Category Archives: Improving Writing Skills

The Author’s Hat

Photo of Michael Faris wearing a hat

Everybody's hat is different

“Cowboys and outlaws, 

Right guys and southpaws,

Good dogs and all kinds of cats. 

Dirt roads and white lines,

All kinds of stop signs,

But I’ll stay right here where I’m at… 

‘Cause I wear my own kind of hat.”

–Merle Haggard

Merle said it with the song “My Own Kind of Hat”. It speaks loudly of the desire for indie authors to create their own brand, regardless of how the literary world has elected to categorize them.

Writers want to stand out from the rest, to be seen as unique artists in their own right, presenting work in their own style. Few authors today will place themselves firmly into any one genre. Doing so tends to associate their work with other “genre branded” authors. It means their work is stereotyped. Tagged. Pigeonholed.

We conjure all kinds of preconceptions when we have a label applied to anything. Our experience with classifying things teaches us to expect certain behavior when we encounter similarly labeled  products. Associating a label with specific traits subconsciously embeds this information in our minds. This conception is tempered by an individual’s unique experiences associated with the label. This alone is enough to give everyone a totally different slant on any given category.

Some things are indelibly woven into our concepts. For instance, if you see two men with guns facing each other in the street. One is wearing a white hat, the other a black one. What things come to mind? Most of us think of a good guy about to duel with a bad guy. Why? Because it was hammered into us from the time we watched that first episode of Gunsmoke. Good or bad, you can tell by the color of the hat.

Attempts to define specific genres suffer the same drawbacks as any classification system. They specifically include some things while excluding others, and so it becomes necessary to understand the limits of the system you are using in order to appreciate how to best utilize it.

An author might try to qualify their work by adding a note that further defines it, but the truth is that genre classifications tend to blend into each other at the edges, making it difficult to pin some types of work down.  In any case, aligning oneself with a generic or general classification could result in an unfavorable brand that limits the scope of your work.

Plato started this genre stuff, and Aristotle elaborated on it. Down through the ages, others have massaged the concept and expounded and debated the subject until it has mushroomed into a complex set of loosely defined definitions that cannot be agreed upon by anyone… completely, that is. Some authors have been driven to try spanning two or more genres in an effort to categorize their work, but this angle might serve to cloud their image even more.

Just as there are the crossover musicians which appeal to a broader cross-section of fans with individual tastes, so there must be authors with the same kind of charisma, ready and willing to cross the lines and make their work available to a wider and more varied audience. Branding yourself as a “one-size-fits-all”  kind of writer might tend to dilute your image. I don’t believe there are any genre police going after authors inventing their own classifications, but I expect there are penalties.

To play ball with the big guys, you have to first learn their game. If you are working through an agent or otherwise publishing traditionally, this means you will need to discover the genre that best fits your work. The reason is that there are already institutions, campaigns and tried methods in place that are geared to marketing these predetermined broad-class genres. In order to fit, you may need to… conform (ouch!)

But if you are truly an indie, you won’t be encumbered by traditional rules. You will bravely stick to your course and hope that your social media effort will gain enough followers to see you through. You will realize that there is a much bigger audience out there if you don’t confine yourself to any one genre. But one thing is certain. It is difficult for readers to make any kind of judgement about your work unless they can either compare it to something familiar or experience it firsthand.

Try to connect with and appeal to folks that have similar likes and preferences. .. those with their own kind of hat.

Do you have some thoughts about assigning a specific genre to your work? I’d like to hear how some other indie writers out there seeing this problem and what they are doing to avoid it… or maybe they totally disagree. What do you think? Let’s hear your side.

Michael Faris

About Time Publishing

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genre

http://www.bubblecow.net/a-list-of-book-genres

http://homeworktips.about.com/od/booksbytopic/a/genres.htm

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Zodiacs and Genres

Graphic: Genre Spinner

So what’s your sign?

Labels… so many labels that attempt to define who we are and what we do!

It seems that everything is classified according to some standard, pigeon-holed along with countless other folks that may or may not agree on most things. Yet it’s the way we begin to evaluate a new idea or thing of which we have no immediate knowledge. We compare things in order to begin to understand them. We always ask the question, “What’s it like?”

Arbitrary categories mean different things to different people and require even more sub-definitions to clarify our concepts. For instance, if I told you I was a fiction writer, what would you think?

I have just placed myself in a general category that basically says I make up my stories, but it doesn’t convey any sense of the types of stories I write nor does it indicate anything about my style. As far as you know, my work could be anything from crime mysteries to fairy tales, mythology to science fiction.

So now I say my work is fantasy-adventure, which narrows it somewhat, but it still encompasses a wide range of possibilities… still pretty near infinite, I’d say.

I could suggest that my work touches on science fiction and involves crime mysteries. But that tends to widen the field again.

How about if I say my genre is sci-fi-fantasy-mystery novels with a touch of humor? Sitting astraddle of a handful of these categories somehow makes me uncomfortable and really clouds the issue. Perhaps I would feel better just going back to the general fiction classification, but it wouldn’t serve well.

So how should I go about defining the type of writing I do? I could say I was inspired by such writers as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, E.R. Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, O. Henry and others. But does that do anything to clarify it? Not really.

Maybe I could find another writer that produced work similar to mine and compare myself to them. But that would tend to dilute my image as a writer with a unique style. Hey! I blaze my own trails! I’m not a copycat and I refuse to try to model myself after anyone else’s style. Like most writers, I feel my work is unique. It doesn’t really fit wholly into any one category or classification, and I’ll be damned if I will try to make it do so.

So maybe I should invent a new genre? How about MysSciFiHumFant? Say it real fast and it sounds… well, silly. But am I all alone? How many writers have difficulty classifying their work? What if you write several specific kinds of fiction?

I not only write novels, but I have tried my hand at poetry, songs and short stories, all with different styles and I’m not sure you could classify any of them. I prefer to think of my genre as undefined and without limits. I’m a free-thinker and I want my writing to reflect that.

Too often my attempt at genre classification will turn some people off. They will say “I’m normally not a fan of sci-fi (or fantasy or mystery… whatever), but your book was really a fun read.”

So it seems that the best strategy might be to give ’em a little taste without telling them what it is. My mother (and my wife) have both tried this technique in order to get me to broaden my horizons and try new things. I must say it has worked on some occasions and I have indeed expanded my experiences for the better.

I’m suggesting here that whether you are Scorpio, Pisces or Sagittarius, you could actually step outside your assigned preferences and check out some of the unclassified literature being  produced by some very talented writers.  Genres be damned!

I hope to be interviewing some rogue authors in the near future to find out how they see themselves and what they are doing to promote their work.

As always, I invite comments and suggestions about the business of indie publishing and ways to help fledgling authors be seen and heard. What’s your genre? How do you classify your work ?

About Time Publishing

Photo of Michael Faris sitting at desk

Michael Faris

I have three books available at present. Check out the links at the very top of this page.

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zodiac

http://literature.pppst.com/genres.html

http://genresofliterature.com/

http://webclipart.about.com/od/businessoffice/ss/Chinese-Zodiac-Calendar.htm

Author’s Brainstorming Tool

Mike riding backwards on bicycle

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I have difficulty defining and sticking to a plot when writing fiction. I’ve tried outlining everything on paper. I’ve tried index cards. I’ve experimented with different text programs and even full-blown page layout systems in an effort to arrange my thoughts before sitting down to actually write.

I usually keep a notebook for each writing project where I stuff all my outlines, notes and so forth. It works better than my former method of leaving these things scattered in, on, around and even under my desk. Some notes don’t even make it out of the bathroom, or perhaps it fell down between the seats in my truck when I scribbled the thought on a McDonald’s napkin while sitting at a traffic light. I try to discipline myself to at least try to get my doodles into the notebook.

My point is that an idea will occur at the strangest moment, sparked by just about anything. If I don’t write it down somewhere it will surely fade into oblivion in only a short time. At best, I can only remember that I had a great idea a while ago, but the substance often eludes me.

Of course, just having ideas is nothing if no action is taken. So many times I have come up with a half-baked thought that really only needed more cooking time to become a good idea with some merit. I just need to brainstorm about it, or perhaps seek some advice… if I can just hold on to it… maybe park it somewhere until I can focus.

Well today I came across some software that might help  to organize my thoughts in a simple, easy-to-use format. I can carry it with me on my thumbdrive and work on it anyplace I can plug into a computer.

Idea Cruncher is meant to help you manage any project, but it is really super for writing books. Its simple interface is intuitive and easy to learn. You input data at anytime and anywhere within an outline that is very flexible. Information is graphically displayed as a tree. You can drag the order around, jot notes on any of the ideas and arrange parent and child data as needed. You can save versions and even import and export information between Idea Cruncher documents.

For managing projects, you can flesh out the the outline with more detailed information by adding notes to each point. Any of the outline entries can be tagged as actions, which can be displayed in a separate list of all actions contained within the entire document. You can check off points of the list, which draws a line through the text, just as you might do on a paper list.

There is a third window on the bottom that can be used to make text drafts before moving the information to your favorite word processing program. This is a scratch area that holds anything recorded there no matter which parts of the outline you are displaying above.

I downloaded a 30-day  trial version onto my laptop and was using it productively in just a few minutes. The registered version is less than $15 and includes the portable (thumbdrive) version. Sweet!

Michael Faris

About Time Publishing

Its the same old story…

Photo of Michael Faris sitting at desk

Michael Faris

I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas for your stories?”

I get them from everyday news events, from personal experiences, friends’ suggestions, from happenstance situations, satisfactions, disappointments, absurdities and ridiculous occurrences that are all around us… or maybe from a wish, a realization that things could be much different than they are. I have only to open my eyes or lend an ear and there are things to write about.

I probably have more trouble narrowing ideas down to a reasonable size so they don’t become a career project. For me, it really becomes a matter of deciding what’s important and sticking to that thought.

These what I call “career projects” become an awesome burden, mainly because of the time invested. I somehow cannot let go of them, desiring to see some kind of reward for my efforts. It’s like I won’t admit to myself that I acted on a bad idea.

What happens is that it gets stored away in a box or on DVD for future reference, (just in case I want to pick it up again).

One day I realized I had dozens of these “great ideas” all at various stages of development, any one that I should be able to pick up and finish with a little more effort. But somehow, yesterday’s ideas just don’t provide the inspiration that today and tomorrow promise. Or is there something else is at the root of my problem?

I know I have trouble finishing stories with sketchy plots. Attempts to outline the project ahead of time just never seem to pan out. Once I get to writing, my imagination just takes off and leaves the plan in a ditch somewhere. To heck with that outlining BS, I’m too busy having fun!

My first novel took me almost ten years to write. I went through three computers and swapped platforms twice before I cobbled together a meager 100,000 words. That’s about 27 words per day.

The sequel only took two years to write… (comparable length of 100K words). I was now working five times as fast now at 135 words per day!

Novel number three was also taking two years. But I could see an underlying problem here that made finishing very difficult. I was getting bored with the project and enthusiasm waned.

As much as I enjoyed writing, I couldn’t seem to finish a project. I asked myself why and could only blame it on the size of the undertaking. So I decided to concentrate on short stories.

This presented a whole new set of rules. I had a lot less time to develop my characters and to execute the plot. They tended to drag out because I couldn’t effectively tell my stories in so short a time… the very reason my novels became so long. So what was my problem?

I decided to join a writer’s group and get some pointers so I could effectively improve my work to the point of writing more complete material in a shorter length of time. I had no idea about how a writer’s group was conducted. I just wanted to get some of my work out in front of some guys that didn’t ‘love’ me. They would all be strangers and that seemed a good way to find out if my stuff was any good. So I found a fiction writers group on Craigslist and joined.

It has been about four years now since throwing in with “The Write Guys”, a very informal group of six members that meets twice a month. I have found it to be very rewarding and I have grown because of it. I have also followed and enjoyed a lot of superb stories from the rest of the group. Good fellowship. Great medicine for me as a writer.

The Write Guys try to get three readings in per meeting, which keeps each member’s presentation down to around 20-30 minutes and allows them to read about once a month. Each of us reads the next chapter from our ongoing novels, then the group discusses the story, pointing out things that we liked (or didn’t), and making suggestions that might help to improve the work.

The guys really seem to like my writing, but I’m still having the same problem. I can’t seem to finish a story because the plot isn’t well defined. I’m starting to realize that beautiful sentences do not make a story. It takes more than that.

The writers group experience has been positive, and I thought we were doing reasonably well, until I ran across Kristen Lamb’s blog. Her perspective has radically altered my thinking and presented a few challenges that I know will help me to grow as a writer.

Kristen’s advice and tips on how to effectively write and critique fiction are terrific! She also has some excellent advice on promoting fiction using social media, together with a couple of books that every serious fiction writer should read. Check it out at warriorwriters.wordpress.com/.

Now I think I will go cut a few projects down to size.

Michael Faris

About Time Publishing