Publishing 103: The Other Alternatives

In the last two blogs, I covered traditional publishing and independent (i.e., self-) publishing. This time I’ll cover all the other possibilities–that I know about. If there are some I missed, please write and let me know.

You’ve probably heard the term “hybrid publisher,” which originally meant someone who has both traditional publishing contracts but also self-publishes. (Today, with so many options, the hybrid might be doing several of any number of things.) The statistics at Author Earnings indicate that hybrids, as a group, are pulling in more author income that any other category. The usual, though not only, hybrid approach, is to self-publish, develop a following, then parlay that success into a traditional contract, which may only include print rights, or may be for a sequel or related work. In fact, they may come to you. Traditional publishing watches the Kindle bestseller lists carefully, and if they see a self-published author running up impressive numbers, they often contact them with an offer.

Amazon Publishing is a major force in today’s book world. (I’m not talking about Kindle Direct Publishing for self-pubbed eBooks, I’m talking about Amazon’s own traditional publishing branch.) When people talk about the Big Five, they are usually referring to the big corporations with New York offices (kind of like the Tonys only go to plays presented on Broadway). If Amazon were put on the list, in terms of sales, they’d be No. 3. With a bullet. While the number of books Amazon publishes is relatively small, their sales are significant. Are you surprised? Of course Amazon the retailer gives preferential treatment to Amazon the publisher.

Amazon’s contracts are among the most progressive offered today–usually for a set term, 50% royalty on eBooks, paid monthly, and allowing you to reserve subsidiary rights. Amazon has an imprint for every kind of book imaginable, including both genre and literary work. You do need an agent to approach Amazon Publishing, which means you’ll be giving a good chunk of your earnings to an agent. Unless…

…you go the Kindle Scout route (like I have, twice). Kindle Scout allows you to get into Amazon Publishing without an agent, and in much less time. They call it a crowdsourcing site, but in truth, the decision what to publish and what not to publish is based on many factors, not merely how many “nominations” your book receives. Like any other publisher, they choose the books they believe will be most successful.

A more genuine crowdsourcing alternative would be funding a book through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, or acquiring patrons through Patreon (which full disclosure: I have a page on). Kickstarter has funded many individual books, while Patreon funds the artist, allowing them to produce their work or provide mentoring to others. The patrons receive many rewards, so it should be a win-win for everyone. The magic of the internet is that, even if each individual makes a small monthly contribution, the aggregate could make it possible for the artist to create without being controlled or robbed by a big corporation. If you’re interested, please check out everything I’m offering on my Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

BEWARE! The Big Five publishers now have vanity press lines (Simon & Schuster’s Archway Publishing, for one example). Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s affiliated with a big company. If they ask you for money, it’s a vanity press. I don’t care if they call it a marketing fee or an editing fee or anything else. If they want money, it’s a vanity press, and if you think that will ever lead to anything good, you are simply kidding yourself. Don’t let the desire to tell friends you have a contract with a Big Publisher lead you to a poor decision. Your friends will learn the truth. This path can only lead to embarrassment.

The Big Five also have “digital-only” lines, that is, all they want is the eBook. They may or may not acquire the print right or audio rights, but they will only publish the eBook. These lines have proven profitable for the big companies–but not so much for individual authors. If you prefer this to learning how to self-publishing, that’s fine, but if you’re doing it because you think you will have great sales or the prestige of being affiliated with a big publisher, I would reconsider.

Don’t be overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Be delighted. When I started back in the 80s, authors basically only had one viable route to publication. Now we have many, and that’s good. I like anything that puts more power (and income) in the hands of the creators, the people without whom books would not exist.

Modern Publishing 102: Indie Publishing

Just to be clear, what we now call indie or independent publishing is what we used to call self-publishing. What we used to call independent publishing was every publisher other than the New York mega-houses. Today, indie publishing accounts for more than two-thirds of all books published in the US.

Self-publishing does not have the stigma it once did, but I’d be fibbing if I suggested it has none at all. If you’re talking to someone who knows anything about the current publishing environment, you’re unlikely to see much judging. The fact that some people have made self-publishing successful speaks for itself. If you’re talking to someone who wants to be perceived as “literary,” a critic, a gossip, a professor, or one of the lucky few still making money from traditional publishing–the reaction may be different.

Some people start out trying for traditional publishing and if that doesn’t work opt for indie. Some people start with indie, work hard, acquire some strong sales figures, then use that to attract a traditional publisher. And some people–the hybrids–do both at the same time. All of these approaches are viable, and I for one am glad to see that writers have options. We are, after all, the ones who create the stories people love. We should not always be at the mercy of giant corporations peering relentlessly at their bottom lines.

To make indie publishing work, you must:

  1. Hire an editor
  2. Learn about formatting, distribution, and design
  3. Master marketing
  4. Create a brand, or
  5. Hire someone to do all of the above for you.

Did you notice that I put the editor first? Good. There’s a reason. Yes, I know–you have excellent writing skills and got As in English all through high school. But no one catches everything, and for that matter, you might need input that goes beyond merely catching typos. Maybe you need fact-checking, or credibility checking, or input on character likability, or pacing or viewpoint or…

Bottom line, no one catches everything, not even writers with 43 published books. We can all benefit from outside eyes, a reliable but honest beta reader. Or ten.

Formatting eBooks isn’t hard and you can learn it in a few hours. Formatting print books, even for print on demand, is hard and will take much longer. If you have no graphic design or layout experience, or you hate computers, you may want to consider hiring someone to do this, at least the first time around. Cover design is also critical, but there are many good cover designers online and you shouldn’t pay more than $2-300 for it.

I know you would rather write than market, and social media may drive you batty, but it’s necessary. If you think readers will find your books on their own because they are so splendid…you may be in for an unpleasant awakening. For that matter, even if you are published by a NY big shot you will have to market online and might well be contractually required to do so. Branding is simply establishing a reputation for creating a certain kind of work, a genre, subject area, series, or series character. Ideally, you want people to see your name and know exactly what kind of work they should expect.

If you hire someone to do this stuff for you, please beware of expensive services that use high-pressure sales tactics or prey upon your inexperience. Good assisted services include Girl Friday Publications, Book in a Box, DogEar, and Matador. At Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing allows you to self-publish and see your eBook immediately for sale on Amazon, where most books are sold today. Smashwords, or Draft2Digital, will put your eBook everywhere else. Amazon also has CreateSpace, which allows you to create print-on-demand books and have them immediately for sale on Amazon. Others may prefer IngramSpark or Lightning Source, which will guarantee your book can be ordered by bookstores through Ingram (assuming a bookstore is interested in ordering your book–it won’t happen automatically).

If you’re waiting for me to tell you which way to go–it will be a long wait. You’ll have to answer this one yourself, but your decision should be based upon:

  1. What kind of books you’re writing, and
  2. What will make you happy.

Most indie successes have been with adult genre fiction, so if that’s what you’re writing, this course may be more viable. If only a print book, or a contract with a big company, will make you feel validated as a writer–then that’s what you should pursue.

So now we’ve covered traditional publishing and self-publishing. Next time I’ll discuss all the other options.

 

Modern Publishing 101: Traditional Publishing

Once upon a time–like when I started in 1991–traditional publishing was virtually the only game in town. If you wanted to get into bookstores–and you did, because that was the primary place books sold–you needed a publisher, the bigger the better. Unfortunately, that meant you needed an agent, who would take 10-20% of your share, so you could get a publisher, who would retain 85-96% of the proceeds from the sale of your book. Unless they paid you a flat fee, in which case they kept it all.

Today we have many options, and I’ll be discussing all of them in this series of blog posts. But I’m starting with traditional publishing, because it still exists, and some argue it’s still the most desirable, or at least the most prestigious. (I’m not saying I agree. I’m just reporting.) The Big Five NYC publishers lead the pack, but there are many other prestigious publishers that have national distribution, and beyond that, many regional, small, and university presses.

Getting a contract with a big publisher is supposed to be the aspiring writer’s dream, but that dream is more like a nightmare if no one can find your book, or sales are poor, or they edit it poorly or give it a silly title or an embarrassing cover (fyi, I’ve had all of the above). But let’s say you’ve got your heart set on traditional publishing. Here are the essential steps:

1) Accurately categorize your book

2) Find an appropriate literary agent

3) Prepare your submission materials (query letter, synopsis, etc.)

4) Submit

Accurate categorization is critical. Even if you think your work is too deep and complex to be pigeonholed, you must be able to tell people what it is or you will never sell it. Presentation materials differ from different kinds of books. For instance, nonfiction writers can pitch with a proposal, but fiction writers will need a completed manuscript. Agents tend to specialize in certain fields, as do editors. You must know what your book it is to find the right business partner. The Big Five do best with genre fiction (romance, mystery/thriller, SF, YA), and nonfiction with a strong hook or concept that could appeal to a large audience. You are unlikely to sell the Big Five books over 120,000 words, poetry, short story collections, memoirs (unless you’re famous), literary or experimental fiction. A smaller or regional press, however, might be interested (and might not require an agent).

If you want to be published by the Big Five, you will need an agent. If your project is unlikely to draw a decent advance, an agent will probably not be interested. Today, you have the advantage of using the net to obtain info about agents, and you may be able to query them online, too. The best sources for agent information are: WritersMarket.com, PublishersMarketplace.com (useful, but subscription required), AgentQuery.com, QueryTracker.net, and for the literary market, Duotrope.com (also requires a subscription). You can even hire someone to find appropriate agents and publishers for you. Visit Grad Student Freelancers.

While you’re researching literary agents, find out what they want to see, because it varies. All will want a query letter, a one-page pitch letter, though today it can usually be sent by email, or possibly pasted into an interface on a webpage. You will also probably need a synopsis for a novel (1-2 pages long), sample chapters, or a proposal (especially if this is nonfiction).

And then it’s time to submit. Don’t expect a fast response. Prominent agents receive about 300 queries a week. If you get no response, you probably need to improve your premise (read Promising Premise) or rewrite your query to make it more engaging. If people ask for a manuscript but then decline, there’s something wrong with your manuscript. Come to a writing seminar or retreat and we’ll see what we can do about that.

How long should you keep querying? Obviously, there’s no set answer here. How much can you stand? I will tell you this. I sent my first novel out, over a period of about three years, and it was rejected hundreds of times by agents or publishers. No, I am not exaggerating. I heard that it was boring, unbelievable, and poorly written. And then Random House/Ballantine bought it and sold half a million copies in the first three months.

So now you know why I tell my students to be persistent. Never give up. You’ve never been trying too long.

But if traditional publishing isn’t working for you, you might consider the alternatives. I’ll post about that next time.

Do You Need a Website?

This blog post will be a definite change of pace. Normally, I start with big broad questions, and then answer with something like, “It depends,” or, “You tell me.” But this time, I can be much more direct. Do you need a website? Yes.

Every author needs a website. I often tell people at my retreats not to trust an agent with no webpage. Why should it be different for a writer? Here’s the reality: Setting up a webpage is time-consuming and will cost you some money, even if you learn how to do everything possible yourself (which is doubtful). But the subsequent upkeep is less demanding. And the benefits are many.

We live in an online world, and you probably don’t need me to tell you that. There’s a reason malls are closing and Wal-Mart is no longer America’s number-one retailer. People shop online. Your books must be available at Amazon, and you should have an Amazon Author page (discussed in a previous blog). But you need more. You need an environment you can control, update, and use to promote whatever you need to promote. Even before you have a book to promote, you should start building the site and thinking of ways to get people to visit.

Make your webpage as interactive as possible. Active, not passive. Give away free stuff. Hold free video seminars. Give readers a way to contact you. Explore the themes in your work. Ask yourself: What draws people to my books? And then put much more of it on your website. Jan Brett gives out colorful freebies. Jeff Kinney (Wimpy Kid) has silly interactive games. Linda Ashmangives lets people download her first chapter. What should you be doing? Some readers love to read “deleted scenes,” background stories about the novel, short stories set in the same world, or teaser chapters from unreleased books.

Build your mailing list. If they came to your site, they probably won’t mind signing up for a newsletter or notification of book publications or interesting downloads. People are paying millions of dollars these days for good e-mailing lists. You can create your own. Be sure to give visitors a way to contact you. That’s another way to collect email addresses.

Make it pleasing to the eye. Unless you are a graphic designer (and maybe even if you are), this means you’re hiring someone to design the site. Yes, I know you could do it yourself with an online interface but that doesn’t mean you should. An unprofessional, unattractive webpage does not inspire confidence or reading. After you have it looking nice, make sure it is easy to navigate. Don’t make people work hard for anything. Make especially sure they can get to a “buy page” for your books with a minimum numbers of clicks.

You don’t need to implement a whole new look all that often, but you should update the content frequently–forthcoming events, new books, etc. Have the person who designs your site set it up so you can make simple content changes yourself. You don’t want to be paying someone every time you need to post something new.

Next week I’m traveling to California for the final summer writing retreat. So far, I’ve had more questions about publishing than anything else, where to go and how to do it, so I’ll tackle that in the next few blog posts.

Join the Red Sneaker elite and get special stuff! https://www.patreon.com/willbern

Why Give Your Book Away for Free?

I’ve just finished the second of my summer writing retreats, which is why you haven’t heard much from me lately. First day, I always ask people what they want me to talk about. Once upon a time, the topics most frequently requested involved writing, but today, they almost always involve publishing. The publishing world is in chaos and writers don’t know where to take their books. Even at home, I frequently receive requests that I write a Red Sneaker book about publishing. The problem with that is that everything changes so frequently I would have to update it constantly. Better to keep that material in the blog, I think.

At the Georgia retreat, writers talked about using books as “loss leaders,” borrowing a term from the world of retail. The idea is that you sell a book for free, preferably the first or second book in a series. Technically, Amazon only lets you sell an eBook for free for five days out of every ninety, and then only if it is exclusive to Kindle Direct Publishing. If your book is free on other sites, however, Amazon will match the price. (In other words, let Smashwords give it away, and the omnipresent Amazon bots will soon know about it. Or you can just send an email and tell them)

Yes, you can give you book away–but should you? You worked hard to write that thing. You put enormous amounts of creativity into it. Don’t you deserve to get something back? The answer to that is a clear yes, but there are some sound marketing reasons for giving books away, either permanently or periodically. Free may make sense if:

  1. You want to build your reader base.
  2. You have a sizable backlist.
  3. You’re writing a series.
  4. You want to get more Amazon reviews.
  5. You have a a subsidiary product to sell.

If any of those things is true, go for it. But if you’re early in your career, or this is your first book, and you have the ability to set the price, my recommendation is that you set it low, but not free. Go with 99 cents for a short work and $2.99 or $3.99 for a full-length work. That’s cheap enough that anyone can buy it, but you will get some return. A lot of people will “buy” free books just because they’re free, but that doesn’t mean they will ever read them. Make them pay even a small amount, and the chances that they read it will substantially increase. You can’t turn them into fans unless they read the book, and frankly, reviews tend to be better when people have paid for a book, too. Readers tend to disrespect anything they got at no cost.

I’m in Eureka Springs this week. And it’s not too late to register for the California retreat that begins July 19. Writers who have joined my Patreon campaign may attend for free.

Keep writing!

California retreathttp://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Patreon campaignhttps://www.patreon.com/willbern

Thinking Theme, The Final Chapter

After a few diversions, I’m back to the topic of theme. This is the subject of my next Red Sneaker book, so if there are any aspects I haven’t covered, or anything you’d like me to address, please let me know. And I’m still interesting in hearing title possibilities…

Here’s what I’ve covered so far, in brief. Theme isn’t about thumping people over the head with your political, religious, or spiritual beliefs. At best, it’s putting a topic up for discussion–basically saying, here’s something important we ought to think about.

Some writers handle theme more subtly than others. People like Brad Thor and the late Vince Flynn have found success in thrillers with a hardline conservative bent, typically portraying the Middle East as a dire threat to truth, justice, and the American Way. There’s no doubt but that much of John Grisham’s early success was due to his anti-lawyer, anti-lawyering stance. Most of his early characters become disillusioned with the law and quit, in some cases before they’ve actually begun. This clearly captured the zeitgeist of lawyer-bashing popular at the time. (To be fair, Grisham, a fine writer, has since moved on to more profound themes.)

Many contemporary novels have found great success by encapsulating, or perhaps galvanizing, the sentiment of their times. Catch-22 rode to success with an antiwar theme that held great appeal during the Vietnam era (even though the story concerned a different war). The same could be said of M*A*S*H. The Bonfire of the Vanities was perceived as a summation of the “Me Generation” of the 80s. The film Tootsie addressed gender roles and stereotypes long before that became commonplace.

Some themes recur frequently because they are universal, or close to it. Prejudice. The dehumanization of industrial society. Revenge. Corruption. Obsession. Relationships. And then there are all those dichotomies your English teacher used to talk about. Man vs. nature. Hope vs. despair. Good vs. evil. These will always be of interest and import to readers. The only question is whether you can bring anything fresh to the table.

I mean no disrespect to any of the previously mentioned authors when I suggest that the books that continue to be read through successive generations, that stand the test of time, usually speak on a quieter but more profound level. I always advise writers to ask themselves: What matters most to you? Get past the obvious answers. I know you love your spouse, kids, family, pets. Beyond that. What matters most? What has made the biggest difference in your life? If you could cause your readers to see one thing, what would it be?

Theme should add depth to your story, should transform it from an amusing way to pass time into a meaningful reading experience. The repetition of thematic elements will lend the tale resonance. The story will still be strong, and that’s good, because it you practice any degree of subtlety, some readers will miss it. But the others will appreciate you much more because you lent an added dimension to your tale. And it should be useful to you during the writing process, too, because knowing your theme will help you make decisions about what to write, what characters to use, and what should happen to them. In the editing stage, it guides what to keep and what to cut. It sharpens the entire story.

In the Red Sneaker book, I’ll talk more about how to integrate that theme into your work. In the meantime, my Kindle Scout campaign has two more weeks to go, so please tell your friends to meander over and “nominate” my book. Costs nothing and might get you a free book. And please also spread the word about the Patreon campaign I’m hoping will keep the Red Sneaker Center, all the blogs and newsletters and publishing and seminars, running for the foreseeable future.

Kindle Scout: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/KY5IRZ0DD3YU

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

 

 

Figuring Out the Publishing World

Would you take a moment to nominate my new novel on Kindle Scout? It costs your nothing, and if the book is selected, you’ll receive a free digital copy. Click here to get to the page, then click “Nominate me.”

Since I’ve spent the last several blog posts talking about writing, I’m not surprised that most of the Red Sneaker email is about publishing, trying to fathom how to crack the market, where to send manuscripts, how to survive in a world where bookstores are online and books look like Star Trek PADDs.

I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. At best, I can offer a few guidelines, but at least those guidelines are based upon experience gained publishing over forty books in every possible way during the last thirty years. Here’s what I know for sure about where to publish your books:

  1. It depends on the book, and
  2. It depends upon you.

When I started submitting manuscripts back in the 80s, there was no confusion about it. Unless you had a NYC publisher, you weren’t in the bookstores, and that was where books sold. But somewhere in the last twenty years, Amazon became America’s top bookseller–by far. (#1 retailer, too.) In 2009, digital gizmos like iPads started catching on, and pretty soon people could carry thousands of books on a device that weighed less than a pound. If you’ve ever packed books for a long trip, you can see the advantages. Yes, you may prefer snuggling up to a nice hardcover when you’re in bed, but you aren’t always in bed (I hope) and hardcovers are expensive and increasingly harder to find. So what’s the upshot?

  1. Adult genre fiction sells more in eBook than paper. Figures vary, but it looks to me like sales are around 75% eBook. Books for kids, art books, and some nonfiction still sells better in paper–but the margin in narrowing.
  2. The Big Five NYC publishers are becoming increasingly dependent upon genre fiction (which they sometimes call “upscale fiction” to make it sound more different than it is). You will need an agent to pitch them.
  3. Smaller publishers are less likely to care about agents, and that may be where your non-genre work is heading anyway.
  4. New York is not publishing poetry to any significant degree.
  5. Amazon Publishing is not yet the largest share of the market, but they are the fastest growing slice–by far. Given the high visibility Amazon gives books in which they have a vested interest, that just makes sense.
  6. The Kindle Scout program is one way to get a book into Amazon. Amazon has other houses, but some still require agents (and even if you have one, do you want to give up 20% of your slender royalties)? It works best for adult genre fiction, though there have been exceptions.

And this is why last week, I worked on a book for a large publisher, sent one to a smaller publisher (cross fingers) and launched a Kindle Scout campaign for another book. These days, you need to try everything–based upon what’s right for the book and what’s right for you.

NOMINATE ME!: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/KY5IRZ0DD3YU

Join my Patreon campaign!: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

Patronage in the Modern World

If you’ve followed my social media this week, it will come as no surprise that my topic today is Patronage. My Patreon campaign launched on Friday. Click here.

Asking is hard. At least for me it is, and I think for most of you as well. Here is the rugged land of rags-to-riches fables and Protestant work ethic, we tend to exalt self-reliance. Asking suggests vulnerability, or imperfection, and no one wants that. Writers in particular want to be independent. Sure, we want a zillion people to read our books, but we also want the freedom to do the work that matters to us.

I recently read Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, and it had a big impact on me. You can get the short version in her terrific TED talk (Click here). (She also has an excellent Patreon campaign.) The book discusses how hard it was for her to ask for support from her fans and admirers. She didn’t want to be perceived as a loser, or as taking advantage. She’s married to Neil Gaiman, but she didn’t want to be dependent on a husband’s fans. She much preferred a community that admired her work and wanted to support it.

Once upon a time, of course, virtually all artists depended upon patronage. Before copyright laws existed, that was about the only way for writers–and painters and musicians–to survive. We have intellectual property protection today–sort of. The internet and bit torrents have made it possible to distribute other people’s work without paying them, and sadly, millions download pirated material. The publishing industry has changed dramatically and eBooks are not terribly profitable for most. Which is why you are seeing a rise in patronage, a new relationship between artists and their fans, through sites like Patreon and Kickstarter and Indiegogo and such. You like what artists are doing? Here’s how you let them know.

I’ve been running this Red Sneaker Center for Writers for many years, but I’ve always made a point of keeping the books and audios and stuff dirt cheap. I didn’t want anyone to have to agonize over whether they could afford to buy them. You want to be a writer? Here’s help–take it. But of course, writing those books takes time, newsletters must be distributed, developing apps is expensive…you get the idea. Like Amanda Palmer, I would rather sell the work at cost and be supported by people who appreciate what I’m doing.

So I launched the Pastreon campaign. If you’d like to help keep this Red Sneaker school going, please check it out. While you’re there, look at the other artist Patreon pages. Many people are doing fantastic work, and they could you use your help, too. A tiny contribution makes a big difference–if many people pitch in.

Let me share what one of the first contributors to my campaign wrote. This truly touched my heart, because I thought, HE GETS IT! He said:

“I’m thrilled that this tool exists to help support artists. In your case I have literally stopped many times from listening to the Red Sneaker books (which I listen to again and again in audiobook format) to think how unfair it is that I paid such a small price for such amazing and valuable learning. I have wanted to do something to say thank you for that and make things more balanced in paying for what I’ve gained.

This gives me a chance to show my support for your work with Red Sneaker Writers. Consider my pledge a nudge in that direction 😉 I can’t believe you manage the output of high quality work and help you do without it being full time. Just wow!”
​                                –Jason W.

Lots of cool gifts and book-related goodies if you join, too. Please check it out: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

Theme, Part 2

Thanks to everyone who suggested a title for my forthcoming Red Sneaker book. “Thinking Theme” is my current favorite (possibly “Thinking About Theme?”) but I’m still open to any suggestions you might have.

Last time I talked about what theme isn’t–basically, it isn’t clubbing people over the head with a moral or a political viewpoint (though Aesop and Ayn Rand might feel differently). Let’s get more positive this time. Let’s talk about what theme is.

I will admit that I am still influenced by a seminal book I read early in my writing career, John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. Here, the brilliant critic, theoretician, and author of novels like Grendel talked about theme, and more specifically, how to make fiction moral. His idea was that all stories convey society’s underlying values (some better than others). This is represented in authors’ choices, how they lay out the plot, what creates a story that seems to “make sense.” If you accept that notion, then one reason to read old books is to gain insight into the values of the people of the time when it was written. I have often said that one of the great pleasures of reading classic literature is that you realize that people may have believed different stuff back then–but people themselves haven’t changed at all.

Stories are the glue that hold together our fragile experience. They validate our values. This is revealed not only when you choose what to read, but when you choose what to write. That’s just common sense. Techno-thrillers appeal to those who favor strong shows of military force, not pacifists. SF appeals to people who, at the very least, believe in science. Romances appeal to those who believe in love. Religious fiction…well, this is getting obvious, isn’t it? You get the point.

To be fair, some people read to have their values challenged…but not many. We tend to be a closed-minded bunch, even those of us who read voraciously. But if you can produce a book that seriously challenges the way people think, you may be headed to greatness. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be a good example. On Civil Disobedience is another. Many spiritual or inspirational books have traded on vagueness, that is, they aren’t really saying anything new, but give readers the feeling that they’ve read something terribly profound–when in reality they’re just reinforcing what the reader already believes. In the opinion of some, this might include Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Celestine Prophecy, or even Tuesdays with Morrie–all of them huge bestsellers.

Gardner said, “By theme here we mean not a message—a word no good writer likes applied to his work—but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be Worldwide Inflation.”  So it’s presenting a subject worthy of contemplation, rather than telling people what to think. Posing a question, but not forcing an answer. Similarly, Chekov said a writer does not solve a problem so much as state the problem correctly.

One of the most challenging examples of this for me was my novel Capitol Conspiracy, which tackled the then-new Patriot Act. The fundamental question was, Should we uphold the civil rights upon which this nation was founded, or relinquish them in favor of enhanced security? I tried not to take sides. I knew everyone would expect bleeding-heart Ben Kincaid to take the liberal viewpoint, so I created a dramatic event that turned the poor boy in just the opposite direction. If Ben could rethink his predispositions, should we? Ultimately I wasn’t trying to tell people what to think. I was saying, This is an important topic we should all think about, and give reasoned, not panicked or reactionary, consideration.

More next week. Btw, registrations for my California and Massachusetts retreats will close at the end of the month. Don’t miss this opportunity to workshop your words and ideas. Click here: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

 

Thinking About Theme, Part 1

Let me lead with a secret: The next book in the Red Sneaker book series will be on Theme (then Description and Setting, Conflict, and unless you think of something else, I’m done). Perhaps you’re questioning whether this sounds like the most exciting writing topic. I think it is–in fact, sometimes I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process. Or perhaps you’re imagining you already know everything there is to know about Theme. Maybe you do–but I can tell you that I didn’t, which became abundantly clear as I started gathering my thoughts for this book, and I’ve written over thirty novels now.

Depending upon who your English teacher was, you may have the idea that theme is some deep, profound, secret meaning cryptically buried somewhere in a fictional or poetic text. I don’t think so, and I think Theme is rarely as simple or as didactic as what we are sometimes taught. I mean, maybe in Aesop’s fables, or in a parable (Pilgrim’s Progress, Animal Farm), but most novelists want to be somewhat subtler. Rightly so. Morals hammering readers over the head rarely have much impact. To me the best themes do not pound. Theme is best when it’s more like the brush of a feather, something that tickles readers’ brains just enough to get them thinking–but not enough to take them out of the story.

One of the best analogies I’ve read is this: theme is the container for your story.  Sort of like a cup, or a goblet.  It’s what holds all the other elements together and makes them even better than they might otherwise be.  And here’s the truth: the goblet may be completely unnoticed by some readers, but the drink is still better because the goblet is there.

Don’t think of Theme as some ponderous shroud only decoded by academics and critics, diehard dissertation writers who strap the story to a chair and beat the theme out, leaving it lifeless afterward. It’s not a game of Hide and Seek. It’s more like Sardines (if you don’t know the diff, Google it). You have the joy of discovery without the pain struggling for it. Because reading is not supposed to be a hair-shirt experience. The story itself should be a delight, and the theme is the lagniappe, the added bonus that gives it additional pleasure and makes the book linger in the reader’s memory long after the last page is turned. Like Harry Chapin said, “It’s got to be the going not the getting there that’s good.”

 

Have you ever finished a book and thought, That was nice, but so what? And a week later, you can’t even recall what it was about? That’s not the ticket to the bestseller list, much less the classics list. The best way to give your book added resonance is to underlie the conflict with a well-conceived theme. This is why War and Peace is more than just another war story, why A Tale of Two Cities is more than just another thriller.

Okay, so now that I’ve explained what Theme isn’t, you may be wondering what it is. Next week.

By the way, if I’m going to write a book on theme, I need a snazzy alliterative two-word title. And frankly, I got nothing. Can you suggest a title? I’ll give you credit and everything. Everything except royalties. Email your ideas to me: willbern@gmail.com. Any other suggestions for the book will be equally welcome.

The summer is fact approaching and I’ll be closing registrations for at least two of my writing retreats at the end of the month. Register before it’s too late: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php