write write. Get stuff done, get it out there until something sticks. For most of us, it takes years to decades. The true writer does it because they love it and are compelled to. There are those that try for a quick fix and once in a while lightning strikes, but not often. When it does, often the results are crap. Sure it sticks for a while but then fades quick.
The problem with writers is that most of us love to write, but we don’t like to market. We often get a queasy feeling, are often introverts, and dread having to get out there and be salesmen and women. Unfortunately, marketing is a huge part of getting known and staying known as a writer. Where musicians play gigs to keep in the limelight, a writer has to write new stuff, but they also have to get out there and let people know it’s there. That’s especially true for small publishing houses and self-published authors.
The music industry is just that, a dirty, filthy industry with an extremely stacked deck. There’s nothing nice about it. For far too long, the world of music and musicians has been a quagmire of dirty tricks, and the lowest common denominator. There was a time, back in the day, when rock and roll first started out (and I’m quoting the brilliant Frank Zappa here), that the business was run by Mafia types. They didn’t know squat about music or what people liked. They’d hear some weird new band, give them a chance, like throwing something against the wall to see what stuck (2nd use of the cliché). Because of that, a fair amount of adventurous new music actually made it out there initially. This is stuff that if they tried to release it today, would never be heard of. Then a funny thing happened. The hippies that worked for these Mafia guys were making suggestions about some of the music, and the Mafioso’s started relying on them to make decisions about the bands. The “hipsters” were the guys that “knew” what the kids wanted.
Unfortunately, these “hipsters” were the worst thing that could’ve happened to music. As a result, today, these “hipsters” took over are now the corporate suits in New York that tell you what you lie to hear, whether you do or not. As I alluded to above, what about instrumental music? What about music that makes you think? What about music that’s off the beaten path? Maybe one reason so many people can relate to singers so much today is because that’s been the only choice they’ve had for so long, they don’t know anything else! Of course, there have always been bards and wandering minstrels, telling stories through song. However, there have also been musicians and orchestras, small bands as well. What about classical music? It’s instrumental, opera notwithstanding. When you talk about rock, very few instrumentals ever get anywhere because radio will not play them, first off. Second, there’s no singer in an instrumental people can relate to because all they hear are singers. It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by the corporate suits.
What does this mean?
It means that the suits control what music gets out there. They decide what you’re going to hear, and what’s going to “make it,” despite what you might think. There’s so much new and exciting music that never makes it, that’s never heard by anyone because the suits will never let it get played on the radio, will never let it get distributed to the major retailers. These great bands, some really weird, some just not “in” have to rely on concerts and word of mouth to get out there.
It’s disastrous to music and has been since the 70’s.
How does this relate to the writer?
Ahem, what do you think agents and publishers do? They filter. They look for what sells, they look for the easiest and quickest sale.
They look for the lowest common denominator.
Folks, there are hundreds to thousands of fantastic stories, some well written and others in need of tremendous loving care, that could and should be told, but they never will because they don’t meet the lowest common denominator.
There are plenty of books out there meeting that criteria.
Music has a much longer duration in the marketplace than books, in the short term. Maybe the long term.
Radio & media.
What do you think they play on the radio, be it over the air or Sirius XM? They don’t just play the top forty. How about movies and TV?
On the other hand, what happens after the initial burst of sales with your book? It lingers if it’s a seller for a couple of years at best, longer if it’s a classic. Then it either ends up in a library or a used bookstore. Just by the numbers alone, it gets a lot less exposure. Then at best, it gets buried on the shelf amongst the latest best sellers.
Another thing. With music, that song gets played over and over and over again. If the band didn’t get screwed by their management, they get a royalty every time it’s played. Your book? After the initial burst, sales trickle down for most. If it goes to the used bookstore, you get nothing. Some authors who are perpetual sellers, they continue to do okay with royalties but most of us won’t be so lucky.
Is any of this going to stop us from doing what we love?
You’d think this goes without saying.
You’d be wrong.
I have two examples. In the telling (yeah, I’m going to tell, not show…sort of), I’ll allude to the guilty parties but will not slander those particular people by stating their names.
FICTION IS A MAKE-BELIEVE WORLD, RIGHT?
Well…ah, yeah, it is. The story you’re telling is made up. It’s a huge lie you’re hoping people will like so you can become world renown and people will pay for it, right?
Even though it’s a big lie, it’s a known big lie. However, that doesn’t mean there should be no realism to it. That doesn’t mean you have free reign to throw out all rules of reality and make your story so ridiculously unbelievable that even a kid can’t believe it.
There has to be a basis of reality to any story. There has to be some foundation in physics, hard science and factual thingies to make your big lie believable or your reader is going to put it down. I know I certainly would.
There are a lot of people smarter than you. It goes without saying. When you write something you know, you’re bound to get most of the factual thingies correct, or close enough for guv’mint work, as I like to say. When it comes to fine details, there’s nothing wrong with going vague. There’s also nothing wrong with throwing in little known real facts that only experts would know. That comes with research.
However, there are always going to be people with technical expertise, people who’re super-duper experts in any field that you’re writing about. They’ll catch you on all those real facts you get wrong.
If you don’t do your research, you can trip up and lose respect right off. Most readers probably won’t even notice, but those select few may slam you with bad reviews. For those that read reviews, especially the bad ones, they may or may not think twice about reading more of your work.
Knowledge or technical experts are the ones you have to satisfy, at least to the best of your ability, when you add in details, minor and major. You need to get them right!
So, that means don’t take anything for granted. If you generalize, make sure you accurately generalize, and if you use little known facts, make sure they’re accurate little known facts. Also make sure you use them in context!
I’ll give the perfect example based on a book I just proofread. Keeping things vague so not to slam the author, who’s actually a decent author in some ways, this story took on a personal issue with me when he/she got some (okay, a bunch of) facts wrong that I have direct personal knowledge of. To an average reader, these “facts” might go unnoticed. They might even be accurate to them because they’re the popular stereotype. However, to those of us who’ve dealt with this kind of ignorance many times in the past, the lack of knowledge, whether from sheer lack of research or bias was inexcusable.
This author is setting his or herself up to polarize themselves at the expense of sloppy work. There’s no reason for it when a bit more effort could avoid a huge issue in the future.
The second example is a very highly regarded and popular author. He just came out with a new novel. I read it and loved it. When I turned in my review, I, as usual, checked the negative reviews to see why people didn’t like it. Instead of the usual stupid stuff like the Kindle wasn’t working correct, I was shocked to see how many substantial one and two star reviews were there, plus all the people that replied to the reviews! Apparently the author didn’t do his research on a multitude of issues, none of which I picked up on because I had no expertise in those areas. However, these technical experts did, and the author lost a significant number of fans because of it.
There was no reason for this if the author had just gone to the right people. He’s big enough to have the resources to do just that. No “Any errors are my own” excuse in the book is going to compensate for that. By the way, there is no such statement in the book to begin with. This author doesn’t bother.
WE CAN’T ALL BE EXPERTS BUT…
We can’t all be experts in everything we write about and nobody expects us to. The whole point of this is that we do our best, and make an effort to get the facts as good as we can. If we’re not sure, leave them vague. If we’re really going way out there, so to speak, that can’t be helped, but we need to find some way to make our story as believable as possible. The best way is to make the little things as accurate as possible.
Get names correct.
Get places correct.
Get lore correct.
Get hardware correct.
Get effects correct (such as weapon use).
Get religion correct.
Get history correct.
Get the science correct…well…as correct as you can within context.
Get the context correct.
This is only part of the list, but it gives you an idea of what to do.
The quality you put into creating your big lie will show and be appreciated by your readers.
Okay, check this out. Say, you write a story. The main character starts from a horrible place, but that’s brushed over (this here is a red flag). When the action starts, this character goes through life and everything works perfectly for him or her. You reach the end of the story and the character turns down an offer to say…become president. Yeah, things went that well.
Others critique the story, say it isn’t realistic because there’s no conflict. You change it and give other characters the conflict. The main character saves the day for everyone else, thinking this is the drama.
You shop this story around and can’t understand why nobody will touch it.
Folks, the above scenario is real.
People are drawn to a story because the main character isn’t perfect, just like them…just like you! Sure, maybe you want your heroes to be able to do stuff you can’t, but you don’t want them to have everything go exactly as planned, have everything fall in place.
How boring is that?
You need conflict! The character or characters need some reason to be on that page. It’s not just an autobiography of a fake character. It’s a story, for crying out loud! It’s entertainment. It something to draw your interest. That’s done with conflict.
Everyone has flaws, quirks, makes mistakes. That’s part of life, exaggerated reality/unreality. Even superheroes have flaws and weaknesses. I don’t need to list the nemeses/weaknesses of each superhero, but fans will know. Something will be their Achilles heel. There has to be or they’re immortal and there’d be no reason to have them do anything. They’re always going to win with ease.
Real-life fictional characters have flaws like all humans. When you draw your characters, they need to have real-life flaws as well. When they go against their adversaries, whether they’re going to inevitably win or not, you need to make the conclusion nail biting, or as nail biting as you can.
There has to be drama along with the conflict to make the story interesting. The story needs some goal to surmount, a reason for the reader to be there, spending money on that book, taking their time to believe in that name on the front cover. It’s your job to give it to them. If you bore them with no peaks and valleys of conflict, no reason to compel them to turn the pages, you’ve let them down.
When a character does everything perfectly, and the reader knows it, there’s no reason to move on.
If the character isn’t perfect, the reader has no idea if the hero can pull off the next scene. They’re more likely to read and find out if things work out, or if the story pulls them into some other direction.
That, folks, makes the story interesting.
Don’t disappoint them with bla bla bla, everything’s perfect!
Don’t make your fake “real” world even more unrealistic!
There’s talk about the first page and whether an agent will keep on reading if the first page kills the story. The same could be said for some readers. Then again, I’m not one that believes in that, necessarily. On the other hand, if I start reading, and the writing is terrible…say I can’t even get through the first paragraph, well…
This isn’t about that. By this point, we’re beyond that. Let’s say, you have the writing down, the first page is great, you’ve hooked the reader. What’re you going to do in the first chapter? What kind of groundwork are you going to lay for the rest of the story?
THE FIRST CHAPTER – THE START
I’m going into this discussion given that you may or may not have a prologue. The prologue, which I sometimes use, depending on the type of story, is the setup. Whether I choose to use one or not, Chapter 1, starts the main story, or should. Keep in mind that not all stories begin that way, but most do.
What does Chapter 1 do? What should it do?
The first chapter introduces the premise of the book. It sets the scene, it gets the ball rolling. There are several things that should happen. I bring this up because at my writer’s group meeting the other day, I read the first chapter of the third book in my Meleena’s Adventures series. My first chapter (I don’t use prologues in my fantasy series) was a bit lacking in certain things I didn’t see when I wrote it. It was one of those forest-through-the-trees moments that it took others to see.
INTRODUCE ONE OR MORE OF THE CHARACTERS
It goes without saying that Chapter 1 should introduce someone. This is where you should let the reader know who’s driving the story. Very often, especially with omniscient or multiple point of view stories, the first chapter might not introduce the main character at all. The author will start with some minor or one-off character. If it’s horror for instance, it will be the first victim. In a murder mystery, it will also be the first victim, or maybe even the killer. There’s nothing wrong with this. Why? Premise.
INTRODUCE THE PREMISE
Chapter 1 introduces the premise. This very important action scene should introduce the premise for the story. If the prologue hasn’t already done so, this is your chance. Regardless if the prologue is action, Chapter 1 should also be an action scene. It should introduce more of the premise for what is to follow. It should set up the rest, the foundation of the story.
KEEP BACKSTORY TO A MINIMUM
The last thing you want to do is bog your reader down with backstory and endless narration and exposition right off. If you make their eyes glaze over in the first few pages, they’re likely to put the book down and go to something else! Give out the minor details in small doses as the story moves along.
I was a bit guilty of this, at least my readers the other night thought so. If you have a series and are working on, say book three, each book should stand on their own. Don’t assume the reader has started with book one and knows what’s going on. When you start with Chapter 1, don’t lay down a bunch of stuff with no explanation and assume the reader already knows the background. If that reader makes it to the end of the chapter, they’re going to scratch their head and wonder if the whole book is like that. Would you put it down? I certainly would!
Once again, this returns to backstory. You want the reader to know what’s going on, but that doesn’t mean bog then down with details. Give a short introduction as if this is the first time they’ve ever read this series, but don’t overwhelm them with stuff right away, keeping in mind your fans that have read everything so far. By being brief, you not only satisfy the new readers, but you remind the old ones without boring them.
START WITH A BANG – COMPEL THEM TO GO TO CHATPER TWO
Of course, I say this about every chapter and scene. However, the first chapter sets the tone and the feel of the rest of the story. It also sets the pace. You have to rev up the reader and get them going. Don’t spark their interest and slap them to a halt before things even get fired up!
Chapter 1 gets you out of the gate and if you do it right, the reader will keep reading and reading and reading, right to the end.
Say, folks, have we ever talked about POV (point of view)? Ha ha, okay, so accuse me of beating a dead horse! I can’t help getting on the bandwagon (hey, two clichés in a row) with this. I recently finished reading another book by the author I love to hate.
Yup, I’m a glutton for punishment.
I won’t mention the author’s name, but I’ve railed on his work before. The funny thing is that two books ago, I read another one by a different author that did the same thing.
To me, besides present-tense, this is a growing plague taking over the publishing industry. While it’s predominantly in self-publishing, it’s creeping into mainstream conventional books more and more.
By pseudo-omniscient, the point of view, isn’t truly from the omniscient viewpoint because it isn’t “god” looking down and observing what the characters are doing. Instead, the author is employing third-person deep point of view for each character. They’re going deep, but also head-hopping willy-nilly, with no discernable choice of character.
What does that leave us with?
WEAK EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT
When the point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph, even sentence to sentence, there’s nobody steering the ship!
There’s nobody steering the ship!
How do you decide who’s the main character?
Well, you can’t because it’s a cast of thousands. When the author is going deep POV for everybody that shows up in the scene, you have to figure who predominates the scene or chapter, probably by the sheer number of lines that character has.
In other words, the main character is the one with the most lines.
What the hell?
Despite what the back cover blurb says, “So and so goes here and does this, and must surmount these obstacles…bla bla bla…” this person is so buried in the text by other characters, good luck picking them out of the mess!
I’ll tell you what, I certainly don’t care about the characters, the twenty, thirty, a hundred characters who all get deep POV lines. All I want to know is what happens.
I can sort of enjoy the story if it moves and it’s good, but as far as the people in it, they’re just noise.
A BAD TREND
Call me old fashioned, call me stuck in my ways if you want to. I just want good quality work out there that people can follow, understand and get the most enjoyment out of.
When you can’t even keep track of the characters or develop an emotional investment in any of them because of the noise, it’s a bit schizophrenic to me. Why bother?
Please consider one character POV per scene or chapter. Be easy on your readers.
The inspiration for this article comes directly from a spy thriller I finished not long ago. I had a lot of fun reading this story. However, the author dangled the carrot, repeatedly, which was the entire premise of the book, for over three quarters of the story. The actual McGuffin, when revealed, was a huge disappointment, a cliché, more or less because it’s been done, guessed at, or what was expected so many times.
I was hoping for something a bit more original, more of a surprise. After all, the buildup was immense, with threats of immense proportions, something that would rock the world and all that. Yet, it didn’t rock me at all. Maybe I’m too jaded? In this day and age, I can’t be the only one.
I DON’T BELIVE IN DANGLING CARROTS
I, for one, don’t believe in dangling carrots. Though, of course, I don’t reveal the answer to the plot on page one, I also don’t dangle the most amazing and fantastic reveal to the reader throughout the story, either. I know that I can never live up to it. I don’t understand why authors like to do that when in this jaded society, it’s so hard to come up with something truly amazing and outlandish.
THE BIG MCGUFFIN
The big McGuffin is of course, the big surprise, the main plot twist at the end. The reason for the story, or the whole premise for the rest of the book. While there are many ways to go about it, giving the readers it’s something beyond their expectations is not the way to go about it.
The idea is to surprise the reader, sure, but not by blatantly telling them you’re going to surprise them. It should be done with a feather, not a sledgehammer.
You especially don’t want to build up expectations, only to disappoint the reader with something that’s mundane.
Let the story build up their expectations, take them in directions they didn’t expect, keep them guessing. Hopefully, they won’t be disappointed. There are no guarantees, of course.
Surprise, which is hard to do, is a goal, but disappointment isn’t going to help that, especially with a self-induced buildup to nothing.
I’ve always enjoyed stories the most, not when the big McGuffin is built up as something super-fantastic or super whatever, but when it’s subtly handled. I may have an idea what it is, so if it turns to be true, I’m not disappointed. On the other hand, if I guessed wrong, I’m more pleasantly surprised. When the author blatantly builds it up and then it’s revealed to be something mundane, I’m disappointed, even if the story was good.
Don’t do that! Keep a handle on it.
Or, don’t dangle the carrot at all and let the reader find out what’s going on along with the characters. Leave it all a mystery until near the end. Nobody can figure out what and why until then. That’s always a lot of fun!
DON’T DIG YOURSELF A HOLE
If you’re going to dangle the carrot, make sure your McGuffin is something worth dangling. If not, you’re going to disappoint a lot of people.
I’m just saying.