What’s New? A Mid-Year Publishing Report

It’s July, so I thought it might be time for an update on what’s happening in the publishing world–because the well-informed writer is better positioned to succeed. If you only want to hear the good news…skip to the bottom.

Barnes & Noble is Retreating

Ok, this part probably isn’t a surprise, but it must be said. We only have one remaining national bookstore chain, and it does not appear to be in sound financial shape.  Their sales are down 6.4% from the previous year, their stock price has dropped 4%, they are closing stores and eliminating employee positions. They keep saying they’re “pivoting” back to books, but that’s not what I see in the stores. Part of their problem is the movement away from brick and mortar toward online shopping, but mostly it reflects the new American reality: Amazon is the number one retailer in America.

No analysts are predicting B&N will be around long, and some have stated they would not be surprised if the corporation folded before the end of the year. What happens then? Maybe independent bookstores will rise from the dead, but it seems more likely that people will continue doing what they’re doing now–shopping online. The only new bookstore chain that shows financial strength is Amazon’s new brick-and-mortar chain–there are 16 of them now. They use a different business model that people seem to be responding to positively. Lots of books, low prices, easy shopping–you don’t even have to stop at the checkout counter.

Amazon is Retreating…in Some Indie-Friendly Categories

Kindle Scout, the Amazon crowdsourcing program enjoyed by many (including me) has stopped taking submissions, instead steering people to KDP (self-publishing). The reason given was the desire to focus on Amazon Publishing (Amazon’s traditional pub unit) and its many imprints. They also shuttered Kindle Worlds, the fan fiction program, even after it launched more than 100 shared worlds over five years. They closed Amazon Studios–an open call for scripts–and CreateSpace no longer offers editorial services, though it is still happy to print your book for you.

Why? These programs required Amazon to be involved with reviewing submissions and generally led to relatively low-priced genre fiction ebooks. By contrast, Amazon Publishing, which is showing strong sales, acquires in the traditional way (you need an agent to submit) and their books sell at a higher price. So I could be wrong, but my experience with corporations suggests that they are closing programs that make less money and beefing up programs that make more. Amazon Publishing’s many imprints sell well, and there’s an obvious advantage to being connected with the largest retailer in America–but to get there, you’ll need an agent.

Digital Subscription Services Are Not Retreating

There are two subscription services sharing the market: Kindle Unlimited (which despite the name, is extremely limited), which primarily covers Amazon Publishing and self-pubbed titles, and Scribd, which peddles the Big Five’s titles. Scribd had many startup problems and suffers from a spotty list, but it rebounded this year with an $8.99 monthly subscription package and now has about 700,000 subscribers. KU costs a buck more but offers far more titles.

One of Scribd’s problems is that it is mostly backlist–you can rarely obtain the latest and greatest from NYC, which would seem to be one of the main reasons for subscribing to a Big Five program. Scribd’s list also has virtually unknown titles from the Big Five’s digital-only and even vanity lines. There are a few titles only subscribers can obtain–but I think we can safely assume that doesn’t include the latest from Anne Tyler or James Patterson.

I don’t know whether these programs will survive or even if I want them to. KU famously compensates self-pubbed authors on a bizarre per-page-read system that pays far less than a normal sale. (Traditionally published authors are paid in a more traditional way.) Many authors have taken their books out of the program, thinking that it gives readers a way to read their work without fairly compensating them. Others think it’s a great way to find new readers. Others liken it to the subscription libraries popular in the nineteenth century. I don’t know. But I don’t think I’d mind if the next Amazon closing is KU.

Traditional Publishing Claims it is Advancing

According to AAP stats, traditional publishing sales advanced 2-3% over the past year. They also say overall sales are about 80% print, 20% ebooks. That may be so, but remember that Big Five ebook prices are much higher, sometimes more expensive than the paperback, which suggests the publishers are deliberately trying to suppress ebook sales. Also recall that these numbers include many regional and smaller presses that don’t publish ebooks. All sources agree, however, that the growth is driven by nonfiction, backlist, and childrens books. Frontlist fiction went down by 5%.

I’d take all those articles about “Print is back!” with a grain of salt. Print never left, but there are a whole lot of people reading ebooks on their tablets and phones, and those high prices may alienate those readers. Although I have no statistics to back it up, I think people are still reading lots of fiction–but they’re buying it online. Some sources say genre fiction sales are now about 70-75% ebook.

You Will Have to Market Your Book

Another clear trend: traditional publishing contracts that require authors to actively engage in marketing. I just reviewed one for a friend. It requires an author webpage and frequent engagement in social media. Agents report that editors at Big Five houses are now requesting a list of “comps”–that is, comparable titles that have succeeded–with the manuscript submission. In other words, the marketing discussion that at one time might’ve come later now occurs at the beginning of the submission process. Donald Maass, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency (who is appearing at our writers conference) said, “I know publishers are thinking ahead to the marketing of fiction, so it’s natural for ideas of comp titles, next work, and so on to pass up the line.” He says his agency works with its clients to prepare this information. He will talk about this more at the conference.

Click here for more info about the Red Sneaker Writers Conference! 

Creating Suspense

If you’ve read Perfecting Plot, or for that matter, any of the other books in the Red Sneaker Writers series, you understand the importance of creating suspense, or its junior partner, tension. Bottom line, it’s a matter of maintaining interest, keeping the reader riveted to the page in a world rife with distractions. Suspense is not just for so-called suspense novels–it’s an important element in any book you want the reader to finish. And in my opinion, it’s just as important in nonfiction as it is in fiction. When the book is full of suspense, the reader finishes and runs to work the next day (or posts on Amazon) enthusiastically talking about this great book everyone need to read. That’s when they call it “a good read” or say they stayed up till three in the morning because they couldn’t put it down. And that is the best publicity a writer can get.

Simply stated, suspense is apprehension–the reader wondering and even worrying about what will happen on the next page. This requires at least two elements. First, there must be a perilous situation fraught with risk. This doesn’t have to involve guns, cliffs, or end-of-the-word scenarios. Sometimes emotional stakes can be just as important. The second essential element is a protagonist readers care about. This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect (and probably shouldn’t be). It just means the reader has to care what happens to them. This won’t happen automatically. You have to give them a reason to care (see Creating Character).

Tension is nascent suspense, a sense that all is not right with the world, even if you don’t know quite what the problem is. There should be tension on every page, from the first page until the climax is completed. You heard me right. Every page.  Tension is that nagging feeling that there’s a ticking time bomb somewhere that’s going to explode if someone doesn’t do something. It’s the unsettling intimation that the characters are all talking but not actually talking about what is uppermost in their minds. Even in the early pages of the book, when you might not have fully developed the suspense elements, there should be tension.

I’ve been reading a lot of manuscripts lately, editing for friends and patrons, and I’ve noticed that suspense, or attempts to create suspense, tend to fall into one of two different categories. The best kind of suspense is what I described before, a genuine concern about what might befall characters you care about. “Oh no–what will happen next?” This is conflict that arises naturally and authentically from the narrative you’ve created.

Too often, what I see is “false suspense.” (If someone has a cooler name for this, please share it.) This is the literary equivalent of the “jump scare” in a horror film–when something unexpectedly leaps out from off-screen, usually accompanied by a jarring noise. Sure, you jump, but that scare wasn’t really earned. Similarly, writers sometimes create unearned suspense by withholding vital information. Like, in the worst possible (and most common) example, the fact that this exciting interlude is only a dream. Almost as bad is when a first-person narrator withholds critical information. Though some have done this with success (Agatha Christie, Harlan Coben), it always leaves me feeling cheated. I mean, seriously–I’ve been inside this character’s head for 400 pages, but he never once thought about this critical detail that was not reveled until the last page? To me, that’s a cheat.

I understand the desire to have one final surprise on the final page, and that may be the easiest way to do it. But for me, I’d rather see a “big reveal” in the climax, and let those few pages following the climax wrap up character business, or complete the narrative with a touching, evocative, or thematic grace note. Even in thrillers, there’s more to a good novel than eternal surprises. And I think there should a constitutional amendment banning all dream sequences, drug trips, daydreams, parallel universes, and any other devices that allow writers to suggest something exciting is happening when it isn’t. This is suspense without consequences, and I think it leaves most readers feeling ripped off.

The best approach? Dynamic, sympathetic characters working against major opposition to achieve meaningful goals. Anytime you feel the suspense may be lagging–raise the stakes. Put more at risk. Put someone else in jeopardy. Make your book impossible to put down.

Have you registered yet for the Red Sneaker conference? The 2018 conference is going to be the biggest and best one yet. Click here for more information.

Looking Ahead to 2018–and Beyond

Writing about Hollywood, William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.” I feel much the same about publishing. When eBooks first borke, I repeatedly heard people say, “That will never catch on,” or “I love the feel of a real book in my hands.” Well, guess what? EBooks account for abou 75% of sales in popular fiction, and a large chunk of the other categories. Similarly, the big New York publishers were little concerend when Amazon hit the scene. Who wants to buy online? “People want to hold the book and thumb through the pages, then carry it home with them.” Wrong again. The ease of advance ordering, home devliery, and deeply discounted prices vastly outweighed the advantages of brick-and-mortar stores, at least in many people’s minds.

It’s been almost ten years since the eBook revolution began, and the publishing world is still going through tremendous changes. Audiobooks are not a fad. They are the future. Amazon is the nation’s most sucessful retailer, not just in books, but overall. Self-publishing is not only viable, at least for some, it is profitable. Online marketing is paramount. But people wonder–how long will this last? Is this a fad or a new world order?

Prognostications for the Future:

  1. Indie Authors (Self-Pubbed Authors) Will Increase Their EBook Share. Traditional publishing in many ways seems mired in the past. They price eBooks too high and rely on “legacy authors,” which means their output shows little innovation. Indie authors can be more flexible and responsive. They can price their books lower, or use price pulsing and short-term free promos to spur sales. Indie works best when it innovates, not imitates. Indies are better at taking risks. There are too many idenitical-looking romances and Star Wars ripoffs. Indies are free to experiement, which doesn’t always work–but when it does, that’s when you see someone break out big. In 2017 the number of authors who reported making over $100,000 from writing grew by 70% over 2016. Who did this? The authors who paid attention to trends, stayed up-to-date on the latest information, and made the most of their opportunities, I predict the indie eBook share will increase in 2018.
  2. Marketing Will Change and Some Approaches Will Stop Working. Facebook and Amazon ads have become more popular and, as a result, more expensive. (I’ve had success with Amazon ads, less so with Facebook.) As more and more authors go indie, the need to market your work to emerge from the crowd will increase. I suspect more authors will use freelance marketing agencies, because it makes good business sense, and because the work is complex and time-consuming. (We will have some narketing firms at the RSC writers conference.) I believe you will see more emphasis on email marketing–going direct to the reader. Of course, that means you need a solid, curated list of readers, and you know what interests them.
  3. Amazon Will Continue to Grow–and That May Not Always Be Good. What happens if Amazon doesn’t love us anymore? Does anyone have the power to retaliate? Last year, Amazon made changes to its affiliate program that basically made it less profitable for participants. This trend will probably continue, because Amazon no longer needs to drive customers to them–they’re already there. Kindle Unlimited has some competition, but it remains by far the largest reader subscription service. KU pays out a lot of money each month, but it is divided into many different hands. For authors with a few titles, it is the simplest way to go, though it means being completely dependent upon Amazon. Last year, after much hand-wringing, I took all the titles I controlled out of KU, but it was a tough decision and there were no clear answers.
  4. You Need an Audiobook. Will I never stop talking about this? No, not until you’ve all recorded your audiobook. If you really want to invest in your publishing future, this is what you should be doing. A few weeks ago, I recorded an audiobook for a fellow wirter using our home studio–and his audiobook is already outselling the eBook.  According to Kelly Lytle of Findaway Voices, “Digital audiobooks will remain the fastest growth area in publishing with sales increasing 30% to 40% or more. The dynamics—ease of access for consumers, lifestyle habits, increased market competition, new selling models—have all synced up to create significant staying power. It should surprise nobody when the market size of audiobooks surpasses eBooks in a few years.”
  5. Readers still love reading and still love books. This was my final point in the last newsletter, too, because it’s still true and, for me, it’s the point to always keep uppermost in your mind. Yes, you need to remember that this is a business, and you need knowledge and connections to be successful in any business. But writing is also an art. Books have changed people’s lives and have changed the world–and they will again. What is it you want to say to the world?

Do You Need an Editor?

My normal pattern is to pose the question in the title, then make you wade through a lot of patter to get to the ending. Not this time. Do you need an editor?

Probably. Goodness knows I do.

I’ve seen too many manuscripts that, though not intrinsically horrible, were spoiled by the irritation of poor editing, leading to typos, continuity errors, formatting problems, etc. This did not begin with self-published books, but they may have intensified it. Part of the problem with eBooks is that there are many different eReaders and but no universal standards for formatting, and even the best designed book may be undone when users tamper with the font size and background colors and such. But a lot of it is just poor proofreading.

Even before we get to the proofreading stage, though, every book needs careful proofing during the revision process to make sure it is as good, as consistent, as accurate, and as powerful as it can be. I read my manuscripts repeatedly before they’re published, but I don’t consider that editing. I don’t think authors can edit themselves. There comes a time in the writing process when everyone benefits from an outside opinion, someone who can give them insight into how the rest of the world, those who did not create this story from scratch, might perceive it.

Outside editing shouldn’t bankrupt you. I’ve seen too many people come to my summer retreats only after spending four or five thousand dollars for editing, and in some cases getting the worst advice I’ve ever heard from people who have clearly never published a book with a major publisher, if anyone. Being a former English major is not enough. Choose an editor with real experience and a reasonable pricing scheme.

That said, don’t EVER pay for an editor:

  1. after only one draft. Too soon. This is the time for you to revise, not someone else. Only hire an editor after you’ve done everything you can think of to improve it.
  2. just so you can say in your query that your manuscript has been professionally edited.
  3. because you’ve been swayed by a dramatic sales pitch from someone calling themselves a “book doctor.”
  4. just to get validation from a third person. Come on. No one you pay is likely to tell you that you’re terrible.

I always recommend that, after you think you’re finished, set the manuscript aside for a month, do something else, then reread it. That alone may help you find obvious ways to improve it that you didn’t see when you were too wrapped up in the creation process.

But when the time is right, get a good editor. It will increase the quality of your manuscript as well as your chances of success.

I don’t think I’m the only good editor out there, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I do offer editing and critique. I find it a pleasant way to fill the day after I’ve done my own writing. It actually exercises a completely different, much more analytical skill set than writing itself.

If you’re interested in my editing or critiquing, please visit my website: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/publishing_editing_services.php

Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Speaking of all the various ways the publishing world has changed, just in the last decade…let’s talk about literary agents.

Once upon a time, agents were virtually mandatory, because the only way to get your story into the hands of readers was to sell it to a publisher, and most major publishers would not accept “unsolicited” manuscripts, preferring to get work from agents. Was this because agents sprinkled magic fairy dust on them that made them better? No. Was this because anything an agent liked would automatically be liked by publishers? No. The agents were simply gatekeepers. Publishers assumed agents would separate the wheat from the chaff, that is, reject the completely unpublishable, so they could focus on choosing amongst the remainders.

This system worked well for publishing houses. Less so for writers. In the first place, agents were hard to come by. Queries worked infrequently. Face-to-face meetings were better, but no one could afford to go to all the writer conferences out there, and some conferences promoted agents that were less than ideal. And even after that holy grail agent was obtained, they were no guarantee of publication–and typically took 20% of a writer’s already meager earnings. And you could never get them on the phone…

More than one writer thought, there must be a better way.

Now of course, there is. For the first time ever, self-publishing is viable. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily what you want. Some people–ok, probably everyone–would rather write than run a business. Some people dread marketing and social media–though they will need to do both even if they land a major publisher. But self-publishing rarely results in books in bookstores, or flashy hardcovers you can show off to your mother or zealously competitive siblings. What’s best?

To some extent, the best course depends on what you’re writing, but if you’re writing anything remotely resembling commercial fiction, I advise starting with trying to get an agent and print publisher. Give yourself a deadline. If you work it hard but don’t get there in three years, maybe it’s time to consider independent publishing. But that assumes you’ve worked it hard. Which means sending out queries, attending conferences, giving pitches (don’t worry–no one else enjoys this any more than you do), and seeing if you can find your way into a comfortable New York berth. The stakes are high. It’s worth the effort, especially early on, when you’re still building a career and a following.

I’ve mentioned this before, but at my annual conference, I am quite choosy about who I invite. Agents aren’t there unless they are reputable and have a substantial list of successful sales. I don’t promote anyone I wouldn’t have for an agent myself–in fact, several of the speakers have worked for me in the past. I have seen people at my conferences land agents who got them substantial publishing contracts–and to me, that’s what it’s all about.

If you think an agent is something you might like, I know a great opportunity for you to find one. Come to my writers conference September 22-23. In between sessions, we can chat about your work and your plans and try to get you what you need to succeed. I’d like to see you become the next publishing success story.

Schedule and registration info: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

Do You Need a Marketing Guru?

If anyone had asked me that question six months ago, I would have said no. Maybe even three months ago. To be fair, I’m accustomed to doing things myself. I’ve managed this writing career, for good or ill, for thirty years. Then again…we get agents sometimes to negotiate better sales. We get lawyers to review contracts. Others design covers and format the interior. Why not a marketing guru (which is NOT the same as a publicist). Marketing has become more important than ever, particularly in the online arena.

Fortunately, I had a new perspective pressed upon me by my friend and fellow writer Sean Callahan. He has spent years researching this field and as a result, knows all the latest and greatest, what works and what’s a waste of time and cash. He tosses out terms like “conversion” and “market penetration.” and it actually makes sense. I had a two-hour conversation with him a while back and learned more about marketing than I had in my entire previous life.

This is why I’ve invited him to the Red Sneaker conference (Sept 22-24). So he can do for the rest of you what he’s already done for me.

A few things to think about:

Conversion: The idea is to turn all your online and social media activity into book sales. Interestingly, this isn’t always as direct as it might seem. The best posts don’t overtly promote or contain links sending someone to Amazon. Better in the long term, Sean says, to send people to your website and collect their email address. Then you can notify them about your latest work till the end of time. Mail Chimp is an inexpensive way to keep the addresses organized and use them effectively.

Metadata: Personally, I’m always flummoxed when sites or people ask me for keywords or other forms of metadata. I don’t know what to put. Jungle Scout is a program that will research the field and provide a ranked list of possible terms for promoting your book. And remember–you can change terms at any time. Try a few, and if they don’t work, or they’ve taken you as far as they can, try some some different ones.

Amazon Marketing Services allows you to place ads on Amazon to promote your book (or any other product). To be fair, this will cost more than Facebook ads, though possibly not as much as you might imagine. And unlike Facebook ads, they pay off. Use the search terms you’ve discovered to craft a highly effective ad. And if you haven’t been successful in getting Bookbub to promote one of your books–consider a Bookbub ad. Sean advocates a procedure know as “ad stacking” to get the biggest bang out of your buck and to get the news about your book in front of the maximum number of people.

I haven’t even started on branding or levels or online engagement…or a host of other terrific ideas. You need to talk to Sean. And you can do so–at no additional cost–at the Red Sneaker writers conference. Have I convinced you yet that you need to attend?

Here’s a link to register or get more information: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

Should You Attend a Writers Conference?

Every year, many aspiring writers search for the assistance they need to break out–the agent, the editor, the publisher, whatever it is. And every year, many writers conferences offer to provide that assistance. The problems, of course, are that they are not free and they are not all in your hometown. How do you decide whether a conference is worth the investment? How do you decide which of the many you should attend?

I have some insight on these questions. As you may already know, I’ve organized a writers conference for many years now. It’s a lot of work and not terribly profitable, but every time I think about ending it, I come back to the same question: How would my life have changed if something like this had been available when I was trying to break into the business? I was a Oklahoma punk who’d never even met a writer, much less been in a hotel filled with them. Information was tough to find. I survived, but it wasn’t easy and that certainly might have helped.

And that’s why I put on the conference.

I think hard every year about how to make this year’s conference as useful as possible. Social opportunities are great, but I want the conference to provide more than networking. Information is the most valuable professional asset, so I try to provide the info people need to succeed. This has become even more important in recent years, as the publishing industry has undergone so many changes in so little time. I make sure people can find agents and editors, too. While I can’t guarantee publishing contracts, I can guarantee opportunities, information, and valuable feedback. The rest is up to the writer.

Here are the factors you should consider when deciding whether to attend a conference:

  1. If you’re hoping for an agent (or editor), examine the credentials of the people attending in advance. Sadly, some conferences will invite (or permit) agents who do not have strong track records, to fill slots cheaply or because they lack the contacts necessary to get to the top players. I’ve seen conferences with agents I wouldn’t even allow my students to pitch. If you’re going to commit to an agent, there should be a good reason. Make sure the person you’re pitching has sold books. Their website should list their clients as well as past sales. Make sure they represent the kind of book you’re writing. Make sure they’re with a reputable agency. If you can’t tell from their webpage (or they don’t have one), that should set off warning bells.
  2. Some conferences are so large they take the cattle-call approach to private consultations. Everyone is released at the same time in a large room and you can talk to as many as possible in a set period of time. You’ll like spend most of your time waiting, not talking. Some conferences make you pay an extra fee, per pitch. I recommend smaller or midsize conferences with reputable agents, so you know you’ll get to talk to the ideal people–and have enough time to have a real conversation. Plan to spend maybe 10% or your allotted time actually pitching. Spend the rest of the time listening. Go in with smart questions, things you need to know. Even if they don’t take you on, what would they recommend you do next? Instead of expecting an instant contract, view it as a learning experience, a rare opportunity for a professional consultation. Pick the brains of industry leaders. Most will be happy to talk.
  3. Give the rest of the speakers the same scrutiny. You should pick your sessions based not only on topic but also credentials. Even if the topic doesn’t address your primary need, a knowledgable speaker can impart information you may well find useful. Look for people who know what they’re talking about. If an opportunity for a chance conversation comes along, be prepared with questions. Don’t ask the obvious, stuff you could Google. Dig deeper. Take notes. Buy recordings. Then put the information into practice immediately, before you’ve had time to forget it.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that when I plan my conference, I only bring in agents I would be happy to have as my own, and I only choose speakers who are knowledgeable and know how to impart that knowledge. And I am always available to make sure people make contact with the people they want to see (or get anything else they need). I mother-hen the whole shebang, doing my best to make sure everyone is happy and everyone gets the tools they need to succeed. If you have any questions about the conference (OKC, Sept 22-24), feel free to email me: willbern@gmail.com.

You can register here: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

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

 

 

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