Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

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James D Macdonald

Word Count

There are all kinds of ways to come up with wordcount. One of them is to take five pages at random from your manuscript, count all the words on them, divide by five, then multiply by the total number of pages in your work.


Next time ... how to tell where your story starts.

XThe NavigatorX

Re: Word Count


Being a midlist author, do you find the amount of money you earn each year stays about the same, or is it going up due to the trickling in of multiple royalties and/or larger advances?

Do you plateau at a certain level?


Re: Word Count

What does it cost you to submit? And how many? I avoid printing entire manuscripts at all. Unless it's a proposal and they won't accept a disk. That can be really expensive. An still unpructive unless you've reached standing level of acceptance somewhere. Book rate is cheap but still, the print costs and all.


Re: Word Count

I recently polled children's book editors (for a course I am writing) and almost across the board they said either Times New Roman or Courier was equally fine for submissions -- some liked Times a bit better (mostly the younger editors), one liked Courier a bit better -- none of them were inflexible about it. All said PLEASE nothing ever but 12 pt font.

So...for writers of children's novels or YA -- in an email poll of 20 editors -- they don't care between Times New Roman or Courier -- but ONLY 12 pt.

I'll assume adult publishers are different (as they are about most things) and bow to James superior knowledge...but since this is something I actually asked folks about, I thought I would butt in.


XThe NavigatorX

Re: Word Count

The dog went to the supermarket

The dog went to the supermarket

courier 10 pt is still bigger than Times 12 pt. If you submit something in Courier 12, you're wasting paper.


Re: Word Count

That's right. That is also why 10 is used for screenplays where time and space coordination are crucial.


Re: Word Count

I was just reporting was the editors told me they want.
I try to make editors happy -- they ask so little:lol
And they specifically said nothing less than 12 pt and that was with courier in the discussion.


James D Macdonald

Answers to Questions

A complex question, Navigator: Income does go up year by year, but you do top out in the mid-to-high five figures for advances (at least I do, in mid-list SF). There's a constant churn below that, as the backlist ebbs and flows, some things go out of print, some are reprinted.

On a tangent off that ... how to keep your books in print. I know there's a lot of talk about how books go out of print after varying alarmingly-short periods. To keep your book in print, write another book. When it comes out, your backlist will get reprinted alongside it.

As to what it costs to submit: the price of paper plus postage. Follow the publishers' guidelines. Some want three-and-an-outline, some want a full manuscript. Follow the guidelines explicitly.

James D Macdonald

How To Tell Where Your Story Begins

So, where does your story begin?

One way to find your beginning is this: first, write your book. Now go through it to find its start.

Here's how to recognize the start: it's the point where you can no longer summarize everything that went before in a single sentence:

Nothing that Ceclia had seen at the Academy could have prepared her for the first sight of Crymble Manor.

"The appropriations bill is dead on arrival," Senator O'Connor said.

The day after the world ended, Bill got into his pickup truck and drove into town.

Another way to say this is: it's the point where the characters can't decide, To heck with this and order out for pizza. The one-way door has blown shut and they can't get back into the theatre.

Later on, as you gain experience, you can get better at avoiding false starts ("Hesitation marks," we call 'em).

Here's how I figure out where to start my story: I figure out the climax -- something that's really big, cinematic, satisfying, full of action and movement. I take the characters who are there, and back 'em off to some point before that climax, then try to get them to it.

Sometimes -- a lot of the time -- those characters never get to the climax I started with. (There's one climax I've been using for years as a starting point. One day I will get there.)

So here's another way to figure out where to start your story: Put interesting characters in an interesting place, then let them do interesting things. (What's interesting? That's the art, isn't it. Your readers will tell you what's interesting by the sound of rapidly turning pages.)

If the first two chapters of your book are backstory and exposition, and the movement of the plot starts in chapter three, the opening of your book is chapter three. Delete the first two chapters.


Plots start when movement starts. This movement can be physical, or it can be psychological, but it is movement. The human eye instinctivly follows a moving object. It will follow the fastest moving object if several are present. So ... make your plot move, and eyes will follow it.

A chess game doesn't start until the first piece or pawn moves.


Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

James - first of all, thanks for sharing your insights.

Second, I'm curious about a statement you made in another thread:

Me, I start with an outline.
My outlines are about 75% of the length of the finished book.
Where I start -- is with a climactic scene. I form it in my mind.
So you're saying that for, say, a 200-page novel, you'd start with a 150-page outline?

If so, what is the nature of the outline? Is the text in the outline publication-quality prose, or just lengthy notes-to-self and brainstorming?

And when you say you "start" with that, it's hard for me to picture - surely it must take quite a while to physically write all that stuff - I'd suspect weeks or even months. Or am I misinterpreting?

I'd be very interested in you elaborating on that process. I too am using an outline on my first novel attempt, but my outline is only a 2-pager. In addition I have 20-odd pages of brainstorming and research, but I found that too unmanageable; hence I went with a short outline so I could "see" the whole book at a glance.

Thanks again.


James D Macdonald


My outlines aren't submission-quality prose (though some bits do make it all the way through without change).

They most closely resemble a guy telling his buddy about a neat movie he saw the night before -- bits of memorable dialog, descriptions, but most important the order of the scenes.

Often at this stage I have nonce-names for characters (sometimes they're named for their function in the story: "Bestpal" or "Cannonfodder"). Sometimes the author is a character: The author looked up from couch where he sat taking notes. "Just keep talking, guys," he said. "I'll fix it in the rewrite."

I see novels as having shape. There has to be a pleasing, balanced shape, with all the parts connected, the corners neat, and overall easy to look at.

Try drawing a picture of your book, showing the flow of scenes and chapters. In a bit I might go into my theory of the novel as architecture.

James D Macdonald


Typing a hundred fifty page outline runs me about two or three weeks.

After that, bashing it around to make it into something worth playing with, then writing from the outline into a finished novel -- that can take some time.


Re: Time

Interesting! I too write informal brainstorming notes to myself, and sometimes when I don't want to lose momentum while working on the actual draft, I'll write notes like <improve this to make it half as long and twice as funny>, when I think that the idea is sound, but know that the execution is lacking.

I also tag a lot of the "fussy bits" to clean up later, rather than losing momentum by figuring out every last detail. Things like what model of car a character is driving, how long they've worked somewhere, etc. "Tony got into his XXXCARNAME, and said through the open window, "I've been working for you XXXYEARS - how long is it going to take before you trust me?"

Later I do a search for <bracketed comments> and instances of XX, and then do the requisite cleanup. That helps me maintain consistency.

Another question: do you write sequentially, or do you sometimes skip from one scene or chapter to another, based on what you're in the mood to write?

Thanks for the valuable insight!


James D Macdonald


Right you are, Keith. When you're writing, don't slow down.

Yes, you will do research ... you'll need to know exactly what kind of car your guy is driving, but during the outline/first draft stage isn't when I do it.

I'll research a bunch before, and after during rewrite and revision. The rule in the middle is "don't slow down."

Now ...

On movement, and on art.

The way to tell the difference between the real world and art is that art has borders. Pictures have frames, stages have curtains, books have covers. You have to provide the illusion that your created world extends beyond its covers, but you aren't going to need to create that outside world. We'll talk about tricks for doing that later.

I'm going to talk about chess games instead. Chess games are like novels.

I'm going to recommend a book, too: Logical Chess: Move by Move. I'm quite serious about saying y'all should get a copy, read it, play the sample games, understand it. First off, even if nothing else happens, your chess game will improve.

The other thing is this: chess games happen on a board. The board has an edge, a limit. Therefore, it is art.

Now as it happens, there are only three things that can possibly happen in a chess game. White may win, Black may win, or there could be a stalemate. Exactly how those things happen is where the interest comes -- everyone knows before the game starts what the range of possible outcomes is. The good guys win, the bad guys win, or we're returned to status quo antes.

The game doesn't start until the first move is made. In the same way, the story doesn't start until the first character acts.

Your pieces are your major characters. Your pawns are your minor characters.

The way you win the game -- no one can foresee how the game is going to go. Not even the greatest chessmaster can see twenty moves in advance. What the chessmaster does is put pieces in useful places. The chessmaster knows that a knight is most useful on QB3 and KB3. So that's where the chessmaster puts them. (This is called "Playing Positional Chess," and that's sometimes what I call my style of plotting a book. As in, "Why did you have Fred slip a gun into his pocket before he left the house?" "I'm playing positional chess.")

If you have put the pieces in their strongest positions, surprising combinations will appear as if by magic later on. The game will play itself; the book will write itself.

If you get a chess set where one side is Army and one side is Navy, you have a technothriller. If you get a chess set where one side is Spacemen and the other is Alien Monsters, you have a space opera. If you have a chess set where one side is modern college professors and the other is faculty wives, you have mainstream.

The moves are the same.

Really, trust me, get the Logical Chess. Look at it at an angle; it's a writing book.
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James D Macdonald


Well, now, what to put in the opening?

We're going to stick with the chess game metaphor for a while here. In the opening you're trying to put yourself into a strong position for going into the midgame (where the exciting action and the exciting combinations occur), and you do this mostly by getting your pieces off the back rank as quickly as possible. The pieces are your major characters. Get them out there, and get them doing things.

Don't neglect your pawns -- your minor characters. You should cherish your minor characters. They'll save your life. If you have a selection of minor characters you can pull them out to solve problems later in the book.

Now, what to put in that first chapter? (Recall that if your readers don't finish the first chapter they'll never get to chapter two.)

To answer the question of what goes into chapter one, I'm going to grab the first stanzas from a bunch of Anglo-Scots folk ballads. These were the popular songs of earlier times, cooked by the folk process so that only the important and memorable parts remain, they're entertaining, and they tell stories.


Young Johnny rode out on a May morning
With his buckles and his bridles ringing,
And as he rode by the castle walls
He heard a fair maid singing.


The king sits in Dumferlin town
Drinking the blood-red wine.
"Oh where will I get a good skipper
To sail this ship of mine?"


There were three brothers in merry Scotland
In merry Scotland there were three
And they cast lots which of them should go
Should go, should go,
For to turn pirate all on the salt sea.


Okay, what do those have in common?

A person, a place, and a problem. Action and movement. Often a time of year or a time of day.

These are not bad things to get into the first chapter. If you can get 'em onto the first page, even better.

Updated to add: See also, Folksongs Are Your Friends
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Re: Openings

"On a blustery March morning in the year 1630, a great ship was riding restlessly at anchor in the Solent, near the Isle of Wight." From Albion's Seed.

I'm onboard.



"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

Okay, it's three sentences, not one, but it's got a setting, a time, and, ahem, a strong major character. I say it has that sense of "what's next?" that one strives for.

James D Macdonald

First Sentences

I didn't say one sentence, let alone the first one ... the first chapter is good enough. (You see young, inexperienced writers trying to get everything into the first sentence. This more often than not gives you an opening sentence that looks like a runner-up in the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

But ... do give your readers a reward for reading the first page, a reason to turn the page, then ... you have chance.

There's a reason publishers ask for three-and-an-outline. That small sample will give them an idea of whether you can give readers a reason to start your book, and an idea of whether you know where you're going.

Think with your reader's mind for a moment. When you go to a bookstore, how do you act when you're trying to decide if you want to buy a book by someone you've never heard of?

Go to a bookstore. Hang around. Watch the readers. They are your readers. How do they approach unfamiliar books? Look at the cover... flip a few pages...

Yeah, a few pages. Sometimes just the first page. Grim, right?

You hear lots of folks condemning editors who make decisions based on the first page. Remember what position editors have in the grand scheme of publishing: They are the readers' advocates.
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Re: First Sentences

Well it works in nonfiction, but no one wants to stumble into a cliche beartrap. I have to push off somehow. Leave it to Cal State to come up with that though. It's fitting.

James D Macdonald

Novelist's Techniques

Over a decade ago, I was doing feature articles for a weekly newspaper. A novelist's techniques work equally well for non-fiction -- if you don't create interest and reward the reader for going along, you don't have readers. In both fiction and non-fiction part of the art is in finding and revealing the telling details. The biggest difference is where those details come from, the imagination or research.

Recall also that fiction should be true (for certain values of "true"). The best lies contain the most truth.



I think that's true. Feature stories have structure and certain information is placed accordingly. That's newswriting 101, and beyond; profiles, any story really.

That's why I like Gore Vidal's work. It's extremly difficult to determine when he's putting one over on you. I think that's what you're saying here.

James D Macdonald

More on first chapters

We're still talking about first chapters here.

Before I start, how many of y'all went and got a copy of Logical Chess Move by Move? I reccoed that back on page two of this discussion. Go order a copy now. I'll wait.

I'm serious, guys. I'm going to be recommending other books as I go. I'm doing this because I think it'll help you. I know these are the books that helped me.

My next suggestion is also going to be work: Take your favorite novel.

Now, retype the first chapter. Do this with your writer's eye, not your reader's eye. Think about the lengths of the sentences, the lengths of the paragraphs, the sounds of the words. Think about the order of the scenes. Notice the dialog. How are the dialog tags rendered? Where is the point of view?

The point of this exercise is this: Have you ever gone to an art museum and seen the art students sitting there with their easels and oils, copying the great masters? The point isn't to turn them into plagairists, or to make them expert forgers. The point is to get the feeling into their hands and arms of how to make the brush strokes that create a particular illusion on canvas. Writing is no less a physical skill than painting. The words are your paints, the sentences your brush strokes. Following a master, asking yourself, always, why. Why did he or she choose this word rather than another? Why was this scene from this particular point of view? Why did the scene end there?

Writing is an art. Everything is there because the artist (that's you!) chose to put it there. The surface meaning, the deeper themes, those are your choice.

I can hear you saying, "Yeah, right, Uncle Jim. You say 'Retype a chapter,' but I bet you never did that."

Wrong-o, my friends. I did just that (I did more -- I retyped entire books). You can find some of them here, the ones that I still had on disk to convert to HTML and which were in public domain.

At the very worst your typing skills will improve, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Assignments: Get a copy of Logical Chess Move By Move, and work through the problems. Get a novel that you personally really admire, and retype the first chapter.

More discussion on openings later.
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Re: More on first chapters

VERY cool advice. Okay, okay, I'll buy the chess book.

And I've NEVER heard the "type somebody else's first chapter" idea before, but it makes a LOT of sense. I'm a professional musician, and just as the art students Jim mentioned copy works of visual art, musicians learn some essential vocabulary by copying verbatim the playing of the masters - this has gone on from Mozart to Marsalis.

While it sounds like a grueling exercise, it also sounds like a GREAT idea.




Re: More on first chapters

Right, that's how I learned the trumpet. I didn't compose Herb Alpert's music. I copied, rehearsed and eventually performed it in public.
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