WRITING: “Writing Fiction Is Easy”

If you ever want to piss off an author, tell them:
If I had the time, I could write a book. Easily. Anybody can write. I used to write essays and stuff. I have tons of ideas. My life is very interesting, I could fill a book with just my experiences. 
Well, if these people ever found the time, they would realise that writing a book is not just about having the time to sit down and write.
If you can write a thousand words a day, and your book is a hundred thousand words (like my books typically are), then theoretically, you only need 100 days to write that book. So why does it take me 6-9 months to write a book? Considering that I know what I want to write and I’m working on my sixth novel?
Not to mention that, once you wrote the book, you still need readers to pay for reading it.
I’m not hugely popular, but after 3.5 years and 9 publications, I sell about 3-4 books a day to complete strangers, who are willing to pay for the privilege of reading my work.
When I started off in 2012 (with 2 publications), I sold about 1-2 books a week, which can be disheartening unless you factor in the competition – 350,000 books published each year, on top of the millions of books already available. And with hardly any marketing budget (I’m on disability*), I mostly sell through word-to-mouth: readers telling other readers to read my books.
So writing is only part of the equation. I could write more books if I didn’t have to worry about taking my books to market. And it’s pretty much the same for any published author – the publisher leaves a lot of the promotion to the author, who needs to build their own fan base and organise their own book tours and blog interviews. Only the big names get the assistance of a publicist and a marketing department to help them into talkshows and book fairs.
I love writing and editing, but I still have trouble with (self-)promotion. Just writing quality books is not enough. And I can count myself lucky writing a popular genre (suspense fiction) – a friend who writes literary fiction barely sells 2-3 books a year. And his books are great, but literary fiction is always a much harder sell. Which is why I’m still smiling.
So, piss off a writer today and tell them, ‘writing fiction is easy, I could do what you do, if only I had the time’. 

*My disability has been terminated, by the way, sending my marketing budget all the way down beyond zero. So now, I’m relying even more on you, my readers, to do what I cannot do – tell others that you liked my books and help spread the word that my books are worth reading.

I thank you for your support.

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Writing: “How do I write fiction about things I haven’t experienced?”

Too many would-be writers allow themselves to be held back by ‘rules’ like ‘Write about what you know’.

If authors would only write about things they’ve experienced, there would be no science fiction; authors would only write from the perspective of characters of their own gender, race, and age or younger; there would be no books from the perspectives of rabbits (like Watership Down) or other animals; all books would be set in the same location the authors have lived in; all novels would feature contemporary times; et cetera.

I’m a white male in his late forties, married with two young children, and write suspense fiction about and/or from the perspectives of:

  • a Dutch white female freelance assassin, specialised in disguising homicide and close quarters combat
  • a Dutch white male blind jazz musician, strategist, and martial artist,
  • a Jamaican black male Rastarian session musician who grows cannabis,
  • an American white female DEA agent with a drinking problem,
  • an American black male DEA agent living in the Netherlands
  • a Colombian male DEA undercover agent,
  • a Dutch white male biker,
  • a Chinese blind man in his late seventies,
  • a Dutch female lesbian sculptor,
  • a Chinese deaf-mute enforcer for a triad,
  • a Japanese male Yakuza posing as a club owner and martial arts instructor,
  • a Japanese male undercover agent for the DEA,
  • a Canadian female professor of music,
  • a French party girl caught in a stifling marriage,
  • a Dutch legless biker running a bar,
  • a Dutch nomadic pickpocket caught in a web of lies,

And that is not all of my characters, just the major ones.

While I do write a lot of stuff from personal experience, I write about shooting guns while being fired at (I handled a variety of handguns at a shooting range, but I’ve only been shot at by Nerf guns); sustaining gunshot wounds and fleeing from the law; being blind and playing saxophone in a full jazz club; dying from drowning in my car at the hands of an assassin; dying from being stabbed in the throat and suffocating on my own blood; being a woman and having sex with a man; detonating a bomb in a parking lot across the water; being interrogated while spreadeagled naked on a bed and tied to the bedposts; being force-fed whisky while held motionless in a vacuum bed; et cetera.

I could go on, but it’s clear that most writers have to write about stuff they haven’t experienced in person. That’s why it’s called fiction. Writers imagine stories and make them as close to the truth as possible, and readers immerse themselves in stories that gives them experiences they could never have, on worlds that may or may not exist.

There’s a necessity on the part of the reader called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, where the reader will believe what the writer tells them, as long as the writer fills the story with the verisimilitude necessary to keep believing. The reader has never flown a dragon, but when the writer writes about the main character flying a dragon, the reader imagines themselves astride the broad neck, inhaling the dragon’s sooty exhalations, feeling the smooth scales under their buttocks, the wind rushing through their hair, and the exuberance of flying unprotected miles above the earth through cold clouds that leave a sheen of water pearls on their leather jacket.

But it’s a tough job getting readers to keep their disbelief suspended. One wrong word, one author intrusion, one mistake, and the whole illusion comes crashing down and the book gets tossed in the waste bin. That’s why good writers treated with such high regard for their ability to enthral with mere words.

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OPINION: Verisimilitude in Fiction, Redux.

As I mentioned in this article, I’m a stickler for verisimilitude. I found some discussion on the lack of realism in fiction, which is not the issue:

What many people are looking for in fiction is verisimilitude: the story has to ‘ring true’. Actions have to be believable. Behaviour has to be consistent. Actions need to have consequences.

It’s not the same as realism, as reality will have unbelievable action, inconsistent behaviour, and the consequences of actions are sometimes completely lacking or not in relation to the action.

Verisimilitude—like justice and honesty—is an idealistic concept: we think we know what the truth is, just as we think we know what justice is and think ourselves to be honest. However, truth is different for anyone; justice is an ideal that is rarely found in real life; and if you’re honest 24/7, you will be severely lonely.

Truth is relative, which is why it can be applied to fiction. If the author poses a kind of truth that is supported by the story, the reader will suspend their disbelief, trusting the author to deliver on their promise.

If the author fails to support the truth they pose, the story will become ‘unbelievable’ and reviewers will say the book isn’t ‘realistic’. That’s not the case: the author just didn’t manage to support the truths they posed in the story.

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Visibility on Amazon: Changing Categories and Keywords, Part 2…

How to Increase the Visibility of Your Book on Amazon, Part 2:

How to find your category on Amazon:

I got some questions on how to find your category, so here are some detailed instructions:

Go to the homepage of Amazon. Do not type anything in the search bar, but tap the ‘All’ and select Kindle Store in the drop down menu. Now you get everything in the Kindle Store with a list on the left that can help you narrow down your search.

Leaving the search bar empty, you go to the second filter option ‘Kindle Store’, where you have a list:

Kindle Devices (34)
Kindle Accessories (466)
Kindle Blogs (4)
Kindle eBooks (2,627,280)
Kindle Magazines (490)
Kindle Newspapers (157)
Kindle Singles (519)
Kindle Worlds (475)

Select Kindle eBooks (2,627,280)

If you scroll down, you’ll find a list in the left bar with:

Kindle eBooks
Arts & Photography (146,000)
Biographies & Memoirs (115,714)
Business & Money (167,153)
Children’s eBooks (136,939)
Comics & Graphic Novels (21,583)
Computers & Technology (46,320)
Cookbooks, Food & Wine (38,428)
Crafts, Hobbies & Home (49,929)
Education & Reference (162,350)
Gay & Lesbian (25,800)
Health, Fitness & Dieting (165,809)
History (145,069)
Humor & Entertainment (72,955)
Literature & Fiction (856,128)
Mystery, Thriller & Suspense (148,423)
Nonfiction (1,339,206)
Parenting & Relationships (51,240)
Politics & Social Sciences (183,981)
Professional & Technical (209,018)
Religion & Spirituality (275,450)
Romance (189,206)
Science & Math (156,301)
Science Fiction & Fantasy (161,909)
Self-Help (68,535)
Sports & Outdoors (45,612)
Teen & Young Adult (55,344)
Travel (41,338)
Foreign Languages (554,299)

If you select one of them, you’ll narrow down further.
Select ‘Mystery, Thriller & Suspense (148,423)’ and you get:

Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Crime Fiction (33,009)
Mystery (67,450)
Suspense (42,654)
Thrillers (55,928)

Select Mystery (67,450) and you get:

Mystery
African American (700)
British Detectives (3,561)
Collections & Anthologies (4,130)
Cozy (2,982)
Gay & Lesbian (832)
Hard-Boiled (5,786)
Historical (4,790)
International Mystery & Crime (1,626)
Police Procedurals (6,312)
Private Investigators (3,063)
Series (567)
Women Sleuths (11,826)

This is the last selection you can make in this area. So say your protagonist is a female detective, so you select Women Sleuths (11,826)

Now select the first book at the top.

Now scroll down to Product Details and you’ll find:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > Police Procedurals
#1 in Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > Women Sleuths
#2 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Women’s Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Women Sleuths

Copy the link you like:
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Women’s Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Women Sleuths

And go through the procedure to tell KDP you want your category changed to: Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Women’s Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Women Sleuths

Good luck

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Visibility on Amazon: Changing Categories and Keywords…

How to Increase the Visibility of Your Book on Amazon:

Categories on Amazon seem limited when you try to add them to your ebook in the KDP dashboard. When I tried to categorise the Amsterdam Assassin Series, all I could get was ‘Fiction>Mystery & Thriller>Suspense’ and ‘Fiction>Mystery & Thriller>General’, both categories that have hundreds of thousands of books in them. Which makes your book pretty difficult to get on the first few pages. What you need to do is adjust your category so you’re no longer a small fish a big pool, but the big fish in the small pool. And here is how you do that:

Changing Your Category:
If you go to Amazon Kindle Store and you see all the books available, click down on your category. First you select ‘Kindle e-books’ (2,610,028 books), then click ‘Mystery, Thriller & Suspense’{147,801), and select ‘Suspense’ (42,470). You’ll find that Suspense is divided into different categories that were not visible in the KDP dashboard, namely Ghosts, Horror, Occult, Paranormal, Political, Psychological. By narrowing down to, for instance, ‘Psychological’, despite the fact that Psychological is one of the larger subcategories, you still reduce your competition from 42,470 (Suspense) to 9,723 (Psychological).

(Below the categories, you also see two more selections you’re able to make; ‘Moods & Themes’ and ‘Characters’. We’ll come back to that in a minute, but we come to changing/adding categories to your book.)

First, copy the string that denotes the category you want to be in: ‘Kindle eBooks › Mystery, Thriller & Suspense › Suspense › Psychological’’.

Now, go to your KDP dashboard, where you edit details of your book. If you check your categories, they’ll be different from the Amazon website. Now, what you’ll do is go to the bottom of the page, where in the lower right corner you can click on ‘Contact Us’. That will take you to the ‘What is the problem?’ page.

Choose ‘Publish Your Book’, and ‘Add/Change Categories’. You’ll find that you can choose to contact by telephone or email. Select email and in the subject line you put ‘Category Not Listed’.

Fill in the required tabs: Name and ASIN of the book, and you have a window where you can explain your reason for contacting KDP.

Officially, you can have two categories, but KDP is known for adding categories without removing old ones. So, phrase your question something like this:

Hello,
I’d like to add (Title of your book) to this category: ‘Kindle eBooks › Mystery, Thriller & Suspense › Suspense › Psychological’.
If necessary, you can remove the category: ‘Kindle eBooks › Mystery, Thriller & Suspense › Suspense’.
Cordially, (Your name).

In my case, they didn’t remove categories, but just added the new one.

Keywords:
We also noticed the ‘Moods & Themes’ and ‘Characters’ below the Categories and Subcategories. I asked KDP about them, and they replied that they cannot add them to the category, but both can be added to the seven keywords you’re allowed. For Reprobate, I selected (Characters:) ‘Female Protagonists’ (146) (which counts as one keyword!) and (Moods & Themes) ‘Dark’ (362). If you check both boxes, it reduced the amount of books to… 23 books.

Conclusion, by adding ‘Psychological’ to your category, and adding the words ‘Dark’ and ‘Female Protagonists’ to your keywords, you reduce the competition from 42,470 to 23.

So, to make sure that your book can be found easier by browsers, select a less competitive category and insert a Theme and a Mood into your keywords. One important note on Keywords, don’t put words in your limited keyword section that are already in your book title or description, because they are already in the search facility. So, I shouldn’t put ‘Amsterdam, Assassin, homicide’ in my keywords, because those words are already being used. Instead, my keywords should be ‘dark, female protagonist, police procedural, crime fiction’, or something similar.

Although changing category and keywords will make your book more visible than the standard categories and wrong keywords, take you time to experiment by changing/adding other categories and keywords.

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WRITING: Considerations before becoming a novelist…

When asked, many people will say they want to write a novel, but do they? While there are many considerations to make before embarking on this fickle career, these are some of the basic considerations you might want to ponder:

  1. Can I tell the story in less than 10,000 words?
  2. Can I create multiple characters all equally able to be protagonists in their own stories?
  3. Can I suspend the disbelief of my readers?
  4. Do I have the stamina to create a 80,000 word novel?
  5. Do I have more than one novel in me?
  6. Can I handle making less than minimum wage while I work almost 24/7?
  7. Can I handle the ridicule and stupid remarks if I go public?

The reason you need to consider these questions:

  1. 10,000 words is a short story. Novels take up more words.
  2. A protagonist needs peers and antagonists, who need to be equal to the protagonist to make the story interesting.
  3. Readers want to be immersed in a story, they want to believe in your characters. So the desire is there. If you weave a story that makes believers out of readers, you can be a writer.
  4. Although everything over 60,000 words can be called a novel, most novels are between 80,000-100,000 words. If you write a 1000 usable words a day, that means about three solid months of writing.
  5. Most successful authors are prolific with at least 5+ novels to their name. There are exceptions, but don’t imagine yourself to be one of them.
  6. Do you know the author Philip K. Dick? People who are serious about storytelling are generally in awe of his storytelling ability. His novels and short stories form the basis of movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck and a host of others. Even in his best years, Dick rarely earned more than 12,000$ per year. In fact, most writers don’t earn more than 10,000$ per year and most earn considerably less. Even Stephen King had to support his family with his teaching job for the first decade of his career. And James Patterson made his money in advertising before he turned to writing fiction.
  7. I’m fortunate that most people don’t want to antagonize me (based on my size and my encyclopedic knowledge of murder), but even I get disparaging remarks, or questions how much I earn with my books, or people who think their ideas are sufficiently interesting that they can tell them to me and I ‘just write them down’. Not to mention the many many people who would love to write a book, if only they had the time. Of course, the idiocy gets balanced by people who are genuinely awed by a writer’s ability to create stories and characters ‘out of thin air’ and readers writing you about the character they like the most and ask if that character will be featured in the upcoming book. Still, a writer needs thick skin. If you’re sensitive and insecure about your own abilities, you might want to reconsider choosing writing fiction as a career.

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OPINION: Stickler for Verisimilitude?

stick·ler noun \ˈsti-k(ə-)lər\ : a person who believes that something is very important and should be done or followed all the time
veri·si·mil·i·tude noun \-sə-ˈmi-lə-ˌtüd, -ˌtyüd\ : the quality of seeming real

I’ve been asked about my author bio, which says, ‘Martyn is a stickler for verisimilitude in fiction, even if that requires learning new skills’. So what does it mean to be a stickler for verisimilitude? Does it just mean I’m borderline obsessive about realism in fiction? Well, yes. And no.

Let’s start with the beginning (always a good place to start).

What’s the first thing a reader does when they pick up a novel? They show their willingness to ‘suspend their disbelief’. The reader knows they’re going to read what is basically, well, a lie. Or rather, a fabrication of the truth. To keep their disbelief suspended, the reader needs help from the author. The author has fabricated this story, but to stave off disbelief, the story has to ‘ring true’.

So how do you make your work ‘ring true’?

All genres have their particular realities. What will ring ‘true’ in science fiction, will be ‘ridiculous’ in suspense fiction. Romance novels have another idea of ‘romance’ than literary fiction. A reader’s expectation will be matched to the genre they are reading. A reader of romance novels will expect a happily-ever-after ending and might be disappointed when the blossoming relationship ends in misery, while for literary fiction readers, the opposite might be ‘true’.

To suspend disbelief, an author has to keep the novel’s intended audience and their expectations in mind, which can backfire horribly if the author starts to mix genres, especially if they intend to cater to the separate genres in the mix. For example, romantic suspense is often unrealistic to hardcore suspense readers, and too realistic for the tastes of romance readers. The author will have to walk a fine balance between ‘reality’ and the expectations of the audience.

However, even without mixing genres, many authors make mistakes that destroy the verisimilitude.

My particular field is suspense fiction, where it should be fairly easy to keep the story ‘ring true’. Most suspense fiction is set in the present or the not-too-distant past, dealing with human beings without artificial enhancements, who have to adhere the laws of physics. As most of us live in the same world, readers won’t find much difficulty in identifying with the characters. The characters in suspense fiction often live in a shadow world due to their occupation and often they need to keep their occupation hidden from everyone around them except maybe their co-workers.

It’s this hidden world that attracts the suspense reader, the inner workings of the societies that are mostly shielded from the general public. Whether it’s the ‘good’ side of law enforcement and legal proceedings or the ‘bad’ side of crime, the author needs to know what they’re writing about. If the author hasn’t been part of this shadow world they will have to do research, because many readers of suspense fiction are extremely knowledgeable. And the smallest wrong detail can shake the foundation of the reader’s ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I’ve written a couple of articles on suspense fiction research, but what does it take to become knowledgeable to a sufficient degree? If you want to write with confidence and strive for verisimilitude, this means you will have to go to the inhabitants of the shadow world. And that is not for the faint-hearted.

The blurb of my first book says, ‘Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, computer hacking, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, the psychology of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence’. Since I’ve been a part of Dutch culture from birth and lived in Amsterdam for almost three decades, the first two items on that list don’t pose research problems, but the rest…

I never traded in narcotics, but I know people who use and/or deal in drugs. I can’t hack a computer, but I found people who could and did. I ride a motorcycle, but I’m not part of a gang. And while I have some real tattoos, I needed to get a temporary henna tattoo to understand mehndi and its connotations and, yes, dangers.

Of course I used to be a bouncer for discotheques and night clubs and I’ve been involved in the martial arts for over two decades, so anything to do with violence is pretty much old hat to me. And, according to my wife, it’s a good thing I don’t have bad intentions, because my social engineering skills would make me an excellent con man.

While I know many of the elements of suspense fiction first hand, I still had to do an awful lot of research. Most of my research is reading. Not other suspense novels, which are often too rife with errors to be considered valuable information. And the information on the internet is often unverified and therefore questionable.

However, when it comes to the ‘tools of the trade’, even if you’re from a society where firearms are severely restricted and it is difficult to get first hand experience, the least you can do is check details on the manufacturer’s website.

Most, if not all, manufacturers have websites where you can find the right details about guns, like the safety measures, how many rounds go into a magazine, whether there are large capacity magazines and other accessories available, product manuals, sometimes even animated videos on how to field-strip their products.

Of course, this is not just applicable to firearm research, but also to vehicles, alarm systems, lock picking, computer hardware and software, hacking, explosives, controlled substances, and the list goes on and on.

Which is why it bothers me when an author gets details of these existing products wrong. It’s literally five minutes of research to check the Glock website to see their patented safety measures, which differ from the safety measures on other semi-automatic pistols. If the author doesn’t even bother to get those facts straight, why should I believe anything else in their novels?

Now, I did get responses from authors that they wrote for ‘entertainment’ purposes. Or they would point out other works that also contained severe flaws. Neither of those excuses are valid, in my opinion.

The first excuse is moot, because I too write fiction to entertain people and if I can do the research, so can they. What they mean is, if an actor in a Michael Bay movie can shoot two guns at the same time, why can’t I put that in my suspense fiction? Well, you can. But I will ridicule your book in a review because the story lacks verisimilitude.

But the second excuse is inexcusable, in my opinion. To point out that other authors, sometimes well-respected, prolific and successful, make egregious mistakes is no excuse to do the same.

When I read Gorki Park by Martin Cruz Smith, I was fascinated by the details in reconstructing facial features from skulls. However, in the last part of the book, his protagonist, a law enforcement officer, attaches a silencer on a revolver. Such a stupid mistake throws everything he wrote before that in doubt. My disappointment was so encompassing that I never touched another book by Martin Cruz Smith.*

The Trophy Taker, written by Lee Weeks, had a protagonist decapitate someone with a 6-inch throwing star. Even if I had no martial arts knowledge of the use of shuriken, I would still know enough about physics to know that beheading someone would require something a bit more substantial than a throwing star.

Lee Weeks joins the authors who think a bullet fired from a handgun has enough kinetic energy to throw a human being backwards and other details that defy the laws of physics. Watching action movies is not ‘research’.

I probably go above and beyond what most people call research. I persuaded a forensic pathologist to let me observe an autopsy so I could describe one accurately. I learned how to use lockpicks; hotwire cars; surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques; psychological and physical coercion methods and application; navigation, orientation and mobility techniques for the blind; and a variety of ways to dispose of bodies.

And while not all of that is necessary and I’m quite sure the NSA has a file on me now, one of the reasons I enjoy writing suspense fiction is that my research needs provide me with an excuse to indulge my insatiable curiosity not only for my own benefit, but also to write fiction that is as close to reality as possible.

That it also makes me a scourge on those artists who pass on diligent research in favour of copying action movies I consider a bonus.

* Another mistake I found in Gorky Park: “He (Arkady Renko) found the revolver safety on the left by the cylinder and pushed it off.” The ‘safety’ on the left by the cylinder is the ‘crane latch’ that unlocks the cylinder and allows the cylinder to swivel away from the revolver for reloading.

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