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

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

Myth #6: Real Writers Are Compelled to Write…Always

Here I am, posting a blog the day before Election Day, trying to come up with some jazzy way to tie this into the election–and I already used “Fear” last time. Darn! This is what comes from not thinking ahead.

Today the myth I’m addressing, one you have likely heard many times, is “Writing is a compulsion,” or perhaps “I can’t not write.” Some aspiring or amateur writers love to say this stuff because it sounds so writerly. But is writing a compulsion? Since I always advise people to commit to a regular writing schedule and to write every day, you may be thinking I will buy off on this one.

Wrong. (See, I just quoted a candidate. I’m making this work.) I can’t not write? Give me a break. I love writing, especially when the words are flowing and I can tell it’s good. But I can’t not write? There’s a new episode of Black Mirror on tv, I haven’t worked the NYT crossword yet, I’m still trying to learn that Death Cab for Cutie song on the piano, I’m halfway through Anne Tyler’s new book…you get the drift? There are a lot of marvelous things I could be doing other than writing. So don’t kid a kidder. I could not write. But I will anyway. I will make myself write, because I know that’s the only way a book gets finished. It’s not that I can’t. It’s that I force myself to do it anyway.

This doesn’t mean I dislike writing. It means writing is hard work, which is why you commit to a schedule, basically telling yourself that even thought there are other things I could be doing, I’m going to force myself to get words down on paper anyway.

This leads directly into another great writer myth: writer’s block. This is another topic not-yet writers like to talk about because it sounds so romantic and tortured and deep. But truth is, this is a complete hoax. You never hear anyone complaining that they have plumber’s block. What makes writers so special? Why do we get a ready-made excuse for not working? Isn’t this just self-indulgence? Isn’t this just coming up with an excuse for not working that doesn’t require you to admit that writing isn’t a compulsion? “I can’t not write…but today the words aren’t flowing. I’m blocked.”

Roz Morris said, “If you’re the kind of person who believes that block will stop you, you’re the type to get it.”

To me, writer’s block means: 1) you don’t know what happens next because you didn’t think it through before you started, 2) you can’t think of anything to write about, or 3) you don’t know why you’re writing. If it’s   the first problem, sit down and make an outline. This will not only help you see the big picture, it will be so painful that tomorrow you’ll be anxious to write. If it’s the second problem, go to the library (or bookstore, if you can find one). Walk through the stalls. Read some dust jackets. Not to copy–to be inspired. Ideas will fly at you. And if it’s the third problem, insufficient motivation, honestly, this may not be the right profession for you. Perhaps you like the idea of working with books but not writing itself. There are other occupations in the book industry you could consider.

Or you could (shameless plug) read my book Powerful Premise. Because if you do want to be a writer, I think that book will get your neurons firing and put you on the path to starting a book that you will work on every day, not because you’re compelled to do so, but because you’ve got a terrific story to tell and you want other to read it.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. Unless you’re planning to vote for the wrong person. Then you should stay home.

Powerful Premise: https://www.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker/dp/0692425101

Myth #5: I Fear I Can’t Write Because…

Since I’m posting this on Halloween, I thought it appropriate to continue the series on writing myths by specifically addressing the single factor that has prematurely ended more promising writing careers than anything else: Fear.

What are you afraid of? There must be something. Comes with the DNA. We have different fears, but there’s always something at the core creating insecurity or concern. And that’s a problem for a writer. Because a writer by definition has to, first, create something that never existed before and, second, put it out there for others to read. That requires a bit of ego–the assumption that you’ve written something worthy of another’s attention. Fear will prevent you from mustering the necessary ego to push forward.

Let me address a fear I’ve seen repeatedly in my writing retreats: fear about writing skills. Note I used the word “skills,” not “ability.” You can learn to write better–that’s the whole point of the retreats. But some people are better spellers, or better with grammar. Personally, I’ve never been a particularly brilliant speller. I’ve learned to check when unsure. And not to rely on SpellCheck, which at best tells me whether the letters I’ve typed make a word, not whether they make the word I intend. SpellCheck is useful, but there is no StupidCheck. When in doubt, look it up. Which you can do on that phone in your pocket in about five seconds.

Similarly, I’ve had students worry about their grammar or punctuation. “Do all writers have to be grammar Nazis?” No, I say, pointing out that the Nazis actually lost the war, and you want to win the battle to be published. You will have to acquire those grammar skills, though. GrammarCheck is better than it used to be, but far from perfect, and it will probably never understand that fiction writers sometimes deliberately use fragments, or write dialogue in colloquial language or slang.

Fortunately, there are many free tools online for improving your grammar, and if you take advantage of them on a daily basis, you will soon see your skills improve. There are many grammar blogs (Grammar Girl is the most popular), grammar email service (Word-of-the-Day), and even grammar games and apps. At the end of this blog I’ll post a list of excellent grammar-related websites. If need be, hire a tutor, which you can also find online or perhaps at the local community college. But do not let this readily fixable problem deter you from achieving your dreams.

The last fear I often hear is someone worrying that they haven’t read enough to be a writer. Look, it is not necessary to have an advanced degree in English Literature to write a book. It is not even necessary that you be “well read.” What is essential is that you be extremely familiar with the kind of lit you want to write. You can’t write romances if you don’t know how they go. You can’t write SF if you don’t know what’s already been done.

But reading the Great Books, while beneficial, is not essential. I have a good friend who is an extremely successful thriller writer who often laments that he hasn’t read the classics. So he can’t recite poetry or drop Shakespearean quotations or other pompous stuff I’m more likely to do at dinner. But he knows the world of thrillers inside out (much better than I do). It’s all he reads, all he’s ever read. And that gave him the background he needed to build the writing career he wanted.

Mark Twain said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” So this year, celebrate Halloween by banishing fear and committing to the writing career you want. If necessary, start reading in your area or playing online grammar games. But the most important step is to start writing, regularly, every day. Commit to the future you want.

Grammar Websites: https://prowritingaid.com/art/111/10-Websites-to-Help-Improve-Your-Grammar.aspx

Inspiration and Commitment

Hemingway wrote about “a clean, well-lighted place.” Virginia Woolf wanted “a room of her own.” E.M. Forster wrote about “a room with a view.” Sandra Dee wanted “a summer place…”

Okay, I’m starting to digress. But you knew what I was saying at the outset, right? A writer needs a place to write. Ideally that place is quiet and distraction-free so you can muster the enormous focus required to write a novel. Or for that matter, a short story.  Or a magnificent poem.

Studies have shown that, unlike computers, we do not multitask. We focus on one thing at a time, and when we try to do more, we are in reality rapidly shifting our focus in ways that undermine the quality of our work. Only one task can be in focus. The rest are on autopilot. This can make the already daunting task of writing even more daunting, especially when there are children in the house and dirty laundry, etc.

I totally get it. While I raised my first batch of children, I learned to block out everything. You can tell your kids not to bother you unless they’re bleeding or on fire, but we all know it doesn’t actually work that way. So we end up scrabbling for time wherever we can find it. I’ve written in shopping malls and hospitals and parking lots. When you’re trying to get a book finished, I told myself, you can’t be too choosy.

If you’ve read my Red Sneaker novels, you know I advise aspiring writers to commit to a written contract in which they promise themselves they will establish a schedule and stick to it–two hours a day, four hours a day, six. Or so many pages or words a day, whatever works for you. Sign the contract in the back of the book and get the other members of your household to sign it too. You want them to respect your commitment? Get it in ink.

Some distractions you can eliminate yourself. Hire a babysitter if possible. Get someone else to pick the kids up after school, or let them ride the bus. Tell the other members of the household to do their own laundry. And by all means, turn off those email and text pop-ups on your computer. Shut off the wi-fi. Pry your cell phone out of your hands.

At the Rose State conference last weekend, Katherine Center talked about stealing away to a family place in Galveston to write. Michael Crichton used to check into the Beverly Hills Hilton for a month to do the same. I personally have spent too much of my life in hotels and have no desire to ever do it again.

Happily, there is an alternative. The writer’s colony.

A decade ago, there were more than a hundred writer’s colonies in the US. Today, there are about thirty. If we do not support them, soon there will be none. Lara and I travel to Eureka Springs at least twice a year to spend time at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow, a beautiful mountain retreat. Costs all of $75 a night, food included. You can write all day without interruption, surrounded by some of the most glorious scenery on earth. Last year I even held two five-day writer’s retreats there, and they were huge successes. I’m doing it again next year (June 7-11). Lara and I have spent the past few days at Dairy Hollow (I’m writing this on our beautiful balcony) and I felt compelled to share this inspirational opportunity with you.

The most important thing, of course, is that you find the time and quiet to write. If a writer’s colony will help you get it done, go for it. Dairy Hollow still has space available in 2016, and lots more in 2017. Make the commitment to your writing future. Make your reservation today.

Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow

Myth #3: Writing is Easy if You’re Any Good at It

Alternately, I could have titled this post something like, If you think writing is hard, you must not have any talent–because that’s how I often hear people phrase this idea at conferences and retreats. Either way, it’s completely untrue, though I can see how people might come to believe it.

It’s easy to become discouraged when the words aren’t flowing right, when you’re stuck in a fictional morass, when you know there’s something wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. It’s particularly easy to become discouraged early in your writing career, because until you’ve got some practice under your belt, the work is never as good as you want it to be. I’ve read wonderful books all my life, you think. Why can’t I write one?

Here’s the reality: Writing is hard. I’m not sure why, but it is. Like all acts of artistic endeavor, creating something out of nothing is challenging. There may be other things that are as hard, but I don’t think there’s anything harder. We rarely have any trouble expressing ourselves verbally. So why is it so hard to put words down on paper? Perhaps a neurologist could explain it. I can’t, but I know it’s true. My next novel (Challengers of the Dust, out September 9) will be my 43rd book. So at this point, you might imagine I have this writing thing down, right? Wrong. It’s still a struggle. The first draft is always a fight to wrestle onto paper, and even then I’m typically so dissatisfied with it that I bury my face in my hands and think, When did I forget how to write?

Of course, the secret is to not stop there. Take a brief break, and then start on the next draft. Each time, if you’re putting in your maximum effort and working consistently, you should begin to see improvement. This is what writing is all about (and also the subject of my most recent Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing). Your first draft will never be publishable. Writing is a process–and no steps in that process can be skipped without diminishing the final product. Good writing is the result of relentless editing and revision and reconsideration.

I will say this–I do believe that with practice you may find writing getting, not easier, but a bit faster. That is, once you have your writing process down cold, you may find the time it takes to produce a first-rate book decreasing. It will never be fast, but it may become faster. What causes some experienced authors to be labeled “prolific” is not that they find writing easy but rather that they’ve made writing a daily habit and they’ve got their process down.

So if you’re out there thinking, writing is so hard for me, I must be a terrible writer–you’re wrong. Writing is hard for everyone. You may need more practice. The more you do, the quicker it will get. Just don’t give up. Don’t become discouraged. And whenever you have an opportunity to learn more about this challenging quest you’ve undertaken, go for it.

One more note about the forthcoming Rose State Writers Conference: This year, for the first time ever, a VIP Dinner will precede the Friday night program. This will give you a chance to dine with and have photos taken with the Guests of Honor. Since there’s food involved, there’s an additional charge, but I encourage you to take this opportunity to rub shoulders with the people you hope to emulate. You might even have some fun!

Excellent Editing link

Rose State Writers Conference link

Use Preorders to Crack the Bestseller Lists

Traditional publishers have long known the advantages of taking preorders. Did you realize that in most cases, the New York Times bestseller list number are based upon preorders rather than actual sales? True. It’s based on how many copies go into the store, which can sometimes be wildly different from the number that are purchased in the store, which has led many to question the validity of the list.

Up till now, taking preorders has not been an option for independent publishers, but that has changed. Amazon’s KDP platform for self-publishing eBooks now permits you to take orders for a book before the launch date. The advantage? When that launch date finally arrives, you’ll get credit for not only that day’s sales but all the preorders as well, and that extra boost can propel you to the top of the list (especially if you have carefully and strategically chosen the list when you categorized your book). Although iBooks and Kobo have done this for a while, this is a recent policy change for Amazon.

Does it work? Last year, almost two-thirds of the top 200 bestsellers distributed by Smashwords took preorders (though overall, only one book in eight at Smashwords took preorders). It would appear preorders get you on bestsellers lists.

This won’t happen by accident. You’ll have to work Facebook and other social media to encourage people to preorder. Presumably you’ve posted a lot about the book in advance, building interest and anticipation, before you actually offer it as a preorder. But once the book is available, every post about it should contain a link to the preorder site.

If you really want to spur preorders, the obvious play is to offer a lower price. 50% off for preorders, but the price jumps on release day.

Don’t start taking preorders until the book is a done deal, finished, uploaded, perfect and ready to roll. A book not ready on the release date will not only not get you on the bestseller list, it will be a personal embarrassment and a business disaster.

Get your superfans, your near and dear, to post positive reviews as soon as possible, preferably on the release date or, where possible, earlier. That can only help push you up the list.

Update the back matter in your previous eBooks to tell readers about the new book with a hyperlink to the preorder site. You could even lower prices or pulse prices to get more people reading the older books–and seeing the promotion for the new one.

And then? Plan an agressive marketing campaign that covers the entire week of the release. How? That will be the topic of next week’s blog.