Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Mockingbird Still Says What It Has To Say

On February 19, just shy of her 90th birthday Nelle Harper Lee died. If you are unfamiliar with her life, I can summarize it by saying she is the author’s equivalent of someone who won the lottery. Or more accurately, the $35 million dollar lottery, because at the time of her death, that is what she was worth.

Ms. Lee grew up in a small Alabama town in the 1920’s and 30’s. Her father practiced law in the segregated South where he actually defended a black man accused of murder, who was later hanged. Her chatting, slightly strange childhood friend, Truman Persons, who later would become Truman Capote, was Dill in her book. And, the lazy summer days they spent together would become the backdrop of her story.

Ms. Lee wrote her book To Kill a Mockingbird between 1956 and 1957 after a friend paid Lee a year of her salary to stop working and write. She took another three years revising the book, rewriting portions, and editing. She edited out an entire second book that her lawyer, finding the pages 55 years later, would seek to publish and succeed, over the concerns of her friends and family.

In 1960, Harper Lee published her fictional book set at a time when a child’s innocence collided with the harsh world of discrimination and injustice. She wrote about what she knew. She wrote about the people she loved. And she took the time to polish it to perfection.

In 1961, she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and in 1962 the screen play of her book won an Academy Award. She had won all the prizes a writer could dream and then she was done.

Although she attempted to write other works, she never published again and I respect her for that (yes, I am ignoring Go Set a Watchman). Thirty three years after the first printing of To Kill a Mockingbird, Ms. Lee was asked to write an introduction to her book (this is the version I have). In part, her introduction reads: “I am still alive, although very quiet. Introductions inhibit pleasure… Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble. Harper Lee.”

If Nelle Lee were writing in this blog, I think she would say:
Write about what you know
Write from the heart
Don’t lower your standards but know when you reach them
And…. Edit, Edit, Edit.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Guest author Elaine L. Orr: It’s Easier to be a Writer Today

Elaine L. Orr is the author of
the Jolie Gentil and River’s Edge
cozy mystery series. She also writes
books and blogs about writing and
publishing. Her blog is
Irish RootsAuthor
I didn’t say easier to be a good one. That depends on how hard you are willing to work.

To write his stories, my father sat at a typewriter for hours. He created happy families and strong Western heroes. Unfortunately, they all spoke with perfect diction and the happy endings were syrupy, so he never sold any stories or novels.

He enjoyed it, and his efforts showed that writing was worth my aspiration. He also went through his typewritten text with a pencil in hand and then retyped every word. Sometimes two or three times. On a manual typewriter.

When I began writing (imperfect) plays and screenplays on a Kay Pro 10 computer thirty years ago, I knew it was hard work. Fortunately, I wrote, edited, and made changes without retyping an entire manuscript.

I’m not sure I would have had my father’s persistence if I had to use a typewriter. However, by the time I began self-publishing my mysteries I had taken a number of  writing courses and revised the first two books of the Jolie Gentil series (written largely in tandem) many times. It was a different kind of persistence.

Besides the ease of rewriting, today’s authors don’t need a publisher’s blessing to put work in front of the public. You can start a blog (mine is Irish Roots Author) or submit to an expanding number of online and print short story markets. Sites such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s Nook Press make it fairly easy to publish a book.

But should you?

Finishing a piece of fiction or nonfiction is a big accomplishment. Take time to be proud. Also understand that your product is likely the first of many drafts, and don’t take the compliments of family and friends too seriously.

After you make a back-up electronic copy and email it to yourself, here are common next steps good writers take.

1) Put your book/story on the top shelf of a closet or bottom file cabinet drawer and don’t look at it for at least two weeks.
2) Start another project.

You did these two things to put distance between you and the novel. It’s the best way to be your own cold reader when you go back to the draft.

3) During your hiatus, read an article or book on editing your own work. I recommend Self-editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King) or Stein on Writing (Sol Stein).
4) Reread the draft. Try to pay attention only to the story. If you have to circle a typo or awkward phrase, do it and keep moving. Take notes on things such as whether each scene moves the plot forward, characters behave consistently (or don’t if that’s on purpose), and the point of view is clear and consistent.
5) Develop the list of essential changes. Do not shy away from major revision because you wanted to be done or are not sure exactly what to do.
6) Don’t be discouraged, just start the rewrite.
7) The second draft could be ready for comments from other writers, a book editor you hire, or a local librarian or English teacher who owes you a favor or is simply generous.
8) When you are happy with the content, hire a copyeditor. It’s not good enough to rely on friends.

If you are tempted to say you’d rather put the book ‘out there’ and let readers decide its worth, remember this point. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

Strong writing is the result of accepting criticism with an open mind and applying fixes you think are helpful. Note the last phrase. It is your book. Ultimately, it’s the readers and reviewers who give it a thumbs up or down.

Each book is its author’s learning experience. May your lessons be rewarding.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

It's All About the Opening!

Want to know a brutal truth? Here it is: you’ve about one page to impress an editor with your short story, so make it a damned good one.
This little pearl of editorial wisdom is something that’s always stuck in my head, going back to my first days of writing and submitting short stories. Back then, I collected all sorts of info-nuggets offered up by editors, agents, and writing coaches, and at some point I quit counting how many of those bits pertained to story openings.
“Don’t open with a bored character.”
“Don’t open with somebody waking up.”
“Don’t open with a lot of exposition or info dumping.”
“Open with something happening. Open with action. No, not just action, but ACTION!
Generally speaking, all of those are solid guidelines. It’s also true that a writer who knows what they’re doing can bend or break them, along with every other “writing rule” that’s ever been put forth. Unfortunately, the odds are much greater that a writer will end up falling into one of the traps each of these notions represents. When that happens, it’s likely that the editor reading your story will place it on top of their rejection pile.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to read a large number of short stories and select a small percentage of them for further reading and review. It’s been a while since I last read through such a large number of stories for such a purpose, but as I went about this task, it didn’t take long for me to recall several nuggets of advice and wisdom I’d heard dispensed over the years by editors far more accomplished than I. Guess which one kept ringing in my ears with every story I read?
I was surprised at how many stories opened in a manner that didn’t compel me to keep reading. I actually gave most of the submissions much longer than a truly overworked and underpaid editor ever could hope to devote to such a task, hoping that maybe a poor opening was merely standing in the way of a great story and just needed a little tightening. No such luck. In short order, I realized that culling down the number of stories to a manageable level was going to be both easier and more frustrating than I’d expected.
One story went on for three pages of exposition before ever giving me anything resembling a hint as to the central character.
Another tale hit me with nearly two pages of rapid-fire dialogue. Much of it was well-crafted and even witty, but I had no idea who was talking or why I should care.
In general, a number of the stories were hampered by the fact that nothing interesting was actually happening on those opening pages. The true story, if indeed there was one, started much later, preceded by a great deal of “ramping up” that usually didn’t need to be there. In journalism, this would be called “burying the lede,” but in fiction? It’s just a death sentence.
So, it was with a heavy heart that I sent those stories to the rejection pile.
My personal preference when it comes to short stories is to open with a problem of immediate and critical importance to the central character. I don’t necessarily mean crazy action or peril—though I do enjoy writing and reading such stories—but the character has to be engaged in doing something that (hopefully) grabs the reader's interest, and then I fill in the necessary details as the story unfolds. The fancy term for this storytelling technique is “in medias res,” or “in the middle of things,” but I usually sound stupid when I try to speak Latin, so I typically just go with something like, “Open with a bang!”
The idea is to grab the reader from the first page, the first paragraph, even the first sentence, and only grudgingly let go. Make it so that it’s only after the reader comes up for air five or six pages later that they realize just how far down you’ve managed to pull them into your story. A recent example of this in novel form is Andy Weir’s The Martian. Since the bulk of the book is presented as a journal, it’s not an action-packed opening, but it still grabs you, almost from the first word as the main character, astronaut Mark Watney, tells us that he’s in deep trouble. Indeed, the book has perhaps one of the funniest and most riveting openings I’ve read in a long time.
Experienced writers already know that a strong opening is just the first of many things they need to do to make their story stand out from everything else a harried editor has to read. For those of you still working toward that first sale or publication, take a look at that story you’re writing, and read just the first page. Does it sell your story to an editor who might not reach the next page?
Don’t give that editor an easy reason to set aside your story. Make them turn that page.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

I’ve finally separated from the mainstay in my life after a decade. It was a good run and lasted longer than anyone expected.

My “ex” is Windows XP. I loved that operating system. My Dell was reliable, we understood each other. It knew the intimate details of my life. It supported my writing. It was always there when I needed it. It was patient and taught me a lot about its inner workings.

As it aged, my better half got temperamental. It became slow, no matter how much I prodded and pleaded. It stubbornly locked up on me at inopportune times. It got unsociable, refusing to communicate with other PCs. The final straw was when Microsoft decided not to support XP anymore. I felt like the bottom fell out of my world. Damn you, Bill Gates!

After careful research, I ordered a new Dell. Not Windows 8, I’d heard horror stories. Windows 7 was more my speed. It was delivered and the box sat there for nearly a year. I couldn’t do it. I was still loyal to my old computer, even though it seemed to be getting Alzheimer’s.  

I know my idea that a computer should last a lifetime is unrealistic. But, when you’ve invested your life, thoughts and career into those wires and microchips, you expect loyalty in return. My computer knows more about me than my parents or my lovers. I have confided in this piece of equipment and it has been faithful.

You never forget your first computer. I’d had affairs with office computers, learned by trial and error and always had experts on-call for problem solving. I bought my own personal computer in 1997, a huge, black Toshiba. It cost me $2,000 and I made payments for a year. The Internet was still in the infancy stage and dial-up was easier to access at 3 a.m.  Toby was hard to part with, but it couldn’t keep up with the times, which were a-changing.

The next one was a cast-off of my sisters, some off-brand. It was a difficult relationship right from the start. I was almost glad when it died, although it happened right in the middle of getting a novel to the publisher. I quickly had to order a new one without knowing much about what I wanted. It cost $800. Now it was time for an upgrade.

I opened the box on New Years to fulfill my resolution to stop procrastinating. There were no operating instructions and an Office program didn’t come with it. I still have to get speakers, although I question why every computer can’t come with ones when even my Surface has sound. The tutorials are worthless without sound. It’s been trial and error as I’ve had to deal with this younger and faster PC. Often I chide myself that I’m too old for this nonsense.      

We’re working out our differences. I lost email addresses, but I’m building my contacts back up. The more expedient features don’t seem as easy as my XP. This young computer plays hide-and-seek with my documents. It asks questions I’m not prepared to answer. The icons are different or missing. I long for the familiarity and comradeship of my former PC. We’d been through two novels and countless blogs together.

Then I remembered—I wrote my first book on a Brother electric typewriter. We thought Wite-Out (invented by one of the Monkees’ mothers) was the best invention ever. When word processers came on the scene, it was a revolution. I adjusted to progress so easily back then.

This is a new millennium and the world is changing, perhaps too quickly for my comfort. I need to adapt to survive. That’s what evolution is all about. But, I still pray that this will be my last relationship. If breaking up is hard to do, starting over is just as difficult.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

What's In Your Retirement?

Retirement Can Change Your Life - Or Someone Else's Life

Retirement. That word means different things to different people. And it means different things to an individual at different times of his or her life.

Some see it as an opportunity to travel, to go places time has not permitted in the past. Others see it as a time to kick back and do nothing, watch more TV, read more books, get in a daily siesta, join a coffee klatch with other retirees, or have no schedule at all.

How many retirees use the additional free time to improve their golf game, or develop a better bridge game. Others use the new-found time to work with charitable organization.

But some choose to use their skills to train or otherwise help people in need.

Sylvia had begun sewing as a child, making her own doll clothes. She continued as an adult, making her husband's suits, ties and shirts. After awhile, Sylvia Remple began teaching sewing and eventually opened a clothing manufacturing business. It grew quickly and before long she had three hundred employees. In 1982, her company, Sun Ice, outfitted the first team of Canadians to conquer Mount Everest. Two years later, her company was awarded the contract to outfit many Canadian teams for the Winter Olympics in Los Angles. Following that success, Sun Ice became the Official Clothing Supplier to the Winter Olympics hosted by Canada

In 2001, Sylvia Remple sold the business. Retirement. What to do now?

About the same time, she became aware of the poverty in Sierra Leone and in particular, the desperate circumstances for some women. She came up with an idea.

Sylvia and daughters Tammy and Angela formed Sewing Seeds International - SSI. Its mandate was to create self sustaining sewing schools in impoverished areas, empowering women, bringing hope for a better future.

The first project was in Sierra Leone. SSI secured backing from some companies, purchased sewing machines and materials. In Sierra Lione, they found a place to hold classes, then advertised for women who wanted to learn a skill that would help them toward a better future.

The classes were intense. Sylvia also realized that to keep attendance and attention at a high level, the school must provide care for the many young children of the students. So, day care was provided, including meals.

At the end of the three week classes, the machines were left in the classrooms and the women were encouraged to continue working on their sewing skills.

A few months later, these same women were given another three-week school, introducing them to more advanced skills. Again, the machines were left for the students to practice and make clothes for their children and themselves.

A third course was offered. Now, the students were capable of using patterns and making items for sale. But most important for the Sewing Seeds mandate, the best students were trained so they could teach classes to other women.

The success of the school encouraged SSI to move into other countries. Classes have been given in Africa, Europe, South America, and Mexico.

Has it been successful?

Absolutely. All can make clothes for their families. Many of the women now make a decent living sewing for others. Several have formed companies to manufacture clothes. One graduate now has a company with eight other women working, all making a decent living. Graduates of another school formed a co-op which now has a contract to supply all the uniforms for a school system in a nearby larger town.

Because they are set up to be self-sustaining, these schools should bear fruit for years to come. The Canadian government has recognized SSI as a certified charitable organization. In many places around the world, SSI is recognized as a life-saver.

Is Sylvia bored in her retirement? Not even a little. Her compensation? Seeing impoverished women now able to be self-supporting, infused with hope for a brighter future. That's better than a paycheck.

What is her retirement? To help others.

While going into extremely poor, perhaps desperate, areas may not seem like a fun thing to do in retirement, it must be extremely rewarding and give one a true sense of worth that a game of golf probably won't.

Sylvia would tell you she has found the perfect retirement.

What do you see for yourself in retirement?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Marking Text - Some Guidelines for Authors

This month I decided to share a link (below) that I found very helpful as far as guidelines for marking text in your story. Particularly, when do you italicize, underline, or use quotation marks, etc.? I always receive style sheets guideline notes from copy editors (who use the Chicago Manual of Style) as far as formatting my works, but when you self-pub, it's really helpful to know, especially how song titles, book titles, TV titles, etc., are to be shown so that they stand out uniformly - some are italicized and with some you can use quotation marks. The link includes a lot of other good consistency tips as well.

Ex: With songs: I italicize the name of the album, but for the name of the song I use quotation marks.

I hope this helps those who needed to know. And I do not take credit for this link, as it is a great post on The Editor's Blog, which I find very helpful. This one was written by fiction editor, Beth Hill.

If you have any tips that work for you, please feel free to let us know.

Write on!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Consumer reviews

I don’t normally read reviews of my books, yet when I go to purchase a book, or any product for that matter, I read the Amazon reviews before committing to purchase. There are some things I hope to get out of a review, especially the consumer reviews: 

1. a summary of the book besides the blurb; 
2. the readers’ feelings about the writing, content and story-line; 
3. whether it’s worth my hard earned dollars.
 Consequently, I expect certain things from a book review, whether it is positive or negative.

Some time back a reader emailed me after purchasing one of my books and said she was about to leave a review but there were already so many reviews she didn’t think it was needed. So many? The last time I checked I could have counted them on my hands. So of course I looked and there were over a hundred reviews. I proceeded to read. Some were detailed while some were the bare minimum. When I was finished reading many of the reviews as well as for my other books, I came away wondering if there is a proper format for consumers reviewing a book.

Since there seems to be no established format for consumers reviewing and rating books, I would share with you some tips that may be helpful to potential readers considering purchasing the book.

1. Read the darned book
Reading the first three chapters or the blurb at the back of the book doesn’t qualify one to review a book. I saw one review of one of my books where the person claimed the hero and heroine didn’t get together in the end. That person clearly did not read the book in its entirety because as other reviewers pointed out they did get together in the end. Even professional reviewers when they are pressed for time do this. A review of one of my books on a professional reviewer’s blog site was so scant in the detail it was clear that the person only read the first few chapters before writing the review. It did not capture the essence of the book and it was not very helpful.

2. Give a summary of the book before reviewing it
Readers want to know what the book is about. Most blurbs on the back of the books don’t give as much details as readers would like. That’s where reviewers, even consumer reviewers come in. It helps orient the reader.

3. Be honest
Have you ever read a review that was so superfluous that it lacked credibility? If you are asked to review a book and you don’t feel you can give an honest review, simply bow out. To be honest, I don’t like to give negative reviews. I had one author acquaintance who asked me to write a review of her book on Amazon. I read it (and after 2 years I’m still reading it), and I did not find it interesting in the least. So I did not post a review since it would have been negative. Whether you like the book, or not just be honest in your review, because that’s what readers need.

4. Don’t post a rating without reviewing
If you give book a 5 star rating, we want to know why. What is so interesting about it? Is it the story-line? The characters? The writing style? In the same vein, readers want to know why a reviewer gave the book a 1 star. Most of those ratings without reviews are deemed not helpful.

5. Don’t be nasty
There are some reviews that are written just to be mean. One reviewer said their intention was to balance out the four and five stars so they gave it a 2 star. That’s not the purpose of reviewing. I’ve read a review that suggested the book be used as toilet paper to wipe ones @&*@#$. I purchased the book anyway and discovered it was a great read. The point of rating a book is not to vent frustration, but to give an honest review about the product.  And even a negative review could be written without being nasty.

6. Review the product, not other things
This applies to more than just books. Some people give great books or great products a 1 star because the shipping was slow or they had issues with the supplier. I read a review where the person took issue with the author name because it sounded fake. There was nothing about the book in the review.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It merely contains my pet peeves because I absolutely hate to read a review that doesn’t at least offer me insights that would aid in my decision to purchase the book.

How do reviews influence your decision in purchasing books? What are some of your pet peeves about Amazon or other online book reviews?