Blog

The Author Who Lived in His Pajamas

What do you do when you’re wearing pajamas? Do you go to bed, as I do, or do you go to work in them? This question may sound stupid, and the answer obvious. But such is not the case for one famous author—Shelby Foote.

Shelby_Foote

Mister Foote once told The Paris Review that he lived in his pajamas. In other words, he wore them almost all the time at home. Another peculiarity about this famous twentieth century writer and friend of William Faulkner—he wrote with a dip inkwell pen.

Oh, he’d eventually type out his manuscripts, but when he whipped out his first drafts these pens were his preferred writing tool. He considered himself a novelist. And he was, having written five novels in five years. The French and Italians loved his books, all of them bestsellers in their respective countries.

However, in the United States, he wasn’t well-known until late in life. Thanks to his famous trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, he’s recognized in the States as a historian. He spent twenty years living in his pajamas while writing this massive series…with a dip inkwell pen.

What brought him to literary prominence in the States? Ken Burns’s television documentary, The Civil War (1990). In this series, Foote provided major commentary. His physical appearance and Mississippi drawl…It was as though he’d fought in that war himself and then stepped through a time machine to tell us “moderns” about it. Because of his “stardom” in this documentary, sales of his trilogy soared.

He passed away on June 29, 2005, at the age of eighty-eight.

Source

Coleman, Carter and Donald Faulkner and William Kennedy. “Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158.” The Paris Review, Issue 151 Summer 1999, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/931/shelby-foote-the-art-of-fiction-no-158-shelby-foote.

 

 

 

 

Indie versus Traditional Publishing: My Thoughts on the Subject

Books

cat and booksMany years ago, what I often call those “typewriter days,” I taught a writing class where I often warned my students about subsidy publishers. I always advised going the traditional route. What is a subsidy publisher? It’s a company that promises huge royalties (such as seventy percent of the retail price) and makes its authors pay thousands of dollars to be published. It’s not illegal, because these companies do follow-through with their publishing commitments.

However, no bookstores stock their books, which explains why they can promise huge royalties. Why don’t bookstores carry their titles? Because, so long as authors pay them, they publish every manuscript submitted to them regardless of the book’s literary quality. These publishers make money off the author, not off the few customers who buy their books.

As for traditional publishers, their royalty payments usually start at ten percent of a book’s retail price. Also, they don’t accept every manuscript that crosses their editors’ desks. Always on the lookout for well-written, marketable books, nowadays these publishers also consider the size of an author’s platform.

For some traditional publishers an author’s platform is the first thing they consider, something I recently learned at a writers’ conference. During the typewriter days, these publishers usually looked at an author’s literary background and bylines first. Oh, how things have changed!

Balanced Publishing

Fast forward to the “internet days.” Along came Amazon, Book Baby, Lulu, and similar self-publishers. Now anyone can have their work published. Because I’ve been published both ways, traditional and indie, I see advantages and disadvantages to each approach. So, why not go both routes? I would, and I do. Let some books find a traditional publisher, and let others be indie-published. This is a good balance between the two, I think.

What I love most about being indie published, though, is its freedom. Freedom to write what I want, and freedom from worry about query letters, synopses, outlines, searching for agents, etc. I know my book will be published…by me! Thus, I can focus even more on the quality of my writing. And herein lies the main problem I see with numerous indie books—so many are poorly written.

It’s imperative that we indie authors produce quality material written at a professional level. Amateur writing not only reflects badly on us, it also reflects badly on the self-publishing industry, and it hinders our chances that customers will purchase our future books.

Read the next section for tips on how to be a good indie author.

How to be a Good Indie Author

1. Study hard. Just because it’s become easier to get published doesn’t mean everyone    should do it. Study the craft, practice the craft. Take writing classes, subscribe to writing magazines, read websites that discuss writing. We must learn everything we can about it.

2. Work hard. Revision holds the key to literary excellence but unless we know what things to look for, which comes through study, we won’t know what to change. Never be satisfied with a first, second, or even a third draft. Once we’ve finished our work, put it aside for a few weeks then return to it. It always surprises me how many things I catch that need fixing when I do this. Input from those in writers’ groups also helps.

3. Get bylines. What’s a byline? It’s the author’s name on a published work. When we reach the point where we can sell our work to traditional magazines and such, we know we’re starting to write at a professional level. It is then that we should consider going indie. This, of course, is my own opinion.

4. Find professionals. Once we’ve honed our manuscript to the best of our ability,  hire these three professionals for the final touches: (1) Freelance editors, (2) cover designers, and (3) interior formatters.

Freelance Editors–If spelling and grammatical errors riddle our prose, our book   shouts “amateur” at the top of its lungs. Another benefit of good freelance  editors?  They’ll offer us honest feedback that will help us improve our work.

Cover Designers–Don’t underestimate a book cover’s importance. Good covers prompt potential readers to open our book and consider purchasing it.

Interior Formatters–Finally, if the book’s interior formatting is shoddy, “amateur” once again sounds loud and clear.

Where’s a good place to find these professionals? I recommend upwork.com.

Well, much more could be said on this subject. I may have more to say in future posts. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on this subject?

Till next time, folks. Have a great week!

The Rule of Ten

Books

apple laptop office macbook
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Do you want to sell more articles and stories? Well, the answer’s obvious, of course. The more manuscripts we submit to editors, the greater the chances are that one of them will find publication.

That said, let me share a tip I learned early in my literary career. It’s called “The Rule of Ten.” The idea behind it is this: By constantly keeping at least ten manuscripts circulating to ten different publishers, at least one of them will likely find a home. Every time we sell an article or receive a rejection, submit another one to take its place. Ten, always keep ten in circulation.

This doesn’t mean we write poorly, but it does mean we must keep our creative juices flowing so we’ll have those “extras” to submit when needed. 

When I tried this, I learned it served me well! Another benefit? It softened the blow of rejections. Hey, so what if an editor didn’t like my article or story? I had nine more making the rounds, and another tenth one about to go in the mail. Or as we say nowadays, “about to be e-mailed.” 

Give this principle a try. It may work for you, too.  

Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Historical Fiction Research: Newspapers

Scan_20170116 (2)These photos were taken by my father, Dr. John M. Cunningham

Many years ago, while four friends and I traveled to Tennessee during a Labor Day break from college, my car struck a huge concrete culvert head-on at sixty miles per hour. My engine erupted into flames like what we often see in the movies, and we were nearly killed.

Upon my father’s arrival at the hospital where we were recovering, he handed me a local newspaper that “told what happened.” I put this in quotes because the reporter got most everything wrong. The major thing he got wrong? He said we were sideswiped by a truck. Though in pain, I chuckled. Ours was a single-car accident due to careless driving. A passing truck driver was the one who rescued us. I learned then not to believe everything I read in a newspaper. Journalists are people; they do make factual errors.

I carry this knowledge into my historical research. Like today’s newspapers, old newspapers’ facts are sometimes either outright wrong or twisted, and they’re also biased just like our modern newspapers. Though studying old newspapers can be helpful, my motto is this: “Researcher, beware.”

What value, then, do we find by using newspapers as a source? Since my specialty is the nineteenth century, let me share some useful things we can glean from them and incorporate into our historical fiction. I’ll be using as my source The Daily Ranchero, a newspaper once published in Brownsville, Texas. I’ll be using various issues of this paper, all from the year 1865, after the Civil War ended.

1. We can learn the prices of goods sold at the time. On one of The Daily Ranchero’s broadsheets, we find a list of items that would be sold at auction along with their prices. Here’s a sample: star candles ($18-$20), quinine ($1.50 per ounce), rip saws ($1.35), etc. The list is way too long to reproduce in its entirety.

2. Weather reports for a particular day are often found in these newspapers. This helps keep our scene’s weather accurate if we’re writing about a specific day in history.

3. Advertisements in these old papers are great! Not only do they tell us which businesses were around in the era we’ve chosen, they often give street names and specific addresses. We can learn the names of restaurants, hotels, and stagecoach lines, such as Arnold & Wheeler’s, in The Daily Ranchero.

4. What kind of medicine did they use in 1865? A drug store advertisement gives us an idea. The Brownsville Drug Store advertised the arrival of new stock: citrate of magnesia, seltzer aperient, etc. It added, “Prices very much reduced in accordance with times and market.”

5. What about standard news articles? We can and should also use them, of course. However, as I mentioned earlier, “Researcher, beware.” Study these articles with a critical eye, watching out for bias and errors of fact and similar things. Always double-check these articles with other sources before using the information in our work.

Well, I hope this has given my readers a few ideas on how to use newspapers in historical research. Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Let’s Have a Conversation

 

Placeholder ImageHas anyone ever told you that  you write like you talk? That’s a great thing to hear if they did. Indeed, it’s a compliment, because good writing carries with it a conversational, natural-sounding style, whereas poor writing is stilted and sounds forced. Stilted writing bores readers, whereas conversational writing pleases them, thus encouraging them to keep reading.

What is stilted writing?

1. Stilted writing sounds formal. It uses formal words instead of the everyday words most people use.

2. Stilted writing doesn’t use contractions.

   a. Stilted sentence: “I am sorry I was late.”

   b. More natural sentence: “I’m sorry I was late.”

3. Read your prose aloud. Better yet, read it into a voice recorder, then play back what you’ve read. Does it sound like natural conversation? If so, great! If not, more work needs to be done.

As writers, then, let’s aim for a conversational style. It should sound like we’re talking to readers from an easy chair, telling them a story. To achieve this requires lots of work and lots of practice. Here are a few tips that’ll help.

1. Use contractions. Why? Because people use contractions in their everyday speech.

2. Vary sentence lengths but be concise. Good writing makes every word count toward the reader’s understanding of a sentence no matter what the sentence’s length. If a word or phrase doesn’t contribute toward understanding a sentence’s meaning, if it’s just hanging out there serving no purpose, get rid of it.

3. Vary our sentence structures. Since sentence structure is beyond the scope of this post, I recommend finding and studying a good grammar book that discusses it.

Till next time, friends, keep on writing!

An Early Writing Lesson

Many years ago, make that back in the early 1980s, I started taking my writing seriously after having a small article published in The Upper Room, a United Methodist devotional magazine. One of the early lessons I learned then was this: many folks either shrugged at my desire to become a writer, or thought I was lazy when I decided to launch out on my own and try my hand at it full-time. Fortunately, some of my early writing teachers had taught me to expect this reaction. Had it not been for their warnings, I might have become discouraged and quit. Writing, I discovered very quickly, is a lonely and hard business.

Blog Typewriter 2On the other hand, it had become such a passion that I gave up certain activities in order to pursue it. My biggest activity I gave up was my Saturday golf outings with friends. They didn’t understand. No one did. But that’s all right. The Lord has enabled me through all these years to “roll with the punches.”

I think one reason why the average person doesn’t understand the work involved is because when they see it in print, good writing looks easy. Oh, but quite the opposite is true. The easier a published work is to read, the harder its author worked. We writers can’t write well if we don’t work hard.

Don’t let naysayers discourage you from your calling. Our God is good, and He will bring your literary dreams to pass if you continue to believe Him and persist toward your goal.

Being Professional


Blog Writer
With today’s technology, it’s become easier for wannabe writers to see their work published. Indeed, thousands of books are out there clamoring for readers’ attention. The ease with which publication has become, though, presents its own issues for self-published authors.

We must understand that professional writing requires more of us than just sitting down at our laptops, whipping out a manuscript, and then self-publishing it. It goes well beyond that first draft, second draft, even third draft. It takes long hours of hard work and revision till we see polished prose.

Just as we can’t repair a car if we don’t understand how its engine works, so we can’t engage in effective revision if we don’t understand what makes good writing work. Effective writing entails numerous elements, too many to discuss in one blog. Each element requires constant practice. For serious authors, writing is a daily discipline. Professional writers don’t wait for the inspiration bug to hit them. Professional writers…write! 

Do we want our self-published books to stand out among all the other indie books on the market? Do we want to be taken seriously as authors? Do we want to sell our books? If so, we must approach our craft the same way all serious writers approach it— through disciplined study, practice, and writing every day.

In future posts I’ll discuss different writing techniques and other literary issues that will help us all write more professionally. For most folks, writing at this level doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t with me. Only after working at my craft for six years did I begin selling my manuscripts on a consistent basis.

Let me encourage you, then—work hard, study the craft, and write every day.

 

 

Till next time, I’ll see y’all at the Cove.