Wright’s Writing Corner: Guest Post–David Marcoe

A couple weeks back, we had a guest post on self-publishing. Mr. David Marcoe left some very interesting comments on the subject. I asked him if he would write an actual post to share with you all. Here it is!

In addition to the article itself, there are some great resource links at the bottom!



Herein are points of consideration, a general overview of things overlooked in self-publishing. At the end is an annotated list of recommended articles, sites, and books for continuing study. I leave it to you, dear reader, to make of it what you will.

How do we set ourselves apart? By offering a better product. How do we offer a better product? By taking the time to learn how. Success in self-publishing means self-education.

I. Mindset – Even with a publisher, the chances of becoming rich and famous are very slim. Most authors never even make enough to live off of their writing, usually having a day job. Kings, Rowlings, and Clancys are exceptionally rare creatures in a saturated market, made worse with the army of the would-be famous who self-publish their work with the idea that they will be the next Big Name, drowning out those who might deserve more attention.

But we have no publisher, no editor, no professional contacts, no aid from the industry. With this, we must keep in mind that we are the architects of our work, which stands or falls with our labor and our wits.

So, we have all the more reason to not overlook our weaknesses. Our job is to become a better writer and our talent can only matter when we learn how to use it. In this, let us be thorough.  Where it would of gratify our ego to inflate our talents or justify our mistakes, let us instead assume we’re the stupidest person in the room, and then work twice as hard as anyone else. Or where a sense of inadequacy might paralyze us as writers, in perfectionism or abandoning the work, let us not confuse emotion with fact. Instead, let us cultivate balance in judgment, faith in the work we do, a steadiness to persist, and the will to finally finish.

Both extremes of ego are self-involvement, slouching toward self-absorption, and ending if self-obsession. The one who never finishes and the one who never improves have both turned from their writing to themselves. The purpose of the work falls into the background, as it becomes a distorted mirror for either their greatness or inferiority. Instead of this facing inward, let us turn outward and conform ourselves to the discipline of a purpose, to more put truth and beauty into the world, no matter how long or rough that road may be.

II. The Plan – Our goal is to become a self-sufficient generalist–entrepreneur, editor, writer, stylist, scholar, critic, grammarian, researcher–a human Swiss Army knife, ready to meet what comes. Why? Because we'll need a share of all those skills to make the most of our talent. The bigger book, the greater the demands and greater the number of hats we wear. So, it's better to be prepared than overwhelmed.

Concretely, then, what does this add up to? To start, we build up our language and store of knowledge through general reading; at least two hundred books, fiction and non-fiction, across a variety of subjects and genres. If we add up the "must-reads" usually included in the literary canon, we end up again with about two hundred books (out of the thousands the have some claim to the “canon”). On the art and profession of writing, we may read dozens more; fifty-six books are suggested at the end of this article. If we count research or business-related material, that number remains open-ended. In truth, the process of learning never stops. If we presume to be storytellers and students of human nature, people with something to say that's worth reading, we have no excuse for ignorance.

Yet, education is only useful to the extent that it's applied, which we can do through three means: thoroughness, habits, and diligence. Thoroughness means being systematic in scope, depth, and detail. What have we missed? What have we overlooked? What is beyond our immediate concern? We start from a position of not knowing what we don't know, so we adopt a certain obsessiveness, going the extra mile in finding things out, reading the fine print, the footnotes, the citations, the bibliographies, the next piece of information. To support thoroughness, we cultivate habits which help to prevent us from shirking in our work. And in support of habit, we develop diligence, the attitudes and mental discipline to keep up and go on. Developing these together is to build a scaffolding around our weak points.

But how are those things developed? The first step is in really making a choice; not a resolution, but an actual decision concluding in action. And it does not end with one choice, but with making the same choice every day, coming back to the work to do a little more each time. To help you continue in the work, we look for motivation, in either interest or need, starting with stands out most. We then set goals, each a step, raising the bar a little higher each time. In pursuing those goals, we restructure our routine, so that incentive and convenience lean toward completing the work.

No two authors are identical in how they think, work, and write. What plan or formula works for us will be the product of our own discovery. Yet, whatever the plan, we must persist and we must consistently work, as habits are only formed with repetition. Even in doing as much as we can to smooth our road, forming those habits will involve some pain.

III. Style – While we know that practice, trial, and error are our first tools for improving our technique, many of us don't think beyond a brush-up on grammar, reading a couple books on style, and making use of a thesaurus (some of us less). Painfully, quite a few small press and self-published works illustrate the error in that type of thinking. 

Once upon a time, students were educated in a system of composition that was composed of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, in a tradition that stretched from Ancient Greece to the 20th century, studied by authors, poets, and playwrights, like Shakespeare, who used that education to pen some of the most memorable words in world literature. Is this useful to us now?

How many poorly constructed plots and muddled characters have we encountered? How many wooden or muddied passages have we labored through? How many times have we thrown up our hands when a story didn't make sense? We think with words. Where our thinking is messy, our words are confused, and where our words are muddled, our thoughts cannot be clear. Knowing only how to construct a sentence is like knowing only how to turn a wrench, when we're attempting to build an engine. There is a need to learn more.

Grammar, the study of choosing and ordering words, prepared one for the study of logic, the discipline of resolving and ordering thoughts, which laid the foundation of rhetoric, the art of expressing them. These together formed a foundation that could applied to any subject, for a student then had the ability to think, communicate, and learn. We writers, who take in and send out thoughts with so many words, can clearly benefit.

So, are we going to be dusting off old books? While it's far from a bad thing to read Aristotle or Cicero, more recent resources can convey the essentials a little more quickly. Yet, when searching for books on these topics, it's useful to dig underneath the latest flavor of hype to find what's been consistently recommended over time. Some of the best books are older works, and some out of print, often sold used at a reasonable price.

IV. Editing – In filmmaking, a movie's creation is divided into production–filming the raw footage–and post-production, where that raw material is turned into a finished product through the addition of effects, sound, music, and through the process of editing. Editing a movie is largely about the arrangement of material. You start with the frame, the thousands of still images that make up a movie and together give the illusion of movement. Collections of these frames make up the beats, scenes, sequences, and acts of the film. While most editing is about adjusting pacing or eliminating mistakes, a movie’s story can be radically changed by removing a scene, or placing it somewhere else in the order of events, altering a plot line, a character’s personality, a movie’s mood, its theme(s), or even the entire point of a story.

Like a movie, editing a book is about the arrangement of material, but unlike a movie’s direct presentation of narrative through images, a book conveys its own through the mediation of words. With a book, editing doesn’t just conform to the structure of story–beats, scenes, sequences and acts–but also to the structure of language, with words, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. Yet, these two are never entirely separate, overlapping one another. Sentences and paragraphs are organized as much by the connection of ideas as words.

In practical terms, editing is more than removing typos and grammatical errors. Major issues that would’ve been dealt with by a professional editor are places where the inexperience of a self-published author can stand out. Luckily, there are books by professional editors and veteran authors on topics such as self-editing, revision, and preparing a manuscript for publication. With study, practice, and many rewrites, we can develop our skill with editing.

Yet, without extended study, our approach can improve our effort; we need to be brutal with the material. Does it move the story along? Does it bog things down? Does it–a character, a scene, a plot line–have a reason to be in the book? Is that reason good enough to keep it? We can't become too attached to anything, if we we wish to write a story that someone else wants to read.

V. Research – Before we start writing, we have to know, on some level, what we're going to write. Having an idea of what we want to say is important, whether we're going for a “ripping yarn” or something deeper. Even a shallow text has subtex.

Once we’ve answered the question of “What do we want to say?,” we begin asking others. What genre are we writing in? Do we know what’s expected of that genre? Are we dealing with issues like metaphysics, philosophy, or religion? How much have we read on those topics? Are we writing about a period of history or some profession? Have we researched the details? What literary techniques–like first person perspective or stream of consciousness–are we planning to use? Do we have a grasp on how to employ them? To answer these questions, we study, and in study, we research.

Roughly, research can be divided into genre, into background (the details of our fictional world), and research for technique.  Deciding on a genre sets some general boundaries for our story. As plot and characters come together, details have to be filled in, the world and its inhabitants given texture (background). We turn to various sources for inspiration or to answer vital questions that arise what we’re building. With those questions answered, we begin thinking about how the story will be framed (technique). Will it be told as an epistolary  or use an unreliable narrator? Realistically, though, we may begin at any point, or with any idea, and see it grow form there.

First, when writing in a particular genre, we have to know what it is and what it isn’t, especially if we intend to bend or blend them into new forms. Readers come to a genre with a set of expectations; mystery fiction is a world away from science fiction, and romance novels are in another universe entirely. Each imposes its own set of rules. So, what is its purpose? What are its tropes and conventions? What are its history and origins? What directions have authors taken with it?

With the boundaries of genre, we receive the bones upon which we mold the flesh, the particulars of plot and background; possible motivations of characters, types of obstacles they might face, and the means likely at their disposal. Knowing something of these, we ask questions of background. For instance, if we're writing a detective novel set during Prohibition in Chicago, what do we know about the city (a major center of organized crime), the period (the issue and influence of bootlegging), the police (their professional culture, standards of ethics, corruption), criminal law, or the state of forensics? If our protagonist is a cop, in answering these questions, we know how he might solve his case, what types of threats he faces, and the world he has to navigate. If he's corrupt cop, we can ask about his criminal connections, how he hides it, if he has to, and why he does or doesn't. With plot and background, as we sketch one, we sketch the other alongside.

In constructing a secondary world, the demands of research shift, since much of what we write we'll be inventing; research becomes more fluid as we use diverse sources for inspiration. For instance, with epic fantasy, we might begin thinking about details like flora, fauna, cultures, languages, histories, systems of magic, and the rules the world operates by. To avoid writing a story that reads like a D&D campaign, we have to read beyond fantasy for inspiration, on subjects like history, mythology, culture, languages, and details of daily life from societies and periods that might inform our work, along with other topics outside easily defined categories.

Too many authors, in building their worlds, end up with backdrops that feel like cheap scenery that could be pushed over with a stiff breeze. It’s no mistake that the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy–such as Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin, Wolfe, Martin, Gaiman, Anderson, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke–were either writing what they knew (sometimes being actual scholars in those areas) or were deeply-read in what they were writing about. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature. Tolkien was a philologist specializing in Northern European languages. Heinlein served in the Navy and trained as an engineer. Asimov was a biochemist. Poul Anderson trained in physics. Le Guin is the daughter of a famous anthropologist. Of those names, only Martin and Gaiman come from general backgrounds as writers (one a journalist and one a television writer), but both (and all of them) are known for being deeply and widely read.

And from their example, we may also learn something about technique. Outside of reading for background, being well-read in the classics (as Jagi has often written about) is also important, first for tools specific to a genre (top 10, 25, 50, and 100 lists are useful places to start), and secondly, being generally educated in the greatest works of storytelling. A good helping of the Great Books is practically a university for writing and useful in adding tools to our toolbox. In supplement to the Great Books, there are excellent works of literary criticism that can teach us "close reading," or the process of examining the technique of a work.

Wen it comes to books on the actual art of writing, it’s advisable to sift them. Some works on come from academic writing programs, slanted toward authoring a "literary novel," which is (1) of less use to a genre author and (2) might be heavy with ivory tower advice that it's better not to take. Others are in the vein of "write the next best-selling novel!" and offer nothing that can’t be found elsewhere. Some are too idiosyncratic, focusing on what works for a particular author, others too basic, being no better that what you can read on the Internet (heh…). Still others are packaged “systems,” which may or may not be useful. Again, we have to dig underneath what’s over-hyped to find what has been consistently useful to readers over time.

Outside of work for our novel, another area that we authors overlook is market research; what do readers want to read? Reading user reviews on sites like Amazon.com and Goodreads.com can be an eye-opener. While a lot of them are incoherent drivel, there are some real gems, some of them excellent examples of writing by themselves.

VI.  Production  – It's too easy for self-published books to look chintzy or cheap. Readers have a stock set of assumptions about what a book should look like and can tell the difference between what is commercially published and what is self-published. Freelance services are available for editing and organizing of a book, as are many talented freelance illustrators or artists who can put together a cover. But if 'were not able to put money up front, we can take note of how commercially published books are put together, taking some time to put some polish in our own.

VII. Placement – Too many authors take a scatter-gun approach to promoting their work, or do too little promotion and depend upon luck. As an example, many authors spam forums and engage in self-promotion on practically any website where they'll be publicly read, not thinking about how it violates rules of online etiquette (or violates the site’s own rules of conduct) and is filtered out by most users as white noise. To avoid this, we have to target our promotion and practice the old art of "winning friends and influencing people." There are highly-trafficked sites and online communities related to the area we are interested in writing about, but it helps to be an active participant, contributing to discussions, posting material (other than your novel), building up a presence, and earning goodwill and respect. In the process, we'll polish our technique and gain useful feedback.

Recommended Resources

The recommendations below are my personal selections. You may find them useful, or you may not. At the very least, it should give you various avenues to conduct your own searches.

First on the list are various articles and sites which you should find interesting, useful, and  insightful. Next, come the books, which have been assembled with a logical sequence for reading. Each selection builds on the preceding book and dovetails into the next. It starts with the classical elements of composition—grammar, logic, rhetoric—concluding with style. The list then moves into writing fiction and storytelling, with works on the elements of drama, plot, structure, character, and techniques of narrative. After these are books on editing and research. The next section is a kind of crash-course in Big Ideas, with works that give an overview of what has shaped our cultural mind and imagination.

After that, there are recommendations for literary criticism, which you should save for last, until you've made you've made your way through the previous entries. The first two works ease you into the subject. The next four are heavier reading and were selected from two opposing schools of literary criticism—New Criticism and Chicago School criticism—to act as a kind of dialectic, giving a fuller picture. These critical schools were chosen for one chief virtue: they are focused on the works themselves; what they mean, how they're written, and what they accomplish. That's what useful to us as writers.

Finally, there are books on publishing, self-publishing, promotion, advertising, and the business of writing. Artists we may be, but we all gotta eat.




“The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy L. Sayers



“Learning from tools” by Stefan Beck



“A Reader’s Manifesto” by B. R. Myers






American Rhetoric – Lots of lessons and examples, historical and contemporary, of the use of rhetoric.



Bondwine – Though focused primarily on fantasy, the essays and reviews make you think.



Great Books Lists – Lists of classics culled from various sources.



The Great Courses – Audio and video lecture series given professors on the arts, humanities, and sciences.



Goodreads – You can find almost any book here.



The Modern Scholar Lectures – Another audio lecture series, primarily focused on the arts, history, and humanities. Also available on Audible.com.



The New Criterion – The best arts and culture journal in English.




Books for Grammar, Logic & Rhetoric:


Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft – A complete self-study guide to classical or “conversational” logic.




How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler – A guide to methods of reading and study to get the most out of written sources. 




The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner (Editor) – A literary use of logic; “…this book contributed more to my understanding of logic and wordplay than several semesters of college philosophy classes.”




Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Koln – Starting with a reader's intuitive knowledge of grammar, it teaches sentence construction through rhetorical choice, not rule memorization.




Shakespeare's Wordcraft by Scott Kaiser – Breaks down and examines the figures of speech used by Shakespeare, with numerous quotes and without jargon.




Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth – Examines and explains eighteen major figures of speech, with quotes from classic authors and great speakers.




Classical Rhetoric for The Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett – A complete guide to traditional rhetoric in a modern context, using quotes from great writers to teach.




Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language by Sister Miriam Joseph – A study of rhetoric in Shakespeare's time and its use in his works.





Books for Style:


Style by F. L. Lucas – Probably the best general book on style ever written. Out of print and hard to find, but worth it.




Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin – A fiction-writing book geared toward style, with advice on how to develop aspects like character voice and the sound of your writing as its read.




Write Like the Masters by William Cane – A guide to improving style through studying great authors like Hemingway and Faulkner.




A Reader's Manifesto by B. R. Myers – A detailed attack on the unreadable prose styles used by “Serious Writers” in contemporary literary fiction, contrasted with true classics.





Books for Fiction & Storytelling:


The Art & Craft of Fiction by Victoria Mixon – A complete beginner's guide to fiction writing, using the work of classic authors.




The Art & Craft of Story by Victoria Mixon – The sequel, for more advanced writers, dealing with issues of character, plot, and structure.




Master Class in Fiction Writing by Adam Sexton – Another guide to fiction writing, using copious examples from the classics.




Aristotle's Poetics by Aristotle, Leon Golden (Translator), O. B. Hardison – The granddaddy of works on drama and still required reading. An extensive commentary is included.




The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson – Despite the gimmicky title, it clearly lays out the elements of structure and plot, along with a system to manage and build your own.




Steal This Plot by June Noble – A guide to thirteen essential plot structures and improving your own by studying other fiction, with examples taken from the classics.




Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card – A guide to dealing with the issues of creating characters and characterization.




Shut Up! He Explained by William Noble – A solid guide to the dos and don'ts of dialogue, covering various issues.




Advanced Plotting by Chris Eboch – A guide for the “intermediate to advanced writer” on issues of plotting, with advice from fifteen published authors.




Books for Editing & Research:


Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris – An excellent guide to the process of writing and revising fiction.




Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon – A guide to the self-editing and revision of your work, after the writing is done.




Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook – A self-editing guide covering grammar, usage, and techniques of editing.




The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn – A self-study guide for copyediting, to be partnered with The Chicago Manual of Style




The Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition) – The editor's bible.




The Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams – A beginner's introduction for assembling and producing one's book.




Book Design and Production by Pete Masterson – A comprehensive guide to the same subject.




Book Design by Andrew Haslam – An advanced work on the art of book design.




The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth – Though focused on academic papers, it is one of the best books on research.





Books as Food for Thought:


The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton – A spiritual “outline” of history, it provokes one to think about how the human heart's stirrings and struggles underlie the past.



The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis – One of the great works of medieval scholarship,  exploring the culture and worldview of the Middle Ages.




The Great Ideas by Mortimer Adler – Essays on the ideas and concepts that shaped the Western mind.




From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun – A whirlwind intellectual history of the West, covering the last five hundred years.




Books for Literary Criticism:


Bound to Please by Michael Dirda – Less criticism than an enthralling tour of the literary canon, with introductions to great authors, and all around penetrating insight.




Charles Dickens by G. K. Chesterton – One of the great works of Dickens criticism, written by one of the great authors of the 20th century.

Part One [bit.ly/s1zPLS]

Part Two [bit.ly/v6964J]


Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren – A work of “New Criticism”; a comprehensive introduction to poetry and its interpretation.




Understanding Fiction by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren – A work of “New Criticism”; a comprehensive introduction to the reading and interpretation of fiction.




The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry by R. S. Crane (Ronald S. Crane) – A work of “Chicago School” criticism; an introduction to contrast with


Understanding Poetry




The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth – A work of “Chicago School” criticism; an introduction to contrast with Understanding Fiction. Also a classic, in which the term “unreliable narrator” was coined.





Books for Self-Publishing and Promotion:


The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner – An unvarnished look at the publishing industry from an editor-agent.




Publishing for Profit by Thomas Woll – A business guide to running a publishing operation.




The Economical Guide to Self-Publishing by Linda F. Radke – A guide to publishing, marketing, and promoting one's book on a budget.




Independent Self-Publishing by Michael N. Marcus – A detailed guide to the ins and outs of self-publishing.




STINKERS! America's Worst Self-Published Books by Michael N. Marcus – A look at horrendous examples of self-published works.




Get the Most Out of a Self-Publishing Company by Michael N. Marcus – A guide to choosing a third-party self-publishing operation.




Book Marketing from A to Z by Francine Silverman – A collection of advice from over three hundred authors on how to promote your book.




Guerrilla Marketing for Writers by Jay Conrad Levinson – A collection of one hundred methods for marketing and promoting your book.




Putting It On Paper by Dawn Josephson – A guide to creating promotional materials for your book.




Duct Tape Marketing by John Jantsch – A handbook for marketing and advertising on a shoestring budget.




Word of Mouth Marketing by Andy Sernovitz – A guide those title is self-explanatory.




The New Rules of Marketing & PR by David Meerman Scott – A guide to the use of new media for marketing and public relations.




The Best of Guerrilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson – A compilation of the best chapters and entries from the Guerrilla Marketing series.




Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy – Though decades old, this is one of the bibles of the principles of advertising, from one of the giants who helped to transform it.




Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples – Another classic bible of advertising (personally recommended by the author above), sharing lessons learned from direct mail marketing. Links go to the previous fourth edition, said to be better than the revised fifth.




Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan – Another highly recommended book on advertising.