Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

How to ruin your writing career in 1 easy step

Surprise. Shock. Pity. Scorn.

Those were the range of emotions I felt once I'd read through what amounts to the complete and absolute implosion of an indie writer's career.

It all started with an unfavorable book review on BigAl's Books and Pals site where Big Al reviews indie novels. The book is The Greek Seaman. Its author, Jacqueline Howett. Big Al rated the novel 2 stars out of 5, not because of the story itself, but because of the numerous grammatical and spelling errors. He actually makes it a point to say that the story itself is interesting, but that the numerous errors create too many stumbling points for the reader to get through.

One reason is the spelling and grammar errors, which come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it’s difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant. At times, you’ll be engrossed in the story when you’ll run across a flowery description of the emotions Katy is feeling about her situation or her husband. These are numerous and sometimes very good. Chances are one of these sections originally pulled you so deeply into Katy’s world. Then you’ll run into one that doesn’t work and get derailed again. Reading shouldn’t be that hard.

Writers have to have thick skins. Not everyone is going to like what we write, nor should we expect favorable reviews at every turn. The question becomes one of professionalism those times where we do run into a bad review. Is it worth commenting? Should you just ignore it? Jacqueline Howett chose the former, and went about it in the worst way possible.

Here's her initial comment to Big Al's review:

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She then goes on to post some of those "5 star" reviews from Amazon.

At this point, she's really not doing too badly. A bit over the top, but I can live with her response if only she'd left it at that. She doesn't, but goes on to say:

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and,

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At this point I started to see what Big Al was talking about. If the errors in structure in her comments are any indication of her grammatical skill (or lack thereof), then it would seem his review is correct and justified.

I have to admit that I often dismiss advice from bloggers and other writers concerning how to act professionally. I've worked in a professional capacity for near twenty years now, and hardly need the advice. Also, I thought, what person wouldn't act professionally? It's common sense, right? Apparently not for everyone.

Far from a Charlie Sheen-like response, where people flocked to the actor's Twitter account in apparent fascination following his own meltdown, Howett has garnered only scorn, pity, and numerous commenters saying they've no desire to read anything at all by her now. Given that Howett at one point tells other commenters to "f*** off", I don't blame them.

The question now becomes where does Howett go from here? Is there any salvation for her? It really depends how she carries herself from this point forward. She needs to apologize—that much is certain—and in a non-condescending manner. Not only to Big Al, but to her readers and the other commenters on Big Al's review. In the apology she needs to admit she was wrong. Then she needs to go hire a professional editor to show sincerity. I don't know if even that is enough at this point, but it's a start.

I'll leave you with one of Howett's closing comments:

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4/2/2011 Update: It gets worse. Reviewers are piling on the bad reviews on Amazon. This author really did a number on herself.

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Manuscript Formatting

This is a reference post providing some links to resources that discuss manuscript formatting with a few notes of my own at the end. I'll update as needed.

If you have any resources of your own, feel free to post a comment below. I'd love to make this a more comprehensive resource.

Here are the links:

And some notes:

  • Robert J. Sawyer and Holly Lisle both recommend using 12 point Dark Courier as the manuscript font.

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Avoiding Fantasy Tropes

I'm wrapping up my second novel, a fantasy/steampunk adventure novel which I'll likely blog about in more detail soon. But as I begin to think about my next novel, I already know there's some things that I want to stay away from and some things I want to try. I'm calling these my "story rules". Think of them as guidelines; not necessarily set in stone, but I'm going to look to them as I start outlining. If and when I violate one of them, I'm going to have to rationalize such rule breaking (only to myself, of course).

As an example of a rule, a writer of fantasy might have one called "No elves". Another might be, "No quests". I saw a list geared towards writing science fiction once where one of the rules was "No FTL".

Some people don't like setting these sorts of boundaries. I suppose going in already having decided to do or not do something can stifle creativity. These are probably the same people who feel outlining creates the same barriers. To each his own, I say. Personally, I like planning things out beforehand. This is just another way to help in that process.

So, without further adieu, here are the rules I will be using for my next novel.

1.) No traveling

For this novel, I want everything to happen in one place. In my first novel, The Hall of the Wood, it's a journey (of non-epic proportions) just to get to where the action is happening. Even when they do get there, they're running around in the woods quite a bit. I guess the latter can't be helped, whether it's the wilderness or a city. They can't exactly sit in a room the whole time. But, for this novel, I want the story to take place in only one place. No traveling about. I have a pretty good idea what sort of setting I'll be using, too.

2.) No ancient relics

No devices of ancient origin with powers waiting to be revealed.

3.) No fated heroes or special ancestry

Everyone has a past, but in this story no one will have a past all that extraordinary or far-reaching. Sure, they may have heroic or villainous deeds in their background, but it will be their background and not some legacy passed down from generation to generation.

4.) No characters with dark, personal secrets or pasts

Not all main characters have to have dark secrets hidden away to be gradually revealed to the reader. Such secrets all too often have something to do with the current antagonist. I'm as guilty of this one as the next writer. It's a trope that works well, albeit readers can sometimes grow tired of it, right? In this next novel, no deep, dark secrets. It's a road I just don't want to go down on this one.

5.) Minimal or no magic

I lean more and more towards this anyway as my world-building moves away from sorcery and to a sort of pseudo-science. I'm finding it's much more interesting than trying to think up the next great magic system or leaning too heavily on one that's already been done to death.

6.) Do have a strong supporting cast of characters

Main characters should be strong, smart, and daring, but they shouldn't be the only ones with the brains and the brawn. In this novel, the main character is going to be average in some ways, but exceptional in others. But one of the first things he does as the story gets rolling is setup his support infrastructure. I mean, where would Special Agent Jethro Gibbs be without his team? (sorry, the wife's got NCIS on in the other room)

7.) Do have villains who are motivated by more than just greed

Greed is nice, but all too often it can become the sole motivating force behind a villain. This tends to lead to flat or boring villains that we've all seen too often.

8.) Do research pertinent topics thoroughly

I research, but only enough to make it sound like I have some idea what I'm talking about. I'd like to take that a step further by infusing some authenticity into my writing. I don't know how this one will go; I'm all for basing certain things on reality, but I write fantasy, so… If nothing else, I have certain topics in mind that I'll like to read up on, if only to give myself ideas.

Writing Advice: Don't skip extra lines between paragraphs

I got a short story rejection back the other day. No big deal. It happens.

The rejection slip was of a form nature, though at the bottom was scrawled a small bit of advice:

Don't skip extra lines between paragraphs.

My first thought was: huh?

After a little investigation, however, I found this setting that was unchecked in Microsoft Word (it's obviously checked now):

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Problem solved, and hopefully the next editor will be a little bit happier.

That story, by the way, is already back out to the next publisher.

Heinlein's Rules for Writing

Robert A. Heinlein was one of the "grand-daddy's" of science fiction. He lived from 1907 to 1988. In that time, he had a prolific writing career, with one of his most well-known works being Starship Troopers.

When someone like Heinlein gives writing advice, one should listen. While many others have called out these rules, I thought I'd list them here for my own benefit if nothing else. Here they are.

1.) You must write.

I'm reminded of similar advice given by Mur Lafferty of the I Should Be Writing podcast. Her first rule is "Butt in chair." It's as simple as that. Getting your butt in the chair is the first step to writing. Another way to look at it is that you must write if you want to be a writer.

2.) You must finish what you write.

If you don't, you're wasting time and effort. Sure, some writing is practice. The general rule on first novels is to shove it in a drawer and forget about it; most first novels are crap, so consider it practice and move on to the next one. However, if you never finish that first novel you'll never get to the second. It's not done until it's done, and you can't do anything with it until you've finished it.

3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

This one is tough. I aspire to greatness. You probably do, too. My editing process involves several passes of the entire novel, then a chapter-by-chapter review. I hammer away at each and every chapter for as long as it takes. I risk exhaustion with this process, but it's what works for me. But at some point you have say, "I'm done", and resist all further temptations to re-write any more. If you think about it, a piece of writing is never really "done". There's always something to change or add or remove. But if you aspire to becoming a professional writer, then at some point you have to get your writing in front of someone who will pay you for it. That's not going to happen if you enter into a never ending rewrite cycle.

4.) You must put the work on the market.

You have to get your writing in front of someone who will pay you for it. Don't fear rejection. Embrace it and make yourself stronger from it. Or something like that. Bottom line: when you finish something, send it out.

5.) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Once something is finished, send it out. If (or when) it comes back rejected, already have your next destination for it in mind. Only when all possible outlets have been exhausted should you consider stuffing it into a drawer or, if you're sure it's of high quality and representative of the kind of work you want people to read, put it on your web site or blog as a freebie.

Those are Heinlein's Rules of Writing. Robert J. Sawyer, author of Flash Forward and many other science fiction novels, adds a sixth rule to Heinlein's five:

6.) Start Working on Something Else

Once something is shipped, start working on the next story or novel. Not always easy, but it is essential to always have something in the pipeline. You might even find yourself juggling multiple, simultaneous projects. Some writers do this to keep from getting "stuck" when working on just a single project. The change in story or characters can really help keep the writing process flowing.