Monday, October 22, 2018

Write a Novel in a Month

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published September 19, 2010. Enjoy!

By Kevin Killiany

National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) is rapidly approaching. Literally at the speed of time. Every November tens of thousands of writers strive to produce a 50,000-word manuscript in thirty days. Why 50k?* Because in publishing, that's the official definition of a novel. Today 90,000-word novels are common, but they are a recent development. (Or at least younger than I am.) Take a look at your copies of The Old Man and the Sea and Brave New World. Time was most novels were that slender. Though most were not that good.

More than a month devoted to writing, NaNoWriMo is an active internet community – something of a global glee club – with daily encouragements, prods, and reminders to keep you going. In many cities NaNoWriMo writers get together one or two nights a week for group writing sessions that take the loneliness out of what is usually a solitary pursuit.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is not to produce great literature, though creating great literature is not discouraged. The purpose is to get writers – especially writers who do not think they have enough time for writing – to sit down at the keyboard and write. And in that respect it has been a great help to me over the years.

I have NaNoWriMo-ed five times – the last in 2006 – and twice finished the month with a manuscript of more than 40k words that told a story with a beginning, middle, and end. None of these manuscripts are ready to be submitted to a publisher. And of the five, only my last will become a novel some day. Right now "Dram Rock" is a 42k outline of what will be the second novel in my Coastal Carolina mystery series.

Chris Baty's No Plot? No Problem!, the book of all things NaNoWriMo, has been on my essential reference shelf for half a decade. (Though it's not at the moment; I loaned my copy to an aspiring romance writer who's preparing for this coming November.) While much of Baty's writing advice is NaNoWriMo-specific, there are clear lessons on discipline, priorities, and time management that should be in every writer's tool kit.

One example, useful to anyone who's ever lost an evening of writing to puzzling over how to fix a scene that doesn't seem quite right no matter what you do: Use bold. (Actually, Baty suggests italics, but bold is easier for me to spot.) When you're having problems with a scene, or a bit of dialog or a chapter ending, highlight the troubling section by putting it in bold to remind yourself the problem is there and get on with your writing. That way you do not lose your creative momentum and get more words out of your head and onto the paper where you can work with them.

Don't go back to your bold sections until either your subconscious – which never stops working – has provided you with a solution or you finish the rest of the manuscript. I work in Word, so the easiest thing for me to do is view my ms in "print layout" and shrink the images to 25%. That saves paging through looking for areas that need work because the bold passages show up as dark smudges. I just click on a smudge, go to 150% (I have old eyes – large print is my friend), and get to work fixing whatever needs fixing. Sometimes I can't think why I bothered to highlight the section. Other times the solution is obvious. Usually it's something in between. But no matter what I find, I'm able to make clear editorial decisions quickly because I did not waste time trying to edit when the words were flowing.

If you have trouble using your writing time productively – or if you have trouble finding writing time at all – I highly recommend taking part in NaNoWriMo. It's a fun and challenging way to prove to yourself you can overcome the excuses and get words on paper. Can't go wrong investing in Baty's book, either.
Either will show you you've got more time to write – and can write more in the time you have – than you knew.

* = I originally had the word count wrong. I corrected it when a commenter pointed the error out.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Selling Yourself

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published July 17, 2012 . 

By Dayton Ward

In the world of professional publishing, we as writers are both a product and a service, and it’s up to us to present ourselves in this manner. We’re of value to a potential editor and/or publisher; we just have to convince them of what we already know, right?

Oddly enough, I tend to suck at selling myself.

Specifically, I still struggle when it comes to introducing myself to editors, agents, and other publishing professionals. Take this past weekend, for example: Comic-Con International in San Diego. Tens of thousands of people milling about the exhibitor’s hall, and in the midst of that chaos were booths sponsored by publishers big and small. You’d think it’d be easy enough for a guy like me, a reasonably accomplished if not well-known sort, to walk up to one of these booths and feel comfortable talking shop, but as usually seems to be the case, I often was second-guessing myself at the moment of truth. It wasn’t such a problem if I at least knew the person in the booth by name or perhaps even had exchanged earlier e-Mails with them, but a cold introduction?


It’s a lot like when you finish a story and you’re getting up the courage to mail it to the faceless editor you’ve never met, only here you don’t even have the cushion of distance to ease your uncertainty. It’s you and your prospective client, face to face, and everything hinges on the next words to come out of your mouth...assuming you can make your mouth work.

I did have some success, of course. I met several writers in fields outside my own, and we spent a few pleasant minutes here and there swapping war stories before exchanging info. Likewise, a couple of good discussions were enjoyed with friends and colleagues, during which plans of one sort or another were hatched. And I did introduce myself to a few new folks at publishers’ booths where conversations ensued, and I came away with contact information and an agreement to communicate after the mayhem of the con was behind everyone.

Did I take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the con? Honestly? No, owing mostly to my own nervousness with such situations. I always feel out of my depth at these things. Part of me always wonders if the con’s hectic nature just makes attempting any sort of introduction worthwhile. Would the business card I gave the booth person go in a pocket, a box, or the trash? How many other hopeful, hungry writers were selling themselves to editors and publishers just as I was? Quite a few, obviously, and while I imagine most of the people working those booths took such introductions as to be expected in the con environment, I still was wondering if their first reaction as I walked up was something along the lines of, “Oh, great. Another one.”

I suppose it’s worth noting that I’m better at dealing with these scenarios now than I was a few years ago. A little better, anyway. I’ve refined how I present myself and what I do, how to say what I want to convey, and shortening the amount of time it takes to say it while still communicating the appropriate and relevant information. As my resume has grown, so too has my confidence in selling myself, but there’s still that little bit of anxiety taunting me whenever I enter these situations. The rational part of the brain-like thing renting space inside my skull tells me the only way to get over this self-doubt is to keep at it; continue preparing myself as I would for any other job interview, and convincing that other person that I’m a seasoned professional with valuable skills to offer.

From discussions I had over the weekend, I know I’m not the only writer who feels uncomfortable selling themselves. Even some veteran pros—people I’d never having any kind of trouble with this—have confided that they still feel that momentary apprehension in these types of situations. “Just keep working at it,” they tell me.

How about you? Are you a natural seller, or does it come a bit harder for you? Are you a smooth talker, or do you feel like your tongue sometimes wants to fight you over every word? How do you prepare for making these types of introductions, and do you have any particular success (or horror) stories you want to share?

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Impotence of Editing

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published April 26, 2012.  Enjoy!

By William Doonan

After reading Jewel's excellent post, I wanted to add my two cents about editing. 

With the possible exception of marketing, the most onerous task a writer faces is editing.  I can pull a character out of a hat.  Here’s one now – Ned.  Setting – abandoned donut shop north of Muncie.  Plot – middle-aged taxidermist despairs of finding love in a post-apocalyptic world.  Theme – unending gloom.  Title – Mounted. 

Tell me you’re not dying to know what happens.  I can write it.  The only problem is that when I’m done, it will be riddled with errors.  And when I go back to edit it, it will look just fine to me.

The reason is simple.  As readers, we are trained to ignore the connective tissue of written language.  Punctuation becomes invisible, pacing is ignored, anomalies are forgiven, and dialog tags fade into the background.  And because all writers are readers, we fall into a trap.  We overlook the same things.  And when we make mistakes in the connective tissue of our own story, we don’t notice.

I’ll use a short story to illustrate my point.

Mounted – Chapter 1

Ned’s hands shook as he glued the beak onto the stuffed bat.  “Damn, he shouted, throwing his tweezers onto the ground, realizing he had glued the beak onto the back of the bat’s head by mistake.  “Damn post-apocalyptic word!”

Good, isn’t it?  But there are problems.  There is no close-quote after the first Damn.  There’s no such thing as a post-apocalyptic word (unless there is), and bats don’t have beaks.

Mounted – Chapter 2

Oriole shivered, her ragged hoodie no match for the evening chill.  If only her sisters had left Muncie before the troubles.  If Robin and Grackle were here, surely one of them would know how to stat a fire. 

Hugging her poncho tight, Oriole stepped gingerly around the piles of brand-new disposable lighters that littered the road like gemstones, shimmering in the sunrise. 

Up ahead, she saw something flicker in an abandoned donut shop.  It could be a campfire.  She approached carefully.  “It could be another gang of surfers,” she groaned, remembering her last encounter.

I know, right – you’re hooked.  So hooked you might be willing to overlook the slovenly writing.  You can’t stat a fire.  And the pacing is off.  First it’s evening, then three lines later it’s sunrise.  Is she wearing a hoodie or a poncho?  Surfers don’t form gangs.  And you can’t groan something.  Really, you can’t.  And even if you could, you shouldn’t.

Mounted – Chapter 3

Ned was gluing the last tail feather when he heard the door chime.  He turned away from the peacock as the girl entered.  She was the first human he’d seen since….since the troubles began.  “Damn Buffet Rule,” he gurgled, staring at her.  She was gorgeous.  Mid-twenties, maybe five foot two, mixed Scottish and Mexican heritage, judging by the poncho she wore and the pan of haggis she carried. 

Oriole came forward and knelt by the fire.  She rubbed her hands together

Ned carried the peacock to the display case, and set it next the owls and ducks and penguins, the product of his labor these long years.  Then he approached her.  He extended a hand but she cringed, spotting a distinctive feather that clung to his sleeve. 

“Is that spotted owl?”

Ned beamed.  “Do you do taxidermy too?”

Oriole shrieked as her eyes darted around the room.  “You…you kill them.”

“Well, yes,” he said.  “Otherwise they fuss when you try to stuff them.”

She shook her head sadly. 

What’s wrong?

“Im an ornithologist.”

Problems?  Actually, this part is pretty good if you can ignore the missing quotation marks, and the fact that you can’t gurgle words. Would the door chime still work?  The word I’m needs an apostrophe. 

Mounted – Conclusion

“I’m not currently in need of eye care,” Ned told her, eyeing her lustfully. 

“Not ophthalmology,” Oriole said, “ornithology – I study birds, I love birds.  I come from a long line of bird lovers.  I could never love a man who, who, who…”

“Shh.” Ned put a finger on her lips.  “You sound like that owl I strangled last week.  Look, we might have our differences, but we can make it.   At least we’ll have each other.  We can forget about the zombies for awhile?”

Oriole pulled back.  “There are zombies?”

“Probably not,” Ned said as he kissed her.  “I mean, I haven’t seen any but you never know.” 

“This is so wrong,” she said, kissing him back hungrily.  “I could never love a man like you.”

“We’ll make it work,” he said, gingery removing her poncho and her hoodie, and setting her haggis aside. 

“Tell me how this is going to end.”  She tore at his clothes, spilling the contents of his pockets.  Ear pins, wing screws, and spools of tail wire tangled with beak nuts of assorted sizes.  “Tell me how this is going to end.”

Ned took her in his arms, remembering the title of his story.

Problems?    How can he talk while kissing her?  Seriously, there’s way too much kissing dialog here.  Also, there’s no such thing as a beak nut. 

OK, so how can we avoid an editing nightmare?  Here are four ideas:

1)      Go to the TOOLS bar in Microsoft Word, and turn on the GRAMMAR AND STYLE checker.  It will drive you crazy.  But it will save you grief.
2)      Unless you’re willing to pay an editor, you’ll need some editing software.  I like PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing.  It will find mistakes you missed.  At $49, it’s a bargain, and you can download a preview for free.
3)      Read your story out loud.  Read it slowly as if you were recording an audiobook.  Also, try to sound like Morgan Freeman.  Reading out loud keeps you honest.  You won’t be able to ignore your mistakes.  
4)      Find a writing partner you can trust, someone who’s willing to look you in the eye and laugh uncontrollably at your story if that’s what’s called for.  If they can’t do that, find someone else.

Monday, October 1, 2018

When English isn't

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published on November 9, 2009. Enjoy!

By Liane Spicer

"The Americans are identical to the British in all respects except, of course, language." - Oscar Wilde

When I've completed a novel manuscript one of the last checks I do is to ensure that my spelling and usage conform to the US standard, since my publisher and main market are US. This is because UK English (commonly called 'English') is the standard in the anglophone Caribbean. I spent many years teaching this version of the language and Americanisms, as we called them, were/are considered errors in usage.

Don't start pelting me with rotten fruit, dear US friends. Until relatively recent times not only were these Caribbean territories British colonies, but all our high school examinations were administered by British universities. My high school certificates, for example, were all awarded by the University of Cambridge. These guys mark our papers, we obey their rules. And although I've always been aware that there are differences in the US version of the language, it wasn't until fairly recently that I realized how deeply those differences affect all aspects of the language: spelling, grammar, idiom, punctuation, even formatting of dates and numbers.

Here are a few points of diversion that can result in hilarity or extreme embarrassment to the unwary:

Randy: This is a perfectly reasonable first name to Americans. When these poor guys cross the pond and say "Hi, I'm Randy" to the locals, what they are saying in UK-ese is: "Hello, I'm feeling horny." Then they wonder at all the sniggering and outright guffaws that greet their innocent introductions.

Rubbers: In the UK, and here in the Caribbean, a rubber is an eraser, not a condom. Imagine the mild mannered new Englishman in a US office requesting a rubber from office supplies - and mentioning that he likes to chew on 'em.

Table: In a US boardroom, tabling a motion means postponing it. In the UK, it means the motion has been brought up for discussion. That must make for some entertaining mixups in trans-Atlantic commerce.

Lift: In the US the device used to travel between floors in a building is called an elevator. In the UK it is called a lift. American hitch-hikers should also be warned that it's best to ask for a lift (or a 'drop' in the Caribbean) and not a ride - which is a sexual favour in the UK and the Caribbean.

School: In UK English someone who goes to school is a student between the ages of five and seventeen. In the US, it can also mean an adult enrolled in a place of higher education. We call that university - and look with pity on our middle-aged relatives who reside in the US when they tell us they're going back to school.

Numbers: In the US a billion is a thousand million. In the UK it's a thousand times that amount. Thus a British billionaire is much, much richer than his American counterpart - even without factoring in the exchange rate.

So you thought it was simply a matter of color vs. colour, tap vs. faucet, post vs. mail, pavement vs. sidewalk and trousers vs. pants, huh. When we consider all the differences in usage within the US, UK and the Caribbean, is it any wonder that those of us who go back and forth across the language lines sometimes feel like tearing our hair out?

Liane Spicer

Saturday, September 22, 2018

12 Myths Writers Believe

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published March 13, 2016. 

By Sunny Frazier

The other night I went to dinner and met someone for the first time. I was introduced as “a published author.” This young woman, looking way too impressed, gushed “How exciting!”

“Not really.”

It wasn’t the response she was looking for. She thought she’d given me a compliment. I gave her an honest reply.

I’m over it. All the shiny newness of being a published writer has worn off. I can’t maintain the façade anymore. The pedestal has crumbled, my feet are firmly on the ground. Maybe in the mud. Sometimes it feels like quicksand. I’m beginning to understand why Salinger went into hiding, Hemingway killed himself and Hammett became an alcoholic.

There’s no fooling myself anymore. They say fiction writers tell lies for fun and profit. Can writers handle hard truths? Here goes:

1.    Writing is a gift. No, it’s a curse. It’s rejection. There are easier ways to make a living.

2.    We are born with natural talent. Doubtful. “Talent” takes years of reading and absorbing. It takes time in the classroom. It takes studying spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and craft. It takes trial and error.

3.    It’s a labor of love. No, just labor. Below minimum wage. The payoff is we don’t get Alzheimers as often. We keep the brain cells firing.

4.    We have to write. No, we don’t. Nobody is twisting our arm. Nobody holds a gun to our head. Readers aren’t waiting with open arms for our golden words. What we have to do is eat, keep a roof overhead, pay taxes. 

5.    There’s a “writer’s high.” Maybe a rush when the right words hit the page, a sentence that sings, a perfect paragraph. Want a high? Take drugs.

6.    Writing a book is like giving birth. Really? While you may bloat from eating crap for 9 months I seriously doubt there is as much pain unless the pages are expelled via your vagina. Men excluded.

7.    These are my children. Oh, do your manuscripts need to be fed and clothed? True, it sucks the life out of you. Yet, when it’s time to leave the nest and go to a publisher, you cling and hold back.

8.    Writer’s block? More like laziness. Excuses. Fear. Will I be able to finish the book? Will it be as great as I hear it in my head? Do I have talent? The mantra repeats until we have to block it out.

9.    You have to open a vein and bleed all over the page. That’s suicide and you’d be dead. Maybe you’ll become published posthumously. Probably not.

10. We live glamorous lives. Seriously? Is perpetually living in pajamas and slippers with endless cups of coffee, tea, diet soda (or booze) a lifestyle to aspire toward? Things go unattended like grooming, housework, bills, yardwork. We have insomnia with thoughts rumbling through our heads. In the wee hours plots and doubts decide to show up.

11. We make lots of money. Only if your name is Rowling, Crais, Evanovich, Patterson, Steel or any one of the 1%. The rest of us barely scratch out enough to keep us in printer paper and ink cartridges.

12. We make important contributions to the world. Then why hasn’t society caught on? Oh wait—they are too busy living productive lives. They have little time for our insights. They are Philistines who would rather watch Dr. Phil. 

What we do have is a community to commiserate with us. We recognize our kind, seek them out at conferences and online. We can tell the clueless beginners with stars in their eyes to jaded veterans who’ve had too many empty book signings. We’ve heard unrealistic expectations and Hollywood dreams and wait for reality to set in. We’ve finally admitted we are nothing special, just people who choose to be miserable.
But, we keep all that a secret. Instead, we smile at readers and try to charm them into being fans. We nod when friends tell us we’ll get on the best seller list someday. We tolerate disappointment from family members who think we should do something practical. Like make money.

We continue to ignore the odds, the pitfalls, the walls thrown up to stop us. We put one word behind another and fingers crossed it all makes sense. We continue to hope when it feels hopeless. Even if you agree with the above, chances are you’ll ignore the advice. After all, I write fiction.     

Saturday, September 15, 2018

How to Not Write Novel #2

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published September 7, 2014.  

By Che Gilson

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

Let's look at a few of them:

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 8, 2018

To Read, or Not to Read?

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published September 23, 2012.

By Eugenia O'Neal

The young daughter of a friend of mine told me the other day that she doesn't like to read.  We were chatting as we waited for my friend to finish what she was doing so we could head out to an event and when she said that I felt, well, gutted would be the word.  Her mom is a reader.  Her dad, too, though he mostly reads business books or political memoirs, that kind of thing.  So I told her all I thought she was missing.  I pointed out that some of those movies she loves so much like the Harry Potter series were books first.  I said that books will reveal much more of the world than she could possibly learn by just watching tv or even surfing the Net.  She responded, laughingly, that her mom had already told her all that but she just found reading boring.  Well!!!

I didn't know what more to say so I didn't say anything.  But, later, discussing it with her mom, we conceded the problem was bigger than Rhonda.  In fact, a couple of the high school English teachers I know, say that every year it seems like less and less children are reading at their age-level.  Worse, their ability to express themselves and to comprehend what they read also seems to be in decline.  One of the teachers has started a book club to help overcome this but they think the problem has reached epidemic proportions.  Of course, it's not just BVI children.  Educators on other islands and in the States, for example, have been complaining about this ever since the publication of the sensational Why Johnny Can't Read.  

For years, the Caribbean prided itself on being a highly-literate region with some of the best schools in the world.  The region's roster of writers include V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, Jamaica Kincaid, George Lamming and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, among others.  But, if less children are reading, where will future generations of Caribbean writers come from?

As a parent, I've tried to instill a love of reading in my daughter by getting rid of television, by discussing the stories she's reading with her, by asking her to come up with different endings for stories, and by making sure she has some of the best children's books in her library.  She will pick up a book and read it but she, increasingly, uses her Kindle to surf YouTube.  Can The Wind in the Willows compete with Beyonce, or even Alvin and the Chipmunks?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Interracial Romance

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published July 24, 2011. 

By Jewel Amethyst

We have been discussing as a theme “Vampires and human” love stories. The thread that seems to be recurring in the discussion is the issue of the forbidden love. I want to deviate and write a little about romance in a more realistic sense: The interracial romance. In this context I am talking about love between two human beings of different races or ethnicities appearing in books and on TV.

I was recently working on a manuscript where a white female of a deeply religious sect living a 19th century lifestyle in distinct colonies, falls in love with a black man. Of course it is a forbidden love, much like the Vampire human love stories. As I began looking at publishers and their submission guidelines, I realized for African American romance, several publishers place a stipulation that both the hero and heroine had to be African American. In fact Genesis press had this as a guideline: “The heroine in romance and the protagonist in fiction must be black (African-American, African, Caribbean etc). The hero in romance must also be black....”

Are we saying love between a white woman and a black man cannot be considered “African American Romance, even if the man and just about every other character in the book are African American? Mainstream romance is not much different either. Even if the guidelines don’t specifically say it, in most mainstream romance both Hero and Heroine are of the same race. Therefore interracial romance, especially if it involves a white woman and a black man, neither fits into African American Romance or Mainstream romance.

That prompted me to look around on television for interracial romances in the primetime series. I examined the last two seasons of primetime shows on ABC, simply because it’s the television station I watch the most. I found while many of their primetime shows had at least one gay couple, only one show, “Modern Family” seemed to have a stable interracial couple. It was the marriage between an older white male and a young (really sexy) Hispanic female. Consequently, that couple also embodied the May/December relationship and the multicultural relationship. And though I am not much of a movie buff, I’ve seen very few recent movies with interracial romances.

Apparently while Vampire/human romances are gaining popularity today, the interracial romance, especially between black and white are becoming a relic of the past, at least on television. It is not a true reflection of today’s society where there is an increase in interracial marriages. According to the PEW report, 20 years ago only 6.8% of marriages involved couples of different races. Today, that number has more than doubled to 14.6%.

So why don’t the romance in books and on primetime television reflect the trends of today’s society in terms of interracial romances? I can postulate a few reasons:
 Interracial relationships are still uncomfortable to many viewer/readers?
 Too many complicated societal issues?
 Writers/producers fear offending particular races by having stereotypes?
 Or is it because fiction simply lags behind reality?
What’s your take on it?

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Life Lessons

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published July 22, 2010.  Enjoy!

By Terence Taylor

I had an experience the other day that left me filled with so many contradictory emotions that I feel the need to write about it. My writing has always been where I’ve gone when I need clarity. As I explain in print what I’m feeling, I often understand better what it is that I’m actually going through.

My adolescence and even my adult life is littered with lengthy, heartfelt, meticulously typed letters to lovers, friends and family detailing how I felt after fights -- explaining in the overly articulate detail of aftermath why I really won or why I was apologizing -- or as a way to release inner thoughts, positive or negative, that I had trouble expressing in person. There’s even a stack of old journals written to myself from the eighties that I’m almost afraid to re-read, remembering the highs and the lows of those years. Words have the power to bring back both the pleasure and the pain of the past, sometimes more vividly than is comfortable.

This particular event occurred at my local Chase bank, as I entered with my battered bike to get twenty dollars from my account to buy some vegetables at a local farmer’s market to make a salad. The day before I’d grilled some salmon I’d bought on sale, cooked enough for two meals, and realized that I could add it to a cold salad on a hot day, if I just steeled myself for one brief exposure to the heat and humidity to get the fixings.

I was in a good mood. The day was a classically hot and muggy New York summer Sunday, but the idea of eating a cold salad in front of the fan, in front of the computer, pleased me no end and made it worth venturing out.

A black man my age, maybe a little younger, but with a harder history, opened the door with the broad smile of someone who wanted something.

“Come on in, brother!” he said, and ushered me inside, adding that any help to him on my way out would be appreciated. I’m one of those people who will always buy a meal for anyone on the street who says they’re hungry and asks to be fed. I’d like to think I’d clothe the naked as well. But I stopped handing out cash in the nineties, as it got harder to earn and as more people, younger and in better shape than I, were asking me for it, with increasing belligerence, as if somehow it was my duty.

He had a plastic cooler next to him, and as I got my solitary twenty from the cash machine, all I could afford to take out that day, a white woman who‘d walked out as I entered came back to the door and sheepishly handed him a dollar for one of the tiny bottles of water he had on ice for sale, her eyes downcast in guilt. I finished my transaction, and turned to go.

As I approached the door, he began his spiel again, rapidly going from a fake cheerful, “Gonna help a brother out?” to snide derision as it became clear I had no intention of doing so. By the time I hit the door, he was accusing me of letting down the black race by not giving him money, and I felt a flush of embarrassment rise as I exited. Not content, he followed me out the door, and continued his tirade.

I got mad and started responding, yelled back that he was no great representative, and that I had done more for black people than he could imagine, and in return was told, “You don’t even sound black!” spat out as if it was the worst thing he could think of to say. And it was. I launched into a rant that I cut off only because I was heading across a street with my bike and didn’t want to be smeared across Fifth Avenue by traffic.

He stepped back inside the air-conditioned ATM to peddle his wares and his line. I biked down to the Farmer’s Market, angry and ashamed, without knowing why I was reacting so strongly. I understand now, of course, after taking time to process it and talking to several friends of assorted ethnicities about the encounter.

But as I fumed then and came up with all the things I could have said to put him in his place, I came back to one thing. He was a hustler and he’d hustled me. Guilt is the panhandler’s first line of offense, and he’d just clicked into a mode that had worked for him in the past with articulate middle class black folk who may feel some residual guilt that they’re doing better than their less successful fellows.

It wasn’t any great insight he was exercising, or even a truth he was revealing. It was an animal survival reflex. Tearing into him, showing off the high verbal skills he’d mocked, wouldn’t make me the winner, or make me feel any better, even if I made it past his emotional armor to get in a dig.

I was left confronting my real issue. Why do I feel guilty about being educated, being a professional black writer who owns his own home (though still broke at times between jobs), has travelled the world, written and produced hours of television seen across the planet, with two published novels? And why should I?

Of course the obvious answer is that I shouldn’t, but all my life I’ve had to deal with people, both black and white, who have tried, as so many did with Barack Obama, to define my blackness. In my Catholic high school, where my Harlem-raised mother sent me to get a grounded education she felt would be better than public school, I had an argument with two white friends who insisted that, in their words, “You’re not black. You talk like us, you like the things we do. You’re the same as us.”

To them, my manner and cultural tastes were enough to exempt me from blackness, and they meant it as a compliment in their own weird way. In their minds they were accepting me as one of them, despite my skin color, when I wanted to be accepted along with my skin color, not as a faux Caucasian, but as an articulate educated black man like the ones I grew up around.

On a family vacation trip to the Pegleg Bates Resort in the Catskills where there was no one my age to hang with, a group of younger black kids gathered around me one day, going on and on in thick southern accents that I “talked funny. You sound like that Get Smart guy!”

Neither confrontation was meant to be malign. Both were just expressions of astonishment that someone who looked one way should sound and act so differently from others they’d seen that looked like me.

I’ve never wanted to be white -- not that there’s anything wrong with it. If anything, I bemoaned the melting pot past that gave me thin lips and what I saw in profile as a ski jump nose, wanting to be have the full rounded features and dark unblemished sheen of my best friend David from down the street when I lived in Cincinnati. Most of my life I’d grown up on Air Force bases, surrounded by all races, but mostly white. I sounded like very other kid who did the same. We all grew up without a regional accent. “The newscaster voice,” we used to call it as kids. We sounded like the TV shows we watched no matter where we lived, a flat, neutral, slightly nasal accent, like a British actor impersonating an American.

Honey, I can “code switch” with the best of them in a room of black folks at ease, dropping the professional veneer many of us affect at work to be taken seriously. But my default is that nasal Get Smart guy, and on the phone, I’ve had more than one misunderstanding because of the way I sound -- a blessing and a curse, as they say, that has worked both to my advantage and disadvantage. I know I am not alone in any of this, and that we’re all susceptible to having that button pushed. Which brings me to my realization.

Why have we allowed ourselves to culturally support the idea that educated black people are somehow losing their heritage if they rise up the economic ladder into the middle class and above, when for generations we were told to do exactly that by the best and the brightest among us? There’s no reason I should feel guilty for living up to guidelines laid down by Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King and a host of others.

My emotional reaction, the flash of shame and guilt that the panhandler’s hurled abuse raised in me isn’t his fault -- it isn’t the fault of everyone who’s ever told a black kid that doing well in school is somehow a disgrace, that speaking “proper English” well enough to get a good job is turning your back on your people.

It’s my fault for listening, for letting myself diminish the years I spent staying up and studying to get passing grades (not always by as wide a margin as I would have liked), the years I spent working when I could have been partying (not that I didn’t party at all -- oh, I did!), the time I spent becoming the person I am today, a guy I finally appreciate.

That guy is black -- not African-American. My gene pool is far too diffuse for me to claim any one branch of my family tree as my sole origin. Like most of us, I am a Black-American mutt, a wonderful genetic soup cooked up from the races, cultures and widespread geographies that combined to make me. I carry them all proudly, the good and the bad, as we all do in this gumbo called the United States, as divisive as we are.

Short of recent immigrants, no one here is pure anything. That is the chemistry that drives this nation forward -- a distillation process that reduces everything and everyone down to a common goal -- the pursuit of happiness -- without diluting the ingredients it took to make it.

I am resolved not to be embarrassed ever again by who or what I am, or how I am perceived by others. I am a proud black gay man who took decades to find his ethnic identity and self-image in a world and time that offered few choices I could embrace, forcing me to forge my own path. I know my politics, and they are left and liberal. I know my own mind and it is rich and full of ideas that no one has had before, as are all our heads.

That is what the encounter at the ATM has given me -- the right to be me, as I’m finally able to allow everyone else the right to be who they are, as they please, as long as it doesn’t harm others.

To do no harm -- the essence of the Hippocratic Oath -- the heart of any good religion worth believing in and of any good God. I don’t have to hurt the haters. In the end they only hurt themselves by hating. After a lifetime of Catholic education I’m learning again to turn the other cheek, to feel empathy for the man who basically spat on who and what I am, only because I wouldn’t give him what he wanted for doing something I didn’t want done.

In the end we are all only as good as we can be. How well we do is for someone or something greater than us to judge, if we need to be judged at all. I’m just trying to put down my own gavel, and accept the world for what it is, others for who they are, and maybe, just maybe, if anything, trying to leave things here just a little better than they were when I arrived.

If getting from shame and anger to that quiet comfortable place is where writing can take me, then I’m happy to keep doing it. More than anything, that’s why my writing is so important in my life, why I make time for it, and why I open my mind to where it takes me. It tells me who I am.

And if I see that guy in the Chase bank again, I’ll probably give him a dollar this time, without worrying about what he’ll do with it, or passing judgment conjecturing on what brought him there. As far as tuition payments go, it’s pretty reasonable, and I’ve paid far more for lessons far less valuable.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published December 11, 2010. Enjoy!

By Charles Gramlich

I did a post quite a while ago on my own blog about "resonance" in writing. It’s been one of the more popular posts I’ve made so I thought I’d revisit the concept for Novel Spaces.

Resonance represents the degree to which a name, term, or subject evokes already existing associations in someone’s mind. Consider this, you hear about two good mystery novels by writers unknown to you. The first features Linda Harmon as the private eye. The second features Sherrill Holmes, a descendant of the great Sherlock. Which book captures your attention first? Which immediately brings thoughts to your mind?

I’m betting it will be the “Holmes.” Resonance is the reason. Whether you liked the Holmes stories or not, you recognize the name. It carries weight. It already evokes thoughts of detectives where “Harmon” is a cipher. “Holmes” impacts like Harmon cannot, at least for most people.

Some names carry powerful resonance even when separated from the historical figures who wore them. Consider “Moses,” or “Jesus.” What personal and physical traits do you automatically assign to a character named Moses? Does “Moses” suggest someone who is strong willed? What about “Morris?” Resonance gives your character “Moses” power the moment his name is put on the page. Not so much for “Morris.”

Resonance can be negative, as well, though. Take “Adolph.” Think very carefully if you decide to give your character that name. Most people will automatically associate “Adolph” with mass murder, concentration camps, and war.

Even fictional names can develop resonance. “Sherlock” has it. “Conan” has it. What do you think of when you hear the name “Homer?” Homer of the Odyssey or Homer Simpson? I bet you thought of one of them. For The Simpson’s fan, the name Homer is going to evoke a certain level of dumbness.

How many thrillers have you seen with Nazis in them? Nazis have resonance. And I wonder how much resonance had to do with the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code? Leonardo Da Vinci himself. Jesus. Mary Magdalene. The Catholic Church. The Vatican. Opus Dei. “The Last Supper.” All of these have resonance.

For adults, everyday words already come with varying degrees of resonance. What images come to mind when you hear concrete nouns like “blood,” “snow,” “death,” “lover,” or “child?” When I hear the word “blood,” I don’t just think of the liquid; I think of life itself, and of a color, and of violence. For me, “child” brings thoughts of my son, Joshua, pitching baseball, riding his bike, laughing and playing. Resonate nouns make more powerful engines for your prose.

Some abstract nouns, like “freedom,” or “violence,” can develop powerful resonance, but they are still different from concrete nouns in the specificity of images they evoke. Other abstract words evoke little: “humanist” or “theorist.”

Consciously or unconsciously, many writers in the past have used resonance in naming their characters. Mike Hammer. Sam Spade. Or consider the wealth of fictional characters named some variation of “Cain.” Unfortunately, this has been overused and I’m not sure you want to name your characters “Stone,” or “Steele,” or “Wolfe,” or “Hawke” anymore. Here, resonance has been lost because of overuse, or has been transferred from positive to negative.

Resonance is a writer’s tool just as much as punctuation and grammar. You just need to consider what resonances you’re evoking as you write. Should your character fly the “Stars and Stripes?” Should they be from “New York?” Should they be described with terms that evoke the “tiger,” or those that evoke the “snake?” There’s no real right or wrong answer. There are only resonances: positive and negative, and sometimes both.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Are We Writing Unhealthy Endings?

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published July 14, 2010.  Enjoy!

By Stefanie Worth

It’s come across this blog before: the inherent perils of the “butt in chair, fingers on keyboard” action that separates authors from wannabe writers. However, in recent months, findings have been reported that connect this action – or lack thereof – to greater perils than not hitting word counts or finishing manuscripts:


I’m so dramatic, I know. But the reports are unsettling and maybe the supernatural storyteller in me will weave some creepy tale with the facts one day. For now though, I’ve taken their reality to heart. A news piece on National Public Radio a few months ago stated the following:
"The other consequence that we're starting to understand now is that when we're sitting for prolonged times such as, you know, in front of the television or long hours in front of the computer screen at a desk, there's an absence of muscle contractions. And there's extensive evidence that indicates that muscle contractions are so essential for many of the body's regulatory processes - for example, the breaking down and using of glucose. So when we're remaining idle for prolonged periods, we're disrupting those body's typical regulatory processes.”
That summation comes from David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. The focus of Dr. Dunstan’s report was the dangers of too much TV watching. But as you can see from the paragraph above, the body doesn’t really differentiate between being a soap opera-loving or crime show-addicted couch potato and a dedicated, page-churning writer.

Who knew these great stories we’re penning are setting us up for more than critical acclaim and personal triumph? Heart disease and – according to this report – an increased risk of death from all causes lurks behind every hour we refuse to budge from our tasks.

The part that got me is that – again, according to the study – even those who exercise regularly are at risk. UGH. So what are we to do?

Simple. Get up.

The study recommends rising from sitting every 20 minutes. How do we do this? Stand up and type? Use my blog colleague Phyllis Bourne’s egg timer technique and force ourselves to stand, stretch and walk around the desk at regular intervals?

I suppose we could also find ways to make our muses more efficient. I read blogs by writers who profess to whip out thousands of words in a single hour. I’ve yet to master that technique, but it would certainly cut my sitting time by about 75 percent.

Mind you, I also have a day job that involves a lot of sitting, so I feel like I’m in a double bind. What I’ve done there is to get out of my comfy desk chair when the phone rings and take the call standing up. I also check my email standing up, maybe rocking from one foot to the other. I’m trying to be more conscientious about drinking my 6-8 glasses of water every day, but instead of chugging from a long-lasting 32 ounce bottle, I use a glass. This forces me to get up and walk to the kitchen area to refill my glass every time it’s empty.

And, yes, I’m working on utilizing my Bally’s membership. I actually attended a spinning class a couple of weeks ago and have forced myself onto the elliptical machines several times since.

Weight gain seems to accompany every manuscript I’ve finished and that’s a cycle I know I need to break. But now, I also know I need to fit continuous motion or, at minimum, twenty minute work stoppages into my day job and the job of my heart. In a perfect world this would be my solution at both places. (Video here: )

What’s yours?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published September 10, 2009. Enjoy!

By Liane Spicer

The story has been burning inside of you for a long time. It's like a child waiting to be born and you feel all the excitement, the anticipation of wanting to watch it grow up and go off into the world, maybe even make its mark on the world.

Only, there's another part of you that gets in the way of all this, a part that doesn't want to see you sit down and devote a sizable chunk of your life-time to a creative pursuit like writing a novel. You might never finish it, and even if you do it might never be sold. Or it might sell and drift quietly and quickly into the oblivion that awaits the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of other novels out there.

The thing to do is to feed this other part, the part that will stop at nothing, and I mean NOTHING, to get you to NOT write. The key to keeping this non-writing part of you alive and well is distractions. Here are a few easily mastered techniques to help you NOT write the book(s) you know you were meant to write.

  • BLOGS. Own multiple blogs. Write posts everyday. Accumulate masses of blog pals and read and respond to their posts every day.
  • WIDGETS. Welcome to the amazing world of widgets, those neat little gadgets that will allow you to place cute stuff on your blog, website or CPU, from live webcam feed of beaches to colored balls that bounce all over your desktop. Weather updates, clocks, maps, slideshows, a cat that sits on your desktop and does absolutely nothing - they're all available and free, thousands of them, enough to keep you happily NOT WRITING for years to come.
  • RESEARCH. Internet research, specifically. You're a writer, right? So everything is possible grist for your mill. Those hours you spent reading every comment on the Rihanna vs. Chris Brown debacle? Research. YouTube? Research. Porn sites? Research. Gossip columns? ...You get the drift.
  • FACEBOOK. Hell, it's networking, right? Writers need to do that. How else will they connect with other writers and readers? Okay, future readers, then, if the book hasn't been written yet. Which it hasn't.
  • SHOPPING. Take Amazon to heart. Embrace it. Accumulate links to every online catalog you can find. There are millions of items for you to peruse, compare and save to wish lists, gift lists, shopping lists, and carts. Then - proceed to checkout. Amazing what you can do with a few clicks these days...
  • PROCRASTINATION. This is tried and true and it works because it allows you to lie to yourself. You're not sayin' you won't write the damned book. You're just sayin' you won't write it RIGHT NOW.
  • HOUSEWORK. This is a great one because it's legitimate - sort of. And since housework is never done you can fall back on it at any time and have sparkling proof that you were too busy doing 'real' work to write.

Writing is done in solitude so there's nothing to prevent us from distracting ourselves
ad infinitum. We're accountable only to ourselves - and accountability can be put off till tomorrow. ;) Please feel free to weigh in with your own tried and true techniques for NOT WRITING that book of yours that's dying to be born.

Liane Spicer

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Use of dialect

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published December 12, 2010. Enjoy!

By Carol Ottley-Mitchell

Chee Chee isn't going to Jamaica with me, so I'm pretty sure that nothing will happen."

This is an excerpt from my second book, Pirates at Port Royal. The truth is that such a sentence probably would not come out of the mouth of the average child in St. Kitts. It is more likely to look like:

"Chee Chee not going Jamaica wid me, so nuttin' gorn happ'n."

Writing direct speech for my West Indian characters has been an ongoing struggle for me. On the one hand, I do want the books to be an authentic representation of life in the Caribbean. I want my characters to seem realistic and familiar to my West Indian readers. On the other hand, I recall reading books set in Scotland and struggling to understand the dialect speech and wondering to myself how these words actually sound. I have also read books written entirely in Jamaican creole which I have to read out loud to catch the gist of the text. I don’t want to alienate my non-West Indian readers by making them work too hard to figure out what my characters are saying.

There is a little more to the dilemma in my case. While I appreciate the use of dialect, I have spoken out about the way that it is proliferating our English and questioned whether or not it is the right way to go. Many people have responded positively to my suggestions and it does seem a bit hypocritical if I turn around and write a book in dialect!

Have you had that struggle between realistic and understandable speech?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Comma Abuse

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published September 9, 2010. Enjoy!

By Jewel Amethyst

Back in my days as a middle school teacher, an English teacher shared an exercise that she had given a 7th grade class with the rest of the staff. She gave them this paragraph to punctuate:

Sammy went to the market in his pocket he had grandma’s purse on his back he wore his shirt on his feet he wore his shoes on his face there was a big smile at the market Sammy was very happy
One student punctuated it like this:Sammy went to the market in his pocket. He had grandma’s purse on his back. He wore his shirt on his feet. He wore his shoes on his face. There was a big smile at the market. Sammy was very happy.
You can imagine how hilarious that was to the rest of the staff. But looking back at it, I can understand the student’s error, especially with the emphasis we make on using the active rather than the passive voice.

Grammar is one of those things that are difficult perfect, even as a writer. I, like the student have my punctuation weakness. In my case, it’s the abuse of commas. I recently read through a rough draft of my last blog post and was mortified at my abusive use of commas. While some tend to underuse commas, I over use them. Unfortunately, Microsoft word, the most popular word processing program, doesn’t detect comma abuse in its spell and grammar check. This, sentence, with, commas, after, every, word, escaped, detection, by, the, spelling, and, grammar, check. So for those of us needing a “Commas Anonymous” group there is little help there.

I know I’m not alone on this. I Googled comma abuse and found numerous hits. I found a blog about comma abuse: “
How to use the comma: Simple rules and hints that help you stop comma abuse” by Shane Werlinger. The introduction of the article states, “The comma has to be one of the most abused punctuation marks. It is either overused, placed haphazardly on the writer’s whim, or not used enough. I think it’s safe to say that most of us have been guilty of this at one time or another.”

In the comments, someone even pointed out the comma error that the “expert” inadvertently included in his post. Yes comma abuse is prevalent, but I’m sure there are also other punctuation abuses.

So there you have it: “Hi I’m Jewel Amethyst and I’m a comma abuser.”

What about you? What punctuation do you abuse?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

What I learned from books on writing

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 11, 2009. Enjoy!

By Liane Spicer

I sometimes miss that blissful time when I wrote my first novel, unaware that there were dozens of books out there presenting countless rules and recommendations for what I was attempting to do. I've picked up a few things since then, and the advice that has resonated often had little to do with the actual writing and everything to do with the attitudes that might make the difference between being a productive writer or a frustrated one.

On Writing by Stephen King:
I learned from King's recounting of his years spent collecting rejection slips that those little forms are not symbols for "Failed Writer". You place the slip in the appropriate file and move on.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield:
Mr. Pressfield wrote this book for me. He turns a spotlight on writers' block in all its manifestations: fear, resistance, procrastination, obsessiveness, self-dramatization, self-medication, victimhood, self-doubt, toxic relationships, support (yes, you read that right), and rationalization. Then he tells you how to combat it all, and his recommendation is simple: You turn pro. How does a professional approach his work? Apply the same principles to your writing and see the difference.

"A professional shows up every day."
"A professional demystifies."
"A professional acts in the face of fear."
"A professional does not show off."
"A professional self-validates."

There's lots more, and it's all written with the authority that comes only from first-hand experience, aka the school of hard knocks.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers:
Here's another writer who demystifies. She knows that declarations like 'waiting for my muse' are nothing but lame excuses. "It's a matter of sitting down, conjuring a state of complete dedication and complete openness, and writing. Putting pen to paper." No hocus-pocus there.

What else did she teach me? To talk less about writing, and write more. That except for a very few lucky souls, being published (finally!) does not change your life. You won't be rich and famous, loved and admired by everyone, rail-thin and immune to chocolate binges. You'll still have to deal with all your bumps and warts; those don't disappear once you get published.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White:
This book gives great advice on the fine points of usage, common errors, and style. There was little in there I didn't already know after having taught the language for 22 years, but that slim book clarified something vital I had hitherto understood only superficially: the US version of my mother tongue is a very different beast from the UK version I was taught.

I've got two more books on writing lined up: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, the title of which has just the sort of new-agey tone I'm a sucker for. (Did someone mention the word demystify?) Next to it on my bedhead bookshelf is The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I'll be sure to let you know what I learn from those in a later post.

Liane Spicer