Writing: “The Biggest Mistakes Writing Your First Book?”

My Biggest Mistake Was Writing A Book.

Although I should qualify that statement: my mistake was attempting to write a book from start to finish, in reading order, from page 1 to 500. I started with the opening chapter, I wrote every chapter in sequence, I edited it while I wrote, I bumped into obstacles that totally destroyed the pace, I kept pounding my head against the walls of the scenes that just wouldn’t come out of my mind, I got stuck in frustration on finishing an unwilling chapter before I could start on the next, and I exhausted myself before I finished.

And then I found out that the second storyline sucked and had to be removed, leaving only one side of a zipper without a corresponding side that could be zipped together into a coherent story. So I wrote another storyline that had to be inserted into the existing storyline.

The result was a lumpy, lopsided mess that brought me to despair. And since I’m an autodidact writing suspense fiction in my second language, I had no peers around.

Then I found a writing website, now sadly gone, called Thoughtcafe, where I found my peers. People who read my stuff, told me it was incredible and worthy of all the attention I could muster to polish out the lumps and make it run smoothly like the zipper was oiled with eel’s snot.

My second novel practically wrote itself. I didn’t give a shit anymore about the order in which to write, I wrote the draft for myself without any regard for punctuation, grammar, and spelling, and I kept my inner editor locked away in a dungeon until I finished the whole rough draft.

Only after I wrote the draft of the entire novel did I sit back and reread it while highlighting problem areas and adding notes on how to fix the flaws.

Which is why I always tell beginning writers: ‘Don’t Write a Book, but a Draft‘. Write the scenes in random order, assemble them in a sequence that pleases you, see what’s missing and fill that in until the story flows, then get your editor to help you iron out the wrinkles.

The first draft is ‘For Your Eyes Only, Only For You’. Not to be shown to anyone else until you turned it into a manuscript, which will be read by your betas and editor, who will provide you with feedback to improve the manuscript into something publishable.

But the writing part? That’s yours, and nobody should touch that.


WRITING: I Want To Write A Novel, But Where Do I Start?

Having a passion for something, but no skills yet and several hindrances to acquire those skills makes for quite a challenge.

The easiest answer would be ‘find something else’, and there would be truth in it. Writing a novel (or even a short story) is an appealing ambition – I read somewhere that eighty percent of all adult Americans seriously entertain the notion of writing a novel, which is also why there’s a whole industry that facilitates burgeoning writers with creative writing courses and workshops and seminars, and enough books on the art & craft to fill several bookcases.

The reason writing a novel is so popular is because it’s an attainable goal (most arts require more than a pen and a piece of paper) and it carries prestige as good writers are revered, their works read both during and after their lifetime.

So what you have to decide for yourself is – do you really want to write a novel, or do you want to show people a shiny cover with your name on it and bask in the adulation? Because the first is hard, and the second is a pipe dream.

I’ve written five novels (published four) and four novellas, just as frame of reference to my answer – if you don’t want to let go of your dream, this is my advice:

Lower the pressure of writing a novel by not writing a novel.

What you will be writing instead, will be a Draft. A Rough Draft. An unreadable shitload of words, not intended to be read by anyone but yourself. That last part is extremely important! Nobody must read that Draft, because it’s not intended for public consumption yet.

The Draft is the Baby, the Novel is the Adult.

People don’t make adults, they make babies that shit and cry and demand food and attention and will keep you up at night. Have you heard writers referring to their novel as a baby? Yes? They’re not actual writers yet, because the draft is the baby, the novel should be an adult, capable of standing on its own legs and fending for itself. If their novel is still their baby, then they haven’t finished yet and they have published prematurely.

The Horror, the Horror…

Before a novel can stand on its own legs, it needs to be born first, which is a messy process. Thus, the Draft is a baby – a stinking smelly mess that will hijack all your attention and cause you to lay awake at night, worrying if it will ever be able to be independent. This is not the kind of baby that you show your family and friends – starting the Draft is not an accomplishment. So shut up about ‘writing your first novel’ and never ever talk about the plot and the characters and the theme. Screw all that. Talking about your creative work kills the spark. Just write and write. Is it garbage? Don’t second-guess yourself, you won’t be able to judge it now, you’re much too close. Nobody throws out their baby, no matter how much it smells. Just keep on writing. Don’t edit. You can’t edit a baby, it has to become an adolescent first.

The Need.

Visit any writing forum and you’ll see the many many questions, that boil down to one single question ‘Is This Any Good?’. It’s the fear of failure, the angst of wasting time, and the need for validation. We have been programmed to desire approval – from parents, from teachers. You won’t get approval for the Draft. Don’t ask for it. Just write it all down.

The Rules.

How long is a chapter supposed to be?’, ‘How do I write a dynamite first chapter?’, ‘Should I use present tense or past tense?’, ‘Is writing in First Person easier than Third Person?’, ‘When do I Show, when do I Tell?’
If you visit writing forums, you’ll hear a lot of talk about rules, but those rules are not for drafts. Those rules are to clinically dissect a finished manuscript prior to publication. Do you have that? No, you haven’t. You have a smelly mess that isn’t nowhere near finished, so forget about all those rules. Because in the end there is only one rule – Engage The Reader. And your baby won’t need to engage the reader yet. It’s a draft, intended only for your eyes.

The Work

Anyone with a knife and a dead pig can butcher a pig, but that doesn’t make you a butcher. And it sure as hell doesn’t make you a veterinarian.
So you wrote an essay at school and the teacher gave you an A. Does that make a writer? No, but it’s a start. If you can read this, you can probably write. You can string words together, maybe in some pleasing way, but five hundred pages of words is not a book. A book is when the words disappear and your imagination shows you the film in your head. That’s the hardest part, and the most neglected part – writers want to write pretty words or show off their ostentatious vocabulary, but what you want to do is tell a story. Tell a story in such a way that the reader forgets about the book or the e-reader and is transported to another world – fictional, but just as ‘real’ as this one. And that requires not only a large vocabulary, but also a decisive mind to apply just the right word. And if you get that right, you won’t need the validation anymore, because there is no better feeling that getting a sentence just right, a paragraph that leaps off the page, and a chapter that you don’t want to end.

But before you get there, you have to put in the work. There’s a common ‘rule’ floating around that to become a professional at something requires putting in something like 10,000 hours. I never measured that, but I do know that I’d been writing for twenty years before Reprobate was published. And I’d been working on Reprobate and all its predecessors for most of that time. Learning the craft, honing my skills. Draft upon draft upon draft. For Reprobate, it was something like forty (!) drafts. Literally every paragraph was rewritten at least once. Edited and polished. That’s the education.

Don’t Do The Crime If You Can’t Do The Time.

My second novel, Peccadillo, was half finished when Reprobate came out. I finished Peccadillo in three months, spending a total of fifteen months on writing it. I wrote the novella Locked Room in three weeks. Microchip Murder took me less than two. And the novella that gets the highest praise, Fundamental Error, was written in eight days. Rogue, the third novel took less than 12 months. And Ghosting, the novel I’m working on now, clocks in at about eight months, despite my battles with kidney stones and glaucoma.

Every time you write, you will get better at telling the story. Writing this answer took me about an hour, with no rewrites or polishing necessary. And that’s because I’ve done the time.

So do the time. Stop fretting about whether you have something to say or who will read it. Write that draft first, the rest comes later. Let me know when you finished a draft, and then we’ll talk about how you can become a writer…


Beta-Reading “In Pocket”?

I finished In Pocket, my stand alone novel. And now I’m looking for beta readers who ‘d like to help me improve the book.

What I’m looking for:
Beta reading means reading the beta [unedited] manuscript version and providing feedback to help me improve the manuscript before it gets published. When I’m done with writing, editing and polishing something I deem publishable, the beta-readers can tear my work apart and provide feedback. I will read the feedback and implement the necessary changes before publication.

Do I need to be a professional proofreader or editor?
Anyone who wishes to help me with this, please send me an email. Don’t worry about not being an editor or proofreader, what I require most is ‘emotional feedback’, i.e. what is your response to a scene—like/dislike, laugh, cry, vomit, anger, fear. I’m particularly interested in scenes people want to skip, because those are parts that I might want to edit out of the manuscript. And, of course, alerting me to any typo or omission will be most welcome. Also, while I enjoy feedback from fellow writers, you don’t need to be a writer to be a beta reader.

Shouldn’t I read your other books first?
Well, you’re welcome to read my other books, but In Pocket is a stand-alone novel. And although there are some ties to the Amsterdam Assassin Series, it’s not part of the series.

How much time do I have to read the manuscript and provide feedback?
After I send out the manuscript, which is about 58,000 words or 230 pages, I’d figure it would take about three weeks maximum to read the book and provide insightful feedback. *grin*

Will my feedback always be used?
Depends on the feedback. If you spot a typo, omission or error, it will be corrected (of course), but emotional responses differ from one individual to the next. Taste and cultural background colour the response, and while I aim to please, I have no illusions I will please everyone. So a scene that draws a yawn from one reader will probably remain unchanged, but if the whole audience starts yawning the scene has to be changed or even removed.

What kind of novel is In Pocket?
The genre is suspense. In Pocket is about a young heroin-addicted pickpocket who lives in an old delivery van, getting pulled into a possibly fatal scheme by a femme fatale. You can find the intro here. This is the pitch:

If only Wolfgang hadn’t picked the pocket of the fat woman…

Nomadic pickpocket Wolfgang gets blackmailed into teaching his craft to the mysterious Lilith, a young woman with no aptitude whatsoever to become a pickpocket. Wolf figures the easiest way is to go with the flow and instruct Lilith in the art of emptying other people’s pockets, but even he could never foresee the dreadful things that follow…

IN POCKET is a standalone novel by Martyn V. Halm, the author of the Amsterdam Assassin Series. Follow Wolf as he gets entangled in a possibly fatal web of violence and deceit, where nobody is who they seem to be and everyone has a hidden agenda.

The setting of the story is Amsterdam, but might show a different side of the city than most readers would expect, since the author actually lives in Amsterdam.

What do I get out of it?
Well, first of all, you get to read In Pocket before the general public and help an author with the publication process. You get to contribute to the shaping of a novel, and you’ll know the full content, instead of the edited content that will be published. (If you don’t know what I mean, compare the first version of Stephen King’s The Stand, and the unabridged version he published later). Your name will be included in the acknowledgements in the published version, which you will also receive.

Do I need an e-reader?
I only publish in digital e-book format, so you can receive the file in either Word, PDF, .epub or .mobi. So, I think an e-reader would be handy, but a computer would be mandatory.

I’m game, where do I sign up for this?
Send me an email at katlasieltjes@yahoo.com, put ‘Beta Reader In Pocket’ in the subject line, and motivate your request to be beta reader with candid pictures or a list of your specialties. First twenty applicants get a spot on the list.


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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Reprobate, a short novel? An insight into word count.

REPROBATE

I’ve had several people comment on how Reprobate is an excellent story, but ‘on the short side’. This comment puzzled me, since Reprobate clocks in at a word count of 111,932 words. This was one of the reasons why, when TOR editor Melissa Singer considered Reprobate for publication, one of her comments were that Tom Doherty Associates rarely publishes suspense novels over 100,000 words.

Reprobate’s original length was 127,000 words when the manuscript was entered in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) contest in 2010 (under the name Peccadillo), where it reached the quarterfinals and received this Publishers Weekly review:

Fast-moving and intricately plotted, this manuscript of Dutch intrigue follows assassin Katla, who’s renowned for her ability to cover up a job. When the U.S. DEA’s base in the Netherlands catches wind of a heroin ring within the U.S. military, they set up an undercover operation. When the heads of the drug ring discover the plot, they arrange for Katla to assassinate the undercover agents, but the assassination doesn’t go as planned. As Katla recovers from injuries sustained in the botched job, DEA agent Deborah Stern and her colleagues investigate. Violence, drugs, and sex abound in this intense story, and the plot is less farcical than a lot of the thrillers clogging the shelves.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

I bolded the first words. Even at its most bloated, Reprobate was considered ‘fast-moving’. So I checked what the average word count of suspense fiction should be, and I found this article on Writer’s Digest by Chuck Sambuchino, who writes:

ADULT NOVELS: COMMERCIAL & LITERARY

Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for. This is a 100% safe range for literary, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Anything in this word count won’t scare off any agent anywhere.

Now, speaking broadly, you can have as few as 71,000 words and as many as 109,000 words. That is the total range. When it dips below 80K, it might be perceived as too short—not giving the reader enough. It seems as though going over 100K is all right, but not by much. I suggest stopping at 109K because just the mental hurdle to jump concerning 110K is just another thing you don’t want going against you. And, as agent Rachelle Gardner pointed out when discussing word count, over 110K is defined as “epic or saga.” Chances are your cozy mystery or literary novel is not an epic. Rachelle also mentions that passing 100K in word count means it’s a more expensive book to produce—hence agents’ and editors’ aversion to such lengths.

In short:
80,000 – 89,999:       Totally cool
90,000 – 99,999:       Generally safe
70,000 – 79,999:       Might be too short; probably all right
100,000 – 109,999:    Might be too long; probably all right
Below 70,000:           Too short
110,000 or above       Too long

Chick lit falls into this realm, but chick lit books tend to be a bit shorter and faster. 70-75K is not bad at all.

So, if we take the above in account, Reprobate is ‘too long’ and, according to Rachelle Gardner, an ‘epic or saga’. So why do reviewers comment on Reprobate being ‘too short’ or ‘a short novel’?

Since Reprobate is available in e-book only, it’s difficult to assess the ‘heft’ of the book is, but considering that most novels are around 80-90,000 words, Reprobate is a whopping 25% thicker than the average paperback novel.

Next I went to a website where I could cut and paste the first chapter of Reprobate into a window and have the algorithms calculate the Readability Score. With these results:

Reading Ease

A higher score indicates easier readability; scores usually range between 0 and 100.

Readability Formula Score
Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 79.6

Grade Levels

A grade level (based on the USA education system) is equivalent to the number of years of education a person has had. Scores over 22 should generally be taken to mean graduate level text.

Readability Formula Grade
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 4.7
Gunning-Fog Score 6.9
Coleman-Liau Index 9.9
SMOG Index 5.3
Automated Readability Index 4.3
Average Grade Level 6.2

Text Statistics

Character Count 20,500
Syllable Count 6,473
Word Count 4,694
Sentence Count 452
Characters per Word 4.4
Syllables per Word 1.4
Words per Sentence 10.4

So I can rest easily. Reprobate is not short, but my writing style evidently allows for quick reading and that makes the ‘epic length’ of Reprobate seem much shorter. If you have questions about the readibility of your own manuscript, go to Readability Score and take the test yourself.


OPINION: Why Bother?

Writing is an outlet for me. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories, but there’s not always someone around who has the time and patience to listen, so I write my stories down, just to have something tangible. My first novel had been pretty much ready for a decade, before I published it last year.

The people who can be bothered to read my work are glad they did, and encourage me to write more books. Not that I need their encouragement, as I would write my stories even if I wouldn’t be able to publish them, just to have them in material form, instead of telling them to myself in my head. Still, I enjoy receiving accolades from reviewers and beta readers.

My sales are not impressive, but I’m not that interested in bestsellers and being a flavour of the week. I’m in the storytelling game for the long haul. By all accounts, my characters remain present in the minds of my readers after they close the books, which is exactly what I wanted. Before I published the Amsterdam Assassin Series, people would see me writing and ask me what I wrote about. Now, I can just send them a link to my blog, from where they can sample or buy my books. So, I guess I will keep publishing my books, and writing more books.

I know there are 350,000 books published annually, and getting noticed is hard, so it might take until the third or fourth book is published before my sales go into the triple digits, but I honestly don’t care too much about that aspect of being a writer. I’d be doing this anyway. My only expense is hiring a graphic artist to make the covers, since I suck at that. And I found a student who can make my covers look reasonably professional without breaking the bank.

Do I ever have moments that I’d quit? I’ve had slumps and I found I became harder to live with when I stopped writing, for whatever reason. So quitting isn’t an option if I want to stay reasonably sane. Or, at least, not get any weirder than I’m now. And writing also gives me excuses to indulge in research, which is great fun. At least, if you enjoy looking at corpses getting eviscerated, destroying a leather punching bag with a Bic Crystal ballpoint pen, following a tameshigiri seminar to learn how to decapitate a body in one cut of a Japanese sword, or slaughtering a pig with a tactical folding knife to check if it can really handle the abuse of a brutal killing.

So, I guess I’d be writing and publishing far into the foreseeable future. And I hope you join me.