Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Tag Archives: writing tips

The #Bestseller Fever…

I’ve had a number of posts here exploring the phenomenon of the bestseller…

#Bestseller Fever

Two that seem like good entrées to the reporting I decided to do today are:

What Is a #Bestseller, Really? And, Should an Author Try to Write One?
Why Trying to Write a Bestseller Is Bad for Your Mental Hygiene

Here are just a few excerpts from those posts:

“…I feel that beginning the process of writing a book with the dream of it becoming a bestseller is going to make the writer, consciously or subconsciously, write in an imitative fashion—trying to write to the folks who like bestsellers—killing any true originality and honest creativity…”

“Bottom-line, unless you’re some hot-property sports or movie or business person with a Traditional Publishing house’s money behind you, you need to write a book that expresses your deepest creativity and let the sales-chips fall where they may…”

A quote from Ursula K. Le Guin:

“The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is.”

Now for a post (sent to me by a very good author friend) from the blog, Publishing … and Other Forms of Insanity, called, The Secret to Writing a Best-selling Novel.

I’m almost embarrassed to offer excerpts; but, here goes:

“Computer scientists have developed an algorithm which can predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether a book will be a commercial success…”

“A technique called statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar, was found to be ‘surprisingly effective’ in determining how popular a book would be.”

I must point out that that last excerpt is quite like many “scientific” claims—claims that have not borne the weight of exhaustive examination…

I feel that just as business has infected science, and inflated claims are made which are derived from rigged “experimentation” or even from highly prejudiced computer “studies”, the corporate-mind has infiltrated the book-blogging world and is promising you’ll be famous and make loads of money if you sell you soul to the “experts”…

Last shot for me is to urge you to read, or re-read, what I consider the Most Important post I have here (most important out of a total of over 1,900 of them…):

What About All The Authors Whose Books Don’t Sell Very Many Copies?
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Author Interview ~ Geetanjali Mukherjee ~ Part Two

It was in February of 2016 when we had our first interview with Geetanjali Mukherjee.

Geetanjali Mukherjee - Author A bit of Bio:

“She was named after a book that won the Nobel Prize for Literature ~ by Rabindranath Tagore. She grew up in India, spending her early years in Kolkata; then, attending high school in New Delhi. She went on to read law as an undergraduate at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom, where she joined as many clubs as possible while still giving the impression she understood the intricacies of trusts law. She went on to earn a Masters’ in Public Administration from Cornell University, United States, while trying not to freeze along with the famed Ithaca lakes. Geetanjali is the author of 7 books, although sometimes it feels like the one she is writing is the very first one. She currently lives in Singapore.”

Today’s session will cover a few basics about her writing life then catch up with recent events…


So, when did you first start writing, how did you develop your craft, and where are you now?

I have been writing since I was 5 years old, I used to write little stories and poems and my mom really encouraged my efforts. I wrote poems in high school and my first non-fiction book was published by an Indian publisher while I was still at university.  But the entire time I didn’t really believe that I was any good, and didn’t really write with any regularity.

It is only in the last few years that I have allowed myself to write more regularly, and I have self-published several more books, and most recently, my first short story. I have also written a novel, but it is still in the editing stage.

I’ve always read lots of books on writing, and I still do. I read voraciously in general, and I think it helps enormously to read in the genres you intend to write. I also believe that you get better as you write more, so I do hope that with each new book I am improving as a writer. I have a long way to go in terms of where I want to be craft-wise though, as Hemingway said: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master”.

Great quote! Will you share a bit about your writing and editing process?

My writing process differs for each book, depending on how easy or difficult it is to write, what else is going on in my life at that point, and the subject matter of the book. My recently released follow-up workbook to the book I had talked about on your blog a while back, Anyone Can Get An A+ Companion Workbook, was written partly long-hand on a notebook in the library, and then typed up and edited. I worked on the edits almost non-stop for about a month, at home or in the reading room of the apartment complex I live in.

On the other hand, the short story I recently finished, my first ever piece of fiction, was written at coffee shops and edited sitting in bed with a cup of coffee. I wrote the first few scenes of this story over a year ago, and the story was percolating in my head, niggling away at me. Finally, I decided I simply had to finish it, and got it done in just over a week or so.

Lest it seem that I am a quite prolific and fast writer, the book I am working on at the moment, I wrote the entire first draft over most of last year, in sporadic bursts at coffee shops and the library. I am simply unable to work on this book at home, which is why it’s taken so long, and sometimes I worry I will never finish it.

So, who or what inspires you and how do you get your book ideas?

Usually I have to be really obsessed for a long time about a topic before I decide to write a book about it. I am talking years here; but, at least, a few months. Most of my non-fiction is the result of reading a lot about the topic, and finally realizing that I have a unique angle or something very specific to say, and then finding the best way I know to say it.

With fiction on the other hand, I get ideas randomly, usually in the most inconvenient of places. I find myself giggling to myself because I suddenly realize that the person standing next to me in the elevator or someone on the bus would make a great character, and their story just enters my mind. Of course, it isn’t “their story” but the story of the version of this stranger that my mind or subconscious has made up, so while I am inspired by real people, you can’t recognize them in the final version.

How much and what kind of research do you do; and, can you share some tips or favorite methods for research?

I love doing research for my books, one of the main reasons I started writing books actually. My day job is doing research and writing reports and analysis, so I am quite good at digging up just the right fact or theory to add to my writing.

My most preferred method of research is a combination of looking online and reading books on the subject. If I am new to a subject, then I try to find a few good books to introduce me to the subject. I prefer books that are easier to read as opposed to dense textbooks, and sometimes read 10 – 15 books before I feel comfortable and confident enough to write about it. I also do extensive online research, and while it can be fun chasing after each thread that comes up, I am mindful of the need at some point to stop research and start to write.

Do you ever get writer’s block; and, if so, what are some ways you get around it?

I feel as if I am constantly struggling with writer’s block, and feel dreadful when I read about writers who airily say things like “I am too much of a professional to ever have writer’s block!” I used to feel completely stuck when I got writer’s block in the past, but over time I have found many ways to go around it or break the block, but it is a constant presence in each project.

I find the nature of the block depends on the type of project I am working on. For my books on studying, I wasn’t blocked by not having enough to say or not having done my research, but at times I found it hard to express in simple terms some complicated concept from neuroscience or psychology. I had to frequently condense into a paragraph something that I read an entire book or two about, and that wasn’t easy for obvious reasons. Then I would simply work on another part of the book, and return to the blocked sections when there wasn’t anything else to work on and I absolutely had to press forward. I wrote multiple drafts, struggled as long as I could, and eventually accepted that they might not be the best written sections of the book, and moved on.

Writing this answer actually made me realize that probably, at heart, all forms of writer’s block can be boiled down to a lack of confidence in whether I can write a particular section of the book or the book itself. Over time I found many strategies for dealing with this – by doing more research, by trying to write a shitty first and subsequent drafts, by breaking the work into smaller and more manageable pieces, and sometimes just abandoning the work or not even beginning and working on something else. Ultimately, I feel the best antidote to writer’s block is probably expanding your skill-set, honing your craft and then writing only things that match your ability level. And this can be both good and bad – if your craft level matches the level of the books you aim to write, then great. If it doesn’t, you can either improve your craft or write simpler things, and then you won’t have writer’s block.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for me, because my ideas and interests exceed my ability level constantly, and as soon as I write in one genre, I immediately move to something else. I am hoping to either improve enough at my craft to be able to write everything I wish to, or become less ambitious about the projects I take on. I am hoping it’s the former, but until then, I am doomed to suffer writer’s block. Of course, if you believe Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art), all artists suffer from it, and you can’t escape it, only keep showing up at the page regardless.

O.K. Now, four related questions in a row: How do you make the time to write? What other obligations do you have to juggle, and any tips for creating writing time? Can you write anytime or do you need to be inspired / in the right mood? Is there anything you do to prepare yourself to write?

I find that quite often it isn’t having the time to write as much as having energy and being in the right headspace. I can’t write or edit if it’s really late at night, or if I am exhausted or trying to juggle lots of deadlines or other projects. In those instances, I think about writing but don’t actually manage to get a lot done.

I find it’s easier to write or edit when the work feels manageable or I know exactly what I am going to work on next. I also notice that’s its best for me to work without distractions, and not checking my phone or email while I’m writing. I do tend to prefer to be inspired or in the right mood, but I also find that it’s easier to concentrate when I go to a coffee shop or a library where I have no choice but to get on with the work. Deadlines also help, but they need to be in the Goldilocks zone of being sufficiently near to inspire me to work, but sufficiently far away to stave off panic. In fact, I managed to write my first novel in 11 days during the 2015 Nanowrimo, by writing exclusively in coffee shops. So for me I guess it depends on how the book is going – if it’s going well, I will put off everyone and everything, if not, my house will be clean, and my chores all done.

Tell us about your most recent publication. The Brooch - A Short Story

It’s called The Brooch and it’s about a married couple who are keeping up appearances; but, one of them has a secret that, if and when revealed, will threaten not only their marriage, but their social standing.

I very much enjoyed it and can heartily recommend it :-)

So, what projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a book of essays about my time as a student in England. They are meant to be a humorous account of some of my adventures and exploits as an international student. I had the idea for this years earlier, and am finally trying to make time and the headspace for this trip down memory lane.

I am also working on a cookbook with my mom. Actually she is the author, I am the developmental editor and publisher. It’s an homage to my grandmother, who was famous for her incredible cooking skills, and to the food of our culture, which in my opinion is overlooked when talking about really great Indian or even world food. I believe Bengali cuisine is something more people need to discover; and, my mom and I hope to contribute to that discussion through this cookbook.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

I would say to an aspiring author to read as much advice on the writing / publishing / marketing process as they can, but not to take anything as set in stone, remembering that what works for one person may not for you, or vice versa.

I have found that reading the advice of authors can be very helpful, especially when they either validate something that you have been doing and were unsure about, or talk about something that would never have occurred to you or show you a new path. But I also took a long time to understand that sometimes advice that works for one successful author may not work for me, and trying to force myself to adopt it could be harmful and may even set me back from success. I used to think that I had to write at a certain time of day or in a certain way because that’s how several successful authors do it. Or, because I don’t write in a certain genre or I started out writing later than someone else, I was doomed. Now I remind myself of others who do things my way and have succeeded; and, remind myself to have patience.

And that’s the main thing I would say to an aspiring author. If you really want to be an author, for its own sake, then don’t let fear or comparison with others stop you from writing. The single best way to learn how to be a writer and be any good is by writing. Of course you should take courses and read craft books, but nothing substitutes doing the work itself. And write what you want to, what brings you joy, not what you think you should. This isn’t a profession with instant gratification or guaranteed success; so, if you are going to go down this path, you may as well do it by working on what you want to.

Thanks, so much, for a wonderful second interview :-)


The Brooch: A Short Story

Michael Lim has a secret, one that he cannot tell anyone, even his wife. But how long can he keep it, and how will his wife react when she finds out?

Grace Lim cares about expensive things and outdoing her neighbours. Her husband’s secret can destroy her perfect world. Will she find out his secret, and will their marriage survive?

Her Blog

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Sailing the Sea of Story ~~~ Ursula K. Le Guin

I am a writer; but, I’ve rarely read books about “how” to write.

I’m from the school of read omnivorously, absorb grammar and syntax usage, rub up against all kinds of storytelling; then, write my own…

However, I did read Ursula K. Le Guin‘s,  Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.

The book has Exercises (from workshops she did); Examples, from accomplished authors; and, Further Reading recommendations; but, of course, most of the book is Ursula talking to you about writing.

The best I can do to honor her book on this blog is to share a few choice excerpts and hope writers will read it; and, that readers will tell their writer friends about it.

First is her explanation of why Plot is not the same as Story:

“I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) that moves through time or implies the passage of time and that involves change. I define plot as a form of story that uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and that closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax. Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story. A strong, shapely plot is a pleasure in itself. It can be reused generation after generation. It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable. But most serious modern fictions can’t be reduced to a plot or retold without fatal loss except in their own words.

“The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.”

The next excerpt might be more fully understood if you first read my past post, How The Words Get On The Screen/Page

“Some people see art as a matter of control. I see it mostly as a matter of self-control. It’s like this: in me there’s a story that wants to be told. It is my end; I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my wishes and opinions, my mental junk, out of the way and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story will tell itself. Everything I’ve talked about in this book has to do with being ready to let a story tell itself: having the skills, knowing the craft, so that when the magic boat comes by, you can step into it and guide it where it wants to go, where it ought to go.”

One final excerpt:

“There are a limited number of plots (some say seven, some say twelve, some say thirty). There is no limit to the number of stories. Everybody in the world has their story; every meeting of one person with another may begin a story.

“I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. If that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories . .  . All you need may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling. I like my image of ‘steering the craft’, but in fact the story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

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How Long Does It Take to Write A Novel?

I’d done a re-blog from Roz Morris about “writing at speed”; so, I thought it would be proper to share a video of Roz talking (rather poetically…) about the Long and Short of novel writing…

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