Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Guest editor Marco Palmieri: Deal With the Devil

Marco Palmieri is the editor behind Otherworld Editorial, a recently launched private consultation service for both aspiring and experienced authors. He is a former Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster, Inc., where from 1996-2008 he acquired and developed over 200 titles of fiction and nonfiction.

Make friends with your editor.

It sounds elementary, doesn’t it? That’s why I’m perplexed whenever I hear about authors who regard their editors as adversaries rather than allies. And while I’m pleased to be able to say I can count on one hand the number of times I met this attitude in my own fourteen-year career as a professional editor, the few occasions on which it did happen stand out vividly in my memory, for the simple reason that they were all so unnecessary.

From where I sit, the fact that some writers believe editors are evil incarnate has always struck me as odd. I might understand it if a particular editor had already proven himself to be damaging to an author’s work. Honestly, I have nothing but sympathy for writers who were once burned and have promised themselves never to let it happen a second time. But to then conclude all editors are clueless agents of darkness, lacking souls or sensibility, whose suggestions must be fought at every turn – well, that’s just plain silly.

Some experienced authors, especially if they’ve enjoyed great success, come to believe they’ve outgrown the need for an editor, or that they’ve earned the right to be published without one – as if being edited was something they had to “put up with” early in their career, but which is now no longer required of them because those dues have been paid. This belief, in my opinion, has never failed to backfire on a writer, resulting in books of noticeably diminished quality from their earlier, edited work.

There are also cases when a writer is so committed to maintaining the “purity” of his or her art they view any editorial suggestion beyond correcting a misspelled word or an inverted apostrophe as corruption. I can appreciate the desire to be able to offer a book to the world and declare, with pride, “For better or worse, these words are mine, no one else’s.” But no artist creates in vacuum. We’re influenced in innumerable ways by innumerable sources, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we realize it or not. To draw the line at an editor is, frankly, absurd.

It’s true not all editors are created equal. There are some pretty lousy ones out there, to be sure, and there are lousy writers, too. But just as no author sets out to write a bad book, so too no editor wants to do harm to one. The goal of each party should be to get the other’s A-game, and therein is the delicate balancing act of the editor-author relationship, and the attitude of each party toward the other can have a big influence on how a book turns out.

The most important thing to remember is that editors and authors have responsibilities to each other. It’s the editor’s obligation to offer the author another perspective on her work, and to suggest ways a manuscript may be improved. But he also has a responsibility to listen to the author, and to allow her to come up with her own solutions to any problems he has identified.

An author has the right to refuse any editorial recommendations she doesn’t agree with, but also a responsibility to carefully consider those recommendations first, with the understanding that these suggestions come not from a callous disregard for a manuscript’s identity or integrity, but from an earnest wish to see it succeed on as many levels as possible.

In my own experience, these considerations more often than not come naturally to authors and editors, and the majority of such working relationships are fun, energetic creative partnerships, built on honest communication, mutual respect, and a shared excitement for work being undertaken. But even then, no author or editor should expect to agree on everything – it would be a poor and stagnant collaboration if they did. That’s exactly what makes the editor-author dynamic work, when it’s at its best: the willingness to disagree without becoming contentious or adversarial. Such partnerships invariably lead to better books…and sometimes even enduring friendships.

Marco Palmieri

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dreams and Nightmares of Book Signings

I think that most writers dream of having that line-around-the-corner type book signing as a show of fan support, book sales, and to be made to feel celebrity like special. At least for one signing on one particular day in the life and times of a writer.

Of course, most of us realize that scenario is often easier said than done. Unless you are fairly well known, have a publisher willing to devote the resources and effort to promote the book, can gain enough local interest through your own efforts, and other intangibles, having a standing room only gathering or otherwise group of fans who will allow you to empty the table by signing books for paying customers is difficult at best and nearly impossible at worst.

This notwithstanding, I have been on both ends of the book signing journey and believe that it is always worth pursuing at the end of the day, if book signing constitutes part of your criteria for having "made it" as an author.

On the dream side, I have had a few book signings in which due to a combination of my own labors and serious publisher involvement, have been enormously successful in terms of creating a buzz and signing every available copy and then some.

In one such, example, it occurred at a bookstore inside a flea market. The signing happened to be on a Saturday afternoon when the market was packed with bargain hunters. It was a two hour reading and signing event and was announced over the PA system every fifteen minutes or so. The result was that I ending up signing 150 books (or three cases of books), with enough time to spare that the bookstore owner actually went to a nearby chain bookstore and bought up another 50 books they had on hand (they were happy to cooperate and replaced their stock by ordering an even larger amount for their store). I signed that extra 50 books as well and headed back home (another state) grinning from ear to ear and wondering how I could package that success for other signings.

Alas, signings vary from bookstore to bookstore and sometimes no amount of preparation, publicity, or celebrity status can keep a book signing from being decidedly a flop. I have been at some major bookstores (both publisher sponsored and through my own initiative) and, in signing only a comparatively few copies of book, been little more than a mannequin for patrons passing me by. In some instances, customers will go in the opposite direction or avoid eye contact to keep from being solicited for signing by me or a desperate store representative trying to unload books the bookstore has no desire to keep.

In some (make that most) cases, timing is everything. There are instances where the bookstore only has an opening (or willingness to allow signing) at a time or day where not a lot of traffic is likely to be generated, all but guaranteeing that the turnout will be weak and book sales/signings far less than ideal.

Other times, the lack of bookstore preparation can doom a book signing from the start. In one classic example, I arrived at a chain bookstore signing and after announcing myself to the store manager, she did some checking and realized apologetically that the assistant manager had mistakenly had signing for two days later (at which point I was to be in another state for another signing). There were no posters up (as has been the case for some of my signings) and no author info in the store newsletter for either day.

The manager hastily hand wrote a sign to put in window, pulled out a table near front door and stacked books on, and we went with it. I managed to sign maybe fifteen books for actual customers and another twenty-five for the bookstore. The rest (about sixty or so) were returned to publisher.

Anyway, in conclusion, book signings are always a good thing for a writer's ego, even if some signings fail to live up to their potential. Going into them without overly high expectations and taking it all in stride whether a good or bad experience and go a long ways in keeping things in a proper perspective. The most important thing in being a writer is to write the best you can, which is within your control. Book signings, on the other hand, can often be a hit or miss, but always interesting and a testament to your ability to at least put yourself on the book signing map right alongside bestselling authors and others whose signature on a book can do much to brighten someone's day!

What are your thoughts on book signings in general? Share some of your good or bad signing experiences as an author.

As a reader, do you enjoy going to book signings? Or would you rather have an author mail you a signed copy of book?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My WIP has multiple personality disorder

I recently attempted to read a novel that presented a story from several different points of view. One chapter would show the action through the eyes of a banker trying to protect a young man. In the next, it would switch to describing the activities of the authorities trying to find the young man. Occasionally we learned of things that could only be known by the young man himself. I never finished the book. This does not happen to me very often. I found it just too difficult to keep track of who was doing what. This book was making me work way too hard.

Interestingly enough, in my WIP I am having a difficulty which would be overcome by telling the story from different points of view. The human characters in the Caribbean Adventure Series include a main character and his two side kicks. One of the sidekicks is a bossy girl who keeps butting in to tell the story from her point of view. After my experience with the novel mentioned above and having read the posts on Point of View by Shauna Roberts, I am determined to stave off my character's efforts to be in charge. I am the boss, after all ... aren't I?

I recognize that in the novel I recently tried to read, one of the problems is that the characters and their foreign names were too similar and so it was difficult for me to distinguish one from the others. I have read other books that have switched points of view from chapter to chapter successfully, although it still made me a bit uncomfortable. This discomfort is even more marked if I connect with one "narrator" more than the other.

Am I just too feeble minded to read books above a certain level of complexity? How do you feel about novels that purposely move between two or (heaven forbid) more points of views?

-- By Carol Mitchell
(Currently home in Ghana, but experiencing minor technical difficulties)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Two Kinds of Writers

At our first faculty meeting of the year, a fellow named Jeff Howard, a social psychologist, spoke to us. Now, I often don’t find such speakers very interesting but I really enjoyed what Dr. Howard had to say. And though he was primarily talking about student types, I think his ideas apply to writing, as well. Of course, I tend to think most everything applies to writing. Below, I’ve extended Howard’s ideas to writing. These are my interpretations, not his, so I hope I got his basics down right.

First, Howard suggested that there are two kinds of people in the world: “Performance Oriented” and “Learning Oriented.” Performance Oriented (PO) folks come into every new situation looking to “prove” something to themselves and others. Generally, that means ‘proving’ that they are smart and capable. Thus, PO writers want to show others and themselves how smart they are in their work. PO individuals also tend to believe that writing is a “talent” rather than a learned craft, and PO folks tend to believe that if something requires a lot of “effort,” then that reveals less “talent.”

Learning Oriented (LO) folks come into new situations looking to improve themselves. Their main goal is to learn “how” to do a particular thing, and they don’t doubt their ability to learn that material. LO folks believe that “effort” controls outcome and is the key to success. They don’t equate less effort with a sign of greater talent.

A key difference between PO and LO folks shows up when a “failure” occurs. Say the writer approaches a major magazine publisher with a story and gets rejected out of hand. PO individuals take the failure as a sign of lack of talent, and often develop a sense of helplessness, which leads them to either quit writing or to lower their sights. The PO writer may think things like: “I just can’t do this.” If the same rejection comes to an LO writer, the response is quite different, something along the lines of: “OK, that didn’t work. What do I have to change to make sure I’ll sell my next story to that magazine?” The LO writer then begins generating ideas and strategies to improve his or her work to the point required for success.

Dr. Howard went on to say that Americans “take in the PO attitude with the water” as we grow up and that the vast majority of us are PO when we need to be LO. He does believe we can move people away from PO toward LO. Here’s my take.

The “two kinds of people” thing is always an oversimplification but it can be a useful one. I believe Howard is definitely onto something here. For his “taking it in with the water,” I suspect what he is getting at is that all children really begin life as PO. Most of childhood seems to be about proving oneself to others, both adults and peers. And children, being small and inexperienced, are going to have quite a few failures and naturally look to someone else to tell them how to do better. The LO attitude itself is a product of education and experience, although certain cognitive (thought) processes need to develop along with the training and experience.

I think I definitely began my writing life as a PO kind of person. I don’t think I was trying to show others how smart I was as much as I was trying to show myself that I was capable of writing material good enough to be published. Then came the failures. I definitely remember thinking, “I just can’t do this.” And if I hadn’t of had a few small successes here and there I quite probably would have quit. I did understand, though, that the route to success most often comes through sustained and directed effort. I began putting in that effort, and was rewarded with more successes. I could see that I changed things and they “worked.” Out of that I really developed the LO attitude.

I’m not sure one ever becomes completely LO, though. I will always believe that there is an element of innate talent in many peoples’ successes. That’s the biologist in me talking. I also still suffer at times from self-doubt; I wonder if I really “can” do this. Most of the time, though, I’m going to try anyway. And if I fail, I’m going to study harder and try again.

How about you? PO? LO? SOB? Something else I haven’t thought of?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mother interference

My mother was my only parent, best friend and don't tell my husband, favorite date. When I needed someone to accompany me to events, my mother always paid her own way, knew how to dress appropriately, and understood that no meant no. Needless to say our close relationship went into flux when I started dating my future husband.

After I got married, I realized jealousy and rivalry dominated the relationship between the two most important people in my life. Their conflict made my life incredibly difficult. Balancing the needs of both people made my brain hurt. That said, when the idea for You're All I Need began to keep me awake at night, I considered how my mother would react if I were to meet and marry someone from another country. What measures would she take to keep me close and in Michigan?

You're All I need sprang from some of the antics that I suspected my mother might pull. Employing family and friends to convince me to stay local would be her first line of defense. Knowing my mother, I wouldn't put it passed her to pack her bags and follow me.

How about you? Do you have a story that you would like to tell about your parents? Some interesting tidbit that would fall into the same classification.

Take a look at the book and let know if my characters remind you of one or both of your parents. Please share you own thoughts on the subject. E-mail me at karenwowens@gmail.com or click on the link and tell me what you think. Share some of your parents' antics. I'd love to hear from you.

Remember, don't be a stranger.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tell Me Your Dreams

Last November, in a blog interview with SORMAG Magazine, the interviewer asked the question: what is your author fantasy. It was not long after Shauna’s blog on realistic fantasies. So of course I tried to temper my fantasy to the more realistic goal of having several published per year.

Unlike many new authors, I didn’t expect my first novel to make me my first million. I had a more realistic set of expectations, a mechanism that helps me to avoid disappointment. I knew it was going to be difficult to get published. Hence when I got an offer on the first try, I investigated the agency and learned it was a scam agency. I didn’t expect to get rich or even give up my job… my mother had already prepared me for that one. So I set two realistic goals for my novel:

1 To introduce a heroine that was not ultra thin, overly beautiful, or super rich. In fact, my heroine was overweight bordering on obese, average in external beauty, and unemployed (the victim of cooperate downsizing), yet filled with inner beauty.

2 To share my story with the world. At that time, I was so desperate to be published that making money was far from my thoughts. I saw it as an investment, something that would make it less difficult to get published in the future. And if I made money off of it that would be the icing on the cake.

My expectations were modest expectations that I think were met. But expectations are expectations and dreams are dreams. We fiction authors know fantasy well. We can create new worlds with nothing. We can create creatures not created by God, and give them personalities too. So while my expectations were realistic, my dreams were far from modest. Here are some of the dreams I had for my first novel:

1. Of course it would make the New York Times best seller list

2. It would be featured on Oprah’s book club

3. I would get a full hour interview on Oprah’s show and she would present the members of the audience with a copy. I would be featured on The View, Larry King live, Rachel Ray, and of course C-span

4. Michele Obama would have a copy of it in hand when a reporter asks what she’s reading. She would turn the cover to the camera and say, “A Marriage of Convenience by Jewel Amethyst. It’s one of the best romances I’ve read in a long time.” (I know the chances of that happening are slim, but I can dream can’t I?)

5. That my book would be made into a movie.

6. And yes, that it sells millions of copies and I make lots of money from it.

None of these fantasies have been realized as yet, but one can dream. Who knows, maybe sometime in the future, my book would be that break out novel that I dream of. So now that I’ve shared my dreams and author fantasies with you, what are your favorite author fantasies?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Parents, schools and To Kill A Mockingbird

After a little bit of wheedling, I managed to talk hubby J into reading Harper Lee's book. "It's an American classic," I told him, although I also warned him that there would be expressions and nouns he wouldn't know the meaning of, specific as them seemed to be to 1930s Alabama.

J is more than halfway through the book now and commented to me over breakfast that the state of education hasn't seemed to have changed much in the United States.

"State of education?" I asked.

"Yes. I see there is still a model of trying out various 'modern' techniques on children, with censure for those children, like Scout, who don't comply with the new method of doing things. After all, it's obvious that Scout's language abilities exceed that of her peers. And yet she is being punished for it."

This is a topic near and dear to our hearts and the reason we took the non-trivial decision to homeschool our children for now. We know all about the odd child out being picked upon by their educators. We couldn't escape it in Australia and the pattern has now repeated itself in Malaysia.

The Wast, being asked to build a model of where he'd like to live, was criticised by his teacher when he built and furnished a small cardboard warehouse. He was told he wasn't being "creative" and "it's complicated" to build a home. Hmmmmm, considering that, in his ten years, The Wast has moved across four countries and three continents and watched as we set up at least one home in each of those countries, I considered the comment to be, shall we say, less then helpful.

Telling his Living Skills teacher that he did some cooking at home earnt him laughs from his teacher, joined by the rest of the class. He obtained the sobriquet of "Nonsense Boy" as a result. Making a remark that indicated that he disagreed with his Moral Education teacher, the close-minded and vengeful Miss Susann, resulted in a two-stroke caning.

While what Scout endured was benign in comparison, her run-ins with her teacher got both J and I thinking about attitudes towards children. Who does it benefit to laugh at our children or treat them with disrespect? Does it benefit the children? Or is it for the sole purpose of mollifying adult insecurities? And what does that say about societies where such adult insecurities take precedence over a child's way of thinking?

Both J and I admire Atticus Finch but what we admire about him is not so much that he stands up for the rights of others in public. A lot of people do that and, to us, that is not the strength of To Kill A Mockingbird. To us, the one pure strength of Atticus Finch is that he carries that attitude with him even within his own home, where there's nobody there to impress. He treats his children as he would like to be treated, talking and listening to them with respect and love, and that's why he tops our list of Parent Role Models. Do you have any from your favourite books that you'd like to name?

Monday, August 23, 2010

How to help a starving author

Writers don't make a lot of money. Debbie MacComber, Sue Grafton and John Grisham are the exceptions; the truth is that it's difficult for midlist authors to make a living from writing - and it's getting harder all the time. Who makes up the midlist? They're the thousands who write the tens of thousands of books that pack the shelves of your favourite bookstores.

Waitresses make more money than writers.

Pizza delivery guys make more money than writers.

The boy with the bucket of water and the windshield swiper standing at the traffic lights and cleaning your glass for a dollar very likely makes more money than writers.

I can't imagine a world without books. Writers enrich our lives immeasurably with their words, and they do it for little or nothing.The very best thing readers can do for their favourite authors is buy their books. They love you for that and nothing further is required. However, if readers really, really, really want to go the extra mile to show some appreciation, here's a list of the ways they can help.
  • Write reviews. One reader not only wrote a brilliant review of my book, but she put it up on every book site she belongs to: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads and Shelfari. Amazon is the best, because it's where everyone goes to get feedback on everything regardless of where they actually buy the stuff. That reader I mentioned? If I ever have another baby, she's my first choice for godmother.
  • Tag books on Amazon. See those little boxes halfway down the page under the heading 'Tags Customers Associate with This Product'? Click as many of those boxes as you can. (Helpful hint: You have to be signed in to your account for the boxes to appear, otherwise all you'll see is the list of tags.) If there are very few tags, create some. This pushes the book higher up in searches. The higher the search rank, the easier the book can be found by potential readers.
  • Spread the word. Tell your friends and acquaintances about the book. Pass around your copy. Ask for it at your library and at your bookstore. Write about the author on your own site(s), and remember to link to the author’s website. This helps with Google, Technorati and other rankings. Use book recommendation sites. Follow your favorite authors - on Blogger, on Twitter, and wherever else online the opportunity arises. Use social networking tools like Digg, StumbleUpon, MySpace, and LibraryThing. See all those funny little icons at the bottom of blog posts all over the web? They lead to social networking sites that can seriously boost an author’s web traffic. Boosting web traffic to authors' sites increases their visibility and sales.
  • Nominate your favorite author, book, magazine, short story, etc. for awards.
  • Preorder new books when they are announced.
  • Sign up for the author’s mailing list.
  • Suggest the author’s work at your book club or reading circle.
  • Attend author events. Authors often hold book signings and launch parties, lead workshops, do readings, and attend conventions. Face to face interaction with readers is like chocolate to us.
  • Join the new Facebook group, How To Help a Starving Author. Writers work in the dark, and when readers take the trouble to contact them and let them know how much they like their work it makes them really, really, really happy. So often readers want to know why they haven't heard about the book before, why the next one isn't available yet, why the story isn't a movie. Most of the time, they are unaware that the reader has the power to make all these things happen.
  • Drop your favourite author a note. Say what you liked about the book. I guarantee it'll make his or her day.
On September 7th I'll be taking a look at the things you DON'T do if you want to help your favourite authors, starving or otherwise.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Haunted Hotel

Me and my little friend Tony outside the "Overlook"...

I visited a friend in Boulder, Colorado last month, before she moved back to Singapore. While I was there I rented a car from a very fun local non-profit agency called eGo, and we made plans to drive an hour north to Estes Park.

When I told my hotel clerk where we were going, he said, “Oh, that’s where The Shining hotel is...” I think I actually hopped a bit in glee when he told me that.

I’d never heard of the Stanley Hotel, much less that it was outside Boulder. I must have heard the story of how Stephen King stayed there after “Carrie” was published, but didn’t remember the name of the hotel. The parking lot attendant filled us in -- King was working on a new novel about a family trapped in an amusement park when he went to stay at the hotel, not sure how he could trap them there. He was caught up in the tales of ghosts, reworked his story and a classic was born.

The hotel is impressive, spread over a generous portion of land. It overlooks the town, and standing on the front porch you can see that King took liberties in setting it farther from civilization. They’ve taken full advantage of its history, both before and after Stephen King. There are ghost tours, copies of “The Shining’ and both movies in the gift shop, t-shirts and caps emblazoned with ghosts.

A shop clerk told us that there’s a guy who looks like Jack Nicholson who likes to hang out at the hotel waiting for people to ask him if he is...about the only thing they don’t have is dress-up mystery weekends with him chasing guests dressed as characters from the book through the hotel with an ax or roque mallet.

There is a big bar that doesn’t look quite as sinister as the one Lloyd served Jack at in Kubrick’s version, and a waterfall in back I don’t remember from the book either, but guests and tourists racing around the lobby and grounds all seem caught up in the magic of the place, no matter how manufactured.

Specificity of place is a boon to writers. Starting your story in a real setting, no matter how much you may change it physically or geographically, or whether you rename it, gives your tale some of the reality of the original location. You can picture hallways, floors, the relationship between rooms. As your characters move through the world you make for them, it remains consistent, stable, more realistic.

A setting can also grow in significance, into a character as important as the people whose story you follow. How many times have you heard people talk about a city as a character in a story, or a house? I like to take pictures of places that suit my novels, buildings, neighborhoods, and put them up on the wall in front of where I am working along with photographs of faces that remind me of the characters.

World building is key in fiction, especially fantasy of any kind. Remember as you work on your worlds that a day spent roaming plausible locations with a digital camera, and quick stop at a photo printer at your local pharmacy, and you have a wealth of research that costs you the price of bus fare and prints. Need to see streets in other cities, or around the world, but can’t afford to get there? Find photos. Google street view works wonders, and found me the perfect place to set the opening chapter of "PAST LIFE: A Vampire Testament", at an isolated McDonald’s restaurant in the Cajon Pass outside of San Bernadino.

So build your worlds real enough to let your imagination run wild in them, but also know -- you don’t have to build them from scratch. Reading isn’t the only form of research, and when it comes to creating a believable setting, a visit and a photo can be worth a thousand words or more.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Curiosity and the Cat

"What's on the table? I'll jump up to see. A vase! What's in it? Are they edible?"
Curiosity killed the cat, folklore tells us—a rather jaundiced view of the inquisitive mind, don't you think? At least cats have nine lives to compensate.

Modern science has a more favorable opinion of curiosity. Older people who are curious, creative, and flexible and who continue to learn new things on average retain their mental faculties longer and even stay physically healthier than their stuck-in-the-mud contemporaries. That's good news for us writers, who often find ourselves chastised for spending too much time in our chairs and not enough in the gym.

Graduate school killed my curiosity. I was so burned out when I finished my doctorate that I had no interest in learning anything remotely intellectual. For many years, my creativity was diverted into cooking, herb gardening, quilting, learning and playing new musical instruments, and other activities that favored manual skills over mental ones.

In 2000, a new appreciation of my own mortality made me rethink my priorities and led me to start writing fiction again, this time with serious dedication. And a funny thing happened. The more I researched and learned things, the more things I wanted to learn. Each new story or book led to my having several new interests, each of which spawned an interest in several related areas. My library of nonfiction and reference books grew at an increasing rate.

I'm in the early stages of my fiction career. It may never amount to much; it's too early to tell. But even if I am a complete failure at writing fiction, I will always be glad that I pursued it. It opened my brain to the world again and made me eager to savor new sights and sounds and facts and ideas and philosophies. Many of the friends I made through writing organizations shared my new curiosity about the world, and I feel privileged to have encountered such questing, churning, creative minds.

The third novel in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series is called Life, the Universe and Everything. One day soon, when you ask me what my interests are, I'll answer "life, the universe, and everything!" What a wonderful new life writing has given me!

Has writing made you more curious? How has writing enriched and improved your life? I'm curious to know whether you're as happy as I am that you write.

Thanks for stopping by Novel Spaces today. I'll be blogging here again on September 5.

—Shauna Roberts

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Attitude thrusters

A fellow writer recently asked me about my use of the term "attitude thrusters" in a story. She wondered if perhaps I'd meant "altitude thrusters." Attitude thrusters are very small engines on a spacecraft that alter the vehicle's orientation as it travels along a trajectory. They have little effect on the overall path of the spacecraft, but they can control where the main engines are pointed and do affect how passengers aboard the craft perceive the journey. Our lives are greatly affected by our own attitude thrusters. Small things of which we may not be aware that influence how we see ourselves and how we see the people and world around us. The effect of these attitude thrusters are not limited to our writing careers, of course, but this community is about writing, so I'm going to set all other life arenas aside to focus on our experiences and goals as writers.

A decade or so ago an online friend of mine won a writing competition, beating out 4,000+ other writers to have her work published. As it happened a writing conference was held near enough to her hometown for her to attend shortly thereafter. I'm not clear on the details of the event or its location. What I do remember is her description of a panel discussion that included a writer she particularly admired. At one point the panel invited any other professional writers in the audience to introduce themselves. She stood up, copy of her first published work proudly in hand, and did just that. At which point the writer she so admired led the panelists in telling her she was not a "professional" writer at all; merely a hobbyist who'd gotten lucky.

This past week a patient of about my age was in my wife's unit at the hospital. He let it be known early on that he was a writer; his attitude indicating this status entitled him to special considerations and a certain deference. Two people familiar with his work – one of them his mother – were in attendance periodically and reinforced the message great authors were above mere mortals on the karma pecking order. You know my wife did an internet search – she's always on the lookout for folks I should know in publishing – and discovered the man had self-published a novel about a geologically impossible earthquake originating off Wrightsville Beach and the havoc wrecked by the ensuing tsunami. The sort of writing with exclamation points in the descriptive passages. The local author expressed disbelief when told one of the nurses was married to a writer; my wife chose not to identify herself.

Conversely, local author Sharyn McCrumb, who frequents the same used book stores I do, puts on no airs at all, appearing to all intents and purposes to be a college instructor. (She is aided in her disguise by the fact that for several years she was one.)

One aspect of being a media tie-in writer that I've commented on before is the perception of such work by the public and other, non-media tie-in authors. As I noted in my first column here, over a year ago, if one thinks of writing original fiction as performing a violin solo, writing media tie-in is analogous to playing first chair in an orchestra. Both forms require skill and craftsmanship, but the purpose and application differ. Some writers, like friend-of-a-friend David Weber, tolerate game-related tie-in writing because it is a part of the creative process. However he has no truck with TV/movie tie-ins. Two things I do not discuss with him are politics and Star Trek (Trekkies should know there's a reason the uniform of the bad guys in Honor Harrington series is red tunic/black pants). Other non-tie-in writers dismiss the whole industry as something akin to writing ad copy. I've recounted elsewhere my experiences in searching for a MFA-creative writing program; I used examples of my published works as an introduction. At UNC-Wilmington an assistant of director Philip Gerard, whom I've known since his hair was brown and mine black, suggested I might want to first enroll in a few undergraduate courses "to discover whether I was ready for serious writing." Conversely the director of the MFA program at Queen's University in Charlotte commented that I probably had something to teach them about work ethic and meeting deadlines. I've found variations of these two perceptions to be nearly universal, with little middle ground. (Note: Here at Novel Spaces, my fellow novelnauts all fall into the latter group.)

Just yesterday I found myself in conversation with a woman who had given up her career to be a stay-at-home mom with six children. She said that being a writer had always been a back-burner dream with her, but she didn't feel she had the right sort of education and was afraid she wasn't really an artist. "Besides," she added apologetically, "all I'd really want to write are romances." I was quick to point out that romance is a field to which I aspire and that romance makes up 50% of the fiction published world wide. But the real issue was that in her mind a writer was someone larger than life – she had bought right in to the attitude of the self-published patient and the self-important panelists that as a mere mortal she did not have what it took to write. I recommended some reading and that she start writing, just for herself, in a journal or at the keyboard, to get used to the process and the idea of writing. I'd like to think I may have launched another writer's career.

What about you? What attitudes do you encounter about writing and writers that surprise you or shape your perceptions? What attitudes are shaping how you approach your own writing or your goals and objectives as a writer?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Internet Lockdown

If you can resist the lure of the internet during writing hours and not peek at e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and the gang – come back tomorrow. This post isn’t for you.

But if you have no self-control whatsoever and have to check Twitter to see what your favorite author had for breakfast, keep reading.

It’s no secret I’m squarely in the lacking in discipline camp, and it doesn’t help that free wifi is everywhere.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto a website for a productivity software application called Freedom. The words,’… locks you away from the internet on Mac or Windows computers for up to eight hours at a time’ drew me in immediately.

I downloaded it, followed the simple instructions and VOILA! – my netbook was transformed into an temporary internet-free zone.

Freedom puts your computer on internet lockdown for a minimum of 15-minutes up to an 8-hour max.

I’ve used it on both my Windows netbook and my Macbook, and it’s the perfect internet jailer. You can download a trial version of Freedom for a test run. The full version is $10.

So how do you resist the web during writing hours?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Writing Essentials

I had another blog post in mind for today, but a question I encountered during a recent interview on In Search of Giants got me to thinking about the different things writers need in order to get into their creative zones. Some people are morning writers, who can only work during those before dawn hours when the house is quiet and everything is still. Other people like to burn the midnight oil. They may see the sun sneaking up just over the horizon, but that's after hours of typing away on their laptops.

There are those writers who need music. Some even go so far as to create playlist that are inspired by the characters in their works-in-progress. Others may write to music, but would pull their hair out if that music actually contained lyrics.

For me, it's coffee. Yes. Coffee.

Now, I've tried writing without my liquid caffeine, and have actually been able to get words on the page. But I don't recommend it. Coffee makes things easier for me. The words flow more freely. The setting is more vivid. My characters are more entertaining. It's all better with coffee.

I consider myself a connoisseur. I just checked my freezer and cabinets and counted fourteen different types of coffee. I just never know what I will be in the mood for. I don't do flavored, but love a robust dark roast. On the really tough mornings, nothing but a full-bodied coffee with chicory will do. I buy whole bean, because grinding it fresh makes for a better cup.

Yes, I take my coffee seriously. It's essential to my writing. I have to take it seriously.

Whether you're a writer, musician, tax attorney, or mime, what one thing do you absolutely need in order to work?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Guest author Maya Reynolds: Translating Your Inspiration

Maya Reynolds is a management analyst living and working in Dallas, Texas. She’s published two romances through NAL, a division of Penguin, and is currently at work on her third novel.

Rosanne Cash is on book tour for her new memoir, Composed. In the past week I’ve heard three different interviews with her on the radio. I was only half listening to her NPR interview with Diane Rehm on Thursday when she said something that caught my attention.

A woman phoned the show, asking for advice as to how she could help her nephew, a budding musician. Cash responded, “The best advice I ever got was, ‘refine your skills so you can support your instincts’.”

She went on to say that great impulse and passion need to be accompanied by a skill set and discipline. She added, “When inspiration comes, you want to have the tools to translate it.”

This is absolutely terrific advice for any newbie artist, including aspiring writers. If you take the time to learn the rules, you can then twist those rules with impunity or even strike out on your own to explore new territory.

I’ve been thinking about this subject quite a bit … ever since I read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy last month. I came late to Larsson’s books, but made up for it by reading all three over a two-week period. In his first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson ignored lots of rules that newbie writers are warned against breaking. He begins with a prologue, he delights in long info dumps, his heroine doesn’t show up until Page 36, and he solves the mystery 150 pages before the end of the novel, throwing off the entire book’s story arc.

But his prologue was intriguing, the mystery absorbing, and I found Lisbeth Salandar to be the most fascinating anti-hero since Hannibal Lector. It also helped that the second and third books were better written than Dragon Tattoo (or at least better representatives of the thriller genre).

Larsson had been writing fiction since he was 17 and earned his living as a journalist. He died at age 50 before the Trilogy could be published. Two weeks before his death, he gave an interview to the editor-in-chief of a Swedish book trade magazine. Six years later, the editor gave an interview of his own to the UK’s Telegraph. In light of the phenomenal success of the Trilogy, that interview offers some interesting insights for writers.

Larsson described the genesis for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “‘I considered Pippi Longstocking,’ he said, referring to the most famous creation of the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren … ‘What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? … I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast … That was my original thought.’ That thought evolved into Larsson’s formidable heroine, Lisbeth Salander.”

Later in the interview, Larsson said: “‘A thing that’s bothered me about crime fiction is that it’s generally about one or two people, but there’s not much about society … I want to get away from that particular pattern … In real life, people are integrated into society. That’s what happens in my books, as well … It’s not an isolated universe.’”

As a professional writer, Larsson had the skill set he needed. Although an avid mystery reader, he also had the confidence to ignore the conventions of the genre in order to carve out his own path. During that interview, he referred to the three books as his “retirement fund.” He knew they’d sell although he didn’t live to see them released.

Last month Larsson became the first author to sell over a million e-books on the Kindle. Altogether his Millennium Trilogy has sold 35 million copies in 40 countries.

Develop your skills and then trust your instincts. And never, ever, give up.

Maya Reynolds

Maya's website: http://www.mayareynolds.com/index.htm
Her blog: http://mayareynoldswriter.blogspot.com/
Her Books: Bad Girl; Bad Boy

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Who's Normal?

Is there any such thing as a normal character? Can a character be too contrived or complex? Whose standard of ordinary do you apply to the people you read or write about?

I ask this because I was talking to my mom the other day and we drifted onto the subject of religion, which inevitably led to memories of my grandmother. Grandma was saved and sanctified – southern style; an avid member of the Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C., to those who know). Devout and enthusiastic, she was popular among her church family in addition to being a well-known business owner in the community.

Religion is what I remember most. She was faithful to her denomination to the point of removing the dice from our Monopoly game and fussing at us for gambling. (I believe we ended up finding a “spinner” from some other game and continuing with our play that way.) Grandma did not dance or listen to (most forms of) secular music as I recall either.

Fast forward a decade and a half to when I’ve grown up moved away from Missouri to live my life as a young divorcee and single mom. Lo and behold, I capture the attention and affections of a preacher! I was just bursting with pride the next time I called grandma and couldn’t wait to tell her of my catch.

“UGH!” She practically spat into the phone.

I could all but see her eyes rolling in disgust across the 600 miles of wire between us. “A preacher?!” Tsk, tsks followed.

Not only was I stunned by her reaction, but I also recall feeling disappointed and a little embarrassed as I continued trying to sway her with this young man’s Godly attributes. She remained unimpressed, we changed topics, and I remember this still.

I experienced this incident as a human long before I could analyze it as a writer. But from both perspectives, it was the unexpected shift in character that caught me off guard.

Grandma was fervent in her faith. In my mind, she was supposed to delight in my pastoral find. Yet she didn’t. I continue to wonder what she’d encountered along her religious road that cost clergy their credibility. If she was a character in one of my books, what would Grandma’s backstory be?

Without the reason behind her reaction, my readers would be as stunned as I was in real life.

Now, I could use that unexpected revelation early on as an intentional plot device to set the tone for action in later chapters. Or, midway, I could use it as a pivotal turning point that re-routes the direction of the story. Or I could save it for a surprise ending that’s been hinted at throughout the story.

Regardless, I’d find a place to use it and ways to support and explain it in the plot. To me, these are the quirks that make characters worth exploring. I’ve come to learn that I really don’t know too many “normal” people. It’s the pits and warts that make us human and that bring fictional characters to life.

As an adult, this unexpected chat helped me relate to my grandmother as a woman rather than the iconic figure of my youth. Now that she’s gone, I can only wonder about the early pages of her life.

As an author, it’s one example of how reality impinges on our expectations in fiction: I owe my characters flaws, I owe my readers explanations. I think this is the only “normal” for fiction.

What about you? Do you think there’s any such thing as a normal character? Can a character be too contrived or complex? Whose standard of ordinary do you apply to the people you read or write about? Let us know.

Quirky, quiet, introspective, always watching, probably not normal,

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Defining Moment of a Novel

When writing a novel (or even reading one, for that matter) there is always a particular moment within the tale or storyline that truly defines it. That may be after the central characters are introduced to one another. Or when a conflict is established or resolved. When certain events within the tale converge. The conclusion of the story. Or some other point in time.

Such a defining moment need not correspond to the general direction of the novel. Or a juncture that is supposed to tell you that this is where it happens. The reality is that there are no hard set rules or interpretations of when that moment comes--be it at the beginning, middle, end of the story, or somewhere in between.

As the writer, most of us can tell intrinsically when that defining moment makes the novel what it is. That is the time when all the pieces seem to come together (even if the story still has a long ways to go before being resolved). Where the earth, sun, and moon are perfectly aligned. Where the essence of the story reaches a point where you just know you have got it now with the balance of the book a mere formality in terms of your ability to fill it out once you've gotten past that defining moment.

There is no better feeling as a novelist than when all the hard work that goes into developing three-dimensional characters and plot, setting and conflict, tension and suspense, clues for readers, and the final resolution comes together at a certain point as you write the novel, so that a light bulb flashes in your head and it becomes clear that everything is flowing perfectly just as you had envisioned and it is smooth sailing from that point on.

The same is true as a reader. When you are sitting in your favorite armchair or on the beach in Hawaii so ensconced in this page turner that you can't put down, it only takes looking back to realize that magical point in time when you were truly hooked. Or your interest spiked so that you became a prisoner of the book from that point on, knowing you could not rest till seeing how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together so that you could finally take a deep breath and let it go.

As the author, you have the benefit of knowing what's going to happen and when over the course of the novel. Thus, that defining moment can hit you at any point of process from beginning to end.

I am currently about halfway through the novel I am writing and have yet to come to the defining moment, per se, though I have crossed some "mini moments" along the road leading to that particular point in time when I will feel I am there and, as such, home free in doing what I set out to do in entertaining those who read this book.

Tell me about the defining moment of your novel as a writer. Or when you are reading a novel.

Does it hit you right away? Or do you need to finish writing or reading before backtracking to capture the moment?

What criteria do you use in determining what constitutes such a defining moment of a novel?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My 24-7 job

I avoid funerals like the plague. When I was younger, I promised that I would never attend one, not even my own. Anyone who dared to open the casket at my funeral would be in for a shock, as I would not be there.

Unfortunately, circumstances have forced me to adjust my perspective on this. I still hate attending funerals, but I have had to attend a few especially in the last couple of years. A close family friend, a wonderful lady who was a surrogate mother to me in my formative years passed away a few weeks ago. I went to the funeral, but this time I had a plan. I would attend, but I would survive the onslaught of emotions by giving myself the role of an observer. I would take notes on how things were done and people’s behavior, mental notes that could be of use to me if I ever had to write a funeral scene. My intention of course was not to be disrespectful. This was about survival.

It occurred to me then that, by choosing writing as a profession, I have chosen a job where I am on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Many writers have a particular time of day when they write. Others have a writing target, a few lines or pages each day. Sometimes we meet the target, other times we don’t, but either way, we work. Every experience during our day, no matter how trivial is potential fodder for our next award winning novel. The interaction of our family at the dinner table may make for a more realistic scene description; a change in your neighbour’s routine may be inspiration for a story on domestic violence or murder. For me, watching my son enter a tunnel-like room at Brimstone Hill got me thinking of an adventure at this fortress.

Do you often find yourself walking through life as an observer, tucking away notes in the back of your mind for possible future use?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The One Writing Rule You “Must” Follow

I hear a lot of advice about writing. I listen to it all, though I don’t necessarily take it all. Here are some of the “rules” I’ve picked up over the years:

Show don’t tell.
Kill your darlings.
Avoid adverbs.
Never use clichés.
Ain’t ain’t a word.
Avoid Info Dumps.
Conflict on every page.
Use adjectives sparingly.
Don’t split infinitives.
Character trumps plot.
Avoid “ing” endings.
Never a day without a line.
Don’t open with description.
Never write in second person.
Don’t start sentences with “and” or “but.”
Characters must change during a story.
Dialogue should do more than one thing.
Develop a full biography for each character.
Never repeat salient words close to each other.
Use active rather than passive sentence structure.
The first word that pops into your head is the best word.
Always begin a story with people talking to each other.
Know every element of your story before you start writing.
Children and animals are naturally sympathetic characters.
Avoid authorial intrusions (Direct address from author to reader).

The truth is that none of these are rules. At best they are guidelines, and at worst they are straightjackets. The one absolute rule of writing is that there are no absolute rules. “Show don’t tell” is a good guideline but you can’t always follow it literally or your work would be unreadable. When you’re moving characters around in a story but the travel itself isn’t important, just tell it and get it done. The rule really means to “show” the interesting stuff. Otherwise your work will be weighed down with useless detail.

Never start a sentence with “and” or “but” is a bad rule. Sometimes those are perfect to start sentences with. Note every sentence, of course.

Never begin with description might be a good rule but it’s one I refuse to obey. I often start with description, and, for me, I hate, hate, hate books and stories that start with dialogue. I almost always put them down immediately.

Never use clichés is both a good and a bad rule, depending on the situation. Cliché description, like “red as a rose,” or “free as a bird,” is generally weak because readers have seen the phrasings so much that they don’t really process the meaning. However, sometimes having a character speak in clichés is just the right element to bring your story to life.

“In media res” is generally a good rule, I think, but it also depends on the genre. It’s a critical rule for thrillers, but not nearly as necessary in literary fiction. And when someone tells me to “never use adverbs” I counter with “never throw a tool out of your tool kit.”

One of the best things about writing, and one of the most intimidating, is the incredible freedom it affords you to do and say whatever you want. Certainly, you should listen to the advice of others. I’ve given plenty of advice myself, and I think it has been good advice. But don’t let anyone fool you into believing that guidelines are rules. It just ain’t so.

So, tell me, what are some of the other “rules” of writing that aren’t really rules? What have I missed?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Recently, my editor e-mailed me asking for my detailed promotional plan. This was the first time that I received this kind of request. I was surprised to receive this form. the spreadsheet consisted of my arranged book signings, radio and television appearances, and any writing programs that I plan to do once my next book is released. My editor asked for URLs for social networks like Twitter, FaceBook, and MySpace. She suggested I create a book trailer. I've seen book trailers and admired them, but I never felt inclined to create one of my own.

I've talked with several people who either create book trailers or have used them as a marketing tool. I learned that creating book trailers is a big business. But I still need more information and I hope you can help. Here are a few questions that I'd like you to consider and then answer.

1. Do book trailers influence your book buying?
2. Are you swayed by trailers?
3. What do you like to see in a trailer?
4. What catches your eye and holds your attention?
5. Do you go to You-tube to search for trailers or go to the author's website?
6. Do you consider them entertainment and advertisements like movie trailers?
7. Do you expect the characters from the books to look like the people in the trailers?

I'm very curious about what readers are looking for in a trailer. What interest readers and how detailed should the trailer be?

I'd love to hear from you. Let me know what you think about trailers and how they influence your buying? What appeals to you? What turns you off? Click on the link or e-mail me at karenwowens@gmail.com.

Remember, don't be a stranger.


Monday, August 9, 2010

A Birthday Gift

I celebrated a birthday last weekend. It was a quiet one spent at home doing routine chores; nothing like last year. But then, no matter what I did this year, nothing could top my birthday last year. You see, last year I received the best birthday gift a new author could ask for: the release of my debut novel, “A Marriage of Convenience.”

Lots of things have changed since then. Here are just a few.

1. My family has grown
Doesn’t sound like much but caring for a new baby greatly limits writing time.

2. I have become better organized
I used to keep all appointments in my head or on little papers here and there. Well with more things to do, including book promotions, I began having senior moments way too soon. I finally found putting appointments and notes in my blackberry was ideal for me.

3. I’ve published a second novel along with two other Novel Spaces authors.
(Yes 2009 was a great year for me).

4. I learned the meaning of WIP.

5. I’m a little more disciplined when it comes to work on my WIP, but still lag behind many.

6. I’m becoming internet savvy
Before my book was published I honestly didn’t quite know what a blog was. Since then I’ve navigated the blogosphere promoting my book. Now here I am blogging twice per month on Novel Spaces with some of the nicest authors in the business.

Before, I thought facebook and MySpace were social networks for teenagers. Well needing a contact point for readers and not having a web site, I joined facebook. Now I’ve been able to reconnect with old friends, make new friends, and interact with some of my readers. I’ve also joined Shelfari and Caribbean Literary Salon. I now know the utility of social networking.
***Note well I said, “I'm becoming internet savvy”. That’s because I’m not there yet (I don’t twitter).

7. My perception of authors has changed
My early perception of authors changed from the wealthy author to the starving artist, to the reclusive author with a typewriter, isolated from the world penning his stories. Now that I’ve met a few authors I realize they are no different from me. (Hey wait, I AM AN AUTHOR!). Most authors are not eccentric recluses. They just have stories to tell and the ability to tell them.

I also thought that authors worked competitively, hence were reluctant to share information with each other. Those misconceptions were cleared up after becoming a published author. I was surprised last year when the publishers put me in contact with another author who gave me tips for promotions, including showing me how to make book trailers myself. Most of all I’ve had the opportunity to connect with all these wonderful Novel Spaces authors who give advice and support with an empathetic ear.

Yes there are a lot of changes that came with being published. Some I embrace and some I am a little reluctant to embrace. But with all the changes there is one thing that did not change: I am no richer than I was before publishing.

How have you changed since becoming a published author?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Dorchester news

Okay, I'm going to go out on a limb here and talk about Dorchester and what it means for digital publishing. My opinion can roughly be translated to two words: Not Good.

In case you don't know, Dorchester announced its cessation of mass market publishing (hat tip to literary agent Kristin Nelson for the news).

While some people involved in digital media may think this is one of the most critical driving nails in the coffin of print publishing, I think they're looking at the situation through rose-coloured glasses.

The fact of the matter is, Dorchester has been in financial woes for more than a year. So what's their solution? Go to digital! Does that necessarily give the right impression? If you were an interested bystander (and I assume you are), would you think that move is one of market savvy in this new, interconnected world...or would you think that was a move of desperation on the part of a company struggling to keep the ink black?

At Agent Nelson's blog, Anonymous (and I wish she signed her name because I think what she said is extremely important) commented that:
To do well in the ebook market you need a big web presence. Looking at Dorchester's website it needs a lot of work. The other thing is that so far the thing that sells well in ebook form is romance - erotic romance sells really well. The other genres? Not so much. [Tell me about it! - ksa]

Why are readers who've been shopping at Samhain, Elloras Cave and now Carina going to be buying stuff from Dorchester? What have they done to increase their web presence? Have they got any deals with big author blogs etc?
Anonymous nailed it. You can't just go from a mass market print publishing to digital and POD (Print On Demand) without some kind of well thought-out plan and, from the rumours I've been hearing, this move of Dorchester's was not well planned. Or, if it was, it didn't have complete buy-in from major stakeholders. As some Dorch authors know, I'm extremely sympathetic of the sudden game switch and wish all of them the absolute best for the future but, as I have nothing whatsoever to do with Dorchester, I hope they, and you, will forgive my cold gaze for a moment.

If digital is to be taken seriously, it should not appear as the last-ditch effort of a company desperate to remain profitable. I don't care who the company is, the rumour wolves can detect desperation the way you can sniff a hamburger half a kilometre away when your stomach's rumbling.

Secondly, while the juicy profits look enticing (even with a 30-40% royalty thrown at the authors), you still need a savvy marketing plan to, not only advertise your goods, but keep the offerings fresh too. One reason I'm a Carina author is that I have utter respect for Harlequin Enterprises and their ability to think strategically. Do I think Dorchester has been equally forward thinking in the area of digital publishing? Um, not so much.

Thirdly...folks, no matter how you cut the salami, while ebook sales have been increasing in leaps and bounds, it still dwarves something as trivial as sale of mobile phone ringtones. Yes, of course I read JA Konrath's blog, and I have a lot of respect for the amount of work the man has put into promotion, but it really is comparing apples and oranges, especially when it comes to first-time authors. People know Konrath's name. To be honest, they hardly know mine. Would I put myself in the same category as Konrath? No. Not yet, even though I already have an okay (but not stupendous) backlist.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is, don't get caught out. The landscape of publishing is still in a HUGE state of flux and I know I may be incredibly unpopular saying so, but I personally believe that print is still the standard by which books are judged. The technology doesn't matter so much; it's a question of reputation. And Dorchester's move, again in my opinion, smacks of panic rather than measured thinking. I think people will pick that up. And that does NOT bode well for a form of publishing that's only just beginning to crawl along the carpet, much less pull itself up when it hits a sofa.

I think Dorchester has done digital publishing a huge DIS-service. What are your thoughts?

PS Happy National Day to all Singapore nationals reading this. To help celebrate, this post was brought to you by Carlo Rossi California Red. Ah, last Tuesday was a good year!

* Kaz Augustin is a writer who considers alcohol one of the major food groups. You can find her website at http://www.ksaugustin.com She blogs at http://blog.ksaugustin.com and also has a food blog at http://food.ksaugustin.com If all that isn't enough, she's also on Facebook and Twitter. Just look for "ksaugustin".

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The sex thing

One of my favourite novels irrespective of genre is The Rosary by Florence L. Barclay. The book, a romance, was first published in 1909 and it is still in print. My copy is old, the pages yellowed and brittle, and it was a fixture on our bookshelf all my life. For thirty-something years I never gave it a glance, mistaking it for a religious tome. It's big, thick and worm-eaten and best suited (I used to think) to serve as a makeshift doorstop.

I was cleaning bookshelves one morning when something prompted me to open the old book. I began reading, and was immediately captivated. The language is simple and elegant, the story of the love between the plain, sensible Miss Champion and the handsome, artistic Garth Dalmain deeply moving. To me, the novel is transcendent. And there isn't a single sex scene in the entire story.

This novel was written at a time when love was idealized, women were (allegedly) virgins when they married, and the writers of love stories did not dare venture beyond the threshold of the bedroom. What the couple did behind closed doors - and this was post-marriage, of course - was private. Whenever I re-read The Rosary I can't help feeling a trifle nostalgic for those times. Although I enjoyed writing the love scenes for my first romance novel, by the time I got to the second one I found myself groaning whenever I came to 'those' scenes. How graphic should I get? Shouldn't less be more? At what point does romance become erotica, and erotica become pornography? And do these distinctions even matter?

Don't get me wrong - I enjoy a sexy contemporary romance as well as the next gal; hell, I even write 'em. But I'm ambivalent about the raunchy sex that has become a requisite today. Writing it and making it fresh is a challenge, but that's not all. I feel more and more a responsibility to convey positive, safe messages with regard to sexual behaviour in light of the current pandemic of STIs. We must change our sexual behaviour, and so must our characters. We have to reexamine the old values of abstinence, monogamy and fidelity of necessity - and so must our characters. It has become a matter of survival. So sensitive are some publishers to this issue that they now require condoms to be a part of sex scenes between unmarried couples (yes, I've read the submission guidelines) although we know that condoms are unreliable and they're not the solution to STIs.

Do you think that writers have a social responsibility with regard to the sexual behaviour of their characters? Or should our books remain a fantasy arena, the readers' respite from the wearying realities of life, a place where no holds are barred, anything is possible, and nothing irremediably bad ever happens to our hero and heroine?

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Art of the Awful

A reader recently sent me a question on Twitter...

“May I ask a question? How do you write a scene in a book that is violent without crossing a line of being too graphic -- so the reader is not disgusted or doesn’t read it because of the level of violence and how graphic it is.”

A good question, and I can only assume I’ve succeeded in doing that in my first two novels, or she wouldn’t have asked me the question. At least I hope so. One of the best reviews I got for my first published story, “Plaything”, came from Linda Addison, a fellow writer in the anthology, who said it was the most repulsive thing she’d ever read, but she couldn’t put it down because she had to know what happened next. Bingo. That’s exactly where you want to be.

After publication of Edgar Allen Poe’s "Berenice" he was asked to tone down the more horrific elements in the name of propriety after complaints from editors. (And it is an extremely perverse love story involving tooth fetishism and premature burial...) He defended it by claiming he was giving the public what they wanted, but later cut down the offending paragraphs and promised not to go overboard again.

There are two lessons to me there -- people do want the cheap thrills of fictitious horror, but they also want to stay safe, sane, and feel better afterwards. No one wants to leave a roller coaster with spinal injuries or vomiting up blood...why should we expect less of our horror entertainment? Its effectiveness is all in the balance. To me, violence, fear and horror are just a handful of the many emotive tools in a novelist’s bag of tricks. You can use them as needed, but always as sparingly as you use any other. It doesn’t help any story to be too heavy in one area -- terror, romance, suspense, laughs -- a successful story is a musical arrangement that allows all the elements to flow naturally, blending and balancing each other to tell a complete story.

Stephen King once described writing horror stories as akin to luring someone into an alley with promises that it’s safe, then jumping them as soon as they’re out of sight of the street -- or words to that effect. A good scary story is always a seduction. The most effective chills are willing and complicit, symbiotic; readers are letting themselves be scared with the assumption that there’s something in it for them. Usually that’s a release of their own fear or anxiety in sharing the character’s build up and release of theirs. Catharsis. For me, it’s the primary use of horror. So, how do you get a reader to stick with you long enough to get that release?

I’ve written things that appall me. Chapter Two in my first novel "BITE MARKS" is a good example. It was the earliest written scene of deep horror in the book, and is one of a handful of chapters that remained essentially the same by publication. A teenage prostitute is brought back to life by a vampire, forced to feed on her own infant, and then brutally killed again. I won’t go into how here (buy the book!), but suffice to say that it’s damn grim and from the beginning was something I eventually expected someone to make me cut.

Amazingly, scores of women readers have never even mentioned it when they talked to me about the book. To me it was the most awful and misogynistic act in the book -- yet it was widely accepted. It took a review on a website for me to understand that it was seen by readers as what it is -- a graphic act of rape -- and that women understand the range of sexual violence men can perform against women far better than men do.

I had hit a moment of truth in my horror. Rule one for me in writing violence. Be truthful -- not factual, as many acts of violence in fiction, especially in horror fiction, can be surreal, even impossible -- but be true to the emotional reality you’re writing. Is what is happening justified by the circumstances and characters you’ve set in motion? Which brings me to my next point.

Don’t use violence excessively or just for cheap thrills. It’s far too easy to go overboard once you open that door. My graphic opening to "BITE MARKS" was entirely necessary to set up everything to come, and for that reason, justified. It was also strong enough that I could build up the story and characters for chapters after that without any additional use of gore, because each page the reader turned after that was informed with the dread of what horror might be next.

There are movies and books I don’t enjoy simply because they are what has become termed “gore-nography” -- shedding blood and body parts in increasingly graphic ways just because we can show it on screen or get it into print, with little or no other reason. There are terror tales out now that make Poe’s “Berenice” look like Dr. Suess. This isn’t always a good thing. Violence is at its most effective when used to make a point or to explain a character’s progress in the story -- driven to avenge a horrific act, or trying to unravel it, as in “Death Wish” and Jody Foster's homage, "The Brave One", or in “Seven”.

Humor also helps. You don’t want to undercut your mood, but a light touch of grim wit can make the medicine go down easier. It should be from the point of view of a character in the moment -- it's difficult to make a joke at your heroes' expense as an omniscient author and maintain the reader’s sympathy for them, though they certainly can. I'm sure if you look at your own life, you’ll find moments where the perverse humor in a bad situation becomes clear as you’re trying to get out of it. Used delicately, a little jest, no matter how darkly ironic, can ease enough tension to keep the reader going on without killing the moment.

Subjective viewpoint is useful. Even if you bounce from head to head, depict the violence from that point of view, not your own. Whether it’s the POV of the victim or victimizer, a subjective character voice can lend verisimilitude to what you’re writing, but also give you a way to contain it. While a horrific moment may be impossible to read when described from the victim’s view, seeing it from an eyewitness or even the victimizer’s side can open new possibilities for the writer as the reader experiences the bliss, vengeance, or whatever the character is experiencing while they either witness or wreak havoc. Few killers or torturers act for no reason -- making their motives clear can keep readers interested long enough to get through the acts described.

Language is also enormously important. How do you describe these things? What words best convey your meaning without repulsing? You can be discreet and still horrify. Hitchcock, to use another film example, was a master at making you imagine “between the lines”, giving you just enough information for your brain to fill in the rest.

This is my favorite technique, to make the reader work for and with you to make the moment as scary as only they themselves can make it. It takes time to get the hang of it -- I don’t mean throwing in references to “unimaginable” monstrosities, as Lovecraft so often does, but to masterfully describing the edges of things. Again, in Chapter Two of "BITE MARKS", as you read it’s clear how Adam is killing Nina -- but the words I use don’t come out and say it explicitly. You have to work a bit to imagine what’s happening, which makes it all the more awful, because you become intimately involved in the experience as you visualize it. You don’t have to bludgeon or brutalize a reader to make your point -- sometimes a few gentle nudges in the right direction will get them where you want them much more effectively, without their noticing until it’s too late.

The rhythm of the build is important as well. The shower scene in “Psycho” is effective because it comes out of nowhere, but if you watch the preceding scenes, it’s set up brilliantly. Marion’s affair with a married man and theft of her employer’s money, her flight and arrival at the Bates Motel at night in a storm, the introduction of seemingly innocent Norman in a quiet conversation that veers to the disturbing in a gloomy room filled with sinister stuffed animals...by the time Marion steps into the shower you have a feeling of disquiet you can’t quite put your finger on. When a shadowy figure appears through the shower curtain as she bathes, you’re already waiting for something to happen -- what does was shocking at the time, and surprising, but also inevitable. Set your scene well before your violence takes center stage.

Lastly, use your own judgment.

You are always your first reader. Unless you are a complete sociopath or psychotic with a literary bent (and I’m sure there are many), you have a strong moral center and a good sense of social limits. What do YOU think of what you’ve written? Does it give you the effect you want, or just make you a little queasy inside? Unless that’s what you want the reader to feel, go back, revisit it, rewrite and adjust until it does what you want it to do.

Rewrites are your best friend. I’m always suspicious of writers who claim to turn out perfect prose at one sitting and say they never have to revisit it. Ever. They are egotistical and lazy. For me, the fun is in reworking and shaping the original text until it becomes a key that unlocks the door you want opened in as many minds as possible. I don’t expect every writer to be as committed to process, but to me publication is aftermath and anticlimactic -- the real fun is in the writing.

Okay, enough. Run along now. Daddy has dragons to slay. Go ye forth and multiply the horrors in your heart -- just remember to keep them leashed so they don’t crap all over the neighbor’s lawns. I don’t want them interrupting me all day when they call to say you told them I said it was okay.

But it is. Writing horror or violence is like owning a gun. Use it properly, as you should and where you should, and we’ll all be just fine.