Sunday, February 28, 2010
I sold my first book in July 1993. Night Magic was released in September 1995. You read that right. Thus began my schooling in being a published author. Let me make this short and sweet- no control over most of what happens to your book during the traditional publishing process. See? I didn’t need an entire blog post to school new and aspiring authors. Ring da bell, as they say. School’s out.
Okay, so maybe you would appreciate more than a paragraph. If you’re published you know the list of things you have no control over. Covers, distribution, release date just to name a few. The only thing you truly control is the quality of your writing.
Still as a new author so long ago I accepted certain assumptions. Like self-promotion had to be tireless. You need an agent for a number of reasons, among them to help develop your writing career. There’s more, but I only have so much space. Now fast forward to 2010. Imagine my shock when I read a series of blog posts that blow all those “truisms” about agents, promotion, etc. right out of the water. Bam! I blinked and then realized that Dean Wesley Smith’s posts on Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing made a lot of sense. In fact, my gut had been telling me some of this stuff for more than a few years. I recommend you read his POV. You may or may not agree, but it will make you think. Smith covers way too much for me to delve into here. So I’ll just take one for instance.
Years ago I stopped doing certain self-promotion givens that as a new romance author I accepted were just things you had to do. If you didn’t do certain things your career would be a non-starter, end of story. Guess what? I stopped doing book signings. I stopped traveling on my own dime to events longer away than 75 miles to speak or take part in book signings. I finally stopped paying for bookmarks, simple or fancy. I stopped doing a few other “must do” things, too. And that was before I found Smith’s site. Read Smith’s common sense on self-promotion.
Another big topic – agents. My approach was all wrong. Okay, I’m talking about for me. My gut had been telling me some of the same things Smith says (those “snarky” agent blogs became a pet peeve, btw). Yet the “conventional wisdom” kept me thinking the same old way, and chained to doing things the same way.
Will changing lead to publisher success and big bucks? Sure, I’ll be out shopping for my second home on the French Riviera. Please. There are no guarantees. But at least I won’t keep doing things that in my gut just don’t seem right somehow.
You really need to read at least some of Dean’s posts to see what I mean. I’ll just cite one example of what made me read them all. In one post Dean says write the book you’re passionate about, and then worry about trying to sell it. So much for spending endless hours reading those “what’s selling” articles. Already I have a lot more time to write the best book I can; the book I’m passionate about. See paragraph two above. I have a new POV and a new attitude. Read the posts and tell us what you think.
As I Was Saying...
A Darker Shade of Midnight- A Cool Murder Mystery in Hot Louisiana
Friday, February 26, 2010
At night, I turn on my laptop and create characters and stories that I hope readers will enjoy. Before completing my master's in library and information science, I worked in the field of education. I shelved books and created reading programs as a media specialist for an all boys high school for two years and then I did the same thing for an all girls high school for another year. Tucked between those two jobs, I worked as an after school coordinator for middle and high school students. The principal and I designed the after school program to help students who were not meeting academic standards or were finding it difficult to achieve success.
One thing I learned about kids is they don't handle rejection very well. They are quick to step away from a situation where they feel they might be rejected or embarrassed. To be perfectly honest, I don't think any of us, adult or kid handle rejection particularly well. That said I wanted to do something to boost my students self-esteem and help them become stronger students and hopefully successful adults. To that end, I brought in my rejection file from my first manuscript, As Long As There Is Love. My goal was to show them that my road to publication was shaky at best. Though all of my rejections, I eventually got the book published by BET.
My students were in awe because I wrote books. Often I would explain to them how very few authors are overnight successes. It took a lot of hard work and dedication. First you have to learn the craft and then apply what you've learned to your story idea.
As I displayed each letter and explained what led to my sending a query to the agent or editor, I discussed my feeling upon receiving each rejection letter. I talked about the methods I used to distance myself so that I could read the letter objectively and hopefully gleam important information. After a few days I would reread the letter and try to understand why the agent or editor rejected my manuscript. Each letter offered something different. Some were humorous, like the one sent by an agent who printed "Not for me," on a scrap of paper. At the bottom of the 1/16 of a piece of paper, she added her name. I teased my students with comments like, "She couldn't afford a full sheet of paper."
Some letters were disappointing, sad or provided less than an ounce of information. Yet others handed me a line or two of encouragement that helped build my self-esteem and kept me sending out proposals.
I wanted my students to understand that it takes hard works and sometimes you'll get your feelings hurt. That shouldn't stop them from continuing to pursue their goals. I encouraged them to learn as much as they could and if possible take rejections or low test scores as a learning tool. Review them, find the weak points, and reevaluate the information until they understood it. If they took nothing else from their time with me, I wanted them to remember that rejections were just part of the story. I wanted them to take what they could from any kind of rejection, but don't let them stop or define who they were or allowing them to keep you from doing what you want.
The same can be said for new aspiring authors. Learn your craft and continue to grow as a writer.
I'd love to hear from you. Let me know what you think. You can reach me at email@example.com
Remember, don't be a stranger.
For writers it is different. We come from all kinds of backgrounds, education levels, and social status. There are those who receive formal training and those who don’t. So what are the qualifications for an author? I can think of a few off the bat.
1) Must be able to read and write
That’s a given.
2) Must be proficient in the language.
That is not necessarily a requirement for all genres. I have read some urban fiction written in the voice of the characters that made me wonder if the writer was proficient in English. I also have written a collection of short stories and poems in my native Kittitian dialect, a dialect of English. They are stories handed down from one generation to another and are intended to be narrated orally by a griot. They totally disregard the rules and regulations of the English language. Poetic license gives writers the authority to mutilate the language.
3) Must be a good story teller.
Well most times anyway. I’ve read books published by major publishing houses that are agony to read. There is no build up, no clear ending and after reading the first few chapters my head hurt.
4) Must have an extensive vocabulary.
That’s what dictionaries and thesauruses are for, aren’t they? Besides books written above a certain grade level reading is almost guaranteed not to be read. Most avid readers read for entertainment, not punishment. I recently came across an article where the word choices had me diving in the dictionary every few sentences. I gave up…
5) MUST HAVE THICK SKIN
There is one requirement that is just not obvious until you have become a writer: MUST HAVE THICK SKIN. As a writer, criticism is something one has to live with from inception to completion and beyond.
--THICK SKIN is required when you have your first readers review your work and make comments. Sometimes they’re not favorable.
--THICK SKIN is required when you get those horrible form letters from agents and publishing houses rejecting your work even though you know they haven’t read a word of it.
--THICK SKIN is required when your editor goes through your manuscript and gut out just about every scene that is near and dear to you. Or they change the dialogue so that it no longer reflects your writing style.
--Then after publication THICK SKIN is required when the reviewers get a hold of it. When my debut novel was first published the reviews were all great. I felt good. Then as time progressed some of the reviews were not that glowing. There was a particular one that described the main character as whiney, simply because she has a preference for strong heroines. I remember feeling angry because she missed the growth of the heroine. Moreover, the same points for which that that reviewer gave it a lukewarm review, another gave it a rave review. I had to take a step back and recognize not everyone will like what I write or the way the story goes. So I had to grow some THICK SKIN.
So if you were to post an ad for a writer (preferably a fiction author) what qualifications would include as basic requirements?
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Most of the time I just take note of the dissonance between the UK English and US English terms and move on, but I have to admit being stumped by a recently popular term.
I believe this is supposed to be a good thing. I've been told, for example, that I "lucked out" on my book covers. I had to ask, but it appears to mean that I've had a lot of luck with my book covers. (And it's true, I have.) My question is, though, how can you reach that conclusion from that term?
Take similar phrases. "He bled out on the sidewalk." Good? I don't think so. "She flaked out in the exam." Good? Nah-uh. So how come "lucked out" is seen as something positive?
Okay, "luck" is nice. "Lucked"? I think you're starting to hit slippery ground here. Think of other words that end in "ed" (and perhaps even rhyme with "luck"). Like, sucked. (What's the matter, were you thinking of something else?) No matter which way you cut it, "sucked" isn't such a hip and groovy word. (I'll just pause for an undergraduate joke -- Gravity is a myth! The Earth sucks! -- and move on.)
Now add "out". Where is "out" a positive term? Who can show me that? You strike out. You're "on the outside". You're "out of the loop". You're "out there", "out of your mind", "out of options". Okay, maybe "break out" (the "break-out novel"! I wish!)? "Pay out"? Though, in both situations, it depends on which side of the fence you are on as to whether it's a positive or not.
Can you tell I've spent many neural cycles on this one? Lucked out? Even as a series of sounds, it doesn't sound very...appetising. "You really lucked out!" Try it out aloud now. See what I mean?
I'm sorry, I just can't see it. Why is this the current favourite over a much more serviceable, imo, "got lucky"? "You sure got lucky with your covers, Kaz!" Anybody care to explain?
Monday, February 22, 2010
So what's a Caribbean (or African, or Asian) writer to do? I'm a great believer in the (allegedly) Ashanti proverb: Softly, softly catchee monkey. In the spirit of doing my small part to acquaint readers with non-mainstream works of merit, I'll share three of my favorite Caribbean novels and their writers, all from Trinidad and Tobago, with you.
The Friends by Rosa Guy
I have a special place in my heart for Rosa Guy: my first manuscript caught the attention of my literary agent initially because I shared a birthplace with this author. The Friends, which I read about fifteen years ago, is the first in a trilogy of young adult novels about the lives of Caribbean immigrants in Harlem during the 1960s. The novel explores issues of race and class prejudice, themes which were uncommon in young adult novels at the time of publication.
"[She] is the author of fifteen novels and is the editor and translator of several volumes. Guy, along with with John Oliver Killens, co-founded the Harlem Writer's Guild. Her work has received the Coretta Scott King Award, The New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year citation, and the American Library Association's Best Book Award. She lives in New York." - AALBC.com
Night Calypso by Lawrence Scott
This book was influenced by the Bocas Islands about which I recently wrote on my personal blog. Part of the novel's allure for me was the familiarity of the setting, the history, and the culture, but along with that is the sheer appeal of story: a doctor, an attractive young nun and a traumatized boy are thrown together at a leper colony on a minute island in the middle of the Second World War, amid the roiling social and cultural changes taking place in Trinidad in the 1940s.
Scott is the author of Aelred’s Sin which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1999 for Best Book in the Canada & Caribbean region.
The Dragon Can't Dance by Earl Lovelace
I've read at least five of Lovelace's novels, and this one remains my favourite. From Booklist:
"Carnival season has just begun in Calvary Hill, a Port of Spain shantytown, and Miss Cleothilda, the carnival queen, and Aldrick, the dragon king, try to concentrate on creating their elaborate costumes, but both are distracted by a young beauty named Sylvia. The queen senses a rival, and Aldrick, famous for his avoidance of work and marriage, feels love coming on... As Lovelace masterfully choreographs the dance of each of his finely drawn characters, he reveals the conundrums not only of Caribbean life but of the human condition itself."
Lovelace's awards include:
- 1965 British Petroleum Independence Literary Award, While Gods Are Falling
- 1980 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book), Salt
In my next post I'll feature the works of three more writers from other territories in the Caribbean.
At the time I was writing (but not selling) short stories -- mysteries and science fiction. I had completed the ms for one science fiction novel and the first chapter and chapter-by-chapter detailed outline for a multi-generational novel about a shadow family set in the south and Harlem during the Renaissance. (I envisioned this as my breakout masterpiece.) As it happens, both the SF ms and the historical chapter-and-outline were read and commented on by professionals in the field.
I will always be grateful to Beth Meacham at TOR for actually taking a stab at reading my SF ms. The gist of her reaction was that I had an interesting idea but that I should probably work on my writing skills before submitting for publication. (I came across that moldering ms a few years ago and realized it stank out loud -- for her to have stuck with it as long as she evidently did is huge.)
I didn't submit my historical to anyone, but I did send it to my uncle, Allen Drury. Uncle Al was meticulous in researching his novels and had every blink outlined before he began writing. I'd expressed my concerns about making a novel fit around established history, not to mention my fear of outlining, and took him up on his offer to take a look and see if I was doing it right. He in turn realized he was unfamiliar with the historical period in question, so he asked his writing friend, fellow member of the National Council on the Arts, and expert on the Renaissance, Toni Morrison to take a look at it. For many years, until it faded into illegibility, one of my most prized possessions was Toni Morrison's note commending me on my "deeply felt" writing and sincere respect for and commitment to my subject, but suggesting I needed a "firmer grasp of [my] craft" before I'd be able to do my vision justice. (Is that not the best "you can't write, kid" note ever?)
I still have the outline of that historical novel -- though now there is much of it I would change; three decades adds a bit of maturity to your world view -- waiting for the time my craft is up to my vision. The first chapter was published in a no-pay literary review in the early 90s.
Enter Valerie and Nora Roberts. Valerie was an avid reader of "sweet" and Regency romances and knew that Nora Roberts wrote a 60,000-word series romance novel every month. Valerie's plan for my writing career was to give me a reading list of authors/series she liked then help me "plot-out" a series of romances so I wouldn't have to spend time between books figuring out what to write next. I would then write as fast as I could, going for Nora Roberts' pace, and she would read my ms and provide feedback as necessary. In this way I would get the practice I needed to get a firmer grasp on my craft.
We never followed through on this plan.
My photography business crashed and I went back to college to get a degree in special education and launch my teaching career and writing moved to the back burner. However, my wife did make me a fan of romances, and we did develop several pretty nifty outlines for novels I may yet write.
The worst thing I did, though, was buy a book on writing romances based on the idea of "reading like a writer." Recommended practice: Read a bestselling romance with a box of colored pencils. Underline each sentence about the heroine in one color, use another for the hero, a third for setting, a fourth for secondary characters, a fifth for problems that keep them from their goal… You needed twelve in all, as I recall. The idea was to go back through and count how many of each kind of sentence there was: this would tell you how important each element was and what percentage of your own ms should be devoted to them. I actually did this to a couple of books. Waste of time. This is not reading like a writer.
To read like a writer, you must read like a reader. In other words, just read. Colored pencils, note pads, or tape recorders should be secured in another room --mentally if not physically. Read for the pure enjoyment of reading. (Of course if something particularly strikes you while reading, make a note of it. Anything that knocks the reader out of the story is wrong, and you're going to want to remind yourself to never make the same mistake.) Give no thought to how a story is written while you are reading it.
If, however, six months later a particular passage is still with you, go back and reread it. Now you look at the scene or story like a journeyman cabinet maker inspecting another craftsman's work, observing the woods selected, how they are fit together and what stains or finishes complete the whole. Total deconstruction is not necessary; you need only an understanding of how the thing was done.
In my own writing more than one reviewer has remarked on my ability to establish a sense of place in the narrative. While I have read Bill Bryson, pretty much the go-to guy for describing locations, I owe my description-while-telling-the-story skills to Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter). Twenty years after reading my last Brother Cadfael mystery I can still find my way around Shrewsbury Abbey.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Since then, Kaz Augustin posted about the boggling array of scientific topics she needed to research for her current science fiction romance novel. (See her post here.)
I'm not sure I ranged as far afield as Kaz, but I did need to research a wide variety of topics. Like Mayflies in a Stream is a historical novel set in ancient Iraq in the world’s first city, Uruk, during the time when Gilgamesh was its king. In contrast to most historical novels, for which writers can use contemporaneous records, in Gilgamesh’s time, writing was still in its early stages and was primarily used for record keeping. Historians and archaeologists have to rely on archaeology, later texts, and lots of deduction to reconstruct this time.
When researching, I referred to books and articles for children, laypeople, students, and professional archaeologists in English, French, and German. The sources I used to make Like Mayflies in a Stream as historically accurate as possible and to bring it to life for the reader included:
• Two online dictionaries of Sumerian
• A book about 3rd millennium B.C.E. Sumerian and Akkadian personal names
• A book about cylinder seals
• Historical and modern atlases
• Online photographs of items in the collections of the Baghdad Museum, the British Museum, and several American museums
• A book about cooking in ancient Mesopotamia
• Several books on Mesopotamian religion
• Several books on Mesopotamian history
• Several books on daily life in ancient Mesopotamia
• Maps of the temple complexes at Uruk in different historical periods
• Online and printed resources on geography, deserts, desert animals, palm trees and other natural resources of Iraq, growing seasons for various crops, Sumerian proverbs, clothing, Marsh Arabs, magnetic prospecting in archaeology, beer making, growth hormone disorders, city planning, history of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” and the history of Uruk
• A videocourse about the ancient Near East
Thank goodness I did this research; it kept me from making many embarrassing factual mistakes in my book. But was it enough? No. I still had questions that I could not find answers to. I extrapolated from other societies or time periods or wrote around the problem. Some things in history will always remain a mystery.
What odd things have you had to research for your novels?
I’m glad you stopped by today. I’ll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on March 8.
Friday, February 19, 2010
A Recipe for Scenes
Like a recipe, each scene is going to require different quantities of the ingredients that comprise it, depending on the intention of the scene and the goals of the novel you are writing. To this end, scene writing is simply a breaking down of the different craft elements and an understanding of the way in which they intertwine. Many of you might simply rely on your writer's intuition to accomplish this balance, but for those of use who struggle with the "how much is too much" conundrum, it's important to provide a clear checklist of what a scene should contain:
Secret One - Action:
This is perhaps the most fundamental element of a scene. Something has to happen. And that something has to compel the eyeballs to scan to the end of each and every sentence. Scenes function a bit as a chain reaction; one scene builds upon another, upon another, upon another until we get a full sense of the world inside your novel. How is the action of this scene related to the overarching plot of your novel?
Secret Two - Characters and their baggage:
By characters, I don't simply mean flat, two-dimensional characters. They must have a complex history, desires, and motivations. And by baggage, I mean that your characters must have histories and desires; they must want something—both in the short-term (the scene) and the long-term (the novel/story). What understanding of the character will the reader take away from the scene that will help them decipher the rest of your novel?
Secret Three - Text/Subtext:
Hemingway once said, "I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows." What he means is that if what you've written is written carefully, you're reader will be able to read further into your story, beyond what is immediately written. The adage "less is more" is useful when writing your scenes. Don't give too much away; practice the art of subtlety.
These might appear to be basic to some authors, but even basic principles bear repeating. Feel free to share any scene writing tips you've learned along the way.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Guest author Dayton Ward: Collaboration: (or, “How to Write with Your Best Friend and Not Kill Each Other”)
Blogging for someone else’s site is—to me, anyway—a lot like being invited into someone’s home. I feel underdressed, even though I’m wearing a tie and jacket for the first occasion in ten years that didn’t involve a job interview or burying someone. I’ve checked my teeth for food remnants six or seven times, and I keep reminding myself not to drop The F-Word every couple of sentences. I brought a bottle of wine, but chugged it in a fit of nervousness before ringing the door bell. We’ll just have to see what happens now, won’t we?
Still with me? Sweet.
When I was approached about providing a “guest blog” here at Novel Spaces, I asked myself the question I’m sure is pondered by everyone who receives such an invitation: “What the heck am I going to write about?” Okay, if you’re thinking I used a different word in the spot where “heck” goes in that last sentence, you’re probably right. Now, with the question hanging in the air before me the other night, I was reminded that February 2010 represents a special milestone for me. It marks the tenth anniversary of my first published collaboration with my best friend and frequent writing partner, Kevin Dilmore. Therefore, “Collaboration” seemed like an appropriate topic.
What started out as something fun to do and a way for me to ride his coattails into the world of magazine writing has during the ensuing decade blossomed into a cooperative force to be reckoned with, if I do say so myself. Together, Kevin and I have written six novels, twelve novellas, a handful of short stories, a whole bunch of magazine articles, and web content as well as other stuff I know I’m forgetting. We’ve acquired a light-hearted reputation as an “irreverent duo” among our writer friends as well as fans and followers of our work, and when it comes to conventions or book signings, neither of us is keen to attend such a function without the other. Indeed, last summer, we attended a convention and participated in a charity “roast” of a fellow writer, carrying our shtick onto the dais and sending up our colleague in our best Abbott and Costello impersonation. Well, “best” if it means Abbott and Costello cursed a lot.
I mean, a lot.
When it comes to our writing partnership, Kevin and I often are asked some variant of the question, “How does it work?” As often as not, our initial response is something along the lines of, “He writes the nouns, I handle the verbs,” and so on. In truth, our professional relationship, which is an outgrowth of our friendship, was almost from the jump founded upon a very basic ground rule from which everything else is derived: Equal work, equal credit, equal blame. Yes, it sounds trite, perhaps even naïve, but it’s a winning formula that’s served us with distinction for lo these many years.
We don’t dwell on who first put forth an idea or concept that ends up in one of our stories, or point to passages in a book and say, “I wrote that.” We strive to write as one voice, not two stitched together. Is it easy? Of course not. We’re writers, and writers are known for suffering all manner of personality quirks ranging from suffocating insecurity to delusions of fortune and glory to raging egomania. So, there’s all of that to worry about while we’re sweating the little things like contracts, deadlines, and even trying to figure out how to con some editor into paying us for our next batch of scribbles. It helps that we have similar notions about what we think makes for a good story. Some of the most fun we have on a given project comes from the brainstorming sessions as we develop a story outline. We’re also fortunate in that our individual approaches to storytelling tend to complement one another to great effect.
Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to dividing the work on a given project, Kevin and I do not simply glare at one another and throw down a quick bout of Rock-Paper-Scissors, with or without the “Lizard-Spock Expansion.” Over the years, we’ve settled into a groove which—at the start of a project, at least—is pretty consistent. I’m usually the custodian of the “big picture” and keeping all the various plot trains on their respective tracks. Kevin’s strengths lie in characterizations and making the denizens of our various stories act, sound, and feel like real people with whom the reader can relate. This gets the ball rolling, and we head off to our separate corners and start slinging words. Along the way, we find new ways to challenge each other to work outside our particular comfort zones. As a result, each successive project ends up being a learning experience to one degree or another. Toss all that into a blender and hit the Puree button, and we end up with a mixture of ideas and effort from which we usually take quite a bit of unabashed satisfaction. Are we successful each and every time? Not at all, and in that event we either refine, revise, or restart the process and keep at it until we get it right. If we’re lucky, we even take away something from the misstep that makes us better writers and collaborators when the next project comes along.
Oh, that reminds me: The project comes first. Always.
Writing in collaboration is definitely different from working solo. There also are many similarities, such as there being days when you feel incapable of stringing words together in any comprehensible fashion. Only, now, you have to add into the mix the fact that your partner might be turning out page after page of gripping prose which is sure to win you both awards. Well, maybe that’ll happen, but first you have to do your hunk of the writing. Working with a partner might mean writing at a pace which is markedly different than what you normally experience with your own projects. If flexibility is a dirty word to you, then you might find collaboration a frustrating experience, at least until you adapt to the new situation. And if that’s not enough, there also will be times when your ideas are the better ones so far as the health and direction of your project is concerned, just as there will be occasions when the opposite’s true. A truly successful collaboration hinges on the commitment of all involved parties toward putting the needs of the project ahead of any personal goal or agenda. In short, you need to check your ego at the door. Better yet, leave it at home in a box—the same box with that stash of porn you say you threw away when you got married.
Kevin and I each know that the other is always putting their best effort toward a project, minding our respective deadlines and roles and all that jazz. Not only do we trust that we’ll both hit our designated marks at our appointed times, but also that our combined work will mesh well together because we’ve been communicating throughout the process. In other words, no surprises or improvisations sprung at the last minute. If inspiration strikes at two in the morning, then an e-Mail is fired off at 2:01, before any sort of revisions or rewritings begin. Consensus is reached, man hugs and fist bumps are exchanged, and we get back to work.
Which brings me to my final point: Trust.
There are plenty of articles you can read which offer advice about collaborations. They’ll give you guidance on defining roles, establishing goals, structuring contracts, dividing the work, and even how to resolve conflicts. Guess what? None of that crap is worth anything if you don’t trust your partner. You can probably sense where this is going, so I’m just going to come right out and say it: A successful writing partnership is like a marriage. It requires work to keep things running smoothly. There must always be clear communication, mutual respect, and—above all—trust. Without these vital components, any collaboration is doomed from the get-go.
So, that’s the secret of our success. If you’re participating in a creative collaboration, what’s the source of your magic?
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
In nearly every episode, our British heroine has to show beleaguered parents how to convince their children to sleep in their own beds. When the kids get out of bed, Supernanny patiently hauls them right back – over and over again. Even if it takes all night.
I can totally relate to those tots.
After spending nearly all of my writing life working at the kitchen table of our apartments, I finally live in a house and have an office of my own. But just like the kids on Supernanny, I can’t seem to stay in it. Somehow I drift, along with all of my writing junk, right back into the kitchen.
Since there’s no Supernanny for writers to drag me back to my office, my goal this year is to entice myself to stay in it. I’m going to make it so darn cool, I wouldn’t dream of writing anywhere else in the house.
My first step was to find a comfortable chair. After plopping my fat fanny in every chair in Office Max, I finally decided on this one:
It feels good enough to work in, yet not good enough to nap in. Yes, I’m still camping out in the kitchen, but not as much. This is very much a work-in-progress so we’ll see how it goes…
Monday, February 15, 2010
Of course, whenever someone tells me they're writing a book, I have to ask the obvious questions: What's it about? What's the genre?...Are you finished?
Yeah, it's the last question that usually trips folks up. So many of the people who are writing a book have been working on the same book for years. So, are they really writers?
I asked myself, what makes a writer a writer? Here are just a few things I believe comprise the make-up of every writer.
1. Writers write. Novel concept, huh? (Yes, the pun was very much intended). If you're going to call yourself a writer, you actually have to write. I've discovered that there are people who shell out good money to belong to writer's organizations like RWA, yet haven't touched the one manuscript they've been working on for months. If that's you, you're a hobbyist, not a writer.
2. Writers sacrifice. We all have lives outside of our writing, and we all have the same 24-hours in a day in which to get things done. There are USA Today Bestsellers who hold down a full-time job and take care of a house and family. These writers sacrifice time for their craft. It's not easy, but if you're a writer, it's what you do to get the job done.
3. Writers are fearless. In my own very unscientific analysis of why so many writing acquaintances work on novels yet never finish them, I would put fear of rejection at the top of the list of reasons those books never reach "the end". Even if true writers don't realize it, they really are fearless. It takes guts to put yourself out there.
4. Writers don't quit. This piggybacks on the concept of fearlessness. An essential part of being a writer is not allowing yourself to quit when the going gets rough. And it can really get rough. I always say that hell starts at Chapter Five. If I'm lucky, it'll hold off until Chapter Seven, but at some point I will hit a concrete wall. If writing were not in my blood, I would stop right there. Seriously, who wants to hit their head up against a wall? The writer does. All the time.
5. Writers read. Yeah, I'll bet you weren't expecting this one, were you? The next time someone tells you they are writing a book, don't ask them about the book they're working on. Ask them about the last book they read. You would not believe how many people are trying to write a book when they don't even read them. Writers are incessant readers. It's how you learn what to do, and more importantly, what not to do.
I want to know your thoughts. What do you think makes a writer a writer?
Friday, February 12, 2010
It warmed my heart to see the dedication of our patrons. I want aspiring writers to know that it is possible to reach your writing goals. Be flexible, but don't let a rejection letter keep you from continuing to write. There are days when writing seems like a chore. Yet on other days, it's a pleasure. Keep positive, although I understand there will be times when it will seem almost impossible to finish that manuscript. When that happened, read the type of books that you want to write, it helps with the creative process and lets you know what material is being published.
This is my roundabout way of saying, keep at it. Don't give up. Continue to work on your manuscript, short story or novel. You will get the call.
Don't be afraid to ask for help, join critique groups and attend writers' conferences and programs. All that you learn will help you create stronger, tighter, error free manuscripts.
I'd love to hear from you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Remember, don't be a stranger.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
So what do I do to make snow cones with this snow? I bought a foam bowling set and converted my dining room into a mini bowling alley. We now enjoy pajama bowling. We play board games and dress up. But the real snow cone I’ve made is the progress on my WIP. I have been writing, and writing and writing. I’ve written more in the past few snow bound days than I had in my twelve weeks of maternity leave. And I am making real progress.
So when God gives you snow, write. And well, you can make some snow cones too.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Shauna's recent post on why fiction writers should read non-fiction struck a real chord with me. That's probably because my editor and I are currently grappling with a science-fiction romance I wrote, oh, more than a year ago now.
In revisiting the novel, I'm struck by all the bits I managed to stick in there that were definitely non-fiction. Quantum physics had a look-in, with a dabble in relativistic computations, fusion experiments and stellar temperatures. Chemistry joined, with scouring of books (and the internet!) to find out what compound could form a message. I used group dynamics and basic human psychology to sketch how people would behave in particular situations. Human biochemistry led to a class of drugs that can tamper with memory. And that's not even including, you know, the actual story! And, of course, I have a background in a few sciences, so there are all my references -- my back-up brains -- sitting on the bookshelves as well. I'd love to grapple more with mathematics, but I fear my love affair with that particular branch of science is shared by few others. Then again, the world would be a boring place if we were all the same.
So, after noticing all the non-fiction bits, what I'm really worried about now is whether I put too much in. Are readers going to be put off? Even as one fear is allayed, you'll notice that the chronic writer finds another impending apocalypse to focus on. In case you were wondering, we're all like that.
I know, in going through the non-fiction bits of my novel, I haven't told you about the novel itself. Well, that might have to wait until the contract negotiations are concluded. As far as I'm concerned, nothing is a given until that contract has been signed, counter-signed and delivered to both parties. Actually, my sense of scepticism is such that I'm not really happy until the thing has been released, but I'm relaxed enough now to offset my paranoia to a certain extent.
Sooooooo, no finalised contract yet so no news, but still a kick-arse post from Shauna. Hopefully I'll have something for you within a month.(Have I told you how slowly publishing moves?)
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
We wait for the sale. For the galleys. For the advance check. For the release. For reviews, royalty statements, sales stats... It all adds up to years of waiting. During this time we obsess. We wonder if the agent/editor ever received the script, and are convinced that if they did they're using it as a footstool to reach the toner on the high shelf of the office supplies cabinet. No matter what stage of the business you're at, it seems, the waiting just never, ever ends. I've read of writers going through this same waiting, wondering and despairing hell with their thirteenth book.
What's a writer to do? Apart from going crazy checking the inbox 40 times a day, and the Amazon stats 60, that is? Here is a by no means exhaustive list of the things I do in my waiting time:
Compare search rankings for novel #1.
Fiddle with widgets.
Shop online catalogs.
Work, albeit distractedly, at the day job.
Fantasize about the perfect writing life - the one where writing pays the bills.
Create wish lists for every category of consumer item.
Engage in text message flirty war of words with favorite ex.
Eat almond crunch cookies.
Apply to MFA writing program I swore I'd never start.
Sink hours on social media sites. (Don't look at me like that - at least I don't tweet!)
Paint the bedroom.
Paint the living room.
Paint my nails.
Stare into space.
Wonder, often, whether writing for publication is a form of insanity.
Yes, I'm a neophyte. But what do the real writers advise? They tell you to write, that writing keeps your mind off the waiting. I'm ready to begin listening. Today, for the first time in many moons, I completed almost 2,000 words of a brand new novel in one sitting. It felt good to watch the demons crawl off and lick their wounds for a few hours.
The pros are right. Getting deeply involved in a new world and new characters is the only answer.
So, how do you manage the waiting game? Come on, let's have it, the good and the bad.
Monday, February 8, 2010
One of the hardest things to teach a new writer is that we are always our own primary audience. That sales or awards or anything else are entirely secondary to being honest to YOU.
Fine words. Lofty concept. The natural question to ask it: How do I do this and simultaneously build a career?
First, you must develop a set of theories about how human beings operate, what the world is, how we can best live together. What is love? What is worth dying for? How much freedom shall we sacrifice for security, or vice versa?
These questions have plagued philosophers, psychologists, and politicians for generations. I have my own answers to each of these. Some of them are clear, and solid. Others are more flexible and less dogmatic (my dabbling in politics is notoriously likely to be more philosophical than historical in basis.) But still, you must be prepared to defend your positions, because in essence, that is what a story is: a conversation setting out part of your beliefs about the structure of the universe and the nature of humanity.
An example: in my Outer Limits episode "A Stitch In Time" there is a moment when a woman has the opportunity to travel back in time and kill the man who raped her. Executives at the company wanted me to have her walk away, realizing that if she changed her own past in such a fashion, many other women would suffer. I stared at them, and said "It's easy for us to say that. We're all guys." And indeed, there wasn't a woman in the room. "Go home and ask your wives about that one."
I rarely push back hard against television and film folks (after all, they control the checkbook!), but this was a matter of principle. I've dealt with rape victims for decades, and I haven't met one who wouldn't move heaven and earth to go back and change that part of their past. This ties in intimately with my beliefs about the most basic motivations in the human spirit: survival, and a healthy sexual expression. We'll do almost anything to live without fear and dysfunction in these arenas.
Well, the next day those executives returned, looking pretty darned sheepish. To a woman, their wives had agreed with me. They shot it my way. The episode won an Emmy.
I knew what I believed, and what I stood for, and believed that any change in the script to match apparent "story needs" would be dishonest, demeaning, and damaging to the work. All that was required at that point was the courage of my convictions.
I tell my students often: "I'm not asking you to accept my values and beliefs. I want you to develop YOURS. To be prepared to die defending them, because ultimately that is what life is, a daily expression of your deepest values."
Abraham Lincoln supposedly said that if he had four hours to cut down a tree, he'd spend three and a half of them sharpening his axe. It is vital to remember that in the matter of your life, your career, YOU are the axe. Without an accurate perception of humanity, you cannot create characters who live and breathe. Without a constantly maturing and evolving philosophy of life, you cannot understand the interactions of plot and characterization that make good fiction. Without the ability to, in the words of samurai Musashi Miyamoto, "See those things that cannot be seen," you will never match the flow of poetic language and imagery to the subtext of your work. The best you will be able to do is imitate the work of better artists, and that, as a wine connoisseur once said, is as the second pressing of the grape.
The world needs artists. And if you go deeply enough into yourself, the specific transforms into the universal. And those who can touch us, give us perspective on our lives, help us understand the world as it is, not as we hallucinate it to be, will always find an audience. Your career will take care of itself if you first take care of YOUR self. Success belongs to those with the energy, courage and creative flow to grasp it. Begin with yourself.
You are the axe.
If you're interested in a completely free downloadable writing course, I'm offering one at www.diamondhour.com. Come on over!
Saturday, February 6, 2010
The most obvious area is mechanics. Most agents and editors stop reading if the first page or two of a manuscript contains spelling and grammar errors, is printed on perfumed pink paper, or describes scenery or backstory. A writer who reads books about writing and studies up on grammar and proper manuscript formatting can avoid basic pitfalls.
Simple errors of fact can throw readers out of a story and ruin its believability. I’ve read stories in which small colonies on isolated planets have technology that requires deep social infrastructure, wide-ranging trade networks, and workers with specialized skills; stories in which pre-1492 Europeans eat foods native to the New World; and stories in which the demographics of a human society were ludicrously out of whack. Much speculative fiction written before about 1970 is impossible to take seriously because it assumes women are less intelligent, less ambitious, less creative, less varied, and less everything else than men.
A basic knowledge of social, biological, and physical sciences would help a writer avoid such errors. One need not struggle through dull textbooks; magazines such as National Geographic, Psychology Today, and The Smithsonian and children’s books such as those in the Eyewitness Books series can give a writer a good grasp of the nature of people, animals, the Earth, and the universe.
Breadth and Depth
What traits do all humans share? Scientists may argue, but spiritual beliefs, death rituals, music and dancing, tool-making and -decorating, storytelling, social hierarchy, ceremonies to mark important events, standards for proper and improper emotional expression and sexual behavior, and self-decoration are probably among the universals.
Yet how often do we see most of these in speculative fiction. For example, in most societies, spiritual beliefs are essential, and sacred and secular are integrated. Yet religion is absent or a minor element in much speculative fiction. Similarly, furniture and tools are often utilitarian, and the arts often play little or no role in people’s lives. Why do some authors serve up this watery gruel, when most societies are more like minestrone or a robust gumbo? Is the writer unconsciously or lazily using life as depicted on TV as a model? Or—what I fear is more likely—is the writer ignorant both of human universals and of the dizzying diversity of ways in which different societies express them?
A writer who is well read in nonfiction is better equipped to create a fully realized world. Instead of opening a can of soup, the writer will cook a roux until it is golden, sauté an array of ingredients to bring out their flavors, add a long-cooked broth and fresh herbs, and simmer it all until the flavors deepen and meld.
Originality in writing is an offshoot of its depth and breadth because details make the difference. Many fantasies are set in a stock preindustrial world with a European landscape and a mannered society with a many-leveled hierarchy topped by a monarch. A writer who reads widely can leap free of these stale tropes. Dozens or hundreds of civilizations have risen and fallen in a variety of climates and latitudes. What if you set your story in a jungle? Or African-like steppes? Or the sub-Arctic? What if the society was based on that of the Mayans or the Egyptians or the Hittites or the Javans? What if the political system was a republic or a confederation of villages? Just one tweak on the Tolkienesque opens up new possibilities for characters and sets them new challenges.
I've been abstract, too abstract for my own tastes. So in my next Novel Spaces post, on February 20, I’ll get down to the nitty gritty and talk about a real example: the many topics I read about to write Like Mayflies in a Stream.
Thanks for dropping by.
Friday, February 5, 2010
SEXAHOLICS was a challenge to write - to create four, three-dimensional women with very different backgrounds and lives, who are lust addicts, or sex drunks as I call them, was not an easy task, but I asked for it. It was my bright idea. As writers, the same rules that apply to crafting a story apply no matter what the genre. I put my heart and soul into this novel, and for those who enjoy erotica, it is my desire that this title brings an understanding of what it's like to live with a sex addiction illness. The 12-Steps for Sexaholics Anonymous members include a belief in a power greater than themselves. One Sexaholics Anonymous executive told me you can't recover without faith. Call it what you want, but whatever your religion is or isn't, you must believe in a higher power, or else recovery will allude you and you'll continue to fall of the sobriety wagon.
I look forward to the discussions about addictions in general, mainly as it relates to today’s current events. I posted the question on my FaceBook page recently, "Do you think Tiger Woods is really a sex addict, or is he in a sex rehab clinic (allegedly) for publicity reasons so he'll look like he's healed." Some say if every person who cheated on a spouse was in the public eye, they'd be sending a whole lot of people to rehab for sex, but because Tiger is in a fishbowl, the answer is to get him fixed, when he's no more addicted than any other "married player."
What's your opinion on it? Do you think Tiger's alleged addiction diagnosis is legitimate (and I know this would just be speculation), or did he simply get carried away with his busty bevy of opportunities. I'd love to hear your opinions.
I'm no expert on the subject, but one thing writing does is it requires you to do your research in developing your characters, and the result is that we become much more informed about the world around us, far beyond our own safe little box. And one thing we can't be as writers, whether penning women's fiction, horror, urban, romance, Christian fiction, or erotica . . . is safe when it comes to crafting our works.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
After the initial thrill and huge sense of accomplishment at seeing galleys of my books, the dread factor sets in.
As writers, we know our books inside out at that point. Shout out a page number, and we can tell you exactly what’s on it.
How do you give a story you can almost recite by heart a good final read?
I’ve tried just sitting down and simply reading it, but my memory overrides my eyes and I don’t pick up on errors like I should. Also, (boring childhood background alert!) I started kindergarten reading on a high school level. I was dumb as hell in math so I didn’t skip grades. However, I was placed in all kinds of special reading classes – including speed-reading. So I learned at a young age to read from the center of a sentence outwards instead of from left to right. It’s ingrained now, and I have to force my eyes to read from left to right.
Anyhoo, I give my galleys two error-catching reads.
The first time, I use an index card to block out everything except the line I’m reading. I slowly move through the manuscript with the index card taking it line by line. It keeps me focused on the one line and prevents my eyes from wandering ahead.
The second read is aloud, still using the index card line by line.
I’m always interested in how other writers do things. How do y’all read your galleys?
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Not surprisingly, while not holding myself to my word count goals, I did not produce as many stories as I had intended. Something had to change.
So beginning January 1, I posted my daily word count on my Live Journal. This has perhaps made my journal a little more dull than usual, but it has definitely made me accountable. It shouldn't need to be said, but the key to accountability is honesty. There were three days in January when I didn't write anything, and I have to admit that on those days I was tempted to "forget" to post my no-word count. But I figure I'm in a staring contest with my own career as a writer, and I'm not going to be the one to blink.
How did I do in January? Better than I'd expected going in. My worst days were of course the zeros, and I also had a couple of days that came in around 200; on twenty of those thirty-one days I wrote fewer than 1000 words. But I also had five uninterrupted hours one Sunday to produce 4900 good words; very close to one thousand words an hour. In total I wrote 32,750 words in January -- call it an average of 1000 words a day.
But producing words means nothing if those words are not the building blocks of a finished product. It might be more meaningful to say that in January I produced two short stories (a 12,900-word science fiction tale that took two weeks and a 2600-word mystery written in a single sitting); four articles of various lengths; two Novel Spaces columns; and the first 9,000 words of a novella that will probably run in the neighborhood of 30,000 words when finished. The completed works have all been submitted to markets.
Goals have to be meaningful and they have to be taken seriously if you are to succeed as a writer.
What are your personal writing goals? And what are you doing to hold yourself accountable?
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a news special on CNBC about the business side of the (cover your eyes, Mom) porn industry. Porn is big business. I was shocked by some of the statistics, such as a porn movie being made every 39 minutes in America. Not watched, but made. Once taboo, porn has made it into the mainstream, and like every other entertainment industry it’s been hit hard by both the rough patch in the economy and…wait for it…internet piracy.
That’s right. Internet piracy is taking much of the pleasure out of the business of pleasure. The news special drew parallels between what’s happening with porn and what happened with the music industry, but anyone in publishing knows we have our own problems with internet piracy, too.
Here’s my question: When did stealing become the norm?
The Washington Post did a recent article on internet piracy and the publishing industry, and what was most disheartening to me were some of the comments posted by people who felt there was nothing wrong with downloading free books. There are tons of eBay sellers who are selling hundreds of books. I hope I never experience a knife to the gut, but it certainly cannot feel worse than seeing something you slaved over being given away.
With the internet and the emergence of so many new delivery mediums, stealing music, movies, porn and even romance novels has become all too easy.
But just because it’s easy, it doesn’t make it right.
Monday, February 1, 2010
I think that one of the best things I ever did as a mom was to teach each of my children to read at a young age. Now, don’t get me wrong: they weren’t little one- or two-year-old phenoms running around reading encyclopedias at one or two years old. But by Kindergarten, they’d passed basic phonics and sight words and were on to simple sentences. And, as I’ve mentioned in a blog before, they all love to read. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.
So, it’s only fitting that I’d be just as disturbed by the rampant illiteracy plaguing our communities. (Visit this site for a few interesting statistics: Interesting literacy statistics)
A few years ago, the nonprofit I was working with (you know, the day job), started an early childhood initiative. It was in those early strategic meetings that I learned stats like children who are behind in school at third grade almost never catch up. That in our modern cutting-edge-obsessed culture, there are those who can’t complete a job application – in store or online – because they’re rudimentary reading skills are too poor.
And, let’s face it. I don’t care how kids shorthand text messages or bastardize the words on their social networking pages. They need to know how to spell those words “for real” if they expect to survive in tomorrow’s brave new world. Apparently they disagree, though. My son showed me one of his Facebook friends’ latest fan page, something to the effect of, “I hate it when you text to somebody old and they make you spell out the whole word.”
So, the moral of my blog is a suggestion at best. Latch on to a kid and teach him/her to read. Prepare them for a life filled with word problems, subtitles and great novels. Or find an adult who feels utterly lost, but with enough conviction to know that they need to do better. Support their steps by getting them past the reading levels they’ve yet to conquer.
Detroit Public Schools has launched a reading initiative inviting community members to mentor students. There are myriad literacy organizations desperate for eager volunteers to spend a few hours of week doing what they love – reading, and letting someone else in on the fun. Or find a way to help improve the issue through a method of your own – blogging, hosting an event, lobbying your elected officials, etc.
Here are a couple of starting links. For more, head to your favorite search engine and try words like literacy, tutor, volunteer followed by your city. The people you help will remember you (even if you’re a fuzzy subconscious blur), but more importantly – despite the hurdles you might have to surmount – you’ll feel fuzzy, too. Warm and fuzzy.