Category Archives: Editorial Changes

Real or Fake?

jackalope1So I’m reading a Kindle sample of a novel and in the beginning pages a character is listening to a song on the radio. The singer’s name is made up, the popular song being sung is made up, as are the equally unimpressive lyrics1. Then I find out that the singer got famous when she was on a TV program called Popstar! and, well, that along with some of the other problems I felt the book had, it kind of did me in for wanting to read the rest. I mean, why not just say American Idol?2

Why not indeed? I mean, doesn’t Stephen King, who some people praise for his immersive style of writing, sometimes drown you in brand names – Louie sat in his La-Z-Boy recliner with a Budweiser and a bag of Doritos, and turned his Sony flatscreen on to ESPN, waiting to see the start of the Boston Red Sox game… I think King’s point is to have people believe his creepy stuff could happen in the real world, so he throws in real world stuff in the name of verisimilitude. And it works for a lot of readers.3

On the other hand, you have writers who throw in fakes, and, well, I can’t really explain why. Years ago I was really excited to start reading James A. Michener’s Space, his novel about the U.S. space program. But early on it described a character going outside to look at the night sky “in the state of Fremont” – and my suspension of disbelief came crashing down like a house of cards. I mean, yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s a novel about NASA, it takes place in the United States and some of the other characters are real people, like Werhner Von Braun and Lyndon Johnson… then why make up a state fercryinoutloud? Why not just say Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa?

Now there are times when you definitely want to fake it. If you’re an insider to history or popular culture and you want to vent your spleen on the subject from an insider’s point of view, the roman a clef is the way to do it. Just change the names and everything is good to go. And if you want to keep your job, better fake your name, too – Anonymous is very popular among this set, and you can join novels like Primary Colors and Elimination Night4, along with all the attendant “who wrote it?” publicity.

Unfortunately, to me novels like that become a jokey guessing game with no real point. Everyone knows which Presidential candidate is really Bill Clinton, which recently rehabbed rock star grasping for relevance is really Stephen Tyler. if you’re going to this, I have two pieces of advice: first, make sure you have a really good lawyer. Second, if you’re going to fake the names, go all the way. Don’t play the assonance game and make William Clinton into Wilson Fenton (Primary Colors makes him Jack Stanton). Doing that strikes me as being too cutesy and cloying. Make him Frank Stevens instead. And if you’re going to have a cameo by an iconic figure, you have to be consistent and play it out ’till the end, changing his/er name, too. Just don’t call him Rob Snopes.

In Science Fiction it’s easier to get away with fakery. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about things that sound different in the future because, well, things will sound different in the future. Except when they stay pretty much the same, as evidenced by the brand names that pop up in films like 2001 and Blade Runner.

Still, when you’re in the future you need to play nice. While working on the Pembroke Hall novels, my editor asked me to change the way that I talked about Timex in the book. They were afraid the watchmakers would be offended by things and the lawyers would come out. I made the alteration because she had a point, it was an easy fix, and I didn’t really have anything against the company or their products.

If you’re writing Historical Fiction, then it’s probably best not to fake it at all. Readers of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist partly did so to watch how the characters interacted with a future President who at the time of the novel was Police Commissioner of New York City. They didn’t want to guess which leader Theophilus Rosenfeld turned out to be. The trick to not faking it here is use the real person’s character to enhance the goings-on – a recent episode of Downtown Abbey centered around a meeting with playboy Prince Edward, whose womanizing ways contributed to the plot in an ironic way.

So if you’re going to be real, play nice and be consistent. And if you’re going to fake it, well, go in all the way and don’t be ridiculous about it.

That concludes my thoughts. This is Joe Clifford Faust, signing off from the state of Midlandia.

  1. But then, I’m at the age where most of the lyrics I hear on the radio are unimpressive.
  2. And I have problems with ALL these shows that grind out cookie cutter singers, but I’m not going there today.
  3. See, I can write about King and not say anything nasty!
  4. Which I always thought was a really lame fake name for American Idol. Popstar! is much better.

The Cliff’s Notes Version of How to Be a Writer

A lot of my posts come from questions I get from aspiring writers struggling with some part of the writing process or another. The other day I got an email peppered with questions I had mostly already answered. However, it occurred to me that there might be others out there who, like this particular reader, who haven’t had the chance to wade through the 700+ posts here to find what they want.

So instead of cutting and pasting a whole bunch of links to essays in this side, I went for the short answer, knowing I would post the results in a kind of Cliff’s Notes version of this blog.

So here’s the short answer version of many popular writer’s questions. For more detail, see the rest of the blog.

(Note: questions in parenthesis are paraphrased by yours truly for the sake of brevity)

(Reader mentions different jobs he has had, including a recent stint in the military)

Thank you for serving in the military. I can’t thank you enough for doing that.

It sounds you have a lot of different experiences, which is a good thing. A writer doesn’t have to have experience in a lot of different jobs and rely solely on imagination, but I think experience helps. Your resume sounds a lot like my early one before I settled down.

(Reader asks about how one should go about tackling a writing project)

If you’re reading my blog, you’ve probably found tons of information about writing from my particular point of view. You should hunt up some blogs from other writers to see how they’re handling things. I’m a big proponent of finding out what works for you as a writer, because what works for me or another writer might not be your cup of tea. Plus, the way I write has evolved over the years.

I’m 39 and I’ve wanted to write my entire life but have yet to finish a book. I have multitudes of ideas streaming in my head with good ideas.

Yup, you’ve got it bad. Welcome to the club. Most writers have tons of ideas (I even do a writer’s seminar called “The Idea Is The Easy Part” to show how easy it is to come up with a concept for a novel). Our big issue is time to do something with those ideas.

I have a friend who is a brilliant idea man. He’s always coming up with a new idea for a book. His problem is, he gets these new ideas when he’s supposed to be working on another book, and he gets so taken with the new idea that he abandons his in-progress for the new idea. Those writers who are published learned to discipline themselves and pick one idea, working on it until it’s done. If the new idea is really good, it won’t go away.

I go out and buy notebooks and pens and write short spurts here and there.

I do that too. I have notebooks with notes and starts of books all over the place. It’s like buying a new notebook and/or pen validates the new idea. But again, that discipline is the key.

But I make excuses and think that I can’t make money doing that.

It’s hard. And it’s hard for outsiders to understand that, for every Tom Clancy or Stephen King, there are 1,000 writers like me who do it for the love of writing, and of course, for a shot at that brass ring.

Fortunately, with the advent of the Amazon Kindle and other e-readers, it’s become easier to make money on one’s work by self-publishing. Good money. One woman just signed a $2 million contract with a major publisher based on the Twilight knockoff novels she was self-publishing. But it needs to be good. Or shamelessly commerical.

Do I need an agent?

There’s a joke in the industry that you can’t get a book sale without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you have sold a book. If you want to get published by the Big Six, you need an agent. If you’re willing to go the self-published route, no. If your self-pubbed stuff catches on, the agents will find you.

The story of how I got my agent is on my blog. It helped that I went in through the Science Fiction/Fantasy Door. That genre is more open to new writers and unsolicited submissions than the more mainstream stuff.

How do I get a book contract?

By writing a darn good book. And you do that by writing and writing and writing and writing. Every time you write you get better at it. No anabolic steroids necessary.

How can I get a publisher to pay me while I write?

1) Write a darn good book

2) Sell it to a publisher

3) While you are marketing the first book, start on the next one. This way you can tell your publisher you’re working on a new book and they will understand that you’re serious about writing.

4) If your book gets buzz, or hits it big, or perhaps even breaks even, your publisher will want to tie you down with a multi-book contract. When that happens, congratulations!

That’s approximately the way to do it. Fortunately for us all, publishers want to make sure an author can go the distance and produce something both readable and salable before committing to their writing careers.

I’m sure some people have gotten contracts without going through some version of this, but they were either celebrities who could be hooked up with ghostwriters, or had established themselves as writers in another area (short fiction, journalism, etc.)

When you were writing the Angel’s Luck series what was your writing process?

It depends. The first book, Desperate Measures, was the first novel I ever wrote. During its writing I was going to college, getting married, and looking for a job. It was written piecemeal over the course of 4 1/2 years, and the original version was twice as long as what was published. While it was at market, I wrote A Death Of Honor, then The Mushroom Shift (about police work – I worked for a few years as a sheriff’s dispatcher), then The Company Man. By then I was a better writer and was able to hack the mess that was DM into shape.

The other two books in the trilogy I was under contract to write. I had said I was never going to write a trilogy, but the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. So I pitched DM to my editor as the first book, said a few words about what the other two books would be like, and Del Rey bit. I wrote those two as a full-time writer, and I treated it like a full-time job.

How many hours a day did you write?

Again, it depends. When I’m writing a novel, I tell myself my daily goal is 5 pages, and I take however long it takes to get there. Many days I’d get on a roll and write more in just a couple of hours. If I was having a bad day, I told myself I had to get through at least one page. More often than not, getting through the first page made it possible to write four more. But sometimes one was all I could struggle through.

WARNING: Telling friends and family that you are writing full time will often lead them to think that, since you are home, you are “not doing anything”, and are therefore eligible to do things like help them move pianos.

How did you find a decent Editor to read your work?

I was marketing A Death of Honor, and since it was Science Fiction, I was going the Slush Pile route (SF is institutionally more friendly to unsolicited submissions than any other genre – although romances may be this way also… I wouldn’t know). A bunch of smaller houses turned it down. A big house wanted it, but they wanted changes that I felt would have damaged the integrity of the story. My wife kept telling me to send it to Del Rey, and I kept saying no because they published Heinlein and Clarke – what would they want with me? She persisted. I gave in. And I can’t count over the years how many times I have been grateful for my wife’s encouragement.

I do want to write and I feel that is my talent.

If you really, really want to write, nobody can stop you. Not even yourself. All sorts of people have told me they wanted to write, but when it came down to it, no encouragement I gave could make them actually sit down and write. A few did and succeeded, but if they didn’t have that spark inside driving them, they never would have made the commitment. Many others tried and gave up, or ended up not trying.

I said that it took me 4 1/2 years to write Desperate Measures. That’s because I wanted to be a writer more than anything else. And I wrote whenever I could steal the time to do it. A lot of times it was a half-page, page, two pages here and there. It added up. When I finally finished, I learned that I could write a novel. I started to get an idea of how I worked as a writer. I learned that, every time I wrote, I got better at it. And I learned that, having done it once, I wanted to do it again.

And I’m still trying. I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer, either. But I haven’t given up because I know how much writing means to me, and I know I’d rather be writing novels than anything else.

So steal what time you can to pile up those pages and see what happens.

And that is Volume One of the Cliff’s Notes. Feel free to question or append in the comments.

Ghostwriters in Disguise, Part II

So if you’re often deprived of glory on the cover of a book, why ghostwrite at all? I think that’s all explained in this excellent article on NPR. But I can see from the look on your face that you won’t click the link and read the article. You want me to tell about my experiences as a ghostwriter.

Okay, here we go. But let me say that the number one reason, and the entire raison de etre of the NPR article has to do with financial stability, especially when one’s own projects aren’t selling well.

That was part of what was on my mind when my agent called me up way back in the mists of time ago – what’s it been, twenty years? He told me that the person whom I will refer to as Client #1 was writing a new novel with a science fiction flavor, and needed an actual SF practitioner to make sure it all hung together. When he told me the Client’s name, I was taken aback. I definitely knew the name, and was surprised that this person needed help writing anything at all, their backlist being full of all sorts of writing, including other novels.

Nevertheless, I agreed to the project. I am always interested in new experiences, and I saw it as being more of a book doctor or maybe a midwife to the project. Terms of the deal were disclosed to me. My name would not appear on the cover. I would get one-third of the proceeds. And I was never, ever, ever, ever, to say what I had done for the Client.

So I flew to New York and took a meeting with Client #1, his agent, my agent (the two agents worked in the same agency, which is how my name came up in an earlier meeting) and the Editor. Client #1 brought an outline of the book, some seven typewritten single spaced pages, and read it to us, giving us some asides about the direction the book should take.

And I had an epiphany. I don’t read people at all, to the point where if it’s not obvious, I don’t have a clue, making me wonder if there are a few Asperger’s genes in my makeup. But as Client #1 read the outline, I suddenly understood something: Client wants to be the main character in the book. Badly.

Then I had another epiphany as I looked at the outline: I have an incredible amount of freedom in what this book is to be. Imagine if your client gave you the outline to the book, and when you took out the manifesto part (which made up some 5 pages of Client’s outline), the basic plot of the novel looked something like this:

Two friends sneak into an orchard to pick apples. While picking and stuffing themselves with apples, the two get into an argument. One kills the other with a shovel and buries the body under one of the trees, then tries to live life normally. But then things go wrong. There’s a police investigation, and the family of the deceased wants to know what’s going on. Finally, the murderer’s guilt turns into insanity, everything comes to a head, and the book concludes with an inevitable, yet shocking twist ending. The book’s thesis is that murder is a bad thing.

Can you feel the wheels turning in your head? There are a handful, a dozen, a million ways you can tell this story. Add to that your insight that this book is, say, an allegory for your client’s very public and messy divorce. Writer, you’ve just been given the keys to the playground. All the equipment is there, but you and you alone decide what you play on and when.

I went to town on the book. I wrote about some things I’d wanted to write about but could never fit into my own books. I tried methods and tricks of writing that I would never, ever use in one of my novels. I easter egged some things into it so if I ever had to defend myself as the ghost, I could prove it was my work. I had long phone conversations with… the Editor, one of the last of the hard-drinkin’ literary editors, about where the book was going and things we could do to move it along. I had a lot of fun with the project, even if at the end of things there was some creative dithering at the publishing house, and I kept having to rewrite passages so they would appeal to this or that demographic.

Most importantly, Client #1 loved the book. My insight had paid off. I took the two pages of vague idea that was given me and run with it. As for the manifesto, I took that five pages almost verbatim and turned it into a speech that one of the characters makes in the third act. It was all about the Client, and the client was happy indeed.

And then the roof caved in.

Late in the publication process, the book became orphaned. That means that the Editor behind the book leaves the publishing house for whatever reason, and there is no longer someone there to Champion it. After I had cleaned up the Client’s final edit, and after I had gone over the galleys of the book, a new editor came in with a blue pencil and decided to clean house. I didn’t know about this until a copy of the finished book came to me in the mail. If the editor had only called or asked, I could have helped… but he or she was dealing with an orphan, and so what?

It was a nightmare. I had done things like written A, B, and C – and then later came D, and it was a payoff of some kind. The editor had cut A, B, and C. Clues and characterization disappeared, and the end result was a messy potboiler. I’m not saying I had written some kind of literary masterpiece, but a lot of the structure was butchered, and, well, the critics picked up on it, and they weren’t kind. They especially picked up on the “D’s”, which sorely needed their respective A’s, B’s and C’s to work.

But God Bless Client #1, who soldiered on and promoted the book, and for all I know, it was treated as lovingly as that original outline I had been given in New York months before.

After all the hoo-hah had passed over the book being a bust, I asked my agent something that had been on my mind for some time. “Did Client #1 actually write those other novels that I see on the bibliography?”

There was a pregnant pause. And then, “It is the expressed position of this literary agency that the Client’s books are all self-written.”

So there’s that story. Like everything I write, it has run long – so it’ll be another day for my remaining adventures in Ghostland.

But I still think about that book and what a great time I had in its creation. I still feel bad for Client #1, who so badly wanted it to be something special, but lost control of the whole thing. Then I think in this era of DVD’s with author’s commentaries, why couldn’t the publisher go back and do a restored version without all of the butchery, with A, B, and C put back in. Then I go back to my own writing, and vow to fight to the death if one of my own books is ever orphaned.

Next Episode: The Movie Star. And no, it’s not Shatner.


Alternative options seem to be the theme recently. Yesterday my wife and I were talking about the Deadline project, and even though she hadn’t yet seen any of it, I’ve discussed some parts of it with her. So she was telling me an idea she had for the way the book should end. It wasn’t what I had in mind, but it did put the thought in my head that maybe I should write two endings to the book to see how they fit (hey, I recently saw where the DVD of 28 Days Later has not one, not two, but three alternate endings on it – guess the director couldn’t make up his mind how to end the tale).

Lest you think I’m blindly following what my wife says because she’s my wife – she has great editorial instincts. It’s my contention that she could have been a brilliant book buyer and editor. But she’s told me she would have hated that kind of work.

Here’s an example of her instincts at work. As I have mentioned, she reads most of my manuscripts chapter by chapter as they are written. When I was working on A Death of Honor, she made a comment to me after reading one of the early chapters: “I think Trinina is an interesting character. I can’t wait to see what you do with her.”

Indeed. What she had read was the only scene I planned for Trinina to be in. But after that comment I started thinking about Trinina and how she fit into Payne’s complacent little world, and well, it wasn’t long before she showed up at his doorstep, looking for help after having done something very, very illegal. It put a real complication in Payne’s life, moreso than what was already happening to it, and A Death of Honor was a much better novel for it.

That’s why I trust my wife’s instincts. That’s why I’m thinking about writing two sets of last chapters for Deadline.

Meantime, today I also thought of an alternate title for And/News. You’ve probably already deduced that And/News is my writer’s superstition name I’m using for this project (it was my original title for this book). I have another title I plan to market the book under, but if there are problems with that – there is a non-fiction book with the same title – then I thought I ought to be prepared. If a problem comes up, I guess I could revert to …and that’s the end of the news; but I really liked this alternative title. The only problem with it is that it doesn’t pay off until the last chapter – although it could work.

Maybe I’m worrying for naught. But it helps to be prepared. A Death of Honor was originally titled Amendment XXXI, but DelRey asked for it to be changed because, as my editor said, “it sounds too political.” I racked my brain to come up with a title and came up with a bunch of losers. I decided to come back to it and sat down with my son at the kitchen table and started playing with Play-Doh. A Death of Honor came to me about a minute later. And I had to come up with Handling It… as an “all encompassing series title” for the Science Fiction Book Club. So there is precedent.

Thus were today’s distractions. Now onto business:

Today’s Scorecard
Deadline – Chapter Five
174 pages (+6)
19,488 words (+ 672)*

And/News – Chapter Twenty
667 pages (+7)
146,922 words (+2700)**

NP – iTSP (Ben Folds Five, “Underground”)

*Word count for Deadline is approximate – the project is being written by hand.

**Today’s word count is inflated by about 1,000 words due to cut-and-pasting from the Reconciled Outline.