Saturday, May 27, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: K is for KNOWING what you don't know . . .

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. . . and KNOWING to look it up.

Writers of expository nonfiction such as how-to and advice books generally do their research and get their facts straight. It is every bit as important for authors of creative nonfiction and fiction to look up what they cannot remember or imagine. Whatever you write, even if you are 99.9 percent certain that you know something, leave no room for doubt or error.

Look it up.

The importance of factual accuracy in expository writing, creative nonfiction, and fiction

It stands to reason that authors of textbooks, how-to guides, and advice books must aim for absolute factual accuracy, or their books would be worthless. A similar commitment to accuracy is also essential for writers of creative nonfiction and fiction. While most fiction readers appreciate an imaginative plot, many are also sticklers for correctness when it comes to the portrayal of real-life events, dates, geographic locations, professions, and specialized knowledge. If these readers find errors, they might be put off your writing for good.

For example, memoir writers need to verify the dates of their personal memories as well as events occurring in the world around them. Your memories are your own but they exist against a backdrop of personal chronology and historical events that must be accurately represented in order for your memoir to be engaging and convincing. Similarly, when writing fiction, you will disengage your readers if you don't ground your leaps of imagination in factual reality. If you are writing a police procedural mystery, for instance, you need to accurately represent how law enforcement really works. Even if you are writing an out-there futuristic techno-thriller, your story will have greatest impact if it takes off from a foundation of actual science and technology.

Why authors should research and fact-check

There are four strong reasons for authors of all kinds to do their utmost to write with factual accuracy:

—Meticulous research and concern for accuracy enhances your credibility.

—Avoidable errors can be off-putting to many readers; on the other hand, a reputation for accuracy can contribute to your reader retention. You want to attract readers, keep them, and avoid doing anything that might be a potential turnoff.

—Writing can be hard enough without your having to wrestle with a niggling feeling that you are not going the distance. Doing your research and fact-checking is a matter of professional pride.

—Research and fact-checking can be a source of new ideas or directions for either your current or future projects. Creativity and imagination may originate from within you, but both can be measurably enriched by research.

Doing your research: Sources of information for book authors


Today the first go-to source of information for most people is the Internet. Most users are aware that the reliability of sites and their information varies. For complex subjects, I therefore tend to use books by established authors rather than websites or blogs. But for basic information and fact-checking, nothing can beat the speed and convenience of the Internet.

To ensure that I am getting correct information or fact verification, I pick reliable sites such as Wikipedia and, where they exist, online versions of standard encyclopedias or dictionaries. When dealing with sites of lesser authority, I check at least three sources for the facts I am verifying. If they all agree, then I generally feel confident that the information is accurate. In case of discrepancies, I keep looking until a consensus emerges and I can eliminate the information that seems doubtful.

Personal library

Once upon a time, not so long ago actually, there was no Internet, and authors were largely dependent on libraries for research and fact-checking. In my case, I would make notes about facts that needed checking and bibliographic citations that I was missing. Then, every once in a while, I would take a break from writing and spend a day running up and down stairs in the university library stacks, filling in all the gaps in my information. This would generally take a whole day and was often exhausting.

To avoid these time-consuming and tiring excursions, like many authors, I found it useful to amass a personal library of reference works relating to the subjects I was writing about. Even today, despite the convenience of the Internet, I still value my personal library. Often, rather than going online, I find it is just as quick to pull a book off my own shelf and look up something in a source of proven reliability. My personal collection includes assorted dictionaries and style manuals, Oxford and Cambridge reference works on literature, book trade directories, and books on writing.

If you have the space and budget, you might explore the possibility of starting your own personalized at-home library. This can be a practical and satisfying complement to your writing activities.

The importance of books and digital research resources for book writers
Even in today's digital world, public libraries and
librarians remain among the best sources of information
and tips on effective research.
Public library

Most people have ready access to some sort of public library, whether municipal or university. These days many library holdings can be accessed online. Online library resources are a tremendous aid to research, as they provide the reliability of traditional information plus the convenience of the Internet.

Even if you have extensive access to online library holdings, don't entirely neglect paying the occasional in-person visit to a physical library. Librarians know how to find information with maximum efficiency and, often in minutes, can unearth facts and resources that you might take days to discover or altogether overlook.

The imperative of the authoritative author

Whether you rely on the Internet, compile your own book collection, or use public libraries and consult librarians, you owe it to your readers and yourself to be an author whose accuracy can be trusted. Know what you don't know. Get it right. Look it up.

Coming next week . . . "L is for LECTURING"

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: J is for JUST write . . .

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. . . and JUST why you should.

In the real world of professional authorship, the bottom line is: writers write. Over the course of a career some authors will produce dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of books, articles, and reviews. Others may produce only a handful and build a career by combining writing with speaking, teaching, or consulting. How prolific you are depends on a number of personal and professional factors—for example: whether or not you have a day job, your health and energy, your family and domestic obligations, and the type of writing you do. Regardless of your individual situation, what you don't want to be is a one-book author.

Why writers must keep writing

There are four basic reasons why there is no downside to your being as prolific a writer as you can manage to be:

1. Writers must keep writing for the obvious reason that this is the only way to produce a sufficient amount of work to reach others. The more you produce, the more likely you are to find markets and draw readers.

2. Writing continuously is the only way to significantly grow as a writer. In the course of producing one book, you may gather momentum and hone some skills. But without continuing to write, it is hard to imagine maintaining your craft, let alone improving on it.

3. The more you write, the more likely you are to be successfully published. It is difficult to break into the market as a first-time book author with absolutely no credentials. Agents, publishers, and readers will be swayed in your favor if you have some writing credentials, such as book reviews, journal or magazine articles, or anthology contributions. Now that publishing credentials can be obtained through both print and digital sources, it's hard to justify wanting to be a book author while remaining totally unpublished.

4. To keep on writing is to be a professional. Even if you have just finished a magnum opus, you have no excuse to hang up the quill pen or power down your computer. If you work hard at your manuscript and persevere with querying agents and publishers, or with marketing your self-published book, your work will eventually attract someone who can take you to the next level. But odds are, that someone will not only value prior writing credentials but will also want you at least to have a second book in progress.

Strategies to keep you writing

Ideally, while you are working on one book—presumably your main project—you should be writing something else as while. If this is absolutely not possible for you, then once the main project is completed, immediately begin the next book or some other writing project, preferably one related to your newly completed book.

Strategies that will keep you writing can be as many and as varied as writers themselves. Here are a few for you to try and to adapt to suit yourself and your situation:

Strategies to keep writing
—While writing one book, research, plan, make notes on, and write snippets of the next book.

—Seek out book reviewing opportunities. Start but don't stop with Amazon, Smashwords, and Goodreads.

—While writing one book, work on another in a different but related genre, to keep you fresh in both. Examples of possible pairings: science fiction/popular science; contemporary romance/romantic suspense; detective fiction/true crime; popular history/historical fiction; cozy mystery/period mystery.

—Write articles or short stories related to your current book in progress; write and send out queries for these.

—Start, and work hard at, a blog related to your book.

—Look for related blogs to contribute to as a guest.

—If your book is part of a series, make notes on, or write drafts of, later books in the series.

—Just for fun, write fan fiction. It could grow your author platform.

—If all else fails, write journal or diary entries. These will not likely be publication ready anytime soon, but maybe someday . . .

Just keep writing

However you choose to do it, stay continuously involved in the writing process. Some of us must devote time and energy to day jobs, and we all need downtime. But succeeding as a book author means never entirely walking away from writing, whether it's a book you're working on or something—anything—else that qualifies as potentially publishable written work.

Writers write.

Coming next week . . . "K is for KNOWING what you don't know"

Friday, May 12, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: I is for INTERTEXTUALITY . . .

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. . . and enhancing your own IDEAS.

What is intertextuality? And why should I know about it?

Intertextuality is a term used in literary theory to designate the diverse ways that any literary text inevitably refers to other texts, both past and contemporary. These other texts may include novels, nonfiction books, and other written works. The text in intertextuality also encompasses other forms of artistic and cultural expression:

—ideas and beliefs
—sayings, conventions, and oral traditions

Intertextuality reflects the reality that culture is a way of life. It is therefore inevitable that a writer's cultural experience and community will find direct or indirect expression in his or her own writing. Intertextuality is important because recognizing and using it effectively can add to your personal stock of ideas, and enrich your writing.

For an overview of intertextuality, watch the video at the bottom of this post.

Intertextuality in fiction and nonfiction books

There are many ways that one text may refer to another. Such references may be direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious on the part of the author. In written works, they may be found anywhere from commercial nonfiction to literary and genre fiction, and might include the following:

—structural parallelism

Examples of intertextuality in literature and popular culture

Examples of intertextuality from the literary canon include Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which refers to Dante's Inferno, and his later novel Victory, drawn from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Among the best-known literary examples of intertextuality is James Joyce's Ulysses, a modern retelling of Homer's Odyssey.

Examples of intertextuality in TV & movies
Today's popular culture is also rich in intertextuality. The long-running comedy series The Big Bang Theory combines fresh, clever writing with extensive intertextual references to earlier sitcoms, Star Trek, Star Wars, various action-hero movies, comic books, and popular science—to name just some examples. In film, notable intertextual variations on earlier plots include Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which uses quotes, clips, and music from An Affair to Remember (1957), and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), a millennial adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813).

The power and pitfalls of intertextuality in writing

Examples from literature and popular culture show that, used with awareness and innovativeness, intertextuality can be a powerful creative tool. Just the introduction of a short but apt quote can add an extra level of artistry and meaning to your writing. Beware, however, of overdoing your intertextual references and adaptations, or you might run the risk of having your work dismissed as too derivative. Falling back on hackneyed writing, discussed previously, is another kind of intertextual faux pas. Worst of all, for ethical as well as artistic reasons, is plagiarism, an extreme and always unacceptable form of intertextuality.

If you are unsure of what constitutes intertextual innovation, freshness of expression, and fair use, err on the side of minimalism: a pithy quote, passing allusion, or new twist on an old idea. When handled with deftness and discretion, intertextuality adds dimension and interest to your writing. 

Sources for this post: M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 5th ed. (1988); Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1990); and David Lodge, The Art of Fiction (1992).

Coming next week . . . "J is for JUST write"