Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sad Day

Monday morning, I learned that my editor, Kate Duffy from Kensington Books passed away. Although I've only met Kate once, I've spoken with her many times since Kensington acquired my manuscript, Now Until Forever.

She had a major impact on my writing career. During my three-year association with Ms. Duffy, she purchased four manuscripts, gave me guidance and tips on what she believed would sell, and retitled all of my manuscripts. Generally, Kate was the first person to tell me whether she understood the theme I was trying to convey in my stories. Although we disagreed on titles, I learned a great deal from working with her and will miss her direct, but knowledgeable style.

So, I dedicate this blog entry to Kate Duffy, Editorial Director at Kensington Books. You will be missed.

If you have comments, don't hesitate to write.

Please don't be a stranger.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hobby or Career?

Do you fondly recall a time when you wrote just for writing sake? There were no deadlines, no marketing strategy, and no intended audience. You wrote whenever you felt like it with no discipline, writing whatever moved you whether it was poetry, short stories, plays, or novels that may never be published. Those were the days when you wrote as a hobby, without bounds and the restrictions of genre descriptions and publishers’ guidelines. And you couldn’t wait after that long day of work, or school or whatever your daytime occupation was to end, to get to that computer/typewriter and begin putting your story to paper.

Now you write, with a specific audience in mind. You are mindful of the guidelines of your genre, your intended publisher. You are changing the stories based on what you think the readers would like. You are writing a masterpiece to sell. And you are ever mindful of your deadlines. You are writing what you think will get rave reviews, will sell well and generate a substantial income, or at least some buzz for your next masterpiece.

That’s the difference between writing as a hobby and writing as a career.

I have been writing since I was six or seven, beginning with a reiterative and very melodic rhyming poem. Since then I’ve written poetry, short stories, some specific to the culture and dialect of the country of my birth, plays, and novels. My first full length novel written at fifteen was and will never be published (I lost the manuscript a long time ago). It was a YA romance written in the same vein as the Sweet Dreams or the Sweet Valley high romance. I recall the joy I had writing it.

My first novel as an adult dealt with a rather touchy issue. When I considered publishing it, I had my baby sister, an avid romance reader, read it. She told me it would never fly with romance readers because they seek a happily ever after. I tried publishing it none the less, and the rejections were endless. Then I wrote “A Marriage of Convenience” bringing it more mainstream with a multicultural twist. It sold within a year of writing and required quite a bit of editing. My novella, “From SKB with Love” part of the “Holiday Brides" anthology due out today, required much less editing. I now have a better idea what publishers are looking for.

So guess what? Now that I have a WIP, I find myself making decisions about scenes and characters based on what I think readers would like, publishers would like, and being bound by the rigid boundaries of the genre. I now try to pace myself, writing a certain number of words or chapters a week. Setting personal deadlines to be done with it and editing within a certain time frame. I read the reviews of my debut publication and try to see what worked and what didn’t. I read reader reviews of other authors works to learn from them. Why? I am now pursuing writing as a career.

That’s the difference between writing as a hobby and writing as a career.

As a hobby you have complete freedom to write whatever you like, whenever you like and however you like. As a career, you are restricted by what will sell both to publishers and to readers. Even if you take the avenue of self-publishing, you are still bound by readers’ expectations. Your livelihood depends on it.

Which one is better, writing as a hobby or as a career? While seeing my name on the cover of a book in the bookstore gives me an unimaginable thrill and sense of accomplishment, I still find the freedom of writing as a hobby more exhilarating.

For some writers it’s not mutually exclusive. Our hobby (writing) is a second career.
What about you? Which do you prefer: writing as a hobby or a career?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Guest author Maria Zannini: Feed the Beast

Maria Zannini used to save the world from bad advertising. Now she lives in the wilds of north Texas, nestled between lions and llamas. Maria is the author of Touch Of Fire, a post-apocalyptic fantasy available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She is also the newsletter editor for OWW (Online Writing Workshop for SF, Fantasy & Horror). When she's not being pummeled by deadlines or 140 pound rottweilers, she likes to get lost in the woods.

Every once in a while the neighbors find her and bring her back home.

Search Engines: Feeding The Beast

I've spent most of my adult life designing advertising, writing advertising and analyzing advertising. Today, I'm going to reveal a universal truth that is rarely spoken aloud.

Promotion works best for authors who are already well known.

:Cue mass groan:

Not to worry. I will show you how to expand your reach without ever getting out of your chair. Today we're going to discuss how to feed the beast.

The beast in this case is the colossus that dominates every sector of society. It is the search engine. For good or bad, it has never been more important than it is today. We need it to get our message across, and it needs us to feed it.

Promotion works on the concept of repetition, familiarity and credibility. A well known author has all of these attributes working for him. A new or lesser known author has to work for each of these elements.

Repetition is easy. Blog, tweet, write articles, give lectures, hold contests. Do anything and everything that keeps your name in circulation and feeds the search engine.

Familiarity is a byproduct of repetition. The more the public is aware of you and your product, the more familiar it becomes.

Credibility is borne of the first two elements. The more familiar you and your brand become, the more you magically assume a mantle of credibility.

To get to this stage you have to acknowledge that promoting yourself will be a long term commitment, and it's nothing to feel self conscious about. You are offering valuable information and entertainment. Your audience wants to know you, but first you have to reach out to them.

While you might feel that you are 'talking too much' about yourself, it's important to remember that technique has as much to do with good promo as consistency. Good marketing is very subtle and it works best over the long haul.

In today's world, marketing yourself is easier than ever before. Giant search engines can make or break you simply by how you present yourself and how often.

Take a moment. Step away from this post and Google yourself right now. How many pages were you on? What were you saying on each of those entries? What were other people saying about you? You can build a reputation without ever leaving home.

A search engine is a beast in search of information. The more you feed it, the more your name recognition grows.

Here are a few ideas on how to feed the beast.
  • Keywords. This is a post in and of itself. I don't claim to be a keyword expert, but judging by my stat counter, evidently I must be doing something right because many of my visitors arrive via a search of specific keywords.
The best advice I can give you is to be specific when you write comments, posts, or online articles. Instead of using the phrase 'I found a gig on Maria's blog', write out, 'I found this publishing market on Maria Zannini's blog and the link. Instead of saying, 'I painted my bedroom green', write 'I painted my bedroom with Behr's Green Tea'--and the link. Does that make sense?

In the first example, publishing, markets and Maria Zannini are the keywords.

In the second example, Behr, paint and bedroom are the keywords.
  • Link a lot. My goodness, this one is gold. Search engines love links almost as much as keywords. Be generous and link a lot on your blogs and forums. It will pay you back by listing you higher in searches.
  • Comment on blogs and forums. Do it often and do it well. I've followed more than a few authors simply because they said such interesting things in the comment thread. Search engines eat these up!
PS…That's how I found Novel Spaces', KS Augustin. (Notice those links? I'm so sneaky!)
  • Guest blog, but choose wisely. Like it or not, we are judged by the company we keep.
  • Host your own blog. No matter what you talk about, make sure it's interesting. An added bonus is if you can write to the same audience that reads your fiction.
Also, remember what I said about keywords. It's good business to use the same logic when creating blog post titles. Make the search engine drool when it sees your blog with all those juicy keywords in the title and the opening paragraph.
  • Write articles. I was amazed to find search engine entries for articles I wrote back in the early 80s. Every little bit helps.
  • Never send another email without making sure your signature includes your website or blog address.
  • Get your book in as many reviewer hands as you can afford, but first, investigate the reviewers to verify their readership, their impartiality, and the genres they prefer.
  • Advertise, but be frugal. Many well-trafficked sites will host book banners for a modest charge. Trade an article for ad space. Negotiate for a better rate if you intend to advertise more than once with the magazine or website.
  • Arrange to be interviewed on radio, print or web. Just make sure you say something unique each time.
  • Teach. Almost all of us have an expertise in something. Share your knowledge and expand your reach.
  • Write your next book. A backlist grows your audience.
  • Can you think of other ways to put yourself on the search engine map? How do you feed the beast?
Well, I've had fun and I hope I've given you something to consider. Thank you Novel Spaces for letting me pop in and mingle with the cool kids. It's been a pleasure!
For more information on author promotion, saving money, outsmarting evil dogs, and making great salsa, visit Maria Zannini's blog.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Newsflash: new puppy! Impact on wip? Read on....

We've got ourselves a new puppy, a bouncy, happy, rambunctious miniature bull terrier bitch we're calling Sausage. Because Sausage is bouncy, happy, rambunctious, and young, she doesn't have much bowel or bladder control. This translates to many, many walks, emergency dashes and cleaning sessions while we train her to develop control and teach ourselves to read the pre-elimination signals. This has, and continues to be, a learning experience for the entire family.

As you can imagine, all this fussing and observing of a puppy has taken a large slice of time out of my day. I have a Day Job, write, parent and wife various areas of my life and now, it seems, I'm also puppy's mother and trainer.

Do you know what this has done to my current wip? Do you have any idea what this has done to my current wip? I'll tell you. Nothing. I'm still churning out 1,000+ words a day. (Of course, whether they're any good is a whole other question.) How can this be?

I'll let you in on my secret. Most times, by the time I sit down at my dinky little netbook to write, I already have at least one scene mapped out in my head. And do you know what? Taking a walk outside, and waiting for Sausage to come to her senses and realise exactly what it is I'm expecting her to do, gives me ample time to re-run scenarios in my head. If this character says something, how is the other one going to react? What if the inflection changes? What if the words are different? What if she's interrupted mid-sentence?

With one eye on Sausage, I can replay as many variations of a scene as I like, finetuning it to my heart's content. When I get one I like, I commit it to memory but I've also learnt that if I forget a scene I thought was terrific, that probably means there was something missing from it. No problem, just start again.

By the time I'm able to grab thirty minutes to actually put fingers to keyboard, I've rehashed a particular scene more than a dozen times over. It doesn't matter if I'm interrupted while I'm doing the actual writing; in fact, I often walk away from my machine literally in mid-sentence to answer the phone or see to the kids or pick someone up from somewhere. I may not get back to that interrupted sentence till the next day but, the important thing is, it doesn't matter. Because I've reworked the scene so many times, it's in my head. All I need to do is find snatches of time to continue getting it down before moving onto the next scene.

I'm not of the school that says you have to sit down and sweat blood before the words appear. Yes, that happens sometimes, especially when I'm working to a deadline. But, maybe as the result of my own mental rehearsals, I don't seem to get writer's block as much as other people appear to, and I'm usually never stumped for more than a day or two, at the very worst. Average is usually two to four hours.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that our modern lives are busy. Very busy. Busier than they've been in the past. Maybe in the eighteenth century, if you were the child of a successful merchant with money to burn, you could afford to sit, quill in hand, by the light of an oil lamp and agonise over your prose for days, or even weeks. Well, you try to do that now and you'll probably get kicked out of your house for not paying bills, and you'd be fired for not turning up at the office. Your pets would've eaten each other, your children would be starving to death, and various friends would've either rushed to your house with charity supplies, or written you off as an hopeless case. All this while you're trying to decide whether Florenza is lying or laying next to the babbling brook under a cerulean (or should that be "azure"? Let's ponder that for a couple of days) sky.

Nowadays, if we want to be successful writers, we have to learn to think smart so we can write smart. And whatever strategy we choose should work whether we've just thrown a Sausage into the works or not. So, are you writing smart?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Word rat

I'm not a pack rat. I have no problem throwing out clothes, furniture, shoes, cosmetics, whatever has outgrown its use and/or is cluttering my physical space. Things, things - don't need 'em.

I'm a word rat. I collect words on post cards that date all the way back to my childhood. Books. Poems. Letters. (I have NEVER thrown out a personal letter.) E-mails. Essays from high school. Pages torn from magazines.

Collecting quotations is one of my passions, and in recent years I've focused on quotations on writing, by writers. I have hundreds of them on my hard drive. Actually, it's more like a thousand. They inspire me with with their truth, their wit and insight, but most especially with their humor, even when - or especially when - it's black humor. Here are some of my favorites.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London

“If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” – Kingsley Amis

“Author: A fool, who, not content with having bored those who have lived with him, insists on tormenting the generations to come.” – Montesquieu

“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” – Raymond Chandler

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” – Douglas Adams

“All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“An editor is someone who separates the wheat from the chaff, and then prints the chaff.” – Adlai Stevenson

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” – Robert Heinlein

“I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.” – Steven Wright

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.” – Molière

“The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is he’s given the freedom to starve anywhere.” – S.J. Perelman

“Whether it is done quickly or slowly, however splendid the results, the process of writing fiction is inherently, inevitably, indistinguishable from wasting time.” – Deborah Eisenberg

“I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55.” – Mark Twain

“If you really want to hurt your parents and you don’t have nerve enough to be homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.” – Meg Chittenden

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.” – Philip Roth

“Asking a writer what he thinks about criticism is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.” John Osborne

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham

Do you collect writing quotes? Do you prefer the ones on craft, on characters, or maybe the ones on stumbling blocks, or do you, like me, love the humorous ones best of all? Which are your favorites?

Liane Spicer

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Shelving Issue: Yet Another Angle

Recently fellow blogger Farrah Rochon posted here on Novel Spaces about shelf placement in bookstores. I started to respond to her post, until my reply grew so long it seemed to warrant a separate entry.

You open a big ol’ squirmy can of worms, Farrah, as others have said, for many reasons. It was an issue I thought about as my first novel was coming to print. Where would my book be placed in stores? Up front where the great cover they gave me could attract attention, or on the bottom of an isolated shelf in the back reserved for African-American or Horror writers? What would the stores consider me?

More importantly, what do I consider myself?

In the 1970s, when I was in my twenties and going to bookstores as often as I could, I’d head straight for the sci-fi or horror shelves. That was what I liked to read. There were few writers of color there, though at the time, that didn't matter to me. I'd grown up in a mixed race world and reading stories about white characters didn't bother me if the stories were good. When I found black characters, it was just that much easier to identify, as long as they were black like me.

As I started writing myself, I wanted to read the work of other black writers before me. I'd read a few in high school, work about lives as distant from mine as “Native Son”, or other books that told about life in the ghetto, a world I'd never seen. My relatives in Harlem had all seemed as middle class as I was, and the worlds depicted in social novels were as alien as the planets and lost worlds of sci-fi to me.

When I was 22, a friend gave me a copy of Ralph Ellison's “Invisible Man”, and his opening paragraph so perfectly described my reality that I was hooked and went looking for more visions from black writers that spoke to me. Having a section of the store that contained only black writers made it easier for me to explore, with a wide range of topics and subjects, but all by black writers. It was the same when I came out and wanted to know more about gay history or culture. I went to the gay bookshelf. There were comedies, drama, fiction, non-fiction -- all gay. I drank my fill.

At the time, these “minority community” sections were usually called “special interests” for people looking for books in specific social areas to locate easily, without having to ask. I don’t know how they began, but it was undoubtedly a marketing ploy. “See? Whoever you are, whatever you want, we have books just for you!” Religion, science, history... Minority interests became just another book category.

As I got to know works by specific black or gay writers, I was able to look for their work by name, regardless of where they were shelved. At the time, the number of black and gay writers being published was not nearly as many as you find scattered in “special interest” sections and throughout stores today, and the range wasn’t as wide. Black books were almost exclusively about “black life” and that almost always meant ghetto life. Gay books, fiction or non-fiction were almost always about gay sexuality, coming out, or how others dealt with your sexuality or coming out.

Fortunately, more and more, what a writer is doesn’t limit what they can say. What a writer is -- regardless of race, gender, religion, sexuality -- informs everything that writer writes. It forms the beginning of how they deal with the world and how it deals with them, defined by their experiences. But it does not, and should not limit their subject matter.

As I’ve said before, any writer’s work is based on research or experience, and either can be had in any area by anyone, with effort. Why should writers of any background be barred from writing anything we truly understand and have opinions about? As more writers of all persuasions take advantage of the freedom to get our work out in an increasing number of new ways, more range is being seen in communities who previously seemed to be of one voice.

That voice had been restricted by very real financial considerations. Publishers publish books to sell, and what was published was driven by what sold. What was published encouraged people who wrote similar stories to submit theirs, and if more books on that theme sold, the cycle continued. Pity the writer who crossed the established lines of subjects fit to be sold. You’re told your work is neither fish nor fowl, or that they’re not sure there’s a market for that “sort of thing...”

As the means of book production and promotion become democratized by easier access to technology and distribution by e-mail and the Web, book stores are closing, as online purchasing increase, or they find new ways to be of value to their buying community. Online, there are no shelves -- you’re offered books based on what you’ve bought, what a program thinks is to your taste as it tracks your purchase and searches. You can find any book on any topic with the click of a mouse.

Black and gay bookshelves had a point in a time when there were fewer books to fill them, and their author’s subjects were more constrained. As the number of books and their topics increase, I think we’ll see a new way of looking at displaying books in surviving stores. It’s not just time to change - it’s past time.

As for my book, so far I am in general interest, a step forward, I suppose for a black gay writer -- except that it is a vampire novel, so there is still one categorization I am still subject to, as you can see from the photo a west coast friend took in the Barnes and Noble in Burbank -- though it’s one that keeps me in the front of the store, at least until after Halloween...what then?

It’s anyone’s guess, but I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Setting as Inspiration

Two landscapes, both rocky, empty places by the water. Yet what different stories you would—or, I think, should—write set in each location!

Many authors start a story knowing only a character or characters. Some start with an image, situation, or plot idea. Some wake up from a dream with a story partially or even fully formed.

I almost always start with a setting. That setting may be a location, a time period, a society, or all three simultaneously. Only once I know the setting do I come up with characters and a plot appropriate for it.

For a romance writer, for whom characters and their personal development are core to their books, starting with characters is probably the best approach. For a science fiction or horror writer, by contrast, starting with an idea or image may work particularly well.

Many authors seem to have little choice in how they begin a story. One method or another comes naturally and other methods seem alien. I suspect successful writers unconsciously choose their genres in part by how story ideas come to them.

What strengths is a story likely to have if the author starts with a setting?
  • It is unlikely to suffer “white-room syndrome” (see my earlier post “Building a World”). Instead, the world is likely to be fully fleshed out and believable.
  • Its characters may be more authentic because the author was particularly conscious of the setting’s social and physical limits on thoughts and actions.
  • The setting is more likely to function as a character, influencing goals, creating conflicts, and enriching the story.
Some examples of books in which a rich setting inspires plot and behavior and even makes the reader feel as if she were there are:
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction)
  • The “Master at Arms” romance series by Jennifer Blake (New Orleans in the 1840s)
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (New Orleans in the 1960s)
  • The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay (a fantasy world modeled after medieval Spain)
  • The “Sebastian St. Cyr” mystery series by C.S. Harris (Regency England)
  • The “Sano Ichō” mystery series by Laura Joh Rowland (17th century Japan)
Indeed, setting is so core to these books that none could take place in any other location and most in no other time period.

Despite being a setting-first writer, I acknowledge that starting with a setting has its weaknesses:
  • Characters may be overly shaped by the setting and not have distinct-enough individual personalities.
  • The story may be overburdened with description of rooms, landscapes, clothes, customs, and other setting details the author fell in love with.
  • Some readers may have to work harder to put themselves into a story when an alien setting is well set up; a vague setting allows readers to fill in missing information with comfortable, familiar details from their own experience.
How do you start a book—with setting, with characters, with a plot, with a dream, or some other way? How do you as a reader feel about books with strong settings?


Win a book! My second annual birthday contest is now going on at my personal blog, For Love of Words ( Two commenters will be randomly chosen to win a book of their choice by anyone I’ve interviewed at my blog or a copy of my October release, Like Mayflies in a Stream. To enter, just comment on this post.


I’ll be blogging on Novel Spaces again on 8 October, when I’ll talk about writing Like Mayflies in a Stream. I look forward to seeing you then!

—Shauna Roberts

Monday, September 21, 2009

Salute to Screenwriters - Best Movie Lines

With the recent news about the passing of beloved actor Patrick Swayze, we've all been reminded of his quality work as an actor. In particular, the delivery of the moving dialogue from the movie Ghost, and the memorable line, "It's amazing Molly, the love inside - you take it with you!" I smile when I'm reminded of Patrick Swayze's talent, and that line has even new meaning now that he's passed away. The other day I also thought about the talent of the person who wrote those moving words. Yes, the actors are amazingly talented, the photography and music and wardrobe and sets are superb, but the words - those words, are emotion generating and unforgettable.

Now that I'm a writer, I watch movies differently, as I'm sure most authors do. Even though at times I wish I didn't, I always pay close attention to the use of symbolism, the unfolding of story, and of course, the writing - just as I would when reading a novel. Sometimes actors garner the credit, as they should, though rarely, if ever, does your average moviegoer exit a theatre and say, "Whoever wrote that movie should win an Academy Award."

One group of words does not make a movie, but it can cause us to walk away reciting a line or two that sticks with us. Those unforgettable lines that sealed a scene and moved us to laughter or to tears. This is a salute to those who write movie scripts - works written with mainly dialogue - those gifted screenwriters who bring a story to life with words.

This week, my favorite line is from the movie Ghost, but it changes depending upon what a certain line means to me at a particular time. That's part of the joy of spending a Sunday afternoon watching movies, especially the ones I've already seen - a movie I know will deliver quality dialogue, time after time. This coming Sunday, in honor of Patrick Swayze, that movie will be Ghost.

What is your favorite or most memorable movie line? Here's to the writer whose mind's eye birthed those words. From novel writer to screenwriter - write on!

And by the way, writer Bruce Joel Rubin did win an Academy Award for Best Original Sceenplay in 1990 for Ghost- cheers!

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I know the story. I’ve got the time.

Yet sometimes the words simply won’t come.

So I sit at the kitchen table nervously looking from the clock to the blank page on my laptop screen, and all I can think about is my looming deadline. The few words that do come out of me read more like a history-of-the-most-boring-topic-ever textbook than a romantic tale.

Advice from one of my favorite books on the craft of writing, Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver, come to mind:

The less you care, the better you write.

He’s absolutely right, but like most good advice it’s easier said than done.

So I sit a while longer, willing myself to chill out.

No luck.

Finally, I get up, grab a legal pad and curl up on the living room sofa. (I’ve been in our living room maybe three times and one of them was to show the delivery guy where to put the furniture, so it’s a huge change of scenery for me.) Soon I’m scribbling down a few of my characters thoughts which leads to an outpouring of scenes my pen can barely keep up with.

I’m not sure how, but writing in longhand gives my stalled brain the jumpstart it needs to shift into high gear.

Soooo, how do you get started again when you’re stalled?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

First things last

I have written only two stories from beginning to end -- and one of those doesn't count. The one that counts is "What I Remember Most" (there's a link to it in one of my earlier columns), which began a stream of consciousness free write and ended when I went back and put in punctuation and paragraph breaks. The one that doesn't count … I'll get back to in a moment.

Many, many years ago there was an annual weekend event at the local university called "writers' roundtable." There would be too many workshops in too few days (with the ones I was most interested in scheduled for the same time) featuring published writers from various parts of the country and editors and agents from New York. Heady times for would-be writers such as myself. (UNCW now has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program all its own. As I wrote in my own Livejournal in January, this is not the boon I’d hoped it would be.)

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned in I don't remember how many Writers' Roundtables was from an editor whose name I do not now recall. He asked a packed room full of us unpublished types what we thought a reader owed us as writers. There were several answers along the lines of "a fair chance" or "willing suspension of disbelief" or even X number of pages to decide whether or not they liked the story. I knew a trick question when I heard it and kept my mouth shut. Good thing, too. Because after encouraging us to keep guessing for a few minutes and nodding at every answer he announced: "If you think the readier owes you anything, you're an idiot. You asked the reader to plunk down ten or fifteen or forty dollars for your novel. You owe him a story that's worth that kind of money." Ouch.

Okay. Thinking of it that way, that you are asking the reader to invest some hard-earned not-so-disposable income in your story, how do you go about convincing her it's a wise decision? Turn the process around. How do you decide on buying a book you know nothing about? No idea how you do it, but I read a few pages -- sometimes just the first page -- to get a feel for what the writer is about. What kind of story she's telling and how she goes about telling it. Your first page – your first sentence – is what a reader who's never heard of you will consider when deciding

That's for your novel, published and on the shelf in an eye-catching display, with a killer cover, intriguing jacket blrub and author photo you swear is not retouched. How did it get published? An editor bought your manuscript. And why did she buy your manuscript? Because she’d read it. And why did she read it? (You see the pattern here? Subtle I ain't.)

All editors describe essentially the same process. With a small press the editor will sometimes open the manuscript herself, but usually an intern does that. The intern also skims through the first few pages to be sure the ms is not in crayon or pornographic or a word-for-word copy of Valley of the Dolls. He then moves the cover letter to the back of the ms (nobody reads those unless they've already decided they want to talk to you), slips it back in its packaging and adds it to the to-be-read pile next to the editor's desk. When the pile is heavy enough to cause the floor to sag significantly, the editor takes a break from shepherding manuscripts already purchased through the long and tortuous path to novelhood and reads a few hundred denizens of the slush pile.
How does she read hundreds at once? you might ask.

Details of technique vary with individuals, of course, but the method of reading short stories described by Hugo Award-winning editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch is representative of the process:
"I pull the manuscript out of the envelope far enough to read the first paragraph. If it's fantastic, I pull the ms all the way out of the envelope and read the first page. If that keeps my attention, I'll keep reading. But only until I lose interest -- if the writer bores me or is not up to writing the story he's trying to tell."
Those stories -- the great majority of stories -- get a form rejection. The ones that hold her interest though that first reading go into a second-read pile for later and more careful consideration.

So. Both the editor who buys your ms and the reader who buys your novel base their decisions on the opening paragraph. Words you wrote -- if you wrote your story from beginning to end -- before you understood your story; its voice, its cadence, how it worked and what it was about. The opening of your novel is a sales pitch to potential buyers and a hook that draws readers into your world. It should be crafted both to entice and to accurately foretell the sort of adventure the reader is in for. (If you write a terrific hook that has little to do with the climax of the story, the reader will feel cheated. You lured her in under false pretenses.) The only way to write an opening that leads flawlessly to the conclusion is to write it after you've ended the story.

Your first words to the reader should be the most focused, the most seasoned, the most compelling. Write them last.

(Oh, and the story I wrote from the beginning that doesn't count? A few years ago I wrote a gritty noir detective story -- a hardboiled gumshoe teaming with some unlikely allies against a common foe. I wrote it tough and mean and dismal. I had the story finished but was having trouble with the opening -- the protagonist coming awake after being knocked out. I was away from the keyboard, working with my hands while my mind was casting about for some way to convey the experience, when the line popped into my head: "I woke up with a mouthful of used armpits." Suddenly the story was transformed in my mind from dark and dismal to dark and over the top. I went back to my computer, getting sawdust all over the keyboard, and rewrote the story from the ground up in a new voice and with a new spin springing from that opening line. The plot, the events, remained unchanged, but the story was completely different. So I both did and did not write "The Monkey Puzzle Box" from beginning to end.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Guest author Charles Gramlich: Gems

Charles Gramlich grew up on a farm in Arkansas but moved to the New Orleans area in 1986 to teach psychology at a local University. He’s since sold four novels and numerous short stories, mostly in the genres of Horror and Fantasy. In 2009 Charles’s nonfiction book, Write With Fire, was published. It’s a collection of his articles and essays on the craft of writing. He also produces a regular column on writing for the onlinenewsletter, The Illuminata. All of his books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online sites. Charles lives with his wife in Abita Springs, Louisiana, and has an adult son named Joshua. He blogs at Razored Zen.

Thanks to Novel Spaces for inviting me today. I’ve been enjoying the posts, and getting to look at the variety of featured books. Many talented authors live and visit here. I feel at home.

So, let me tell you about GEMS, which stands for GOAL, EFFORT, MOTIVATION, SKILL. I’m a mild mannered professor by day, and usually by night. And I’m always looking to help my students think about their education. As a writer too, everything ends up adapted for my own struggles with story, as well. That’s how GEMS developed, and here’s how I apply it to writing.

Most writers start with one GOAL, to get published. I did. But after you’ve seen your name in print that first goal is superseded and new goals must be set. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized the need to interweave my goals to produce the greatest effect. Specifically, I needed to set both long-term and short-term goals, and had to understand the difference between primary and secondary goals.

A primary goal is the highest level and I believe a writer should have only one. Everything else will be secondary, although that doesn’t mean unimportant. These days, my primary goal is to “advance my writing career.” Any other goals I set should work toward that purpose. Some “secondary” goals will be short-term: setting up a signing, improving a website, or even reading a book on writing. Other secondary goals are long-term. Eventually, I want to write a more ambitious book than I have so far, one appealing to a wider audience.

GOALs cannot be met without EFFORT, and the key is “sustained” rather than “acute” effort. Almost everyone “rises to the occasion” when a deadline is due. Such “acute” effort is often necessary in a literary career, but it won’t get a novel written. Sustained effort means doing the work every day; it means making continual progress toward a goal. Many novelists have a set page number or word count they strive to reach every day. That’s sustained effort. At times, when school overwhelms me, I’ve been reduced to, “just one paragraph a day.” But paragraphs lead to pages, and pages to stories. Push forward, and you’ll get there.

An individual’s effort level is affected by what psychologists call “locus of control.” People with an “internal” locus of control believe their own actions control the events of their lives. People with an “external” locus believe chance or “others” control their fates. Writers with an internal locus hold themselves responsible for their success or lack thereof, while authors with an external locus might say they were merely lucky or unlucky. Certainly, both internal and external factors impact a writer’s career. Research shows, however, that people with an internal locus typically work harder toward their goals. They believe effort is directly related to success or failure. From an “effort” standpoint, writers should try to feel in control of their careers, even if that isn’t always the case.

MOTIVATION is the third facet of GEMS, and it comes from two sources, “intrinsic” and “extrinsic.” Intrinsic motivations come from within. I’m proud of myself when I write hard and make progress. I feel guilty when I don’t. No external force applies these judgments to me. The pride and guilt come from inside. Extrinsic motivations come from outside. Rewards like money and praise are examples.

Most writers have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I enjoy money myself, and I beam when someone compliments my work. But I also write because it engages my emotions. Intrinsic motivations make careers for writers. Extrinsic motivations actually lose their value over time. Would you have been thrilled to earn a few thousand dollars on your first book? What about on your tenth? When behaviors are controlled solely by extrinsic motivations, the payoff has to grow over time or the behaviors stop.

Extrinsic motivations also diminish intrinsic ones. Many writers write their first novel for love. They write their second for love and money. They write their third for money and love. See where the trend is headed? Love decreases; money increases. When it becomes all about money, many writers quit. To maintain long careers as writers, authors need to keep the love, even if that means changing genres or reinventing themselves.

Finally, we come to SKILL. When I started I had a good vocabulary, good visualization abilities, and had read enough to acquire a sense of story. That was it. I was a dialogue virgin, had no idea what a “scene” was, and used atrocious grammar. I could handle periods, but other than some haphazardly placed commas, I had only a nodding acquaintance with other punctuation. I hadn’t the faintest idea of submission format. These were skills I lacked. Yet, I sold a few stories (in the small press), all of which had vivid descriptions, interesting vocabulary terms, and periods. There were only two lines of dialogue in the first four stories I sold. There wasn’t a dash or semicolon anywhere. Fortunately, I knew what skills I lacked and found books to help me develop them. Unfortunately, they’re all still under construction.

Many of my students, and many writers, constantly play to their strengths. As a result, their strengths become crutches. We shouldn’t ignore our strengths, but improving weaknesses often brings the biggest advances in careers.

One weakness I’ve ignored is developing a business sense. I see others doing the same. I hate the business side of writing. I couldn’t sell slop to a hog. I’m not a good people person. I don’t smooze well. But I need to work on these issues if I really hope to expand my audience.

Now, it’s off to check my goals, increase my effort, and find some love in the story I’m working on. I might even read a book on selling. Anybody know a good one?

Thanks for having me!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Shelving Issue: Another Perspective

Today I’m touching on what has always been a decidedly touchy subject. It’s sparked much debate in the blogosphere and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many years to come. In fact, my fellow Novel Spaces blogmate, Kaz Augustin, just mention this in her post a few days ago. I’m talking about the shelving of African American literature in bookstores.

I’ve made my feelings known about this subject several times on my personal blog, but those were all from the author’s perspective. However, a review of one of my books opened my eyes to the injustice being to readers as well.

Let me preface this by saying that when it comes to reviews, I take them all in stride, the good and the bad. I’ve encountered both and, thankfully, have grown a thick enough skin to face those not so favorable reviews with an open mind. This particular review was pretty darn bad. The reader absolutely hated my book. And I’m cool with that. I know my writing style is not for everyone. But I just had to know more about this reader, because, let’s face it, when someone has such a strong negative reaction to your work it piques your interest. (Or, maybe that’s just me.)

Intrigued, I clicked onto some of the other reviews the reviewer had posted, and discovered something very interesting. Many of my fellow romance authors had received one and two star reviews from this reader, while titles I’d label “Urban Fiction” earned four and five stars. Clearly, this reader enjoys a different kind of book from what I write. You just won't get that level of melodrama in a Farrah Rochon novel.

It got me wondering. How does a reader who, if using her reviews as an indication, doesn’t enjoy the romance genre, end up reading so any romances? Could it be because in some bookstores--including several major chains--all books by African American authors are shoved in the same section, regardless of genre? If my book was shelved in the romance section, would this reader have ever run across it?

Of course, this could just be a case of someone who simply didn’t like my writing. It’s happened before and will undoubtedly happen again. But the pattern of this reader’s reviews pointed to something more than just someone who didn’t like one particular romance novel. It’s quite possible she doesn’t enjoy the genre, but because all the books are shelved together, it’s hard to distinguish an African American romance from urban fiction, especially now that more and more urban fiction novels are being printed in mass market paperback format.

I see this as a total injustice to the reader. After reading her review, I was upset on the reviewer’s behalf for wasting both her money and time on a book she didn’t enjoy. I imagined myself buying a book with a pretty innocuous cover only to start reading and realize it's a horror novel. For someone who closes her eyes when she passes the Horror aisle, this would not be a good thing. But if the horror novelist is African American, there's a pretty good chance his/her book will be sitting right next to my tame romance novel on store shelves.

It's just not right! Why would stores make it a guessing game for readers? Simply shelve the books by genre so readers are not duped into buying a story that will leave them dissatisfied.

This argument has been going on for a long time, but I’m not sure there has ever been a compelling argument for shelving all books by African Americans in one place, regardless of genre. Is there one, or is this just blatant segregation that readers and authors will have to endure indefinitely? Someone please help me understand.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Changing for the better

At my day job, we're always reminding ourselves, each other and employees about the inevitability of change. "Gotta be flexible," we say. "The world is different; it's never going to be the same." To emphasize that reality and help workers accept it, there are books like, Who Moved My Cheese and scores of other business resources that tout the same basic principle: Nothing stays the same. As much as I live and breathe this thought at work, I didn't really apply it to my writing life the same way.

And it's not just me. Colleagues seem to lament upheavals in an industry that is very busy turning itself inside out these days. Doesn't this seem silly from a group of people who individually and collectively can not exercise enough self-control to look at a manuscript page without editing or revising something? Isn't change what we do under the guise of polishing and perfecting?

When I wrote Where Souls Collide, the title changed umpteen times. It was called Inkling at that point and even finalled in a writing contest. After the contest win though, I too, the book's good score as a sign to change the story. "You didn't win," I told myself. "So something needs to be fixed."

That fix resulted in me deleting about 60 percent of the story. What I came to realize when I finished writing Inkling was that the world had changed -- a lot -- in the five years since I started the story. Heroines no longer had an entire book to complete a character arc that left them savvy and empowered. No, kick-ass was in and my girl had to get some attitude. Oh, and I changed the title.

The book sold within the year.

But after that first sale, came the selling of the book itself. Since I was lucky enough to have a day job as a communications professional, I knew how to develop a marketing plan and where to find resources to help execute that plan. Then, I went out and advertised, promoted, interviewed, updated my web site, and so much more. Including starting a blog.

Fast forward a couple of years, and my second anthology is due out in two weeks. With this story, I'm happy to report, no gutting took place because I have a better understanding of plotting and story structure. There's a marketing plan with the same basic tactics I applied to my debut, but this time online promotion gets its very own page in my plan. And my writing process has changed once more to reflect the reality of a publisher's deadline and not my own forgiving timetable.

Are the changes in my writing world easier to make than the ones in my working life? Sometimes. While altering your favorite scene in the book of your heart can be tough, more often you're driven by the desire to sell your story -- whether that's to an editor, a reviewer or a reader. You want the story your imagination concocted to be liked. It's change that writer's accept; the kind that helps people "get" your story. That's good.

But change that cuts your cost-of-living raise, increases your duties, or eliminates your job, well, that's bad. For me, this kind of change is harder to take and to make because I have so little control over the factors that led to the change or even the outcome of those changes. With a book, if I want my heroine to become more aggressive, I have control over my hero's reaction and the couple's happily-ever-after.

More importantly, the overall changes that I've gone through as a writer, now published author, have led to a deep sense of personal and professional growth I would not have achieved if I'd chosen to remain stagnant and not flex with the publishing industry.

The digital era is descending on books, the way downloaded music crashed into that industry. What's important to remember is that iTunes may have replaced the distribution point, but it didn't stop the music from being made. Those who can work within that change have a better chance of selling CDs in the new world than those who throw up their hands and refuse to accept the evolution.

As long as I continue to learn, produce quality stories, and like what I'm doing in the process, I'll flex (within limits) to make writing work for me. But what about you? What are you willing to change within a story or yourself in order to make a sale? What industry changes are you looking forward to -- or not? What have you learned about yourself as a writer since your beginnings? Let us know! And thanks for stopping by to share my musings and yours.


Be prepared

If becoming a published author is your goal, I have one piece of advice for you. Be prepared.

Recently, I shared a meal with a friend and told her about the first contract call I received in 2001. Although I knew certain things, I was unfamiliar with and not very good at contract negotiations. While the BET's representative mapped out their offer, I listened intently, taking notes, and then told the editor that I would call her back. I remembered hearing from many reliable sources that you should not commit to anything until you've had time to consider the offer thoroughly.

A week later I accepted BET's offer and received my contract. For days, I tried to make sense of the information BET sent me. It didn't happen. The words on the thirty-odd pages ran together each time I tried to read the legal jargon. Reserves, audio and movie rights were foreign words to me.

Frustrated, I went into my boss's office with the contract, waved the pages in his face, and demanded in a high-pitched whine, "Find me a lawyer!"

Being a priest and a nice man, Father Dave complied and found me a former student of his that was now practicing law. He went over the contract and explained to me what each section meant. He pointed out several areas where I had a little wiggle room for further negotiations. It was a learning experience that taught me to be prepared, learn as much as possible about the publishing business so that when I received the next call, I could discuss the contract and make intelligent decisions about my career.

So, tell me your story. E-mail me, I'd love to know how you handled your first contract negotiation. Please share your experiences. As usual, don't be a stranger.


Monday, September 14, 2009

More Than a Box o' Books

My book comes out tomorrow.

No. Wait. Let me give that the gravity it deserves. My first novel comes out tomorrow, "BITE MARKS: A Vampire Testament", the one I started 20 years ago and couldn’t quit, no matter how far I got from it, until I came home to Brooklyn in 2001, after ten years in L.A., and finished it. The one it took me seven years to complete and rewrite, the one I love more than almost anything I have ever written.

My firstborn. My baby.

I spent today spinning through things that still need to be done -- getting a haircut for dinner tomorrow night with my agents and editor, three women who have changed my life more than they will ever know, regardless of what happens next. I’m about to run into town to get a new outfit for dinner and store signings, then back to work on a website listed on the back of the book that doesn’t technically exist yet, and waiting for e-mail from the publicist in L.A. who was loving the book last week while reading, to arrange a radio tour to complement what my lovely publicist at the publisher is doing.

From what little I know of childbirth, the whole process has been very much like having a baby, except the due date is definite (unless it changes, as it did a few times, for me and friends), and you get paid to do it. Unless you’re a surrogate, you can’t beat that deal. It has been joyous, painful, exhilarating and scary as Hell. After years of working to finish the book, more years spent rewriting it and learning what writing it really means, I received a box of copies in the mail and have it in my hands, have had to face what had only been abstract up to now, despite spending the checks.

This is really happening.

In October I start doing signings and interviews to promote the book, looking for every way I can to let the world know this book exists, which leads me to the point of this panicked, discursive, late-posted essay. Don’t think your work as a writer is done when you finally manage to get a book deal, no matter how long it takes, no matter how painful. Oh no. You’ve only sold rights to reproduce the book. Your next task is selling multiple copies of that book that will be produced by your kind and generous publisher.

It’s not that they don’t want to sell the copies of your book. Oh, they do, and will sell them to you at remainder prices in a few years if they can’t sell them to anyone else. It’s just that they have a lot of books to sell, by a lot of authors (if you’re at a major name publisher) and you don’t rate any more than anyone else there, unless you’re selling a LOT of books and keeping them in business to find their next bestseller. You have to do something, anything, to let people know your book is out there, and encourage them to buy it.

How? I will let you know when I figure it out. I’m still working on that. All I can say for sure right now is that it’s a new world, filled with possibilities. Reach out. Make relationships, find like minds with blogs and communicate, find local readings in your area and start reading aloud to strangers to see what they think. If they like your work, they’ll buy it or tell you so. If they don’t -- they’ll communicate that as well, by a variety of means. Listen to them. Take into account who they are, and whether it’s what you’re saying or how you’re saying it that’s the problem.

Here’s another one I’ll give you free. Don’t live on your advance. It’s money you get against what the publisher thinks they will sell, and the truth is, you won’t make much more than that unless you go into multiple printings, so keep your day job, keep writing as you have been, and while you put some money into the work -- a new laser printer to save on manuscript copying and to edit pages by hand instead of floating on a screen, a nice dinner out to encourage you to continue -- put some aside for expenses on your book tour, to print promotional postcards, to set up an electronic newsletter for your mailing list, etc. Spend some on publicity outside of what your publisher’s doing, keep whoever you hire in contact with the publisher’s publicist, who’ll get them copies of the book, and work their magic around any additional events coming up.

Think. Think of all the ways you can get the word out in the modern age. Try them all and what doesn’t work, stop and/or adjust. In short, get involved. Don’t be a baby who thinks that now that you’re a “published author” some magic has happened and you get some kind of break. You don’t. You have to keep working, not just on the book, but selling the book. And you know what? That mostly means talking about your book and yourself to people who want to hear about it, so it’s not all that bad now that your friends are all sick of hearing about it. All you have to do is learn to say the same things over and over, sounding fresh every time, to as many people as will listen.

I’ll let you know how it goes, here and on my website, I’m at the start of a new adventure, one that either will leave me where I was -- or elsewhere. I have no idea now which it will be, or where I’ll end up. All I know is that the journey has put me somewhere wonderful I didn’t know I could reach, a state of creative bliss that I hope to maintain for the rest of my life. No matter how many or few copies of my books I sell, that is the one thing that has come out of this they can’t take away, and the thing that’s made it most worthwhile, more just than a box of books.

Praise is nice when it comes, book signing, congratulations and parties warm the heart, but fade away. What’s left is your day-to-day life, and if you can say that it’s a life of creative play you share it with others, I don’t think there’s anything more I could ask of the universe, as long as it earns me enough to eat and keep a roof over my head while I do it. We shall see.

In the meantime, I have a resumé to get out there to find my next day job...

(Visit my website for a link to to get my book!)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Giving birth to a novel

A few weeks ago a near collision landed me in the hospital, mostly for observation. While there I had the opportunity to witness a natural child birth. The lady had come into the labor and delivery triage by ambulance. She was full term and in the middle of contractions. The nurses examined her and determined she was not ready to give birth thus there was no rush. Since she wasn’t admitted, no anesthesiologist came to discuss epidural or pain medication. They were simply waiting.

This lady wanted the perfect scenario. She wanted her mother, significant other, and grandmother, a double amputee, to witness the birth. While there, her mother showed up explaining that her significant other was sent to collect her grandmother. The lady and her mother argued a few minutes about the baby’s name. After being assured by the nurse that her daughter was nowhere close to giving birth, the mother left to grab a bite to eat.

No sooner than the mother had left, the nurse decided to check the lady’s progress. Not only was the lady fully dilated, the baby was crowning. What happened next was like a scene from Grey’s Anatomy. The entire floor rushed into action wheeling in and connecting equipment, monitoring her and the baby's vitals. The lady was crying out for pain relief, but it was too late to be administered. The nurses gently coached her to push while she cried out in pain. In a few short minutes the baby was out, her cry echoing in the small room. The baby mama who just a minute earlier was crying in pain, was now laughing, crying in joy and gushing over her lovely baby girl. The nurses and all the other patients, separated by only curtains, applauded.

Then came the mundane part: passing the placenta, cleaning up and performing the episiotomy (stitches). While the lady’s mother who had just returned gushed over her newest granddaughter, the poor baby mama had to endure the boring and painful part of the clean up. Of course neither the significant other or the grandmother made in time to witness the birth.

The nurse then returned to me and asked what I thought. I had one word for her, “amazing.”

So what does all this have to do with writing? Well I couldn’t help but equate the entire experience to the creation of a novel. We start with an idea that is at first vague in our minds. As the idea takes shape we have this illusion of the perfect novel, the perfect scenarios, the perfect characters. But soon the characters take on a life of their own. So instead of the perfect scenario we had in our mind, we find ourselves changing the scenes, changing the interactions, and changing expectations just like the lady with respect to her relatives witnessing the birth.

At first, the writing goes slowly. But as we near the end we pick up the pace, often with it consuming our every thought. Then finally at that last moment when we’ve written that last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph, we can look back and breathe a sigh of relief. We have created something novel and unique.

And for that brief moment we bask in the glory of our new creation. But then comes the mundane part: the editing, the re-writing, the fact checking. Feels like an episiotomy doesn’t it?

In that respect, writing is very much like giving birth to a baby: the labor of love, the joy of a new creation, and the agony of editing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On book categorisations

First of all, I'm not in North America. I've lived and worked there, but I'm not American myself. And one thing that I've been thinking about lately is categorisation. Specifically, I'm wondering whether novel categorisation in the North American market has gone too far.

First, there's the distinction between genre and literature. Besides the jokey definitions, is there really any need for this? Iain Banks writes literature, for example. You'll find him in the "Literature" aisle. But Iain M Banks writes space opera, so you'll find him in "Science Fiction & Fantasy". It's the same person. Same brain. Same way of looking at the world. Same way of expressing his thoughts. Yet, it doesn't matter what kind of beautiful and evocative language he may use in one of his Culture novels, it ain't never moving out of that SF&F area, baby.

Then I hear about the continuing brouhaha over AA. At first wondering what Alcoholics Anonymous had to do with stocking bookshelves, I was surprised and more than a little disconcerted to find that AA stands for "African American". Really? You have to go to a special part of a North American bookstore to find African American novels? Why? (I have the same beef in my part of the world, to be honest, with the Asian authors sometimes crammed together on some darkened shelves in a cobwebbed part of the store.) Who cares who wrote it? Isn't the story itself, its ability to provoke some response from you, enough?

Apparently not. Everything's so neatly divided, isn't it? You want an m/f romance with a brown-skinned protagonist? That's multicultural romance. Change it to m/m and it's under "GLBT multicultural romance". One of the protagonists has fangs? Try paranormal romance. What's next? A bookstore label that says "Paranormal vampire heterosexual multicultural urban fantasy"? Y'know, just so you know what you're buying?

Okay okay, there are times when I use those labels myself, usually when I'm after a quick fix and don't have much time to tarry. But, mostly, I don't. When I walk into a bookshop, I don't care whether the writer is white, brown or yellow and, quite frankly, I don't really care whether the characters are white, brown or yellow. That's not part of my personal novel rejection process (even though it may be part of my personal novel acceptance process). In fact, I'm more likely to reject a book based on a character spouting the author's obvious political views than the colour of her skin or how many arms she has.

So, now that I've put the cat amongst the pigeons, I'm wondering. Do these narrow categorisations do us, as readers and individuals with thinking brains, any good? Is it really okay to drop, say, $200 on books each month if ALL you read are blue-with-yellow-polkadot tri-gendered mountain-climbing memoirs?

Let's take this from another angle and subtract race from the equation. There's also a perennial battle between science-fiction and fantasy. Which is more "worthy"? The fact of the matter is, the very contemplation of such differences end up both forming and pitting one bunch of discriminators against another. And it's a pit that's so very very easy to fall into. My first love is science-fiction, so you'd think it obvious which camp I'd fall into. But I'd defend with a rusty knife my beloved Fritz Leiber "Swords of Lankhmar" books against any deranged assailant.

To me, the categorisations make it easier and easier to narrow our reading options, to close our minds to other points of view, to foster prejudice and ignore gems among the less-trawled of available stories. Yes, of course there are times when all I'm in the mood for is a damn good space opera, or a Mills & Boon romance, but not all the time, and certainly not in so constrained a fashion that I'm going to only hunt out, say, vampire space opera romances, to the detriment of anything else. I don't see my easy choices as being a good thing. Convenient? Yes. An occasional indulgence? Certainly. But good? I Don't Think So.

I suppose another way of putting this is, do the categorisations work for you? And, if so, how? Or, to take it even one step further, why do you read?

Thursday, September 10, 2009


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

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Guest author: RL Taylor

RL Taylor is the author of The Last Ms. Understanding. In 2009 he received five Shades of Romance Magazine (SORMAG) Readers' Choice Awards including: Romance Book of the Year, Fiction Book of the Year and New Author of the Year. The shocking truth is - he's just getting started. His next release is titled Champagne, Jellybeans, and Chocolate.

There's a lot you can do to edit your own book. Your objective is to make the material that's already there more readable, more appealing, more understandable and more inviting to the reader. That's it. That's the big goal that every editor chases when they sit before a manuscript.

Omit Needless Words. In short, if there's a word in the sentence that can be removed without damaging the thought, it should be removed. That alone can dramatically improve your writing.

Most people think of editing right on the hard copy, paper and ink, with pen in hand. Okay, feel free to do that. Personally, I like to use the computer screen. Remember, if you make the changes on the screen, they're made. No one has to re-enter the material you've just edited.

Search the document for the word 'that.' Almost 75% of the time this word can be eliminated without changing the thought of the sentence. Next comes the word 'then.' Get rid of it if you can.

Search for the two letters 'ly' and you'll find most of the adverbs in your work. An adverb modifies a verb. He didn't just run, he ran quickly. Remove the adverbs. Remove them and use a better verb. Get rid of the adverbs. Adverbs can turn up at the end of a sentence, frequently.

Try and eliminate: usually, nearly, barely. Also, be wary of 'often' and 'seems.' If words, phrases or entire sentences can be removed without affecting the work, then remove them. Do a quick word count before you begin. Your goal is to have 10 percent fewer words than when you started... and watch your writing get better and better.

RL Taylor

Monday, September 7, 2009

Building a World

Have you ever read a book that seemed to take place in a white room? You couldn’t picture where the characters were, what they were wearing, or what they were doing? If so, you’ve experienced the results of poor worldbuilding.

“Worldbuilding” is what speculative fiction authors call the creation of a made-up world for a story. If the world is close to our own, worldbuilding may be relatively simple. For example, Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books (and the related TV show, “True Blood”) are set in present-day Louisiana, but with a twist: Vampires, shapeshifters, and other supernatural beings exist. Before writing, Harris had to work out the implications and ramifications of this veering away from reality.

When a story is set far in the future or in a fantasy world, the writer has more work to do. Here’s a sample of what the writer must think about when creating a world: technology level, social structure, class structure, religion and gods, system of ethics, species and races of inhabitants, climate, geography, natural resources, economic system, history, living arrangements and homes, foods eaten, politics, relations with other regions including trade and warfare, and fashion.

And of course, these all must interlock naturally. If the people of the world live in small nomadic bands and have no pack animals, the author can’t given them things that require a wide or deep infrastructure (cell phones, coin money, steel bridges, a complex multilevel social structure) or possessions that are too heavy to carry on the back or a sledge.

But spec fic writers are not the only ones who need to worldbuild. Historical fiction writers need to present an unfamiliar setting well enough that it comes alive for readers. Even someone writing books set in the contemporary world may have to do some worldbuilding. Many readers may not have been to Louisiana or Turkey or Russia, so writers need to include sensory details of these places if they’re in a book.

Even a book set in a well-known time and place needs details to augment the reader’s knowledge. The author must decide, for example, whether her contemporary Los Angeles is the noirish Los Angeles of Robert Crais, the wacky and sordid Los Angeles of Joseph Wambaugh, the glitzy Los Angeles of Zoey Dean, or a Los Angeles of the author’s own imagining.

Writers can find the nearly exhaustive list of Patricia Wrede’s worldbuilding questions at

Win a book! I’ll be having my second annual birthday contest at my personal blog, For Love of Words, on 16 September 2009.Two commenters will be randomly chosen to win a book of their choice by anyone I’ve interviewed at my blog (which includes Novel Spaces’ own Farrah Rochon) or a copy of my October release, Like Mayflies in a Stream. Please stop by on the 16th to celebrate with me and possibly win a book.

I’ll be blogging on Novel Spaces again on 23 September, when I’ll talk about setting as inspiration. I look forward to seeing you then!

—Shauna Roberts

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Defining Moments

Back in 1970, back when middle school was called junior high, at Monroe Jr. High School in Inglewood, California, there was an amazing English teacher. A tall, slender woman who wore tortoise-shell reading glasses. Her name was Mrs. Brown. And she was the one who took the time to tell me, a tall, skinny, nerdy twelve year old, that I should be a writer. I'd written a play and she called me up in front of the class, giving me three-A's, three-stars, and three-words I'll never forget - you should write.

Back then, I wanted to be a banker or a CFO. I simply loved math. But along the way through all my lines of work, even banking, I found that my major consistent job duty was some form of writing, be it news, policy and procedures, candidate summaries, or speech writing. And here I am today, writing books for a living.

I'll never forget that defining moment - those three words from Mrs. Brown. Her voice is as clear as day, as well as the encouraging look on her smiling face.

Perhaps we should look up our encouragers and thank them. I'll bet they'd like to know they made a difference. What a world this would be if we all took a moment to acknowledge someone in a positive, motivating, absolutely defining way. I call these people everyday heroes! The thing is, they don't come along every day. But sometimes, all it takes is one moment to tell someone their light is shining bright!

Who made a difference and encouraged you along the way? Who took the time to tell you your light was shining?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Trapped In My WIP

I should be happy.

It’s sunny. The writing is going well. I even lost 5 pounds.

Yet, I’m mad as hell!

You wouldn’t know it from the scowl on my face, but there’s nothing wrong – with me.

It’s the poor hero of my WIP. He just walked in on a terrible scene, and his reactions, words and emotions have been oozing out of me all morning. After 200-plus pages, I know him so well his anger feels like my anger.

Unfortunately, I can’t power down those feelings as easily as my laptop.


My head’s trapped in my manuscript, and I can’t get out!!!!

I write on the sweet side, and this doesn’t happen often. So fellow writers, help me out.

How do you make the transition from your characters’ tumultuous lives back to your own?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

L5 Goals Can Kill You

Growing up in central Florida in the late fifties and through the sixties I was all about the space program. I witnessed every Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launch first hand. I designed space suits or space stations or multigenerational interstellar colony vessels or lunar habitats for my science project every single year I was in school. And I was determined, resolved beyond any shadow of doubt, that by age fifty I'd be living in an L5 space colony. (Look here and here for a quick primer on L5.)(Some quick research has revealed that the L5 colony was not advocated until after I was out of college, but I do remember as a child imagining living in an orbital city with a panoramic view of both Luna and Earth.)

Well, age fifty happened a while ago. In fact, on September 2 I became old enough to get cheap coffee at McDonalds and legally drive slowly in the left lane with my right turn signal flashing. I never did achieve my goal of living in L5. Given the amount of effort I put into that goal you might expect me to be a little bitter about that. And maybe I would be bitter if I didn't understand there had never really been a chance of my living in L5. Because L5 never happened; and nothing I did had any bearing on whether or not I lived there.

What has this to do with writing? A lot, actually. Because I see writers setting themselves L5 goals all the time. I set myself L5 goals for most of my 'prepublished' writing career (and I still sometimes make them). Some L5 goals are easy to spot: "I'll win the lottery by the time I'm 30." Others are a bit more covert: "I'll publish my first novel by the time I'm 30."

"How is making a commitment to publish my first novel like planning to win the lottery or to live on a nonexistent space station?" you ask. (Okay, you're probably not asking, because you're all much more clever than I and already know where this is going, but I need the rhetorical device to pull this thing forward, so bear with me.)

The common denominator in these goals is other people. Whether or not you win the lottery or have a space station to live on or get your book published depends on other people. You can do what you can to influence events -- buy forty-two million lottery tickets, earn every science degree you can, write a drop dead perfect manuscript -- but nothing you do will guarantee the final outcome.

Too often writers set L5 goals -- to sell a short story a month, or a novel a year -- then become frustrated and discouraged when they don't attain their objective. What they overlook is the fact it's the editor, not the writer, who makes the "buy" decision. There is nothing a writer can do to get a manuscript published beyond write well and employ a little marketing savvy (more on that another time).

A writer needs goals, but they need to be real goals; meaningful, useful, and attainable.
You cannot control whether or not someone buys your story; to sell a story is a meaningless goal. You can control whether or not you write the story; writing a story is a meaningful goal.

But writing the story as a whole may still be a bit too broad to be useful -- particularly if the story is a novel and we're talking about months of commitment. A useful goal would be to write a certain number of words each day -- it breaks the big job into smaller steps. (Because I edit as I write, my goals are always for words I keep. Usually something around one to two thirds of the words I write end up being words I keep. If you're of the get-it-all-out-and-shape-it-up-later school, count every word you write.)

However if the number of words per day is unrealistic then the potentially useful daily word-count goal becomes unattainable and you do yourself more harm than good. Case in point: me.

When I was a crisis intervention counselor I worked about thirty hours a week. My goal was 1000 words of keepable quality every weekday and 2000 on weekends. On average I wrote 1600 words and 2400 words respectively, but I did not sleep until I'd hit my set goal. Now I'm a case manager. I work fifty hours on a good week; fifty-five most. And my writing has suffered. I spent nearly a year beating myself up for not making my standard 1000 words a day before I realized what I was doing to myself. I stopped and took a hard look at my life and my abilities and reset my expectations. Now my goals are 200 words a weekday and 600 on the weekend (real life I'm running about 300/800). It now takes me a lot longer to finish what I start. but by sticking to my program of meaningful, useful, and attainable goals I do finish.