Last Minute Pantser Cheat Sheet

Last Minute Pantser Cheat Sheet:

NaNoWriMo has begun in some parts of the world, or will in a few hours in other places. If you still do not know what you are going to write about, I have created a cheat sheet so that you can fill in the following blanks and create a story line.

An (adjective)(adjective)(somebody) desperately needs to (blank) the (blank), otherwise (blank) will (blank). It is not easy because an (adjective)(adjective)(obstacle) stands in the way. Story opens with (action event) that (blank) the protagonist to want to (blank), which is exacerbated when (blank) (blank) the (blank). The task must be finished before (blank) is (blank).

Good Luck.

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I, Witch (a story)

“We are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn.”*
We lived in the shadows, through winters of fear and nights of desolation, treading barefoot through the twigs of hidden forests, over frosts of forgotten plains, through the blood of battlefields, the rot of landfills, over the papercuts of history, giving births, suffering deaths, in the cold light of obscurity. Our vengeance, washed in tears, has dried away to the dusty, powdery, porous bone. Our anger no longer has a beating heart. Our lives, like death, are buried deep in the silent ground.

I, Petunia, have stepped out of the shadows, to deliver a message, only a message, to save Humanity, curse the name, who condemned us. Had our vengeance not been so dried, our hatred not so old and cold, we should not want to do this. We should want nothing more than to watch Humanity, and the irony of its name, burn in the inferno this surface is to become. Yet I am here. I am here to give them a semblance of a chance against an enemy only we, at this time, can detect.

“Hello beautiful,” said a man, a stranger, as I walked by, my eyes straight ahead not registering him.
“Hi honey. Whatcha doin’ tonight?” said another man not long after.
Headlights swam over wet streets in the night. Pedestrians walked by, some hurriedly, some slowly, couples arm in arm, young men in packs, some people carrying folded umbrellas, others just braving the risk of further rain. Some were smiling, grinning, meaninglessly.
“Hey lady, gotta minute? C’mon lemme buy ya’ll a drink.”
I walked by until I reached the police station and walked up the stone staircase to the entrance. Grey cloth covered the metal detectors in the entrance hall.
“Visitor hours are over,” said a uniformed officer.
“I want to report a murder.”
“Why don’t you call it in?”
“I need to talk with a homicide detective, urgently.”
“Give me a minute.”
He picked up an ancient black handset from behind a counter and made a call. After a short exchange, he hung up and motioned me to come closer, picked up a portable metal detector and scanned me.
“Handbag?”
“Don’t have one.”
“Okay. Third door left.”
I walked down a corridor to a cheerless office with a ceiling too high to be modern construction. Varnished wood cohabited with metal office furniture in varying degrees of wear. A middle aged man in shirtsleeves, his tie loosened, looked up from his sandwich, his glasses up on his forehead. He gestured to himself and another man at the adjoining desk.
“Brown. Schwartz. Take your pick.”
“Which one are you?”
“I’m Brown.”
“I’d like to report a murder.”
“Who’s the victim?”
“He is not yet dead. There will be a murder at exactly eight twenty-five. It will be in room 209 of the brownstone at the corner of Easton and Craig. The victim’s name is Justin Crumb.”
The officer looked at me crossing his brow.
“What is this young lady?”
“I am not so young. You have twelve minutes to send someone there.”
“Why don’t you wait on that bench?”
He conversed wordlessly with officer Schwartz, an exchange of looks, gestures and nods, then left his desk.
I sat on the old wooden bench, much older than anyone in the building knew. I felt the spirit of the maker, for it was hand crafted more than a century ago. Old neglected furniture dotted offices like this across the country. This one crafted by a man named Brine with block planes, chisels and saws he inherited from his father. An uneducated man, he lost his family to the Spanish flu, his health to whiskey and his fortune to the whims of the economy. He did not understand the nature of finance any more than he understood the nature of the virus, so he blamed his misfortunes on Jews, just as his forebears blamed their misfortunes on us. I ran my fingers over the almost imperceptible bumps of the wood, the uneven contours of the hand crafted furniture, unappreciated despite its age, in the corner of a police station.
My conversation with the bench lasted over an hour, by which time we were fast friends. I sensed the police officer approaching and I bid farewell, almost tearfully. Good luck to you. May you last long and be well.
“I’d like to talk to you,” said Brown.
“Yes,” I said, still caressing the bench. “I thought you might.”

“Your name?”
“Petunia Stone.”
“Place of birth?”
“Salem”
“Age?”
“Rather not say.”
“We need your age, m’am.”
“Twenty nine.” Actually two hundred and ninety, but close enough.
“Current residence?”
“Homeless.”
“Where are you staying?”
“For the moment, at the Berkeley.”
Brown shifted a little in the grey darkness and yellow light of the interrogation room, his dark face became a little more visible as he lowered it closer to the light.
“How did you know?”
“About what?”
“The death of Justin Crumb.”
“I just knew.”
“We need the truth, m’am.”
“Do you? Do you understand the circumstances of his death?”
“We ask the questions here, m’am.”
“What good are questions if you are unable to understand the answers?”
The two men looked at each other.
“Officer Brown.”
“Detective.”
“Detective Brown, do you understand how Justin Crumb died?”
There was reluctance in his manner as he opened a laptop computer on the table.
“Do you know what a badge-cam is?”
“No.”
“It’s a camera officers wear on their chests to record what they do on the job.”
A shaky video appeared on the screen. A fist was knocking on the door. A balding man in an undershirt answered the door.
“Justin Crumb?”
“Yes.”
“May we come inside?”
“What is this about?”
The digital clock on the corner of the screen showed that the time was eight twenty-four.
“We received a report of a crime in progress.”
“There is nobody here. I, I live alone…”
“We need to take a look, for your safety.”
“I don’t think there is any need.”
“Can we at least see your ID?”
“No!”
“What?”
“No! No! No! Noooooo!”
Then, in front of the shaking camera, Justin Crumb started bleeding from his chest, a horrified expression on his face. A vertical slit opened on his chest as if an invisible sword pierced him from behind. With his lung collapsed, Crumb was no longer able to scream, though his face was frozen in mid scream and the cries of the policemen filled in where he could not. The invisible sword moved upward, snapping the ribs as it went, stalled at the collar bone, then burst up through the shoulder with a vicious crack, spraying an explosion of blood over the screen.
Lieutenant Brown closed the laptop.
“We need to know what happened and how you knew he would die.”
“I want my words recorded.”
Brown looked at Schwartz. Schwartz took a voice recorder from his pocket and gave it to Brown. He put it on the table in front of me.
“Go ahead.”
“I have come to deliver a message. We have sensed the approach of a terrible event. The death of Justin Crumb, an innocent man, was the first of many to come. It two nights, there will be another death, and from there the pace will accelerate, doubling every other day, more or less. It will spread to other cities, other states, then other countries. Eventually, it will become a plague that will engulf the world. Once it gains momentum, it will become impossible to stop. Your window of opportunity is small. You must destroy the steeple of the Blackstone Church, on the corner of Westgate and Brook, before the thirteenth death.”
And that was the end of my mission. That was all that was required of me to do. The puzzled policemen had no grounds to hold me. In the morning, I would have been gone, out of reach and invisible. The warning was given and that was that. Humanity was on its own. Most probably, it was at its end.

In fact, events would have unfolded very differently had the old bench not begged me to stay.

 

*This story was written when someone in the nanowrimo group on Facebook dared me to write a story beginning with the sentence “We are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn.” I had no idea at the time, but the sentence turned out to have been pilfered from “The Witches of BlackBrook” by Tish Thawer. Many thanks to Heather Grossart for pointing this out.

The Elements of Success

Stephen King has lived a charmed life. Yet he says that he is annoyed when asked “What is the secret of your success?” It is one of many staple questions that he is asked all the time, apparently, along with “Where do you get your ideas from?”. The answer to both, when given honestly, is usually “I don’t know”.

Except, in Stephen King’s case, the main elements of his success seem pretty obvious. I am sure I am not the first person to notice this. It is spelled out quite clearly in King’s autobiographical On Writing.

Throughout his career, King had three constants in his writing life that are as important as they are rare. Firstly, he loved to write and wrote what he loved. Secondly, he had the full support, morally and emotionally if not always financially, of his immediate family, first his mother, then his wife. Thirdly, he had distant detractors who never stopped hazing him throughout his career. All three are essential to a writer’s success, yet each is a difficult element to have.

Firstly, writing is hard. It is not always a pleasure. Yet King seems to have enjoyed every minute of the creative process. This is in fact very rare. And yet, maintaining the literary ear attuned to the enjoyment your story creates is the number one prerequisite for a writer’s success. If the author cannot enjoy his novel, who can?

Secondly, families suck. They would rather see you go to medical school than watch you working on your novel. And this is only partly due to genuine concern for their child’s future. Parents would rather say that their son is in medical school than that he is typing away in the cellar collecting rejection slips. Family members, in most cases, are more concerned with their own welfare than yours. Mothers generally prefer bragging rights to having a happy child. Wives generally prefer to see you bring home a paycheck than to pursue your dreams. Family members are usually the writer’s closest enemies and exceptions are rare. Most of the time they have the decency to pay lip service to the idea of you pursuing your dreams, but only as long as you have a decent day job. Few people actually have family members who will give heartfelt encouragement in the pursuit of dreams, when it is most needed. Those who do are very lucky.

Thirdly, distant enemies are an important element in the writer’s success. They should not be members of your family or someone you meet everyday. They need to be invisible strangers who will criticize your works through a remote instrument, most preferably a newspaper column. In this arena, King was particularly blessed. No other writer in recent history had been so consistently maligned by serious critics for such a long period of time. Distant enemies not only motivate you to do better, they sell your books for you. If you read an article in the TIME magazine that said “The author weaves a mesmerizing tale that takes place in a rich imaginary landscape populated with realistic and relatable characters” you would understand that it is a good book, but you probably would not buy it. But if a book critic said “This book is a waste of rain forest and a stain on our literary culture. It is a cheap page-turner for the enthusiasts for the macabre. Why this hardbound trash is a best seller among the semi-literate baffles the serious reader” I bet you would buy that book. I certainly would. The reason is simple: The latter is rare. Book critics are people who love books. They live to bring good books to the public’s attention. Naturally, the books they review are usually either good or almost good. They do not often waste print space on books they do not like. Stephen King, through most of his career, had been a virtuoso story teller, but not a great prose writer. That alone is not such a great sin. Yet his critics have been relentless. Even when King won the National Book Foundation Award, Harold Bloom said that it was “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down of our cultural life”. He calls King  “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.” King explains that critics tend to be suspicious of commercial success and that they are loath to allow genre writers and pulp fiction peddlers to join the ranks of the serious cultural elite. But that is only partly true, and does not explain all of it. There are other commercially successful writers and genre writers who do not get the same ruthless treatment as King. J. K. Rowling comes to mind. She is a great story teller, but not a prose writer. For the duration of her career when she wrote the Harry Potter series, she was a genre writer, and she was hugely commercially successful. She did not get high marks from the likes of Harold Bloom, but she did not get rebukes anywhere near as venomous as those directed at King. The same can be said of any number of successful genre writers. King received a disproportionate share of insults. Eventually, as he won some grudging respect from the literary society, his production slowed.

Shakespeare and Dickens got the same treatment from their respective contemporaries. Both were commercially successful. Both were criticized for being tasteless. George Elliot, a female “serious” novelist of the Victorian era, wrote “Who, it may be asked, takes Mr Dickens seriously? Is it not foolish to estimate his melodramatic and sentimental stock-in-trade gravely?” That is pretty much a summary of what they say about King. Dickens has stood the test of time, and King probably will too.

The psychological effect of distant enemies reviling the author and his work, counterbalanced by the encouragement of his immediate family is a difficult one to imagine. At the very minimum, the contrast enhances the warmth of the encouragement from the family member. It has a stabilizing effect on family life. Some successful writers became so full of themselves that they neglect their families. Supportive wives do not always take it well when they are not their husband’s only fans anymore. Distant enemies strengthen the bond between the author and his most intimate supporters. Creative partnerships flourish under distress.

No doubt there are other psychological merits to having consistent detractors. There have been writers who hated the “genre writer” criticism so much that they turned to writing “serious” novels. No doubt King was tempted to do the same. But his love for his works and his close supporters have so far persuaded him to stay true to himself. This tug-of-war has made him push his envelope by just the right amount, enhancing his works over the years.

Why did King receive such a disproportionate battery of critical cannon fire? Given that it has proved more of a blessing than a curse, the short answer is; because he deserved it. But there was also a lot of good luck involved. He arrived at a time when the publishing industry was in a state of economic anomaly and best seller writers were most maligned. However, the most universal formula for collecting the ire of literary critics is 1. write in a previously unrecognized dialect, 2. focus on the POV of the underclass, and 3. employ visceral cues such as sex, violence, and graphic repulsiveness.

King wrote in a style that employed drastically reduced exposition for a writer of the 70’s. In the 21st century, writing classes teach aspiring writers to cut the lengthy expositions because modern readers no longer have the patience for them. King saw this forty years ago and wrote in a way few people in the era, other than pornographers and “junk” writers, did. Reduced exposition is now the standard, but early in his career it was radical. E. L. James wrote in the dialect of text messages, described as “staccato prose” “telegraphic” and worse, which was evidently familiar to millions of readers, but was an alien language to the majority of book reviewers. Such innovations are certain to insult the sensitivities of at least some of the book reviewers.

Dickens had what was termed “an unhealthy obsession” with the underclass. Specifically, he drew pictures of the underclass that made the middle class feel bad about themselves. This liberal slant in literature had important influence on real world politics through history. But it almost always drew disrespect from critics who seemed to believe that the only fictional characters who mattered in the world had frills on their sleeves. It is not quite as overtly political as Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher, but it is a distant cousin. Not a crash of political beliefs, but a crash of sensibilities. Some people do not want to see the tragedy of a family trapped in a Volkswagen with bad transmission take the attention away from the tragedy of a family trapped in a gilded cage. These critics may be politically liberal, but conservative in their literary preferences.

Sex, violence and the icky sight of decaying corpses are sure to rile up the purists of literature. “It’s a kind of pornography” is the common phrase. Pornography is when you do not care very much for the story and you just want to skip to the “good stuff”. John Irving once wrote that “a terrorist is a pornographer” because he does not really care what he is fighting for as long as something goes boom. Susan Sontag wrote that science fiction is a “close relative” of pornography, presumably because we read them for the monsters and spaceships instead of for their literary merit. Horror is a “kind of pornography” because it is the icky stuff we want to read. In fact, any kind of literature with a “hook” and a “kick” can be construed as a kind of pornography. If you write a novel with sex and violence as the hook, and the graphic death of the serial killer as the kick, you are a literary terrorist dishing out a “kind of pornography” for the masses. This will win you the hatred of a lot of literary critics, not the terrorists but the terror mongers.

Stephen King, no doubt without intention, had covered all three universal reasons for literary ostracism. As a result, he had a lesion of detractors who consistently and doggedly insulted his works for most of his career, which in turn strengthened his bond with his immediate collaborators, giving him a consistently happy family life, which in turn fed his love for writing. King writes that the secret of his success is that he managed to stay married. There is some truth in that. And marriage is a multi-faceted enterprise. It is always unwise to draw simplistic pictures of other people’s marriage. Assuming that we are allowing considerable leeway for error in assessing the nature of King’s partnership with his wife, his primary reader, it is presumably safe to say that their relationship was relatively stable, and that their literary output benefited from it. This may not have been possible if King was universally accepted and became so big headed that he lost sight of himself and his family.

Good enemies in the right places are important to success. To have unwavering love for your work, uncompromising support of your immediate partners, and the consistent challenge from your distant enemies, are the elements that support a productive, creative life.

Yasuke, the Black Samurai

Did I mention that I was writing a samurai novel in English?

One of the main characters in the novel is Yasuke, an African slave brought to Japan by European missionaries who granted the status of samurai by Lord Oda Nobunaga upon entering his service. He is the only recorded black samurai in history.

In actual history, Yasuke starts serving Nobunaga around 1581, but I took a little liberty with that and had him enter Nobunaga’s service in 1573.
The reason is simple: I wanted him to witness events like the Battle of Nagashino, the Battle of Miki and the Battle of Kizugawa.

I chose this character because I liked the idea of a black samurai and, since so little is known about him, I have more room to bend him to fit my story.
James Clavell had William Adams (whom he renamed John Blackthorne). Yasuke is my Anjin-san.

Although James Clavell’s Shogun was hugely successful, both as novel and as screenplay, it had a few problems with the execution. The main problem was that it took time outs to explain Clavell’s interpretation of medieval Japanese culture. During these explanatory expositions, the story came to a standstill. Yet you could not omit these expositions because the reader would not understand the story without them.

I tried to solve this problem by creating two parallel story lines, one in the relatively modern world of 1928, the other in the world of 1573, and let one story explain the other.

The 1928 story line has an ominous cloud hanging over it, because this is just before the militarist dictatorship took over the government. Japan was still in a stable alliance with the UK. But we all know which direction history eventually drifted. The main characters in the 1928 story line is an Englishman, his half-Japanese son, and his Japanese assistant. A little of the Kyoto-Tokyo cultural rivalry is also exposed.

The first draft is taking shape nicely, but I still feel that there are too many explanations. I will have to cut ruthlessly in the final edit. For now, I will just keep piling on the story. I expect the first draft to be about 120000 words, give or take. Still only about a fifth of the way there. My day job is consuming about 60 hours of my time each week, so I am averaging only about 500 words a day at best. This is going to be a long bumpy ride.

Remon

I want you to try to picture some fresh celery and parsley chopped up and mixed in a lettuce salad. And pour some Italian dressing on it. Imagine that until you can smell it and taste it.

You got that? Okay.

Now, follow me closely. The word for “celery” in Japanese is “serori”. What can I say? It’s an imported word. There is no Japanese word for celery so we Japanize the name and call it serori. Parsley is called “paseri” and lettuce is called “retasu” and salad is “sarada”. So now we have some chopped serori and paseri in a retasu sarada seasoned with Itarian doressingu. Any takers? I didn’t think so.

Still don’t get it? Take your time and let the sound roll off your tongue.
A retasu sarada with serori and paseri.
How is that supposed to smell and taste?

That said, what do you associate with the word “lemon”? Yes, I am talking about that citrus fruit with a sour juice, not the ones made in Detroit that you are tricked into buying by the fast talking Chevy dealer with a Stars-and-Stripes lapel pin. What else can a lemon be?

Can you sustain an open mind? I am NOT asking you to suspend your disbelief. I am just asking you to step back and accept the idea that some people have different perspectives of the world. One man’s lemon is another man’s salvation, is all that I am saying.

Maybe not exactly “lemon”. How about “remon”? Not all of you will be able to see this properly unless you reconfigure the settings on your computer, but the word is actually “檸檬”, and it carries a whole different array of connotations.

“Remon” is the title of a short story by Kajii Motojiro. It is also the title of the collection of short stories that was the only published work of his lifetime before he died prematurely of tuberculosis. A liberal arts student at Kyoto University, he struggled with both tuberculosis and his literary career in the early 20th century.

Like celery, parsley and lettuce, lemon was an imported item. In fact, it was much more than that. It was an imported concept. Here is an except from The Fight Club to give you some perspective:

“Do you know what a duvet is?”
“It’s a comforter…”
“It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?”
“…Consumers?”
“Right. We are consumers. We’re the by-products of a lifestyle obsession.”

A lot of people resonated with this dialog because a “duvet” seemed like such a fancy pansy foreign word.

Now picture two regular guys in a non-descript bar in turn-of-the-century Kyoto, getting drunk on cheap sake.
“Do you know what a lemon is?”
“It’s citrus fruit.”
“It’s a condiment like sudachi or yuzu or kabosu. Just a sour fruit. Now why do guys like you and me know what a lemon is? Is it essential to our survival?”

In reality, of course, Japanese men would have called it “remon” instead of “lemon”.
And, of course, a “remon” was a very foreign item.

Which brings us back to Kajii Motojiro.
This man wrote a very short, minimalist, highly distilled description of what it is like to die from a slowly progressing lung disease. You cough a lot, but that is not directly described. You keep wondering if you are coughing more today than yesterday, but that is not directly described either. You live in a state of panic fatigue because you panic many times a day thinking “Is this it? Is this the moment I choke to death?” but that is only hinted at. You are lifeless, but you are somehow distantly aware that you have a mild fever, and that is described, but only because the you pick up a lemon, a very stylish foreign agent of modernity and frivolity that you can surely live without, that feels cool against the ever-so-slightly feverish skin of the palm of your hand. Of all the things in the world, a fresh lemon is what tells you that there is still some warm human blood in your body.
You wander aimlessly around the city. You walk into Maruzen, a veritable Ikea catalog of the turn of the century, searching for something, anything, that can quicken you like fresh blood would a vampire. You flip through art books of Matisse and all you feel is the weight of the volume. You try Picasso and you feel no different. You pile the books of art that failed to inspire you in a stack and you suddenly remember the lemon in your pocket. You place the fresh lemon on top of the stack of the visually colorful but spiritually stale books, like a secret time bomb that would blow up the place. You leave the fashionable, cultured, artsy store, leaving your time bomb behind. What would the store clerk think when he finds that stack of forsaken books topped with a living, breathing, radiating embodiment of freshness? That refreshing thing that felt cool against your slightly feverish dying flesh, that thing you left behind in the book section of Maruzen in Kyoto, my friends, is a remon.

Thanks to that short story, a “lemon” in the Japanese language projects a very different image as does a lemon in any other language.
A lemon is still a lemon. We are still talking about the same citrus fruit. But the impression we get from the same word is totally different.
This is not fiction, this is true. In Japan, you can actually compliment a lady by telling her that she reminds you of lemons. Not roses and not daffodils, but lemons.

And that is the problem of the bilingual writer. You want to project an image of something in English, perhaps the image of lemons,  but it does not translate into the language you are writing in.

Basic Writing Stuff You Were Too Afraid to Ask

If you are very, very new to writing, here are some of the things you might want to know but were afraid to ask. (Seriously, dude, ask your English teacher. That’s what they are there for.)

  1. What is “show, don’t tell”?
    Telling is “She was afraid”. Showing is “She clenched her hands into fists in a vain attempt to stop her trembling hands”. Telling is “He stood up angrily”. Showing is “He nearly knocked over his chair as he stood up”.
    “Show, don’t tell” is just another way of saying “Don’t use adjectives and adverbs when you can describe the scene instead”.
    If you write “Tom snidely insulted him. Ben stood up angrily and punched him forcefully in his face” that is telling (and pretty badly). If you write a snappy dialog that builds up until Tom drops the F-bomb on Ben’s mother, Ben knocks over the table as he stands up, drinks and ashtrays flying in all directions, the floor hitting Tom hard on the shoulder  before he even realizes he was hit on the face, THAT is showing. Don’t forget to describe the sound of glass shattering, the smell of stale tobacco from the ashtray, and the creaking sound of the ceiling lamp swinging, after being hit by a flying beer bottle, casting moving shadows around the room. Describe it until you can taste it.
  2. Do I have to read a lot of books to be a novelist?
    Stephen King writes “If you do not read, you will not have the necessary raw materials for your writing” which is true, but it goes a lot deeper than that.
    Who are your readers going to be? Other than your immediate friends and family, who is going to read your debut novel? What kind of people are they? They don’t know you, so it is up to you to know them. Your first readers must like your book and recommend it to friends, or there will be no second readers. And your second readers must like your book enough to recommend your book, or there will be no third readers. If you don’t understand how difficult this is, try recommending a book, any book, to a random friend. Check up on him three weeks later to see if he had actually bought and read the book you recommended. Nine times out of ten, you will find that he did not. (On the flip side, how many books have YOU actually bought on a friend’s recommendation?) That means your first reader will have to have liked the book enough to recommend it to at least ten people before you get one second reader. And your first, second and third readers must each successfully convince more than one person to buy and read your novel, or your book will die. If your readers on average do not successfully convince TWO or more friends to buy your book, forget the second printing.
    Now, suppose you wrote a vampire novel (or any novel really). How many vampire novels do you have to read before the reader chances upon a debut novel by an unknown writer such as yourself? What sort of a reader is that? That, my friend, is a truly hard core vampire fan. (Same deal for a fantasy, sci-fi, zombie, murder, YA, NA, whatever.) And 99 times out of a hundred, a hard core vampire fan has exactly the same opinion about every new vampire book: “I’ve read better books than this.” He will have this opinion because by the time he stumbles on your book, he has read just about every vampire book in publication. That is the kind of first reader you will have. Other than your friends and family, there are no other kinds of first reader a debut novelist can possibly have.
    In order to convince this vampire freak to push your book really, really hard (just to get an average of two successful sales per reader), you have to know the market and know what vampire freaks love. You have to read at least as much as your first tier of readers. That is a lot of reading.
  3. Do I have to write every day?
    Short answer: Yes.
    But again, you should avoid making writing a chore.
    To clarify: You do not need to write your book everyday. But you must write something everyday. And that something must be written as conscientiously as you would when you intend to publish it. Some writers recommend that you keep a diary. Some writers recommend that you keep an idea log. Some writers recommend that you do writing exercises. Whatever you write, you should use it to horn your writing and story telling skills.
    “Write everyday” does not mean you must work on the same draft every single day getting obsessed on the daily word count. If you keep trying to add to the word count of your draft everyday, the pressure will inevitably push you into writer’s block. Don’t just write your draft everyday. You need to take breaks. Write something else.
    It is not about the output. It is about honing your skills. Don’t stop writing.
    On the flip side, don’t just write. Keep experimenting to write better than before. Writing is a craft. Practice makes it better, more fluid, and more readable.
  4. How old should I be to write my book?
    Harry Bernstein published his breakout novel when he was 96 years old. Some people publish their novel when they are 13. The most successful writers start somewhere in the middle. The prodigy with a debut novel at a very early age very rarely has a long lasting or productive career. Harry Bernstein started publishing in a school newspaper when he was 16, a noteworthy accomplishment in his time.
    The reason we see so many young writers today is because technology has made it extremely easy to publish a book. As recently as 1980, self publishing a book cost a bare minimum of ten thousand dollars, just for the printing, often costing a lot more. Today, you can get an e-book or a print-on-demand book printed practically for free. Even conventionally published books can be done with much less investment than in the decades past. In bygone days, well connected people threw their daddy’s (or sugar daddy’s) money at their effort at getting a book published, and their careers did not last long either. Just because you can do it without a sugar daddy today does not make the prospects any different. The teenage authors getting their debut novels published today are the equivalent of Harry Bernstein getting his stories published in a school newspaper in the early 20th century. It may be an accomplishment, but not the best start to a career.
    Most writers seem to agree that it is better not to start too young. Stephen King published his first novel when he was 26, and that is an exception for such a successful writer.
  5. Pantser or Plotter?
    First off, a “plotter” is a person who plots out a detailed outline for the novel before starting to write. James Patterson is representative of this category. A “pantser” is short for a “seat-of-the-pants” writer, who just starts writing the story without a pre-determined outline and lets the story take them where they may. Stephen King is famously a pantser.
    Most, if not all, writers start out pantsers, but most people learn that in order to compete in the world, they have to learn to become plotters. I am quite sure Dickens and Tolstoy were pantsers, and if you think you can compete with them you are welcome to try. But it takes immense talent to go through the excruciating process of writing and still keep your story straight in the absence of a fixed outline.
  6. What is editing?
    Editing your own novel is best described as “killing your darlings”. You put your heart and soul into writing it, but it should not be there so you have to delete it. Sometimes whole chapters of it. To do that, you should have a set of fixed principles, not just random opinions of friends and relatives. It is better to know what you are doing.
    The objective eye of an editor other than yourself is often helpful. Some editors are very intrusive and tell you which specific sentence should be re-written and which words are redundant. Some editors take a more free range approach. Saul Bellow’s editor once commented “This can be better”.
    Editing is not the same thing as proofreading, but these days, editors of publishing companies usually do neither for a debut writer. You must hire your own editor.
    Some independent editors also provide mentoring services, which is what traditional editors once did. They will tell you what part of the story is rough and what part of the story is redundant. They will help you structure the story.
    Proofreading is basically just checking for typos, misspellings and minor grammatical errors. Proofreaders will not tell you where your story sucks. You would expect editors in publishing companies to at the very least proofread for you, but in reality they are the people most offended by manuscripts in need of proofreading. Hire your own proofreader before submitting a manuscript.
  7. How do I learn to write?
    Start by reading books on writing. My recommendations are Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, and Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell. But you should be reading ANY writing instruction book you can get your hands on.
  8. How do I outline a novel?
    Again there are books that teach you that. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Plot Perfect by Paul Munier are standard. A relative newcomer is Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. If you are really up to it, you can try studying The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, but be warned it’s pretty heavy lifting.
  9. How do I learn to edit?
    Stein on Writing is actually a good resource on the writer/editor relationship as it is on the process of writing. You might also want to check out Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King.
  10. How do I know I’m a writer?
    If you have to ask, you are a writer. My condolences. It is an incurable disease that will torment you for the rest of your life. But you are not a good enough writer. You never are and you never will be. Nobody ever is. Because (if it isn’t already obvious) the person who will be judging your writing will be your most vicious critic; yourself. Tolstoy thought he was not a good enough writer. Hemingway shot himself for it (after he won the Nobel Prize for literature). If you are awed at your own writing, God bless you. It usually doesn’t last, so enjoy it while you can. A writer doesn’t always have readers. A writer doesn’t always get published. And when a writer is published and read, he can still be miserable because he isn’t good enough.  And if you ever felt tormented by that, then you are a writer. How do I know? Well, have you ever felt just as tormented about being a bad basketball player? A poor golfer? A mediocre dancer? If anything torments you more than being a bad writer, then that is the art you should pursue. But if you have read this far, I’m guessing you are a writer. Even if you did not yet know the difference between show and tell.