Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

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James D Macdonald

It strikes me that there's a need for a thread on the art and craft of writing commercial novels.

To that end, I'd like to start that discussion. I plan to put down my thoughts on the elements of professional-quality fiction. I'll answer questions, and go where ever the discussion leads. I'll do some notes on the business of writing too.

Here are my qualifications for starting this topic:

My bibliography

A workshop I help teach every year.

My mutant talent is to make my opinions sound like facts.


I have two basic rules: everything that's said should be true, and everything should be helpful.


There's one other thing that needs to be said, McIntyre's First Law: Under the right circumstances anything I tell you can be wrong.
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James D Macdonald

Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

Okay, and after that pompous lead off, let me say that I'm not going to be talking about novels at all. I'm going to be talking about romances.

Not romances in the Fabio-on-the-cover paperbacks, not the Romance section at Borders, not Harlequin (though there'll be things useful in that genre). Not category romance, or genre romance.

I'm talking about romance in literary theory.

A novel is: A book length work of realistic prose fiction.

A romance is: A book length prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious.

The thing that the two have in common are that they're book length (call it 50,000 words and up), prose (that is, not poetry or drama), and fiction (some people have said that fiction is when the author tells his own lies; non-fiction is when he tells someone else's lies).

The realism issue, then, is the core of the difference between a novel and a romance. The "realistic" books are the mainest of mainstream; they are the literary works.

The vast majority of the things you find in bookstores labeled "novels" are actually romances. That means:

1) imaginary characters

2) events remote in time or place

3) usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious

More on all of this later.

I'll try to drop by to talk more after I finish my work every day (except when I'm out of town).


Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

I'm looking forward to learning much from your presentations. Like Murphy, I'm sure the McIntyre-effect will show up from somewhere.

James D Macdonald

Working At It

So what do I mean by "finish my work"?

I'm a full-time writer. My sole source of income for the last fifteen years or so has been writing or writing-related. By "my work" I mean ten pages of original prose fiction every day.

That isn't so bad, really. It's only about 2,500 words. It's only two hours or so.

I know, as I write it, that most of it will be changed, moved, or deleted in the revision process. That doesn't bother me. The revision and rewriting and such takes place in another part of my day.

Back before I went full time, I used to hear from people "I've always wanted to be a writer, but I never had the time."

In those days I used to set my alarm clock for two hours early, to make the time. I'd get up at four in the morning to write. If you're a writer, writing is what you do.

So, here's the next bit of advice. This is what my friend Rosemary Edghill calls the "KISS method." (Others call it the "BIC method," for Butt In Chair.)

Pick two hours a day. It doesn't matter which two hours, but make them two hours that you can do every day.

For that two hours, you will sit in front of your typewriter or computer. You will have no distractions. You will write, or you will stare at the blank screen. There will be no other options.

Writing letters does not count. Reading does not count. Doing research does not count. Revising does not count. You will write new stuff, or you will stare at the screen.

No TV in the room. No radio going. No internet. Fill the page or go mad.

Two hours. Every day.

Your body will rebel. You'll get headaches. You'll get colds. You aren't allowed a choice. You will sit in front of that screen even if your head is throbbing.

Some days you will begin writing in a white-hot passion. You'll look up at the clock and discover that three hours have gone by.

You don't get to only do one hour the next day. You still have to do two hours.

Your mind will rebel. You'll want to clean the toilet, change the cat box, mow the lawn. But you won't, because there are no excuses. No, you don't get to reschedule for "later." Two hours, on schedule.


Re: Working At It

I agree with everything except the music part--I listen to music and each story has its own music. Then again I don't have trouble with BIC--I need to get out of it once and awhile.

When writing something new I do 5,000 to 10,000 words a day.

To me the writing is easy--the revisions is where I want to clean the cat box--hey I'd even clean the bathrooms at a football game during playoffs than edit. (When it gets to the almost last draft--and you've read the dang thing about 50 times)

So let me ask you this, when in the revision stage of a ms do you write something new for 2 hrs or just spend days and hrs revising?


James D Macdonald

Re: Working At It

So let me ask you this, when in the revision stage of a ms do you write something new for 2 hrs or just spend days and hrs revising?

Well, it varies. I usually have three projects going at any time, in various stages of finished.

For revisions I take the manuscript (printout) and red pencils and go somewhere entirely different than my normal workspace (sometimes the kitchen, but my favorite is a nice little French coffeeshop down the road a bit) and scribble. After I've done two hours of writing, there's a solid 22 more hours in the day for revising other material.

One trick to revision -- is to read the work aloud. Where you stumble, the reader will stumble. You'll notice different things, too, when you're reading aloud. You're using a different part of your brain than you are when reading silently.

We're not at revision yet, though. First we need the text.

Did I mention that you need to make multiple backups of all your material if you're working on a computer?

I'll give you a minute to make a backup of whatever you wrote today.

See you when you've done.

James D Macdonald

Re: Working At It

BTW, I didn't say "no music," I said "no radio." Radios have announcers, disk jockeys, the news, weather ... things that will break your concentration, take you out of that place where the creative things happen.

I like music myself for writing ... I prefer requiems, but maybe I'm just strange.

Whatever helps you get into the state you need to be in....

But there's a warning coming.

Don't couple destructive things with you writing. If you light up a cigarette when you start writing, if you quit smoking you'll find you can't write any more.

Same with drinking booze. Same with eating bon-bons. Coupling bad habits with writing will mean that you'll never be able to shed the bad habits.

One of the popular images of writers is of the guy with a bottle of whisky beside the typewriter.

It probably won't make you a better writer, or even make you a writer at all. It will rot your liver and empty your bank account.


I do the same

with the red pencils and highlighters--cept my fav place is the back patio.

Another thing to add to the reading out-loud is to read it into a tape recorder and play it back. And a trick I am sure you know, but others might not--read your stuff backward, you find typos that way.



Oh and--

on backups--I think I did mention on another thread--that I use one disk per day (3.5) so I have a Mon. disk, a Tues. disk, etc. And my Corel WP backs up automatically every 3 min. Once a week I back up my entire writing folder to CD




so, if i move the captain morgan's under the desk, i should be ok?


but seriously, i agree with the bic method. nothing has made my writing life easier than just sitting in that old, orange swivel chair i bought from goodwill and writing. writing whatever, but writing all the same. it's the only way. you can't be a writer by thinking up good ideas. you have to write all the time about good ideas, or even bad ones (you never know if they'll be any good)


And if you can't think of something--

to write, check out Writer's Digest once a month they have a list of daily writing prompts. Who knows what will come from one of them. You can sign up for their newsletter and the prompts come in your e-mail at the start of the month.


James D Macdonald

Putting it all in one sock

I'm going to move in some of my posts from other threads now. Be right back....

James D Macdonald

Rules for Writing

There are twenty-five simple steps to becoming a published author.

Here are the steps:

1. Black ink on white paper.
2. Place your name and address in the top left-hand corner of the first page.
3. Place the title and byline, centered, half-way down the first page.
4. Put a running head (your name, the title, and a page number) in the top right hand corner of every page.
5. Your pages should have one-inch margins.
6. Doublespace your text.
7. Use Courier 10 or Courier 12 only.
8. Type on one side of the paper only.
9. Continue until you reach "The End."
10. Rewrite.
11. Rewrite.
12.....21. Revise
22. Obtain the guidelines for a market that accepts material similar to what you have finished.
23. Follow the guidelines scrupulously when you submit your material.
24. While you are waiting for your rejection slip, start again back at step 1 for your next work.
25. When the rejection slip arrives, send the manuscript to the next market on your list, that same day.


Watt-Evans' Law: There is no idea so brilliant that a sufficiently ham-handed writer can't make an unreadable story out of it.

Feist's Corollary to Watt-Evans' Law: There is no idea so stupid that a sufficiently talented writer can't make a readable story out of it.


Yog's Law: Money flows toward the writer.

James D Macdonald

Pen Names

Q. Why was the little drop of ink crying?

A. His daddy was in the pen and he didn't know how long the sentence was....


I write under several different names, including my own.

One reason is to differentiate the genres you're working in. If you write manly action and sweet romance, you might pick a Manly Action name for one, and a Sweet Romance name for the other, just so your fans won't get confused when they pick up a book by their favorite author and discover that it's far different from what they expected.

If you're prolific, you might write under various names to avoid competing with yourself.

I do share a name with some other writers. That's one reason I use my middle initial -- to differentiate me from them.

When you're picking a name, don't pick anything that's difficult to spell or embarassing to say. Anything else is pretty much okay.

James D Macdonald

Chapter Length

How many pages in a chapter?

This is as close to a meaningless question as you can get. It's like "How many letters in a word?" or "How many words in a sentence?"

I've seen novels with chapters ranging from a fraction of a page to the entire book being one long chapter.

Listen: Words are symbols for ideas or concepts. Sentences are made of words. Sentences convey thoughts through the relationships among the words. (A fraction of a word may be a sentence.)

Paragraphs are made of sentences. The paragraph is the smallest unit of meaning in a novel. The meaning comes from the relationships among the sentences. (A fraction of a sentence may be a paragraph.)

Scenes are made out of paragraphs. There are no fractional paragraphs. The meaning of the scene comes from the relationships among the paragraphs that make up the scene.

Chapters are made out of scenes. There are no fractional scenes. The meaning of the chapter comes from the relationships among the scenes.

How many pages in a chapter? How many scenes do you have, how long are they, and how do they relate to one another? At the point where one scene doesn't relate to the one that follows, put a chapter break.

The reader's mind can hold only a limited number of things at once. The reader's interest keeps moving. You should strive to make the source of information be the same as the source of interest.

And that's how long a chapter is.

Irene Keyes

Plot and Structure -- Pacing


Thanks for the postings -- very interesting.

Could you talk a bit about pacing? I read Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure recently and found the distinction between scene and "sequel" interesting. (Have you read it?) Simply put, he says that too much scene can make the story too fast-paced, and too much sequel (or reflection etc between scenes) can bog the story down.

I've tried using this idea as a guide and have found it helps some, but I still find my story flying along too quickly, as if I'm skating the surface.

Do you have any insights along these lines?

James D Macdonald


Pace is a function of detail. To slow down a scene, make it more detailed. To speed it up, remove detail.

We're beginning to get into the place where "art" lives, knowing where when and to what extent you'll need to vary your pace.

You will need to vary your pace, for several reasons: one is to give your readers breathing space, to give them time to assimilate what just happened, and to anticipate what will come.

A second reason to vary the pace is so that the audience will know when they've come to a fast part -- they'll have something to compare it to.

A third reason to vary pace is so that the audience doesn't get bored. Poor things, they're easily bored. A bored reader lays your book aside, meaning to pick it up again later, and never does. (Note: the readers can always, always tell if you're bored.)

Okay ... you're doing a set up ups-and-downs, like walking a trail through the foothills toward the mountain. (I kinda like that description -- many small climaxes, rewarding the reader along the road, but the main climax frequently in sight, first at a distance, then closer.)

To answer your specific question, I've not read Bickham's book.
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I disagree with the "no radio" part. I almost always have a radio going as I write, and it's almost always on a talk radio station. I can listen and write at the same time.

In fact, I often listen to Old Time Radio as I write. The old radio programs such as "Gunsmoke," "Fibber McGee & Molly," "The Jack Benny Show," "Mystery Theatre," and a dozen others. I also have a TV in my office, and I can watch it as I write, as well. Though there's seldom anything on worth watching. But I do watch two or three shows a week while writing.

Try a radio or a TV. If it interferes with your writing, get rid of it. If it doesn't, then keep it and enjoy. Same with the internet. If it's a problem, get rid of it. If it isn't, keep it and enjoy. If you lack enough discipline to work with a radio or TV in your office, you probably don;t have the discipline to be a writer.

As for novel/romance. A novel is a novel, realistic or not. Subject matter may make a novel a "romance," but it's still a novel, which is nothing more than an extended work of fictional prose. I'd even go so far as to say that most of the best literary works fit into the category of "romance," rather than mainstream.

Two hours of writing each day is a Good Thing, and just about anyone can find this much time, though if you want weekends off, take them off. And I never have seen the sense of staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper for two hours. All this teaches is how to stare at a blank screen or sheet of paper for two hours. It can even make a wannabe writer go to any lengths to avoid the computer altogether. Barring the rare bout of writer's block, I don't actually know a successful writer who has had to spend two hours a day, day after day, staring at a blank screen, certainly not at the beginning of their career, though too many recommend it for others. No matter how much they whine and complain, just about every successful writer I've know couldn't wait to get to the computer/typewriter/notebook.

And I have much better, far more productive things to do with two hours than to use them staring at a blank screen.

"Opening a vein" to get the words right is fine, but writing should be an enjoyable, pleasurable process. If it isn't, many other things are. I greatly enjoy the writing process. If I didn't, I wouldn't write. The money is nice, and I've made a good bit, but there's a million ways to make money, so why not find one you enjoy? You need to enjoy writing, and, again, barring bouts of writer's block (which I still think is a myth) it strikes me as highly odd to spend hours doing anything you don't enjoy. I'm willing to endure a headache or a stff neck if a deadline looms, but if it doesn't I'm not going to sit at the computer until these maladies hit.

If you have to force yourself to write, if you actually find yourself staring at a blank screen for two hours a day, day after day, for heaven's sake, find somethinge else to do.

As for revising work, revise as you need to revise. Some writers need to revise almost endlessly, some need only moderate revisions, some need almost no revision at all. The same is true for individual works or fiction. Trust your judgement of the work, and never revise just because some book or person says you should. There's no law against getting it right the first time, and I've found the better my first drafts are, the better my final draft will be.

James D Macdonald

On Writing

Well, James, if working with a radio on works for you, it works for you. It's not exactly what I'd recommend to new writers; first they should figure out what level of distraction they can handle. I could probably write in the middle of a construction zone -- but I wouldn't suggest that as an ideal place to set up one's desk. I'd say start with mimimum distractions. Folks can always add some distractions if they find that they either can handle them or need them to be productive. (I still wouldn't recommend adding cigarettes and booze, even if they can handle them and they make 'em more productive.)

As far as two hours staring at a blank screen, few if any writers are going to be doing that. We'll fill the screen. Those who find themselves staring at a blank screen hour after hour might rethink the question of whether a career in commercial fiction is for them at that point in their lives.

As far as revision goes, I can produce publishable first draft. By the time I'd been doing this for a while, I'd learned to avoid unprofitable plot threads, I'd learned what works and what doesn't down at the noun-and-verb level -- I've learned to discard thousands of word choices without thinking about them.

Still, revision is vital. Revision means, literally, "looking again." Even if what you say, on looking again, is "Hey, pretty good."

On occasion I've submitted those publishable first drafts. More than once, after the story's come out, I found myself wishing that I had revised a couple of times.

Later on today I'm going to be reading some slush manuscripts for a major publisher. I promise you, whole heaps of 'em will go on the left-hand pile due to insufficient revision. Few if any will go there due to too much revision.

Before closing today's episode: Another advantage of blocking out a regular time for writing is that it becomes your time when no one will ask you to drive the kids to soccer practice or go shopping "because you aren't doing anything."


Re: On Writing

I'm suspicious of any claim of the lack of problems in any process involving work. They're endless from my experience in three trades. I work with C-Span on and only contentrate on the writing a specific times that I set. My house is quiet, that helps, but I'd just as soon be out in the willies where it's really quiet. Maybe some other time. I revise many times whether it's a story, a research paper or any other written document. Never smoke, and never drink and work.



7. Use Courier 10 or Courier 12 only

i thought courier is more for screenplays.

i use times for my novel. the difference between using times 12 and courier 10 is about 100 pages in my novel. i'm at about 290 pages (88,000 words give or take) with times new roman, but in courier it's at 390 pages.

in the academic world, people are more in tune with times new roman.

what does everyone else use?

aka eraser

Re: fonts

Times new roman 12 here. Sometimes even 13 if my eyes are misbehaving more than usual.


Re: fonts

em, I'm in the academic world too, although not at your level. I am in lockstep with you on this. Courier 10-12 is for screenplays, I only have two, but those were the guidelines I followed. All of my academic work is 12 pt.TNR. All three of my books were, and everything in the future will be too.

James D Macdonald


I'm not talking about academic work, or about screenplays, poetry, or anything other than commercial fiction. What you use on-screen when you're composing is up to you; if you like 8-point PostCrypt, go for it.

However, when you print out your book to submit to a commercial publisher, you shall print it out in 10 or 12 point Courier.

But ... for the revision process, printing the work in some format and typeface that you haven't used before can be useful for seeing the words rather than your memory of the words. There's a place to print out a reading copy in double column Times New Roman single spaced and justified if you want.

Just don't submit it that way.
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The reason for courier

is that it is a mono spaced font--what does that mean? That each letter, number, punctuation, etc., takes up the same amount of space.

They (publishers) need to know how many pages your book is going to take up and they base it on mono spacing. On that subject, word count...

Don't use your word processors word count feature. Do a character count, including spaces, and then divide by five--as with the mono-spaced-font this gives them a true idea of the length (the space it will take up)

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