Tag Archives: novel

The first page tells all

I’ve got a new novel acquisition rule: I must be able to read the first few pages.

Think about it. Where will an author put their best effort, their greatest focus, their highest level of refinement?

Page One.

For all books I consider reading, I expect to be able to read the first 500-1000 words (2-4 pages). If I can’t read the first few words — off my list it drops. Plop, ‘the shuffling murmur of book covers sliding together as they cascade down the head-high pile fills my tiny cell.’

For unknown authors, most of them these days, I’ll skip any attempt of a prologue — straight to “Chapter One” I go. For known authors I may give their prologue a glance. Ten seconds, maybe.

If the first few pages of a story, which should be the author’s best effort, suck. What chance does the rest of the writing have of getting better, maturing or teasing at my sensibilities? None. None at all.

When it comes to novels, first impressions are EVERYTHING.

Writer’s Log: 1523 To all new authors

To all new authors out there, (here’s a shaker of salt, spread that around first won’t you…)

Now, to all authors who are starting out on their first novel. STOP! I mean, don’t like, STOP completely. Only stop and listen to this short public service announcement:


That will be all. Goodnight and good luck.

What? You want more than that? Explanation maybe? Well, alright. Here you go.

  • Write your first 5000 words and then get those beat to a bloody pulp.
    Don’t write another word until those first words are crushed and shredded and torn asunder. You need to know that your so called ‘style’, your knowledge of prose construction, may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Mine wasn’t. Mine was abysmal. Anyway, stop, do not proceed until you have gotten your writing, the actual mechanics of writing compelling fiction, down much better than you think you do.
  • Now, write your next 5000 words, and yes, STOP there too.
    So, now that you think you’ve gotten the shop-floor process under your belt, that you think you can start rearranging the work flow. Nuh-ah. No way. Your next task is to take your 10,000 words and, hey, look at that, you’ve got 1/8th of a novel completed. Does it have the plot firmly established? Does your MC, your main character have a dark unknown past? Have you established the stakes? Do you have an antagonist? Do you have an ending in sight? Have you figured out the big ‘change’ your MC will undergo? Yes? Well alright then.
  • Write your next 10,000 words and then STOP. (Getting tired of stopping yet?)
    Here you need to step back, way back, and consider your theme, your story’s arc. Does it warrant finishing? Have you created a sub-par plot, a cliche’ meme? Are you nosing along the same worn path as tropes of your genre have blazed a thousand times before? Are you writing something unique and compelling — so much so that you, YOU, will feel compelled to finish it? Yes? Well, moving on then.
  • Finish the damn story.
  • Did you have a climax? Did you build up the tension and character development the whole time? Did you leave a trail of inference, crumbs your readers can follow and extrapolate on their own? Did you fulfill your MC’s goal? Did she/he change? Did you leave some questions in the end so that your reader doesn’t feel all wrapped up like a burrito? Yes? Good.
  • Now put it away for at least TWO MONTHS.
  • Write something else.
  • Now, with your original story, is the story, as you remember it, still compelling? Still worthy? Have you learned additional skills, more stylistic treatment of dialog, of tension, of character development that you can now apply to this story? Good.
  • Now rewrite it, line by line, word by word, as if you’ve never read it before.
  • Put it away for another TWO MONTHS.
  • Write something else.
  • Reread it as if you’re completely unaware of the story. Does it ring true? Does it speak to you? Your soul, your heart of hearts? Do you find yourself just reading it — not judging it, as if you’ve fallen into the story and can’t help but continue?
  • OK, here you go. Now you can start to consider querying it or self-publishing it. You have of course already submitted parts of it during your learning process to friends and literary types for evaluation — right? RIGHT? Good.
  • OK, publish this bad-boy.
  • Begin editing your next story.
  • Repeat.

[Postscript: Why would you write this way? Well, If you think you can sit down and bang out a novel, without any mind to the writing — you’re dead wrong. What you’ll have in the end is this thing. This godforsaken, putrid thing that will take so much work — fixing the actual writing — that you’ll feel defeated, right out of the gate.

So don’t. Don’t think you can just write a novel without first getting at least WAY better at the CRAFT of WRITING. Work the craft as if you were Wax On and Wax Off — right? OK, carry on then.]

Ranking vs rating

This is a reoccurring theme with me.

When we have a choice, we don’t want some numeric number to help us choose, we want binary options. All choices, even from an array of options can be reduced to a series of binary choices.

When it comes to reading a book, you have one choice of two options: Read it, or not.

However, the there is the issue of precedence. Given two books you would like to read, which do you read first? What if there are 100? 10,000? You need to be able to prioritize your choices so as to optimize your pleasure within your time allotted.

Therefore you must rank your choices. And in order to do this you must have some scale against which you can compare — in binary fashion — each choice. We all have our own spectrum, our own ranking of quality. Here I present my fiction novel ranking.

Alpha  : The Hobbit
Beta   : Harry Potter
Gamma  : Old Man and the Sea
Delta  : The Martian
Zeta   : Charlotte's Web
Theta  : Ringworld
Kapa   : The Road
Lambda : The Shining
Sigma  : Dune
Omega  : The Hunger Games

To use such a list, one first needs to determine “Do I want to read this book or not?” With that out of the way, one would then find some trusted fellow reader on which this story is ranked. Say you wanted to read a story I’ve recommended The Girl with All the Gifts — M.R. Carey.

Given that list above I, Anonymole, would place The Girl with All the Gifts here:

Delta  : The Martian
>>> The Girl with All the Gifts
Zeta   : Charlotte's Web

So, if you’ve read any of the books below the zeta level, (Charlotte’s web, Ringworld, The Road, etc.) then you can safely tell yourself, self, I’ll read THIS book before I read any of the others below zeta.

You’ve found the spot for maximum reading enjoyment in which to place this novel.

It might sound overtly complicated, but it’s really just a simple, “what have I read that compares?” concept. Of course, this is my list, you would have your own list, and I would suspect some of my comparison ranking choices would be on your list too. Which means, I could find out where my own preferences fit on your pleasure spectrum.

I use a set of Greek letters to identify where any one book might fall. Omega is that lowest level at which I’d recommend a “to read” selection. Below that, it’s off the list. All the books I recommend reading will fall within those 10 levels. If I indicate that Year One — Nora Roberts (which I’m reading now) is a lambda level story. Well, there you have it. It’s on the list, but pretty low.

Binary choices + ranking = better than the Five Stars system.

A sister article to “My Five Stars”:

Why buy a story?

Have you ever bought a novel? Paid money to see a movie? Bought a DVD? Rented a netflix, redbox or, gasp, a Blockbuster video cassette? Have you ever watched TV?

Of course you have. We all have. But why?

Because we love to be entertained. Our brains are so big, so complex that they crave constant interaction. But our lives are so small, so trivial and filled with such mundane jobs and workaday tasks that we are compelled to entertain them. We need entertainment to, well, complete our lives.

Would we ever just go back to telling stories around a tribal campfire? Oh, we might and would, if that’s all we could get. And what stories we could tell then too. Stories of financial conquest and ruin, trips to foreign lands, amazing things we’d eaten, drunk, and seen. But we don’t need to do that do we?

No. We just need to whip our our credit card and buy another hour or ten’s worth of entertainment. There. Done. Now we can settle back and watch or read and live another’s life — as if it were our own; fiction or not; reality, fantasy or fantastical science. As long as we can get away from our own mundane lives.

How often to you seek entertainment escape? Every week? Everyday? More often? Is that not odd? Humanity sponsors a trillion dollar enterprise dedicated to allow people to abandon their lives, for a time, in order to remain sane in this banal world we’ve created. What’s even more odd — we’re just getting started. Our entertainment menu is set to grow exponentially.

When that day comes, whose stories will be the ones told, read, projected, injected? Yours? One can only hope.

Writing: a fools errand

Are we fools to think that we can succeed at writing?

With prompting from Tom-Being-Tom, and my own curiosity over the last two years I thought I’d throw together a spreadsheet that tried to rationalize the numbers involved with publishing a novel.

You can find it linked here:

Such a pursuit is fraught with errors due to assumptions and biases. But I like to have some idea of what the world looks like regarding numbers.

Bottom line, if you can get traditionally published, you might sell between 70 and 120 copies.

The process:

• From the total US population take the number of adult readers.
• From the est. number of books read: 5 (REF) per adult per year,
• Arrive at the total read events per year.
• Assume 500k (REF) books published (traditional only) in 2017, assume that the prior 19 years are also included in the total reads for the year.
• Reduce the published total for each year going back 20 years.
• Sum this total published for the 20 years.
• From this total take the percentage of each year and apply it to the total yearly reads.
• This will give us our total reads for those books published this year.
• From this number take 75% as actually purchase (not library or loans).
• From that number take 75% as fiction reads.
• From that number remove 50% as books that are best sellers (the lion’s share of reads) We’re going to look at the remainder after we remove this portion. We’re looking for average authors not NYTimes bestsellers.
• This will give us the total number of reads for the year for the average book.
• Divide that number by the total number of books published.

Result: 82 (using the median of 5 books/adult or 197 using the average of 12 books/adult).

These are pretty conservative numbers. But if you want to play with the numbers, you can copy this spreadsheet and fiddle with the inputs.

Foolish to think one can succeed at getting published and selling more than 100 copies? Yes, that’s my take.

Some of the data is presented here:

US Pop. 325,000,000
% Readers 80.00%
Reader Pop. 260,000,000
Median # Reads per year 5
Total Annual Read (events) 1,300,000,000
% of Reads are Purchased 75.00%
% of Reads are Fiction 75.00%
% of Reads are Best Sellers 50.00%
Annual Fiction Sales 731,250,000
Yearly % Pub Count Increase 10.00%
Year Pub Count % Reads # Of Total Reads # Best Sellers # Remaining Med # Sales
2017 500,000 11.23% 82,109,319 41,054,659 41,054,659 82
2016 450,000 10.11% 73,898,387 36,949,193 36,949,193
2015 405,000 9.10% 66,508,548 33,254,274 33,254,274
2014 364,500 8.19% 59,857,693 29,928,847 29,928,847
2013 328,050 7.37% 53,871,924 26,935,962 26,935,962
2012 295,245 6.63% 48,484,732 24,242,366 24,242,366
2011 265,721 5.97% 43,636,258 21,818,129 21,818,129
2010 239,148 5.37% 39,272,633 19,636,316 19,636,316
2009 215,234 4.83% 35,345,369 17,672,685 17,672,685
2008 193,710 4.35% 31,810,832 15,905,416 15,905,416
2007 174,339 3.92% 28,629,749 14,314,875 14,314,875
2006 156,905 3.52% 25,766,774 12,883,387 12,883,387
2005 141,215 3.17% 23,190,097 11,595,048 11,595,048
2004 127,093 2.85% 20,871,087 10,435,544 10,435,544
2003 114,384 2.57% 18,783,978 9,391,989 9,391,989
2002 102,946 2.31% 16,905,581 8,452,790 8,452,790
2001 92,651 2.08% 15,215,023 7,607,511 7,607,511
2000 83,386 1.87% 13,693,520 6,846,760 6,846,760
1999 75,047 1.69% 12,324,168 6,162,084 6,162,084
1998 67,543 1.52% 11,091,751 5,545,876 5,545,876
1997 60,788 1.37% 9,982,576 4,991,288 4,991,288
Sum 4,452,905 731,250,000 365,625,000 365,625,000

• Missing from our calculations thus far are, reads from books printed in previous years; what number of books are actually sold; number of fiction books sold.
• Let’s be conservative and say that we’ll only include books from the previous 20 years, in a descending ratio such that for every year in reverse we take 90% of the current number. (Seeing how Harry Potter was first published in 1997 and it remains in the top sellers list year after year, this does not seem out of line.)
• Additionally, let’s assume that 3/4’s of the total reads are actual purchases (not library, or loaned reads), and let’s assume that 3/4’s of those remaining are fiction reads, and finally, 1/2 of the reads are for best sellers.
• No self published novels are included.

Relevant cites:

Writer’s Log: 1291

I finished the 1st draft of my second novel yesterday.

This one is 488% better than the last one (approximately).

70,000 words written on the weekends since April, 2017. That works out to about 1200 words per day. And since I wasn’t /that/ dedicated to the process, I’m sure the day count is fewer and the words/per day is greater.

Why should one care? Oh, no reason. Some of us are attracted to statistical analysis; it tends to lend a context to the daily slog. But it’s only a curiosity. Unless one is trying to gauge how much one can write (or create) before one’s Alzheimers kicks in – and renders one incapable of writing or creating anything. (A close, genetically similar aunt died of early onset Alzheimer, so the thought forever scratches at the back of my mind.)

This novel is the one with pictures, Fiverr artist pictures, an experiment of sorts. But I only commissioned 12 illustrations thus far ($), and won’t do the rest (~40) until I get some feedback from an agent.

And of course, as I designed the story, I ended with a much more expansive arc than I could fit into one book. Which means the /complete/ story (Harry Potter style) must span two or three novels. I’m always torn when I read something like this; how dare you author, not wrap every-bloody-thing up in one story! But, now I must commiserate. It’s hard.

This story is full featured and complete unto itself, of course. But the denouement leaves the door wide open for additional questions and shit, now that I think about it, I better write a bit more regarding this tidy package, with ribbon and bow, that has this rat eating a hole out of the bottom corner… Sorry, be right back (or not).