I’ve had many and varied careers. In more or less historical order, I’ve been a motorcycle mechanic, a race engine builder,graduate student, a teacher, an academic, a hard-rock miner (silver), a book editor and ghost writer, a commercial writer in print and video, a novelist, a mason, a wood-fired artisan bread baker and a teacher of that craft. Some, if not all, have overlapped in time and continue.
First off, I write fiction because I am compelled to do so. I never once though it was a way to get rich and famous, but I do like to share what I see as compelling, carefully crafted stories.
My four part novel series that revolves around the Kavanagh family can only be called historical fiction in a very loose sense. Certainly, the first two, A Few Men Faithfuland Philly MC, could be seen that way. The last two, Shooter in a Plague Year and A Hard Gemlike Flame, however, are set in the immediate future. My intent was to follow a single name through multiple generations, both in Ireland and North America, and to explore how they defend or deny the past. Seen in this light, genre fiction is a restriction, although the historical legacy of the name continues from 1916 to 2020 from Crossmaglen and Dublin, Philadelphia to Belfast. A fifth novel, with the working title “Fianna” is in the planning stages. It’s set in Ireland, 1798.
Recently, A Few Men Faithful was awarded the IndiePendents Certificate of Good Writing, so “That no talent be lost to the chaos of the publishing explosion.”
The four published stories and reviews are available as ebooks here: http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Kavanagh47 . All popular formats are listed. The paperbacks, as well as reviews, can be found on Amazon.com, .ca, .co.uk. My baking book, Tools Are Made, Born Are Hands: Baking True Artisan Breads in a Wood-Fired Oven, is available as a paperback on Amazon and as a PDF on my website: www.marygbread.com . It’s a bit of a surprise that this title sells more steadily than the novels, at least for now. Marketing for it, in fact, seems to be unnecessary, unlike the novels.
As a professional writer in many fields, from antiques to automobiles, I find it quite tiresome to see all the cyber-ink splashed about on words like “creative,” “inspiration,” “writer’s block,” and so on, ad nauseam. To my way of thinking, this is a complete and misleading waste of time—a diversion from the task at hand. Writing, fiction or otherwise, is a craft, one that can be taught and learned“Creativity,” so-called, cannot. Fiction is not a mystical visitation;more like bloody hard work. The well-crafted written word has not changed from Fielding to Dickens, Jane Austen to Roddy Doyle. Ebooks have not altered that in the slightest, despite the outlandish claims, but merely made it easier for writers to get into digital print and reach a worldwide audience. A large portion of them, I suspect responsible writers will agree, should never have seen the virtual light of day. Why? Because serious, dedicated writing becomes swamped.
There is no substitute for mastering the rules of the language (so they can be broken judiciously when necessary). There is no alternative to thorough research and tireless reading. Successful fiction is impossible when the author alone tells the story,rather than letting the characters do it. The latter is called verisimilitude; the former is just plain clunky. The largest portions of my novels are dialogue, and I work very hard at giving each character a distinctive look and a distinctive voice. Many writers, even best-sellers, use one dialogue voice—their own. This is a mistake to my mind. Think of the difference in speech patterns between Crook and Sir Lester Deadlock in Bleak House. My own method is to read dialogue out loud, sometimes to tape. If there’s a hesitation in the reading, then the writing needs work. It’s far preferable to hone a spare 500 words, than to ramble on for 1000 to get to the same approximate place. As I see it, a writer must be tough on the ego and the inner self. Just because you wrote it, does not mean it is cast platinum. Cut, refine, tighten up, be realistic, be judicious. The term “potboiler” was coined in 19th century England. The word remains, but the books have vanished.New crops will always be with us, unfortunately.
On Marketing, Sort Of
I have worked in advertising, so I’m supposed to know something about marketing and promotion. I do, if it’s about the Fiat 500 or an electric toothbrush. These are tools designed to move you from A to B or remove plaque. Their utility is what makes them sell. Sure, style has something to do with it, too. Fiction is not like that; it’s a cerebral experience to enter a writer’s world, what S. T. Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” That is a very tough concept to market successfully, particularly for an indie author who is just one voice among tens of thousands. Some indie authors get around this problem by writing in the “genre of the month.” Back to potboilers again.There evenmight be short-term success, but longevity will not be there. I, for one, truly hope that zombies and vampires will soon vanish from the landscape. The drawback with this sort of approach, as I see it at least, is that far too much of the writing is formulaic, with plots and characters copied and repeated over and over. No doubt there are original writers out there, but in my experience, many aren’t.
It’s really quite staggering to read an indie author’s biography, promotion piece, synopsisor book description on a group page and find it full of spelling errors, poor punctuation, repetitive vocabulary, horrific grammar. This happens far too often and is hardly the way to gain an audience. Plus, it makes us all look bad. If an author can’t write a clear book description, what does that say of the book? Such a writer commonly describes himself or herself as an AUTHOR!!!!!All of us will have to live with this, of course, but it’s jejune and galling at the same time. No wonder the idea that “independent publishing is junk” persists. One can only hope this will cease over time. To those that say the rules of good writing have changed by some magical wave of the digital wand, I have a one-word answer: bunk.
On Editing and Presentation
In my time, I have been a freelance trade book editor, specializing in working with first authors who knew a lot about an interesting subject, but not much about book organization or writing. With that background, I knew from the outset of my novel series that, beyond a certain point, it was not only impossible but also quite dangerous to edit my own fiction. I was fortunate to find a very talented freelance fiction editor, Bobbi Speck. We hashed out a few ground rules: 1. The writing style is the writing style and 2. I was mainly interested in her editorial advice on plot and characterization. She was invaluable.
My advice is simple. Hire a freelance editor with a track record. Get testimonials; see a list of books edited. Set your guidelines. Listen. It’s well worth it. Run, don’t walk, away from a dictatorial editor who wants to make your book his or hers.Use the same response if the fees are exorbitant. Freelance editors are not expensive, and you are the employer. Friends and family are not reliable editors; they’re unlikely to tell what you don’t want to hear, or more likely have the experience to tell you what you don’t want to hear.
I can’t draw a realistic stick figure. Again, because of my background, I was quite aware of the fact that I needed professionally designed covers for my books. For the novels, I was very fortunate to find Sarah Orr of ArtPlus Ltd., a brilliant, adaptable and sensitive book-cover designer. My procedure was to collect a folder of images during the writing of each title, then turn the folder over to her, with a sample chapter. Too many indie authors skip this vital part of their book, and end up designing it themselves, sometimes with woefully poor results. The text might be fine, but if the cover looks amateurish, it’s more than likely the book will be ignored. Think of it and professional editing as investments.
Literary biography is replete with information about how authors go about the task of writing. Two come immediately to mind: Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Each treated his writing as a full-time job, with set schedules, set word limits, set production schedules. Neither one fretted over writer’s block, creativity or inspiration, all modern maladies. They just kept at it, day by day, and their outputs are legendary. I haven’t produced anywhere near their numbers of books, but I find that a regimented approach works well for me, and I’m not afraid to cut a whole day’s writing if it isn’t working. Mark Twain only had problems writing a commissioned work on the history of the cigar when he tried and failed to give them up. Jack Kerouac’s iconic On the Road is another story entirely.
On Last Words
Don’t give up. Hone your craft. Cut, edit, rewrite, let it rest, rewrite again. Hire professionals where needed. Practice, practice, practice. The book will tell you when it’s ready. The characters will tell you when they’re ready. Don’t rush. Don’t panic. After all that is finished, then you’re ready.
Jim Wills can be followed on Goodreads and his books about the Kavanagh's can be found on Amazon.