Back to Basics

As a writer, there are certain universal basics that you will need to follow regardless of whether you write short stories, novelettes, novels, or the like.  Other writing “rules” can be relaxed in certain instances depending upon the writer’s own personal style and the story at hand.

1.  misspelling words  and using the wrong word – Unless you are using street slang in a dialogue or trying to capture some other cultural element during the course of a conversation (be it between characters or internal dialogue between a character and himself), there is absolutely no excuse for misspelled words.  Likewise, there is no excuse for a writer to not know when to use the correct word, such as using “two” instead of “to” or “knew” instead of “new.”  Such elementary errors makes the author look unprofessional and uneducated.  The good news is that misspelled words and using wrong words is not something that will ultimately hamper your writing style.  More importantly, it is also nothing that a good proofreader will not be able to spot and correct.

2.  developed characters – Unless you are specifically trying to create a two-dimensional character, nothing says “amateur” like writing a 3000 page novel full of characters that all seem to speak and act the same way.  Add in characters that also have the personality of a grapefruit and you are sure to have one doozy of a snooze fest on your hands.  Take the time to put forth some serious thought into your characters.  Go beyond what they look like to include a brief history of their life.  How does their past history affect their way of thinking, the way they act, the way they perceive the world around them?  When they speak, are they always saying something smart-mouthed or are they laid back?  Do they anger easily?

If you have ever done any written role-playing, you will be familiar with a character biography.  I use this same technique when creating all of my characters.  It includes the character’s name, parents, birth date, age, their physical attributes, a brief history, their likes and dislikes, the way they act and their way of thinking about the world around them.  Taking the time to really focus on all the things that make a character the way he/she is will go a long way in making them seem more real and well-rounded to the readers.  Just knowing how they look is not enough. 

Having a character bio handy will help you to decide exactly how your character will react in certain situations in your storyline.  By having something to refer to, it ensures that your character will speak, act, and react the way you intended them in any given situation, making them more uniform and real.  After all, if you have a character that is terribly afraid of spiders who starts playing with a pet tarantula, it will make the readers scratch their head in confusion.  It may seem like a small thing, but if you have enough small “loose ends” in a 500 page novel, all those little things can add up to become a big fat flop in the eyes of the reader.

3.  developed storylines – Have you ever read a good book that did not have any “loose ends” left at the end?  Or perhaps you read a book that left more questions than answers or had you thinking long and hard about what was going on with the story?  Both instances can be a really good thing for the reader.  But having a story that leads nowhere is about as fun as week old catfish.  The last thing that you want to do is lead your reader through a maze where nothing happens.  But remember, there is nothing wrong with taking little ‘side trips’ through your story.  Think of it as your characters trying to get through the maze and taking a few wrong turns.  What matters is that the storyline starts in one place and ends in another.  Of course, if you are writing a series then the storyline as a whole will end in one spot while the individual plotlines for each novel in the series will end in another.

Confusing?  It can be, which is why taking the time to create a “map” of what you want to happen in each plotline can be very helpful in keeping your plots straight.  Writing an outline can be extremely helpful in doing this, especially if you intend to create a lot of twists and turns in your storyline.  Nothing says ‘aggravation’ for a writer like having to go back and try to work in a key element of your storyline that you forgot to incorporate the first time around.  Having some type of outline or ‘map’ to go by will help you to keep your storyline on track.  Otherwise, you may find yourself tossing out entire chunks (or even chapters) of your manuscript because you forgot to write in a very important part of the storyline.

Whether you are trying to write a simple short story or an epic novel, having a storyline that engages the reader is key to keeping the reader coming back for more.   If you have the reader take a trip that leads nowhere, shows them nothing, and has nothing happening, then you will most likely end up with a reader that tosses your latest creation out with the trash.

4.  basic grammar – Using grammar correctly can go a long way in keeping the reader interested without keeping them confused to the point where they don’t understand what it is that you are trying to say.  Run on sentences, fragments, dangling participles, excessive adverbs and adjectives…grammatical errors can work for you or against you. 

I would not ever tell a writer to not use run on sentences or to avoid fragmented sentences.  The first rule of thumb for a writer is to just sit down and write however it pops into your mind.  The important part is to go back and edit it, throwing out the grammatical errors that take away from the story, make it confusing, or makes the whole thing just sound like an elementary student wrote it.  There is a time and place for grammatical errors, but they should be used infrequently.  Let me give a few examples.

EXAMPLE:  Sitting in the car.  I tossed back in disgust.  My head landing on the headrest.  I had forgotten about my science exam again and now I was going to flunk and wouldn’t that just piss my mom off.  Damn.  Now what do I do?

In the above example, there are a lot of fragmented sentences and run on sentences.  It sounds bad, it’s hard for the reader to really understand what is going on, and it looks worse on the page than it sounds in the reader’s head.  This is an example of having a lot of grammatical errors that work against a story.

Now let’s look at this same passage again after it has been cleaned up.

EXAMPLE:  I tossed my head back in disgust.  I had forgotten about my science exam.  I was going to flunk now for sure.  My mom would be angry.  Now what do I do?

In this example, the passage has been cleaned up with all the unnecessary words taken out.  If I were to submit the original passage to an editor, the second example is close to what I would get back.  But it seems very drab, boring, and does not convey the agitation that the character is experiencing.

Here’s the same passage again, only this time there are a few fragmented sentences.

EXAMPLE:  I tossed my head back in disgust, the back of my head thudding dully as it hit the headrest.  I had forgotten all about my science exam.  Again.  Flunking was almost a certainty now.  My mom was going to be so pissed.  Damnit!  Now what do I do?

As you can see in the above example, there are several grammatical errors.  However, the way it is written clearly demonstrates the agitation and worry that the character is experiencing.  Not to mention that the way it reads does not seem so systematic and boring.  As I have said, creative writing isn’t just about coming up with a great plotline.  The way  in which a story is written can have just as much effect on the way a reader perceives the story as the actual plotline itself.  That effect can be positive or negative, depending on whether or not you use grammatical errors to your advantage or just sling words down on a page.  Some writers can pull this technique off, and some can’t.  If you are one of those who attempts to write in this style but the end product closely resembles word soup, you may want to just stick to basic writing principles.  Writing in this style takes years of practice and is not for everyone.

5.  dialogue – If you are writing a story, regardless of length, you are going to have characters.  Those characters are going to interact with each other.  And somewhere down the storyline, they are going to speak to each other.  Thankfully, dialogue is not rocket science.  The best way to pull off good dialogue to keep your characters, well, in character.  If the person speaking has the type of personality that would cause them to make some smartass comment during the situation at hand, then write it down that way.  If the person speaking would make some off-the-wall comment that has absolutely nothing to do with what is going on or the conversation at hand, then feel free to write it that way.  Don’t try to make it sound “perfect.”  If you try to force dialogue between characters then it is going to come off sounding that way to the reader. 

The wonderful thing about dialogue is that all the basic rules and regulations of good writing goes out the window.  If you are trying to capture a Cajun accent, then there is no need to try to spell correctly, use complete sentences, or follow all the basic grammar rules.  Unless, of course, you have a southern bell speaking to her betrothed.  This one again goes back to having your characters speak in a way that compliments their personality and style.  For example, if your character is a very proper and highly educated gentlemen, having him speak in slang terms and fragmented sentences will throw the whole feel of the story off and confuse the reader as well.  Characters should speak, act, and react in a way that is true to their own personalities.

Another great thing about dialogue is that it does not have to have anything to do with the storyline.  It does not have to further the plot.  Sometimes characters talk amongst themselves just for the sheer joy of it.  Allow them to ramble once in a while.  Interesting diversions are always a good way to keep the reader interested.

Which brings me to my last bit of basic writing skills.

6.  keep the reader interested – This bears repeating.  KEEP.  THE.  READER.  INTERESTED.  By any means necessary.  Use your writing style to keep the reader wanting to read every word you have committed to paper.  If that means breaking some of the rules, then more power to you.  However, break rules cautiously.  Whatever your writing style, having a strong storyline and well-rounded, believable characters will go a long way towards keeping your audience coming back for more.

The Right Kind of Wrong: Clichés and Creative Writing

As I have said in previous blogs, most readers fall into two categories:  those who think that a novel is great because the plotline of the novel is great, and those who think a novel sucks because he thinks the plotline of the novel sucks.  If you are a writer who thinks this way as well, then I hate to burst your little bubble, but good writing and good plotlines do not go hand in hand.  I have read many books that had great plotlines behind them but the actual writing was atrocious.  Likewise, I have read some awesome books that really had a very weak plotline but I kept reading it anyway because it was so beautifully written.  As a writer, you will want to strive to have both a knockout plotline and be such a creative writer that people will want to read every word that you have written down.  And if you cannot do both, then you had better either be one hell of a writer or come up with such awesome plotlines that people don’t care that you are not that talented. 

‘Creative’ writing is subject to an individual’s own perspective.  In my opinion, being creative doesn’t just stop at coming up with a great plotline.  Often times writers get so hung up in trying to follow the rules of the English language and ‘proper’ writing ‘rules’ that they forget that writing is still an art form.  You are, in essence, trying to paint a picture, and words are the paint that you use to create that picture.  Creative writing isn’t about following rules and trying to sound like an English writing assignment.  It is about using the English language to create pictures in the mind’s eye of the reader.  For some, it comes natural.  For others, it’s like pulling teeth.  Ultimately, it is going to take practice, practice, practice.

I have read numerous articles and blogs regarding the use of clichés.  Most people know what a cliché is when it comes to single sentences or dialogue or even in some descriptions.  Basically, a cliché is something that has already been written about many, many times before.  For instance, if you have ever read about a grip that was  ‘vice-like’ then you have just read a clichéd description.  Big on romance?  Ever noticed that the man is often described as the clichéd tall, dark and handsome stranger?  Of course, I am guilty of this as well, but not because I want to use the cliché.  The men of my novels usually sound a lot like this simply because it is the type of man who I find extremely sexy, not because I can’t think of any other way for them to look.  Still, I have been accused of using this cliché to the extreme by a very outspoken critic.  What most readers do not understand is that often writers see their characters very clearly in their minds and cannot imagine the story without that character, or even imagine that character looking any other way.  Often times writers will get very emotionally attached to their characters and will not, or cannot, fathom the possibility of changing the way they look or act. 

If you are going to use this clichéd look for a character, then you will need to make him stand out in other ways.  Maybe he has a quirky personality trait or a scar or is blind in one eye or even missing a limb.  Whatever you do, don’t make your characters perfect, not even your vampires.  One of the points of writing is to create characters that seem real enough that your readers can relate to them.  If you have a novel full of absolute human perfection, your readers are going to get bored really quick.  Not to mention that we see enough ideals of ‘perfection’ on the covers of magazines.  No need for anorexic models in your reading material as well.

For the record, I will once again state my opinion that there is no right or wrong way to be a good writer.  Yes, there are things that you can do to polish your work and hammer out the kinks.  But the bottom line on using clichés will ultimately rest with the individual writer.  I myself use clichés all the time, to the extreme.  But I mix them up, change the traditional storyline around and add so many of my own unique twists that for some odd reason, all the clichés work for me rather than against me.  I, however, am not the norm for this.  I have been writing for twenty-eight years.  I have always written with the mentality of breaking every single writing rule that I possibly could.  Actually, I don’t just break them, I stomp all over them with a vengeful fury.  I have made it into an art form all its own.  For most writers, it simply is not going to work.  But I can give you some tips and tricks on why using them can actually work for you instead of against you.  Think of it as being a good writer in reverse.  Or as one writer so eloquently put it, ‘The right way to write wrong.’  This statement has been my motto for my entire writing career.

Using clichés isn’t about just ‘using’ them in your storyline, but putting your own twists on them to the point where they stop resembling tried and true clichés and become something very unique to the writer.  Let me also point out that sometimes when you write about something that has been done to death, like vampires, (cliché alert!  warning!) you are not going to be able to get around the cliché no matter how hard you try.  Take, for instance, the vampire’s ability to hypnotize his/her victim.  If you are going to have vampires that can do this, then be prepared to write about a cliché.  Glamourize, bespell, bedazzle…all clichéd words used to describe a vampire’s ability to hypnotize his victim and make him/her do what he wants. 

If you are going to write about a cliché, then be prepared to embrace it and make it your own.  In this case, writing the word in a story one or two times makes it a cliché.  Constantly bringing it up removes it from cliché status and makes it a very important part of the storyline.   But don’t overuse them.  The last thing you want is a novel full of nothing but predictable storyline clichés.

Which brings me to my next point.  If you are going to use clichés, then you are going to have to keep the reader interested in what you are writing, make them want to read every word that you have written.  How?  By coming up with your own unique and interesting twists to the storyline and, inevitably, the cliché in question.

How can you keep a reader interested?  There are lots of ways, but the easiest way is to surprise them.  And that surprise doesn’t have to be scary, just unexpected.  For instance, a common description cliché would be a storyline that has a female walking the streets, at night, all alone.  There would be no moon, maybe even lightning and thunder in the distance.  Perhaps the night would go quiet all of a sudden and then…well, you already know what happens.  She gets attacked.  Doesn’t matter by what or who, the reader knows she is going to get attacked because the writer used a very cliché description.  But what if you went through all that trouble of building up that suspense, really got into describing her emotions of how scared she is, how dark and ominous everything is…only to release that tension by having the character break her high-heeled stiletto and fall face first in a big mud puddle?  Skip the whole ‘she gets attacked’ crap right then.  You can have her get attacked further down the storyline, like after she gets home and is whining about the ruined dress.  The trick is to release that tension that you built up, let the reader get a good laugh, let the reader realize that what they thought was going to happen didn’t, and give them a false sense of calm and then…WHAM!  Let the attack come out of left field.   The writer used the cliché to his advantage and still surprised his reader.  Now that is creative writing.

Another type of cliché is where you begin writing something that is so standard and so done to death that the reader figures out what is going on, what is going to happen, and, if it’s a mystery of some kind, the who-done-it before the first chapter is over.  Let’s take for example the classic vampire novel.  If you are writing the standard clichéd vampire plotline, you know that there is going to be some biting, some bloodsucking, a main character and the love interest, a nice romance and maybe even some sex to spice things up.  But if this is all that the plotline entails then congratulations.  You just wrote yourself a huge clichéd novel destined to get you a giant “REJECTED” stamp on the front of your manuscript.  Now if you want to save this sinking Titanic of a novel, you had better start pumping it full of unique ideas and plot twists.  Have aliens invade, set the plotline in an apocalyptic world or on some distant planet, hell set the damn plotline on the Titanic if you have to…anything to set the clichéd plotline apart from all the other clichéd novels out there.

Can clichés work to your advantage?  Yes.  But only if you can add your own unique twist to the standard cliché.  You are going to have to be extremely creative, think and write outside the box, and not be afraid to take chances.  If you think a story would be best told by killing off the main character then do it.  If you are wanting a tragedy but are afraid that your readers will turn against you if you write some huge tragic novel, then you are writing for all the wrong reasons.  But don’t off your character because you can’t think of anything else to write.  Taking advantage of a cliché and using it to your advantage is an art form all its own.  It is not going to work for everyone.  Most people would be better off if they avoided clichés like they were Michael Myers because chances are they are going to murder your novel before it ever gets started (see how I worked that cliché in there?).  Although if you are going to insist upon using them, be prepared to make those clichés your bi-och.  If you don’t own them and make them uniquely your own, then you are just another clichéd writer in a sea of mediocrity.

Poem: Thoughts


of him,

drift wandering through my mind.

Of love,

sweet love;

My heart belongs to him.

His breath,

of life,

Like breeze from yon sea.

His hands,

like thy soul,

Wander softly over me.


I am his,


for eternity.

His spirit,

isn’t twisted like these trees,

but is,


For all it is free!

My love,

please hold me tight.

I ache to feel thine lips on mine,

to touch,

to tease,

My skin is thy own.

I want,

I need,

thine own happiness is mine,

as I am yours,

and all that I possess,

that which might also possess me,

Is yours alone,

to hold,

to touch,

to do with as you please.


but let it be known,

I plead with thee,

my sweet love,

Take me as thy own!

Copyright Nicola Matthews

Poem: Alone

I’m alone it seems, all alone again.

No one to hear my tearful song.

I’m alone it seems, all alone again.

No one to hear my praying sighs;

No one to hear my saddened cries.

I’m alone it seems, all alone again.

Ever since you said goodbye,

I’ve been all alone.

There are no arms to hold me;

No one’s words to console me.

No tender lips pressed gently on mine;

No way of knowing if things will be fine.

I’m alone it seems, all alone again.

Deprived am I, his eternal love.

Defied again by the heavens above.

Trapped forever, it seems to me;

Wishing that things would once more be

Just as they were some time before.

And wishing it I shall, forever more.

I am alone.

Copyright Nicola Matthews

Part 2: The Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer

Part II of the Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer:  Everybody Knows it All, but Nobody is Actually Doing it

I had to expand on the moral obligation of the mentoring writer.  I have discovered another alarming trend in my writing groups.  That trend is “writers” who post rules and tips that they have taken from other blogs/sites/books/self help novels/etc. While doing this is fine (when proper credit is given, mind you), what really annoys me is the amount of people who are leaving comments telling these posters how great “their” advice is when it isn’t really their advice at all.  While lending a helping hand is well and fine, I feel a bit let down by the sheer volume of people who are looking up to these posters as “mentors” when they are not giving advice based on their own experiences as a writer.  If you have not actually written anything of your own, then how can you possibly understand the advice and rules that you are copying and pasting into a writing lesson?  It is disturbing to me as a writer that people would rather take the ‘advice’ of someone who actually has never really written anything over the wisdom of one who has been there, done that, gotten the book deal.

On the topic of these rules, it goes back to telling budding writers that “doing this instead of that” will cause the audience to get confused/not want to read it/etc.  The number one rule that I see posters of these courses make is to either tell people or suggest to them that doing things a certain way is better than doing them another way.  I have said many times that there are very few written-in-stone rules when it comes to writing.  And the only ones that I can think of that could possibly be universal are misspelled words and missing paragraph indentions (translate:  giant wall of text with no paragraph breaks in them).  And even misspelled words are okay if they are used in the dialogue of a character.  It is my opinion that telling people that following a specific set of rules will make them a better writer is ill advice. 

Let me give an example.  On an adult writing forum, a poster recently began posting a story based on her life.  I will not go into detail in regards to the storyline.  This member asked me to read her story and give her honest feedback on how it sounded because she greatly valued my opinion as a writer.  We will call her ‘Jane.’ Now as a writer, I do not base my opinion on a story the way most people do.  A lot of people think that if the idea is good, then the writing is good as well.  I hate to break it to you if you are one of those who think this way, but a good idea and good writing do not go hand in hand.  I have read many books that had a great idea but the telling of that idea was not nearly as good as it could have been, making what could have possibly been a fantastic story into a mediocre retelling.  Learning to write well has very little to do with following certain rules.  The bottom line for writers is to grab their readers’ attention and keep it.  Following rules does not always do that.

I read Jane’s story.  Misspelled words aside, there were fragmented sentences, run on sentences, improper use of punctuation, among other things.  The spelling and punctuation could have been cleaned up.  However, I would not have touched the fragmented sentences or run on sentences if you paid me to.  Why you ask?  Isn’t writing about following writing rules and making it look perfect?  In my opinion, no.  Writing is about getting and keeping your audience’s attention.  Janet not only captured her audience’s attention, but their heart and admiration as well.  Her informal approach to writing drew her readers in, tugged on their heart strings, and left them begging for more.  She broke so many writing ‘rules’ that an editor would have thrown it out with the trash.  But it worked for her. 

Notice I said it worked for her.  It will not work for everyone.  Some people will do better by following rules.  However, the ‘rules’ of writing will not make you a good writer, or a better writer, or make you more creative.  Good writing is something that evolves over time.  It is about finding your inner writing voice, discovering what works best for you as a writer, and going with it.  If that means breaking all the rules, then go for it.  If that means following all the rules to the letter, then go for it.  At the end of the day, what constitutes a good story is the person who is reading it.  Every publishing company in the world can think it is great, but if there isn’t an audience for it then it is not worth the paper it is printed on.  It is why there are thousands of really great stories out there that have never been published by traditional means.  And it is also why there are thousands of books out there in publication that are gathering dust on a shelf.  A good story, after all, will always be in the mind’s eye of the reader.

N. C. Matthews

The Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer

As a writer, I belong to several writing groups, forums, and websites.  One of which is called The Writer’s Cafe.  One thing that I find particularly valuable is the site’s option to allow writers to create “writing courses” and “writing lessons” that are viewable by other members.  Now this site has a fairly large number of impressionable, young budding writers.  Some of these young writers are gathering quite a following of other impressionable, young budding writers, which is to be expected.  What concerns me is that some of these writers are posting “writing courses” that are little more than personal opinions and bad advice.  This in itself is nothing to really be concerned with.  What does concern me is that there are young writers following these posters, posters who have very little real world knowledge or exposure to the writing world.  These same followers are taking the bad advice and opinions as gospel truth when it comes to writing.

With such concern on my mind, I wanted to explore the moral obligation of writers who are seen as mentors.  I have been writing for some twenty-eight years now, but I have had no formal training besides the courses forced upon me in college and high school.  I am by no means an expert on writing.  What I do have, however, is twenty-eight years of wisdom at my disposal that I can share with others.  I can share my thoughts, my personal experiences, tricks and tips that I have picked up, tricks that work for me, what doesn’t work for me, what I have learned from trial and error, etc.  They are, of course, only opinions and personal experiences.  That is not to say that what I have to share has no merit.  I could certainly sit down and write an entire book on writing.  My point is that what I have are opinions formulated over twenty-eight years of tried and true wisdom.  For those who wish to partake of it, it may or may not help you.

My major concern is that all those young budding writers are being given bad advice and opinions, and they are too young to even realize that what their ‘mentor’ is giving them is just that…an opinion based on a very limited writing experience.  For instance, one ‘writing course’ I came across written by a 16 year old has over 200 followers.  In one course she told her readers to accept all criticism.  While this may sound like good advice, for those of us with more writing experience, that advice makes it painfully obvious that the poster has never been exposed to hard-out, cut-to-the-bone critics whose sole purpose is to rip a piece of work to shreds.  A more experienced, wiser writers knows that all criticism is not created equal.  The simple advice of ‘accept all criticism’ leaves out a lot of good lessons to be learned, such as the difference between constructive and deconstructive criticism.  For this poster’s 200+ followers, it is a lesson that could have spared them a lot of heartache.  Unfortunately, it is a lesson they will not likely get from a 16 year old with limited writing experiences and exposure.

As a writer, I do not believe that there is necessarily a “right” and “wrong” way to write.  Every writer is different and unique.  What works for one will not work for another.  So I do not think it would be fair to tell someone ‘if you follow these rules, you will become a better writer.’  I don’t believe anyone can make that guarantee, no matter how good they are, how many years they have been writing, or how popular they are.  What I can say is that I have experience as a writer and wisdom to share.  I can give you my views, I can give you some ‘universal truths’ that I have discovered over my years as a writer, and I can try to guide you along and help you find your own unique writing voice.  To tell anyone anything different would be morally wrong.  There is nothing that I or anyone else can tell you that will definitely make you a better writer.  So take my advice for what it is:  advice.  And my advice is that, in the end, it is up to the individual writer to find out what works best for them.

You are not a Special Snowflake – When it Comes to Writing, that is

I’ve heard writers say this all the time.  You are not special, you are not going to make it ‘big,’ you are not so great and so wonderful at what you do that publishers will want to snatch you up lickety split.  Well you sure as hell better be.  Because if you are not setting yourself apart as a writer then you sure better have one hell of an ego then. 

As a writer, you are going to have to have something that will set you apart from all the other writers out there.  Whether that be a fan-fucking-tastic storyline that no one has ever come across before,  a really unique style of writing, or even an ability to be the best weaver of a literary plotline in publication, you better make yourself into an individual snowflake somehow or else your work is going to get lost in a sea of all the other mediocre material floating around in publication land.

People are going to tell you that you are not the next Anne Rice, or Stephen King, or Stephanie Meyer, etc.  Believe it or not, that is actually a good thing.  Seriously, because who in their right mind wants to be like them?  If I want to read someone who writes like Anne Rice, I’ll go read Anne Rice, because anybody else is just going to be a very poor imitation.  Same thing with Stephen King, Charlene Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephanie Meyer, etc.  The most important thing you can do as a writer is write like you and stop trying to be like other famous writers.  Stop trying to be “the next -insert famous writer’s name here-” and just be you. 

That’s not to say that you will not have to abide by some basic English rules.  Incomplete sentences are fine, in moderation.  But don’t expect an entire 400 page novel with nothing but fragmented sentences to suddenly make you famous.  It might make you infamous…and very embarrassed if critics are talking about how poorly you write as opposed to what a fantastic story you have weaved.  Misspelled words?  Only if you are trying to imitate a Cajun accent during dialogue.  Actually, about the only time misspelled words could possibly be excusable is within a character’s dialogue with himself or another character.  Feel free, however, to make up a word…if it gets used a lot in the story (remember Laurell K. Hamilton using the term “wereanimals” when she referred to any type of lycanthrope in her stories) .  And all those too/to/two and there/their and but/butts being used incorrectly are not going to get you anything but a big, fat, red “rejection” stamp on the front cover of your manuscript.

Now about your ego.  Yes, it pays to have an ego.  Otherwise you are going to get stomped on by every writer, publisher, agent, critic, reader, editor, etc. that comes across your work.  That is not to say that you do not have any room for improvement.  Even Anne Rice is always pushing herself to the limits.  After all, you are only as good as your latest novel.  So yes, take criticism for what it is:  constructive, deconstructive, or at-a-glance (see articles on Criticism:  the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and adjust your work accordingly.  But never take, “you are not good enough to make it in the publishing world” as a final answer.  Seriously.  There are tons of really bad writers who get book deals all the time.  Just ask anyone who has ever read a lousy book.  We’ve all been there.  Ever remember picking up a book, start reading it only to think to yourself, ‘How the hell did this jackass ever get a book deal?’  This is where that whole “a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader” thing comes into play.  Trust me, when you are a writer then there are two things that will happen, regardless of how good or bad of a writer you are.  One, you will have someone out there who will absolutely love your work.  And two, you will have someone out there who will absolutely hate your work.  Your goal, as a writer, is to get as many people who like your work together, interested, and purchasing your work as possible.

Everyone thinks that they are a really great writer.  And if, at the end of the day, your grammatical mistakes and misspelled words have went the way of the dodo and you honestly do not think that anything could possibly make the story better, then sure, think that.  Just don’t expect others to think it.  Because if you are going to boast about how great of a writer you are, then you had better be able to back it up.  Now stop and think about this.  If you are going to start selling books/ebooks, then you are basically saying to the world, “Here, I wrote this.  I think it’s pretty good.  Read it and tell me what you think.”  Yes, when you put your work out there for others to read, you are inviting them to give you feedback whether you want it or not.  And if you think that is not how the publishing world works, then you are sadly mistaken and maybe even a bit naive.  It’s time to put on your big boy pants and smell the coffee.  Even books that are sitting in the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller list have critics bashing them all the time.  It’s their job.  Your job is to decide if what they say has any actual merit to it and adjust your work accordingly.  Better yet, set out to prove the nay-sayers wrong by writing something even better than your last work.  Nothing says, “F – U!” like a few thousand fans telling critics that they are idiots.

Now, all you snowflakes go out there and make something of yourselves.  After all, being special means nothing if no one else knows it.

But is it “Giving Up”?

Recently I came across a blog that basically told writers that if they were not here to sell books then move over for those who want to make a living at it, take your ‘art’ and post it on  free reading sites and leave the publishers to those writers who want to make money.

Now as someone who has been writing for over twenty-eight years, I am both utterly disgusted and greatly offended at the implications made by the writer.   Seriously, who the hell does -not- want to make money off of their writing?  Who does not want to get published?  Come on, face it.  If someone is out there submitting manuscripts to publishers it’s because they Want. To. Get. Published.  Why else would they go through all the red tape and rejection letters?  Besides, as I have already stated in an article, the sheer amount of material that a mercenary has to churn out often leaves a lot of room for improvement in the quality of their work.  And if someone is having to produce a book every month or two to keep a royalty check coming, then, it begs the question, are you really doing that great as a writer? 

But that’s not the point of this article.  When a mercenary writer says, “move over for those of us who want to make a living at this and take your ‘art’ with you,” my rebuttal is, “What makes you think we don’t want to make money at this?  Why are we in the way of you?  Maybe you are the ones clogging up the system for all the real writers out there who can’t get their foot in the door because the publishers’ inboxes are crammed so full of mediocre material from crackpot writers who are so busy trying to squeeze a few pennies out of their computer that those of us with real talent have to resort to other avenues of publication to get any recognition for all the hard work that we do.  What, exactly, makes you so special that you think you are the only writer that counts?  There’s plenty of readers to go around. ”

Yes, I know, bitch rant, but those statements do have merit to them.  Still, this is not the purpose of this article.  I have come across articles that have both praised self-publication and also shot it down in flames.  As a self-published author, you already know where I stand.  What I did want to explore in today’s article is whether or not deciding to self-publish is in essence ‘giving up’ on your dream of making a name for yourself as a writer or getting a traditional publishing deal.

Before I begin, I thought I would give you some inspiration, and maybe even a little hope, by listing a few authors who have went the self-publication route.

Mark Twain – self published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Nathaniel Hawthorne – author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables

Zane Grey – author of over 60 western novels

T. S. Eliot – the Nobel Prize winning poet

Edgar Allen Poe – if you haven’t heard of him, then….well, do I really need to say it?

Earnest Hemmingway – self published his first novel

L. Frank Baum – author of The Wizard of Oz

Arthur Agatston – The South Beach Diet

Herman Melville – author of Moby Dick, had several books of poetry self published

Beatrix Potter – author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Edgar Rice Burroughs – creator of Tarzan

Howard Fast – Spartacus

Stephen King – yes, even Mr. King has went the self publishing route when he posted “The Plant” on his website in 2000.  Remember that digital publications count as self publishing as well.  It’s not just for hard copies any more.

Amanda Brown – Legally Blonde

Alexandre Dumas – author of The Three Musketeers

Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen – authors of Chicken Soup for the Soul which sold over 108 million copies

This is not, by any means, a complete list.  In fact, I could list about a dozen more writers, but I tried to include names that people might be familiar with.  A lot of these writers even went on to get traditional publishing deals.  But do you know what set them apart from other writers who may not have gotten their shot at traditional publishing?  They never gave up.  Please, please, do not think that just because you decide to self publish something that you cannot keep pursuing traditional publishing avenues.  I would strongly suggest that if you are going to self publish, keep right on sending out your manuscripts to all the traditional publishes as well. 

Now I have come across articles by writers who stated that their manuscript had been turned down because they had decided to self publish.  But as you can see from the list above, simply deciding to self publish does not make you unmarketable by traditional publishers.  In all honesty, if a traditional publisher is going to reject you, they will use any excuse that they can think of to dissuade you from sending your work back to them. 

I mean, let’s face it.  If they think that they cannot make any money off of your ideas, then they simply do not want to mess with you.  Now imagine that they sent you a letter that stated something like, “it has promise, we suggest you send it to a professional editor and have them help you with XX, and XX, and XX.”  A letter like this leads a writer to think that they actually have a chance at getting published with this publisher if they will only get it edited.  But if the company does not want to ever see your manuscript in their inbox again, they will have to come up with some excuse to dissuade you from trying to resubmit your work.  If they catch wind that you have self-published and have not really done well in self-publishing, they will use that against you to keep you from bothering them.

But what if the opposite were true?  What if you self published your work, had tens of thousands of hits on your website, had fans clamoring for more, and had already sold hundreds of copies or had your e-book downloaded hundreds of time?  Is that even possible?  Yes, it is.  But it is a lot, and I do mean a LOT of work.  I repeat.  A. Lot. Of. Work.  But if you do beat the odds and build up your own little fan base, and they do turn you down, well, you are already making money and have fans who want your work, so you have already met part of your goal and gotten your own bit of revenge on them.  So who’s laughing now?

In my article “Self Publishing vs Traditional Publishing” I stated that a traditional publisher would not spend one red cent on a writer until that writer’s work proved that it would make the company money.  Which means that the writer is out there doing their own advertising, setting up their own book signings, putting together and keeping up their own websites, doing their own networking, getting the word of mouth out about their work, etc.  If you are already going to have to do that, then why not go ahead and self publish so when readers start getting interested in your manuscript, you will already have an e-book ready for download or a book ready for them to purchase?

In all honesty, do you really have anything to lose by self publishing your work?  I would much rather get my name out there and be making money off of my work than I had sit around waiting for Random House to come knocking on my door.  Because trust me.  It. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.  As I said, you are not the next Anne Rice.  But that’s okay.  You don’t really want to be known as “the next” anything.  Why would I want to be known as “The Next Anne Rice”?  Then no one would remember my name when the name of a really great writer is placed in the same sentence.  But I do want to be known as “N. C. Matthews.”  After all, there is only one me.

So is getting self published a way of ‘giving in’ or ‘giving up’ on your dream of publication?  Nope.  In my opinion, it’s just a way to get published.  After all, publication, in any form, so long as it is making me money, is dream enough for me.

To Be (or not to be) a Mercenary

The first thing that might pop into your head is, ‘What, exactly, is a mercenary writer?’  Good question.  A mercenary writer is basically a writer who “writes where the money is.”  That is to say, the writer writes about whatever the hot topic is at the moment.  If vampires are hot, they write about that.  If the wild west is hot, that’s what they write about.  If televisions coming to life and taking over the world is where the money is, then they churn out as many stories/novels on the subject as possible.  They have their publishers dictating what they write about, they write as many stories on the subject as possible to up their chances of making money off of one of them, and they have hard headlines to meet.  The opposite of a mercenary writer is the artist who writes what they want to write about, regardless of whether or not it is “hot” at the time, and spends a considerable amount of time honing and fine-tuning their work instead of rushing through to get the novel out to the masses.

A lot can be said about mercenary writers; some of it good, some of it bad.  Likewise, there are pros and cons of being a mercenary writer.  Some of the pros are simple enough.  If you are writing all the time and churning out monumental amounts of novels, then your chances of getting published are much better.  Getting published ups your chances of actually making money off of your craft. 

However, a lot can be said for the ‘bleeding heart’ artist as well.  Since money is not a motivation behind their creativity and they are seldom on a deadline, their work is often of much higher quality as far as writing goes.  The stories are often more intricate, sometimes spanning entire series of novels to tell the tale.  The story very seldom feels rushed as the case can be when a writer is put under a stout deadline.   The characters are usually much more rounded, well developed, and often feel more ‘real’ to the reader.  It’s very easy for the reader to get sucked into the story, to have a lot of time and emotion invested in the characters and plotline.  Often the characters are so well defined that readers may even feel a kinship with the characters. 

It has been debated on whether or not a mercenary writer is actually any good.  As I have often said, a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader.  But it is certainly a valid point that a writer who is churning out a book a month is sacrificing quality for quantity.  Getting that much material out in such a short amount of time often leaves little, if any, time to fine tune the story, to develop characters properly, to wrap up loose ends, or even tell the story properly.  A wise writer once said, “If you are not going to spend the time that is required to properly develop your ideas and your characters, then why are you wasting the readers’ time giving them mediocre material?  Why even bother to write if you can’t be bothered to give your ideas the proper nurturing that they deserve? ”  That is not to say that a mercenary cannot have good ideas or even be a good writer;  the argument is that the stories could be a thousand times better if the writer spent the amount of time it takes to fine tune their stories and the characters within them.

First off, you will need to decide if you are a mercenary writer, if you could become a mercenary writer, or if you even want to be a mercenary writer.  The first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Do I write what I know others are going to read, or do I write what I like to write about, regardless of how ‘hot’ a topic it is at the time?’  This is, perhaps, one of the most important things about a mercenary writer.  They do not usually write for the sheer joy of creating something and often do not have any emotions tied up in the stories that they write.  They write about whatever will make them a paycheck.  So if you have a tendency to hate writing about things that do not interest you, if you hate having someone tell you what your next story is going to be about, and/or if you cannot stand for anyone to change up your storyline because you have an enormous amount of emotions invested in the plot, you will not be able to make it as a mercenary writer.

The second question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Which is more important to me, making money off of my craft, or being known for being a really excellent writer.’  One of the main differences between a mercenary writer and an artist writer is that mercenaries do make money, although it can be argued that someone having to crank out a book a month to keep the publishers interested in them is not making very good money.  An artist, however, may write fewer works but are often very well known as a ‘good’ writer because they spent the necessary time fine tuning their work before they submitted it for publication.  It’s the difference between Anne Rice and a romance/erotic writer who has fifteen novels out there but no one knows who that writer actually is.  Money is not usually the driving force behind an artist’s writing.  With that taken out of the equation, it frees them up to put their heart and soul into their craft.  If you would rather be known for being good instead of making money, or if you would not be willing to sacrifice the quality of your work in order to crank out a large quantity of work, then you would not make it as a mercenary writer.

The last question you have to ask yourself is if you really want to be a mercenary writer, or are you happy with where you are at as a writer.  Please don’t misunderstand the point of this article.  I am not saying that one is better than the other.   I know which one I am, and I am perfectly content with who I am as a writer.  The question is, are you happy with where you are as a writer?  If you already are a mercenary writer, are you still willing to continue writing what others dictate, are you still willing to sacrifice quality over quantity, and are you happy being a mercenary writer?  If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, then embrace your inner mercenary and carry on. 

If you are an artist, are you happy with the stories you have created?   Do you enjoy the process of fine tuning your craft?  Would you rather be known as a good writer or is it more important to get as much of your work out there as possible and make money off of them?  And, perhaps most importantly, are you happy being an artistic writer?  If you answered yes, then embrace your inner artist and set out to create something fantastic.

As I said earlier, I know which type of writer that I am.  I am a die hard ‘bleeding heart’ artist.  Most importantly, I am perfectly content being an artistic writer because, for me, being known as a ‘good’ writer overrules my desire to make any money off of my craft.  I already have a career, but writing is my passion.  I do not do it for the money, but for the simple joy of creating something really wonderful, a feat that my hundreds of thousands of fans can attest to.  I continue to write knowing that people really enjoy my intricate tales and get caught up in the storylines.  For me, having my name known is more important than the paycheck that it brings in.

Whichever you are, I would never, ever suggest that you give up your dream of getting published.  Even if you are a hopeless artist when it comes to being a writer, never stop trying to get published.  But don’t sit around and wait for ‘the big’ book deal to come your way.  It doesn’t matter how good you are, you are not going to be the next Anne Rice, so don’t sit on your manuscripts holding out for a huge traditional publishing house to come along and make you an unbelievable offer on your work.  It. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.  What can happen, however, is you can be your own biggest advocate and get the word out.  If money is not a driving force but you still very much want your work out there being read, then you may want to try alternative methods such as blogging and self-publishing. 

Another thing that I would like to point out is that not all writers are going to be supportive of or even accepting of you as a writer.  It is not uncommon to come across mercenaries who will state that anyone who does not write full time is not really a writer.  Excuse me, but anyone who consistently puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is a writer.  It’s like saying that someone stops being a mom once the kids get grown.  It doesn’t matter if you write in your spare time or if writing is your full time job.  You. Are. A. Writer.  You may come across writers who will tell you that if you are not going to try to make money off of your work then you should move aside and make room for those who do want to make a living off of their efforts.  To these people I say that there are plenty of readers out there for everyone, and if you are so insecure about your ability as a writer as to try to scare off the competition, then I suggest you become a better writer.

Whether you a mercenary or a bleeding heart artist, regardless of which choices and directions you choose to explore as a writer, remember to always keep your eye on the goals that you have set for yourself.  Be the best that you can be at what you do.  But whatever you do, never give up, never give in.  Because at the end of the day, all that matters is that you are satisfied with the work that you have produced.  After all, a good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader.

N. C. Matthews

How to Tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys

The number one reason why authors get burned when it comes to self-publication is the fact that they are usually woefully undereducated on the subject.   Just like buying a good used car, insurance, or a house, the lack of education and knowledge on the subject attracts all sorts of shady characters to the playing field.  Like anything else that you are thinking about doing for the first time, a good knowledge of the field will help you make the best decision for you.  The self-publishing business is no different.

Many companies will often try to sell you products or services that are ineffective, are drastically overpriced, or maybe even be something that you really don’t need.  Often they will charge you hundreds of dollars for services that you could have easily done yourself, have contracted out for a much smaller fee, or even gotten for free through creative marketing.

Here are a few things that you need to ask yourself when shopping for a self-publishing company.  By answering these questions honestly and doing some research, you will be better prepared to help weed out The Good Guys from The Bad Guys.

1:  Is this company charging me for something that I could easily get for free?  One thing that you have to keep in mind is that with today’s technology, the amount of free advertisement and ways to get your name out there are about as limited as your imagination.  That’s not to say that you should never spend a dime on advertisement.  Just keep in mind that if you can do the same thing on your own, for free, then your money is better spent on the type of advertisement that you cannot get for free.

2:  Is this company charging me for something that I can do for myself?  If you have extensive knowledge of document formatting and can format your own manuscript, then paying someone else to do it for you is a waste of money.

3:  Is this company charging me for something that I know I can get done for a much cheaper price elsewhere?  If you have your own tried-and-true editor that you know you can afford, spending money on one that you have never used before can spell disaster. 

4:  Is this company rushing me to make a decision?  Forcing an author to make a rash and uneducated decision is a ploy that some companies use to bully an author into spending a lot more money than they had planned on services and products that they may not have wanted or needed.  If their offer is good today, then it should still be there tomorrow or next week.  Sure, that 15% off offer might expire, but if the entire offer expires, then there is something fishy in the mist.  If they give you an unrealistic time frame to make a decision (Act now!  This offer good only for the next 4 hours!), then your best bet is to let the ‘offer’ get on by.  But keep in mind that companies cannot be expected to sit around and wait on you forever.  They should, however, be willing to give you a few days to think about it.  If not, you might want to try a different company.

5:  What, exactly, am I getting for my money?  If you are going to spend a lot of money, you need to know beforehand exactly what you are getting for that price.  How many books will I receive?  Exactly where are you going to submit my work?  Who all will be receiving the news release?  What type of guarantee is the company making in regards to the amount of success of their services?  How long will it take for them to deliver on their promises? 

6:  Read the fine print!  You will definitely want to read their disclaimer.  Most companies will allude to the idea that you will have instant success with their company.  Usually the disclaimer tells another story entirely.  Make sure you understand the difference between what they can guarantee, what they hope to achieve for you, and what you can realistically expect with their services. 

7:  GET SAMPLES!  What is my finished book going to look like?  The best way to gage the company’s quality of work is to order a few random books from the company’s site.  If you are going to use their editors or designers, make sure you request samples of their work first.  If they don’t have samples, then they are most likely a scam.

Finding a good quality self-publishing or POD company is easy when you keep these things in mind:

                *don’t pay for something you can easily get for free

                *don’t purchase a service if you can hire someone else to do the work for a lesser price

                *don’t pay for something you can do yourself or get done yourself for free

                *don’t get rushed into making a quick decision

                *don’t pay for ‘promises’ that they cannot deliver on

                *read the fine print

                *make sure you know what you are getting for your money

                *make sure you know what type of quality your work will have before purchasing anything