Friday, September 19, 2014

Keeping it real enough

I was reading an article about a Libertarian social experiment down in Chile. They'd attempted to create an ideal community based on Ayn Rand's objectivist utopia Galt's Gulch. (Which they cleverly named Galt's Gulch.) For those unfamiliar with Rand's philosophy, rational selfishness is the highest good; only people who choose to be victims are preyed upon; ideal personal relationships are based on capitalism – that is, true love is a function of how mutually advantageous the union is; anything a person can do he or she has the right to do; and no laws are necessary because the right thing to do will always be self-evident. In Rand's worldview only the lazy and unworthy need laws to compensate for their inability to reason – same for public education, social services, public health, you name it. She believed in euthanasia of the handicapped. In her novel Atlas Shrugged an objectivist visionary named John Galt leads what we would today in the US would call the one percent – all of whom are weary of carrying the vast unworthy majority of humanity on their shoulders – into an isolated retreat, Galt's Gulch, and the world, helpless without them, sinks into anarchy. Unfortunately for the self-styled members of the world's elite who'd sunk their fortunes into the Chilean Galt's Gulch, the noble Libertarian experiment collapsed in a cloud of accusations and lawsuits, leaving many of them financially ruined. Which reminded me of the axiom – attributed in various forms to many writers over the years – that life doesn't make sense, but fiction must. We've all heard that. We all incorporate it into our writing. Chekhov's gun – if there's a gun over the mantel in the first act, it must be fired by the third – is a variation. Whether it's a mystery or a romance or a young adult adventure we carefully craft plausible causes for every event. Coincidences may happen in real life, but never in our novels (unless attributed to magical or spiritual influences that we clearly establish – sometimes after the event). Cause and effect must be delineated in the story's narrative for the same reason elements of a portrait must be balanced, the notes in a piece of music must support and build on each other, and all four legs of a chair must be the same length. It's necessary for the comfort of our audience, a prerequisite of their acceptance and – hopefully – enjoyment. Gault's Gulch flourished in Ayn Rand's novel because that was the inevitable evolution of the narrative a logical outgrowth of the underlying philosophy. (Dare we say "theme"?) Grant's Gulch imploded in Chile, even though it was the same logical outgrowth of the same philosophy, because there was no narrative. One was a work of fiction, the other was the work of a group of people who mistakenly believed they could apply the rules of fiction to real life. On the other hand, we've all read novels and stories in which things are wrapped up too neatly; in which every detail serves a purpose and no question is left unanswered. This seemlessness can be as unsatisfying as the causeless event and the neglected loose end. One storytellers technique to avoid this effect is to slip a coincidence into the background, to give texture to the world through which your characters move with snatches of conversation heard out of context or actions they observe in passing. And don't be afraid to leave an unresolved question or two – show the characters aware that there are things they don't know, or that there are things they will need to address moving forward. A satisfying story, a story that does its job, plays fair with the reader, solidly maintains its internal integrity, and has just enough fray and stretch to feel comfortably real.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

When Dreams Meet Reality.

I’m pretty sure this has come up before during our little chats and time spent together, but—among other things—I write Star Trek novels. Because of this, I’m occasionally contacted by enthusiastic fans who would also like to write Star Trek novels. Or, maybe they’ve already written a Star Trek novel, and now they want to know how they go about getting it published.
Earlier this month, I was approached by just such a fan. He had completed the manuscript for a Star Trek novel, and now he was seeking advice. It was evident that he had done some research, as he knew that the company which publishes such books only accepts submissions via a literary agent. So, how was he to go about obtaining representation for such a book?
I really hate these kinds of letters.
As I explained when I discussed this on my Facebook page, it’s not the letters themselves I hate. Instead, I really don’t like having to answer them and tell the sender something he or she almost certainly doesn’t want to hear. I truly dislike having to tell them that all of the time and effort they’ve invested in their novel likely won’t be rewarded. Why? Simply because of how the process works for tie-in novels like those written for Star Trek, or Star Wars, HALO, and so on, and I always caution writers never to write an entire manuscript in the hopes of having it reviewed and approved. For one thing, the development of these sorts of books usually is a two-step process, with an outline or proposal first being submitted and approved by an editor and then the property owner (CBS, Lucasfilm, Disney, etc.) before any contracts or actual writing of manuscripts takes place. So, if you’re showing up at their door with a full manuscript, you’re going about the process all backwards, and they’re not going to read it.
As for agents, they’ll almost never agree to represent a new writer looking to secure representation for a tie-in novel. For such books, there’s only one shot at selling it: to the publisher holding the license to develop and sell such books. Also, the contracts tend to be very boilerplate, with very little room for negotiating advances, royalties, and other points. There’s just nothing in it for an agent, though they can and do handle tie-in books for their clients who already are writing original fiction.
So how does one become a “tie-in writer?” As legends tell, one must first be bitten by another tie-in writer.
Okay, while the real answer isn’t as exciting, it’s not that far removed, when you think about it. Editors of tie-in novels tend to rely on writers they already know or who are recommended to them by colleagues; proven commodities who can work in concert with other writers, who are easy to deal with and deliver solid work in the face of often insane deadlines. Landing such a gig as a new writer with little or no previous professional writing experience is a rarity.
Meanwhile, original fiction offers many more paths to success. Instead of a single publisher, now you can take your manuscript (or outline and sample chapters, depending on the submission guidelines) to many, many more potential publishers, and agents are always on the hunt for new talent. Smaller publishers and self-publishing also are options which aren’t feasible (or even legal) when it comes to tie-in fiction.
I explained all of this to my hopeful e-Mailer. In addition to the above, I also offered some suggestions and recommendations so far as pursuing publication of his original fiction and seeking agency representation. Yes, it likely was disappointing, but I figure if someone takes the time to reach out for advice, they deserve honest, respectful answers to their questions, and who knows? Perhaps one day his dream will become a reality.






Monday, September 15, 2014

The Audacity Of Authors

While attending a recent writers conference I overheard a woman say “That author's ego is really out of control.” The catty remark was aimed at an author who did seem pretty full of himself. But it got me to wondering: Is there room for humbleness when it comes to writing?

The dictionary definition of “humble” is “Not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive; offered in the spirit of deference or submission; ranking low in a hierarchy or scale; insignificant; lacking all the signs of pride.” Does this sound like the traits a successful writer?

The simple act of putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard announces to the world, “I have something to say. My thoughts are unique. My words are important!” That mindset is what drives writers, convinces them every day to sit in a chair and hope for the flow of ideas that will translate to the right words on the page. This is what deprives them of family time, TV time, sleep, and their favorite past time, reading. This is what makes them snap at people, growl at interruptions, overeat and add fat to their butt.

So, from where does this “arrogance” spring? I can only speak for myself: I'm inspired by the scribes before me. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Homer (not Simpson—Doh!). Their words lasted centuries—will mine do the same? In the lightening pace of today's plugged-in world, is it possible for my words to last longer than the next tweet?

Writers have to be overly proud of what we're doing—and yes, I'm in the non-humble crowd. We are out there trying for truth and recognizing it our fellow authors. Ego and belief in ourselves is what shores up our confidence when family members look skeptical at our efforts. Friends encourage us with pats on the back as if we've just escaped from a mental institution. Authors are strangers, not people they know.

We struggle alone and wait for the spark, that “Aha!” moment when our consciousness takes a giant leap onto the page. That's the moment when the pleasure of writing is transformed to the power of writing. There's no turning back.

The next hurdle is ignoring the censor in your head that says “Can I write what I really feel and get away with it?” Don't look for the green light from family and friends. They're already worried you're going to spill the dirty laundry. You can't wait to write until Granny and her church friends die.

On my list of the most daring, soul-barring authors I've come across are Philip Roth, who never let me look at liver the same way again. James Joyce, whose run-on sentences go on for pages. Joan Didion slouching toward Bethlehem. Erica Jong diminished my Fear of Flying. I never understood a word of Henry Miller's Cancers but am incensed that he was censored. Anais Nin who opened up her sexuality for public viewing. And my favorite author, Chuck Palahniuk, always makes me want to write brave, to bare my soul, not bar it.

I tell beginning writers that they must always stand by their words because critics are out there ready to tear them apart. Break new ground, break down barriers. Take old ideas and turn them around like a prism until they see light from another angle. Find their voice and use words that excite. What I don't tell them is in the process they're going to cut their emotional wrists and bleed all over the page. It's messy and some aren't going to survive.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

On the Social Side

An actual sculpture by
artist Alicia Martin
mounted at Casa de America,
Madrid
Depending on who you talk to between 600,000 and one million books are published in the US each year. I won't quote a source, you can look it up or take my word for it. In the mean time, US book sales are declining. This makes for a very competitive market as you can imagine. This is one of the reasons that the face of book marketing has changed significantly over the years. No longer can an author write, hand the book over to the publisher and bury his or her nose again, focusing on the second book. Instead, the author has to get out there and engage with the audience, market herself, generate a group of people (outside of family members who are required to buy the book) who care about you and your book.

This was the topic of discussion on a recent radio program in which I participated with fellow novelnaut, Velda Brotherton. As we talked about the need for authors to use Social Media to sell books another irony came to light. I have no statistics on this one but it's not hard to imagine that the people who chose a career that involves spending long periods of time on their own pouring their essence on to a (figurative) piece of paper might not belong to the most social group on the planet. I know I'm not. Promoting myself on social media means putting myself out there without the shield of a fictional character. I hesitate before each post. Does anyone really care about the things that are important to me or the things that happen in my day?


We can have an informal poll here. Are you an introverted or extroverted author? Do you use social media as a means of promoting yourself and books? What challenges do you face in doing so?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How to Not Write Novel #2



There are in fact many, MANY, more reasons NOT to tell people you are writing a novel than there are reasons to tell people what you're up to.

Let's look at a few of them:

1- I don't know if you know these people (I sure do), they are the people who endlessly tell you about their book but never actually write it. Let's face it, it's a lot funner, and easier, to just talk about writing a book. Actually writing it is work. Hard work. Or maybe it's just that the book has been talked to death. Talk about something long enough and it feels like it's already written. Or maybe another, newer idea supplants it before anything on the other book can even get put on paper. 

2- People love nothing more than a parade they can rain on. And you being happy and excited about the book you're working on is BEGGING for a reality check. Don't let them rain you out! When people ask what (if anything) you are writing just say stuff. 

3- People love to tell you all about what you SHOULD be writing, and it generally  involves them and their ideas, which they've never done anything with. People also want to contribute, for I don't know what reason but this one irks me likes no one's business. Often because other people's ideas are so far OFF from what my vision is that I get really annoyed with them for daring to foist their ideas off on my work.

These are only three reasons! The responses to "I'm writing a novel." vary from actively hurtful, to poor advice, to plain discouraging. It's best to keep your work and your ideas close to the vest until you have a  finished product, or a sturdy support system.

So what are some of the choice responses you've gotten?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

When Your Characters Keep Talking

Years ago I was watching Oprah and an author said that he hears the voices of his characters in his head. I was like, wooooo, really? Yikes!

Well he was right. I type what I see and hear, dialogue first (I use very little narration), like I'm translating what I'm watching in a video. I live through this each and every time I write a story. I guess it's better than having writer's block, but my-oh-my, I'm going through it right now and during the times I'm not actually sitting down to write, it means I, as most writers, get very little sleep because these folks we've created are in our heads 24/7.

I'm in the 11th hour of a WIP that I need to send to two editors soon. I'm on my third and final draft, which is great, though things are still changing because of these dang "voices," or let's say "ideas," that keep popping into my head. I'm making notes, texting myself, scribbling on the back of envelopes, receipts, using my cell memo feature, recording myself, emailing myself, and sometimes, as always, thinking I'll take a chance that I'll remember the idea, but I don't. Good grief, I can't wait until the ideas stop, and then I'll know I'm done.

Just this morning the 3 year-old girl in my story said, okay, I had an idea, that she must pray, on her knees each night, asking God for her dad to come home. Then while I was making coffee, I decided to scratch one minor character, and assign his contributions to the necessary progression of the story to another character. Yesterday, I remembered that a phone rang at 1 a.m. in one scene, but I never followed up as to who it was. One character reminded me the other day to mention her occupation, which is critical to her having knowledge on a subject. Last week I wondered if my character should mediate. She wants to, and I think she could, but would I be true to her arc if she did? Oh, at three in the morning a character told me she should be at the gym in the short scene I'm writing today. Whew! This stage is amazing, necessary, a blessing, but dang characters, shut up already, or should I say, keep talking!

This is one reason why I always say don't rush a story because if you cut it off at the end before the "ideas" cease, you just might miss an opportunity to throw in a great angle. When I was writing Hot Boyz, right before I hit the button to email it to my editor, I realized that though we think there was a murder suicide, the shooter really survived, and he's in prison. The scene I wrote of the boyfriend driving out to visit the shooter is one of the best scenes, and best twists, I've ever written. I know, I gave it away, but hey - point made. :)

And so, I should be okay to turn this manuscript over to awaiting hands by Sunday night, maybe not. And even when I get it back, more changes, and one more proofreader. And trust, no matter what I say, I will be messing with the dang thing even while they have it. But in the end, after years of writing, in spite of times like this that work my nerves, I will know that I allowed my characters to live out their stories, not mine, and that I was true to them, in spite of them bugging me for all these months. It's a love-hate, but 51% love, and as long as that continues, I'll keep writing, with characters all up in my head, chatting away! My passion personified!

How do you handle this stage of writing - the times when you at least know you've developed them enough for them to speak, but you want them to shut the heck up so you can get some flipping sleep?

Write on! Voices and all!!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Launch update

A month ago I wrote about my plans to have a book launch party.  Well I did and it was awesome.  So was it successful?  That depends on how you define success.  The target age for the book, “Zapped! Danger in the cell” is 8 to 13 years old, defined as middle grade.  The book is entertaining, but it is also educational.  It correlates directly with aspects of 5th and 6th grade science curriculum which deals with types of cells, structure, organelles and their function.  It allows kids to learn about the cell, its organelles, structure and functions without the tedium of a text book, but rather the fun adventure of the four main characters who are shrunk and zapped into an animal cell.

So what happened at the launch?  Well there were book sales and signings.

There were games that engaged kids in attendance including making a model cell out of candy. And there was great food.
A few things that I consider as successful occurred at the launch party. 
1.    We got the books in the hands of several elementary school teachers book in the New York City Public School system, Westchester County Public School System and in St. Kitts (in the Caribbean) public school systems.
2.    There were people who headed book clubs for adults and middle grade kids who bought not just my new release but also my older titles.
3.    A journalist in attendance wrote an article profiling “Zapped!” Danger in the cell and the authors.  That article was published in “SKNvibes” an online newspaper/ezine that targets Kittitians home and abroad and posted to the St. Kitts-Nevis Times Facebook page.
4.    We got the book in the hands of parents of children in the target age.


So why do I think that the launch party was worth it?  It got my name out there.  It got my book out there.  It got it in the hands of people who have the potential of sharing it with others on a large scale.  It gave my older titles a booster shot.  Most of all, we had a great party that I probably would have had anyway since it was my birthday.

So should every author run out and have a launch party for each book title?  That would depend on your goals, what you consider success, how much you are willing to invest in promoting your book, and ....(you can add your goals here).

This was my first ever launch party and because of the positive experience, it is definitely something I would do again.