Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Ever since writing my first accepted piece of writing some years back -- a short story for which I received $50--I have had to deal with "constructive criticism." This is often in the form of rejection letters, but can also come through editors of material that has been sold but still needs to be "polished" to their standards. Reading groups, friends, and acquaintances can critique your work as well, and may tell you things you don't want to hear.

Once upon a time, I found it tough to swallow criticism of my work, constructive or not, believing that any negative review of work was ultimately an attack on the writer and not the project, per se. Moreover, most writers are pretty stubborn when it comes to anything less than favorable of their writings, believing them by and large to be works of art that needs little if any revision.

Of course, now that I am a bit more seasoned with many books and short stories to my credit, I have a much greater understanding and appreciation of constructive criticism and actually seek out rather than run from.

Indeed, I credit the many critical reviews and constructive critiques of my works that I have received over the years as playing a big role in my development as a writer. If you only take to heart even one or two points driven home by an editor, another writer, or anyone else who can offer objective constructive criticism, it can go a long ways in improving your craft.

Sometimes I have gone back to look at constructive criticism I received for earlier works to help keep me on the straight and narrow in shaping current projects. I recognize today that in most instances, the editor or reviewer is not out to make your life miserable or be mean for the sake of it, but genuinely want to help you to become the best you can be as a writer.

Once you accept constructive criticism in this light, it can always work to your advantage, no matter how cutting it may appear at times.

Also, a writer is never too big or successful to be immune to constructive criticism. We have all read books by established, bestselling writers that could be improved upon, but may not have been given the same scrutiny by editors because of the writer's stature. This ultimately hurts such writers and the quality of their books if not told what they should be, constructively speaking.

What are your thoughts on constructive criticism or tough reviews of your writing? Do you take in the manner intended? Or find difficult to accept if it goes against the grain of your own lofty opinion of the work?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Time Travel

I have always been fascinated by the idea of time travel. It is a tricky topic, expertly handled by some authors like Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, not so well handled by others.

On one hand, one can take many liberties when writing about time travel because to my knowledge, no one has ever traveled into the past or future. Who is to say how it happens? Can you affect the future by changing the past? If I go into the past and kill my mother, do I disappear from the future (the grandfather paradox)? Do I disappear from the now, in which case I could not commit the murder? Is the future a parallel world? If the future exists already, does it mean that we cannot make our own decisions? Authors can make up their own answers to those questions, the only limit is their imagination.

On the other hand, as I suggested above, time travel is a circular topic and difficult to handle without slipping up. In many books on time travel, one can find an inconsistency or something that just does not makes sense. It doesn't make the book a bad one, not at all, it just underscores the thin line between creating a fantasy world and losing your reader's ability to ignore reality.

Why is all of this on my mind, you may ask. In my books, the Caribbean Adventure Series, the children travel through time into the past. In the first two books, I avoided all difficult issues. I ensured that the book never skirted over into the area of science fiction, I leave that to my able co-bloggers KeVin and Shauna. The children participated in actual historic events, but their actions had no effect on the outcome of the event or on the future. Not so in the third book. In this book, they affect the life of one person and as a result, their future ... or is it their present (see, I am confused already) is changed. This was the major delay in my (now complete) WIP. It took me a long time to build up the confidence to try to convince my readers that, not only were these children traveling effortlessly through time, but they were also affecting their present by changing the past.

What is your view on the issue of time travel? Do you read it critically or do you let your imagination take abandoned flight into the fantasy?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why I Read

I posted the other day on my own blog about dialogue and why it’s not my favorite part of a work to “read.” I respect the role that dialogue needs to play in the entire storytelling experience, but for me the greatest joy in reading comes from discovering beautiful, poetic language and imagery, which is most often found in descriptive passages, or sometimes in action scenes. I’ve read quite a few books where I didn’t care much for the story but just loved the language. White Oleander and Blood Meridian come to mind. I’ve also read page turners where the story was so good I could hardly bear it, even though the language was not terribly lovely or memorable. Misery comes to mind.

But the works I treasure most, the ones I pick up for inspiration for my own writing, or just to enjoy the way the author’s words roll off my tongue, do two things. They tell a compelling story, and they do so in language that has the ring of poetry in my ears. Listen to Peter Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard.

“Rock, and snow peaks all around, the sky, and great birds and black rivers—what words are there to seize such ringing splendor? But again something arises in this ringing that is not quite bearable, a poised terror, as in the diamond ice that cracks the stone. The brain veers; the sun glints like a weapon. Then Black Canyon writhes and twists, and the Crystal Mountain looms as a castle of dread, and all the universe reverberates with horror. My head is the sorcerer’s skull cup full of blood, and were I to turn, my eyes would see straight to the heart of chaos, the mutilation, bloody gore, and pain that is seen darkly in the bright eye of this lizard.”

The first time I read those words, and many times since, I felt a chill curve its way over my scalp, leaving goose bumps behind. That frisson is why I read. Words are often said to be a dim and weak medium by which to capture reality. Perhaps that’s true. But they can capture beauty. They can create worlds and images that burn and ache in our minds. And, if truth be told, reality is in our minds anyway. The only way I can recognize the real world outside is when it leaves an impression on my mind. Words, and the images and feelings they convey, can be as real to me as the stone that cracks my windshield or bruises my heel.

James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Catherine (C. L.) Moore, Leigh Brackett, Robert Howard, Loren Eiseley, Samuel Delany, Cormac McCarthy, Heather Gladney. These writers, and many more like them, are bards and poets both. They tell us great stories and they do so in a language and rhythm that is like the finest works of music, language that rings like wind chimes.

Listen to Ray Bradbury talk about “October Country” and try to tell me you don’t love it, or that it isn’t “real” to you.

“…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.…”

So, why do you read?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Life constantly changes

Five months ago I changed jobs. With the present economy, it surprised me that I found a better position. After six years working as an adult reference librarian, I took a position as a library director. Honestly, I never thought I would be in charge of a building, employees, and a budget. The idea of moving into this position scared me senseless. Yet, it was the next logical step in my professional career.

I went into the job with a cautious attitude. I didn't want to disturb the previous director's systems until I understood the inner workings of the library. The first month was frightening. My confidence grew as I made the job mine and made decisions that help strengthen the image of the library within the community. After five months, I won't say I'm a pro, but I have established myself as the director among the people that work for me, and learned how to handle the operations of the building, budget, employees, and patrons.

Now if you are wondering what this has to do with writing, it's this. I have a new book that will be released October 1st. There's always a lot of exciting and a little bit of fear when I have a new release. Will readers like it? Did I do everything I could to make this a good novel? Will I be able to get another contract once this novel is released? If it bombs where will I go next?

There's so much to consider and much more that is out of my hands. All a writer can do is his or her best.

This is where you get into the act. Tell me, is there something that you are doing that different? Difficult? Not your normal? Something that you are worried about the outcome? Shoot me an email at or click on the link below. I'd love to hear from you.

Remember, don't be a stranger.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

First chapters

Late last year, a fellow author on the anthology, “Holiday Brides” suggested we promote our book on, an online magazine that features multicultural romance literature. Pursuant to that, I signed up for the Sormag newsletter which now comes to my email inbox – no effort necessary. A few weeks ago, while at work taking a break from the mundane task of reviewing scientific literature, I opened my email. In it was a promo from Sormag magazine, which included a summary of the book, author profile and most importantly the first chapter of the book.

I began to read the first chapter. It left me yearning to read more. Within five minutes of reading the chapter, I purchased the book from That book made its way to the top of the to-be read pile and I immediately read the book. It was a good read. The book: “Huddle with Me Tonight”. The author: our very own Farrah Rochon. That says a lot, because though I am a romance author, my reading list hardly contains romance. I am more into drama (John Grisham, James Patterson, Sidney Sheldon, Dan Brown) and non-fiction that read like fiction (e.g. The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot), than romance. Never underestimate the power of First Chapters.

That was not the first time reading first chapters caused me to purchase a book and elevate it to the top of my TBR pile. A month ago the same thing happened. When I went to, they recommended other similar books and I purchased them too.

So why am I writing about this? Maybe we need to discuss different types of book promotion. I, like many readers, no longer browse bookstores looking for new books to read. In fact the only times I’ve been in a bookstore for the past two years was for fundraising events sponsored by my daughter’s school or when she dragged me, all excited to see if my novels were in the local Barnes and Nobles (yes she dragged me). But when sends me an email hinting that because I purchased one book, I may like a different book by the same author or a different author in the same genre with similar writing style, it peaks my interest. I peruse the book and often consider buying it. Similarly, if a friend recommends a book or an author, the first thing I do is go online, read the summary and the reviews. If I like it, a purchase is just a click away.

Buying books have changed, with online purchases increasing significantly in the last couple of years. A flyer in a bookstore does not have the same impact as it had ten years ago. Therefore promoting a book has changed with the times.

I’ve given you just one method of book promotion that encourages me to purchase books. How about you? I would like this to be a discussion of different ways to promote books in the digital age. So authors, give your two cents. Readers, what makes you go out and purchase a book?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Homeschooling: the curriculum

When they were attending school, the kids also had what I consider to be bloated subjects: Living Skills, Human Society, Moral Education. That's not to say that the topics themselves were unimportant, but I thought they could be condensed and more focused. Did my children really need to learn that boiling eggs means putting them in boiling water? (As opposed to boiling oil, as some students thought.) Our two were already cooking curries and stir-fries by then, and doing most of the prep themselves. And did they really need to learn that students who prayed to God had a better chance of passing exams than those who didn't? No, I'm serious; they were really taught that one. No need to learn, just pray to God. The ignorant gall of such teachers is astounding!

By having my own curriculum, not only do I cut out all that ignorant crap but it also means including subjects that I think will pay off for them in the future. So, the core subjects are:


These subjects are taught three or more times a week. Level Two subjects are taught one to three times a week and include:

Chinese language
Calligraphy (i.e. proper handwriting)

I realise that one of the biggest problems with homeschooling is socialisation. With the kids in an isolated environment, I figure that the classes in Chinese, Wushu and Music should get them out and about a bit.

Does all that sound a bit heavy? Let me introduce you to Toru Kumon. Kumon was a Japanese maths teacher who was dissatisfied with the progress of his son at school. (Seems to be a universal problem, no?) Quoting Wikipedia:
The underlying belief behind the Kumon Method is that, given the right kind of materials and the right support, any child is capable of learning anything.
The child learns at her individual pace but does not progress to the next level until she has mastered the current one. Also, rather than two or three hours of intensive drilling in one subject, the Kumon method emphasises smaller bites of time to push key concepts before leaving it alone till the next day.

Where I differ from the Kumon method is that I add some traditional blackboard teaching to the sessions. I also don't insist on 100% accuracy. Every worksheet session is followed by a debrief. If the child can explain to me where they went wrong with an answer, that's good enough for me. (Not being able to explain their mistake means more repetition of that particular type of problem.)

Using this mix, I have taught Little Dinosaur how to tell analogue and digital time in one week. And The Wast is also learning the Greek roots of words so he has better tools to work with when manipulating metric measures. School runs from 9:00am to 1:00pm, Monday to Friday, and that's enough to tackle every subject except the external-party ones (Chinese, Wushu, Music) and Cooking. Then again, they don't see cooking as a chore but as a competition between them to see who can cook the better-tasting dish. An additional bonus is that they also eat more of their own cooking, which suits me just fine!

It's only been little more than a month since I started homeschooling but, so far, things seem be right on track, even if Little Dinosaur burst into tears when she found out she has to learn her times table from 1 to 9 this year.

* Kaz Augustin is an homeschooling parent who makes her kids cry on their worksheets. You can find her website at She has a food blog at and she's also on Facebook and Twitter. Just look for "ksaugustin".

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dorchester blues & book giveaway

The upheavals at Dorchester Publishing have been hogging the publishing news of late. I happen to have a vested interest in the clamour since they're the publishers of my debut novel, Café au Lait. I know that publishing houses exist to make money for themselves. I know that the bottom line rules, but even so the very public evisceration of the house hurts a bit. Being contrary by nature, I'm going to push back against all the negative karma out there by taking a look at what, historically, have been the positive aspects of the house.
  • Dorchester has managed to remain independent in a climate where the massive, monolithic houses have been gobbling up smaller houses and imprints in what seemed at times a feeding frenzy. Dorch deserves kudos for retaining its independence to the very end - if indeed the end is what we see looming.
  • Authors who have worked with Dorch have nothing but the highest regard for their editors. There are authors right now who, along with their dire concerns about their books, are riven with worry over the fate of their editors and other staff at the house. For this close bond to exist between the authors and the staff, Dorch must have been doing something right. It's telling that there are authors there who swear they will follow their editors to whichever house grabs them up.
  • Their art department rocks. Dorchester covers are usually well executed and I've heard author after author enthuse about them.
  • They sell good products. From what I've been able garner across the 'net, they publish great stories in the romance, horror and western genres. That's the simple magic behind their long-term success.
  • Finally, they routinely take risks on new authors. Many traditional houses don't, or at least not to the same degree. I've lost count of the well known, bestselling authors who are where they are today partly because when they were brand new in the business, Dorch read their stories, liked them and invested in them.
There's talk out there that Leisure (Dorchester) titles will soon become collector's items. This is your chance to win what might very well become such a prize some day soon. (Are you laughing? I'm serious! :)) I'm giving away a copy of Café au Lait and anyone who leaves a comment on this post or on the feed on Facebook will be entered in the draw. Even if you're not into romance novels I believe you'll enjoy the virtual Caribbean escape. Good luck, readers, and good luck, Dorch!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Down to the Wire

No one likes deadlines. There’s a good reason they’re not called lifelines, happylines, or even funlines. We face them the same way one would a firing squad, with regretful resignation and a strong conviction that there just wasn’t enough time before the end to do all we wanted to do.

I got a paperweight from a friend years ago that’s still on my desk and the inspiration for this piece as I was facing a forgotten deadline for my next blog and looking for a good idea -- it’s aluminum with a red face that reads “The ultimate inspiration is the deadline”. So true. There’s nothing like a gun to the head to produce fast and steady stream of answers, no matter how valid they may be once the gun is gone.

I’m in one of those rare all too brief periods of life when my bills are paid and I have a little time while looking for my next freelance job to write to my heart’s content. I finished a novella I was working on for one of my two writing groups, and managed to finally write the prologue to the third Testaments novel, a section I had so wrong and had struggled with for weeks to find the right voice. I went out to brunch at a favorite writing spot and finally just started writing, and bang -- suddenly it was there. Just when I was feeling like I was wasting valuable writing time by cleaning, procrastinating until I was dry, it starts to flow again.

I’ve spent the summer trying to get my space organized so I could immerse myself in writing the rest of the novel (oh yes, there’s much more than the prologue on paper -- I was going back to get my bearings as it begins) and looking for the next paycheck, without waking up one day in a thigh deep mess as I reach the end of the next leg of the mad inner journey that is writing a novel. The storage boxes are down to what can fit in the closet, my floors are actually visible, and by the end of the week even tabletops will be clear. I will be where I wanted to be when I started what I had hoped would be a week long process. It took two months, but it's done, my home is civilized, my mind is in launch position, and I am building back up to the daily writing schedule that got the first two novels done.

The first thing I will do as I sit down to write? I will set some deadlines -- the number of words or pages I feel I need to do daily, when I want the first draft of the novel done, and how long I intend to take rewriting and editing. It's painfully simple -- figure out how many pages you want to finish, and divide it by the number of days you give yourself to write it.

I want PAST LIFE: A Vampire Testament done by the end of the year -- not an unreasonable goal with what I have done so far. But I need to break the next three months down so I know what marks I am hitting and when. No dawdling and cramming it all in the night before the deadline, as I did in college! This schedule is mine and one I can make comfortable enough to stick with to get the book done.

Time is slippery. It gets sucked away by other people, by things to do that are more fun, or even work, sleeping and eating -- all the stuff that keeps the body alive. Then there’s cleaning house if you live alone, laundry so you look good and don’t smell when guests come to call, or for those rare days you drag yourself away from the keyboard. You have to manage time - a boring and dull prospect, but essential in any artist’s life.

Treat yourself like a sulky or lazy child -- reward good behavior, discipline the bad. If you get five to ten pages done in a day, you are gold, baby, and deserve a night out to play. If you’ve barely scraped out one or two -- consider staying at it until you get through your daily minimum, even if you end up rewriting it all the next day.

Writing is like exercise in that the longer you avoid it, the harder it is to get back to where you want to be. I started an exercise class a month ago, then a freelance job “in house” -- which ironically means you are leaving yours -- kept me away from the class for the last three weeks. As I get ready to plunge back in again, to burn off the calories of the sweet treats I let myself have for writing, I know it will be like I'm starting from scratch. As with writing, I will be do my best to be patient with myself for a few weeks while my body gets used to the punishment again, knowing the rewards at the other end.

I am hoping that in a month or two I'll be feeling more at ease at the gym and the keyboard, and letting the pain I occasionally feel at both tell me I am growing, not being punished. The best part of all of this is that not only have I laid out what I have to do for the rest of the year as I leave my last day on this job -- I've met this week’s blog deadline.

Suddenly the gun is gone from my head, and I feel free to go back to that pesky prologue...then a sweet sticky reward that will send me back to the gym.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bootstrapping, Group Style

At my sf/f critique group Sunday night, one of the members announced he had sold a story, his fifth. It was an exciting moment because a year ago he was still unpublished. Now, through his own efforts and those of the other critique group members, he had passed a tipping point: He now knew enough about writing to create a salable story.

Before starting this post, I looked up the origin of the term "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps." According to Wikipedia, it came from a tall tale and in the 1800s meant an impossible task. By the 1920s, a time of great optimism and belief in the ability of people to rise above their circumstances, it had taken on its current meaning of bettering oneself by one's own efforts.

Writers are the ultimate bootstrappers. Sure, there are classes and clubs and contests. But they don't come to the writer; the writer makes the decision to search them out, take part in them, and learn from them. Except for the lucky writer who attracts a mentor, every writer has to find or create opportunities to become better. Almost everyone, mentored or not, has to write for hundreds or thousands of hours before they produce anything that someone will pay money for.

A good critique group functions as a mutual bootstrapping association. Each member of a critique group still has to put in the pages and the hours. But each time one member takes a workshop or reads a good writing book or sells a story, all the others benefit and are a step closer to their own goals.

It sounds like a miracle, but it's the result of each person sharing their increasing knowledge of writing, markets, and the publishing industry with the others and using their increasing knowledge to give the others better critiques. The group bootstraps itself to a higher and higher level of proficiency.

I know of two critique groups that started with all unpublished members and ended after everyone had become a professional writer with a busy publishing schedule!

Few writers have too many successes to celebrate. By being part of a critique group, you can legitimately celebrate each success of each of your fellow members. After all, you contributed to that success, just as they contributed to yours.


I have a contest running at my personal blog, For Love of Words. To enter, go to this post and leave a comment. The winner receives their choice of a trade paperback copy of my historical novel Like Mayflies in a Stream or a $10 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble or


I'll be blogging at Novel Spaces again on October 5. Until then, I'm wishing you many successes to celebrate.

—Shauna Roberts

Monday, September 20, 2010

Author Camaraderie

I just returned from a literary conference in Kansas City called Fall Into Books. That beautiful experience sparked this post today.

I've been wiring for twelve years and have met many authors along the way. Some of these authors have been newbies, some mid-list, some N.Y Times Bestsellers, etc. I must say that out of all the professional careers I've had in my life, I've found that for the most part, overall, the level of camaraderie I've experienced as an author is premiere. I've met some amazing creative individuals along the way who've been very important influences in my career, and in my life.

During the conference in K.C., I met some authors whom I'd heard of but had never met, I spent time with some who are very close friends who I was able to see and hug and laugh with and reminisce with, some who are "big-time" and very popular, yet still humble enough to take the time to ask about my family, and support and cheer me on along the way, and others who were very new to me, yet who had that gleam in their eyes that most writers share - the gleam of the fact that they love words, and that they desire to tell their individual stories, fiction or non-fiction, by writing a book, or a screenplay, or whatever form they've chosen - they are writers.

There are times when, understandably so, non-author friends may not understand the business or the craft, and probably even shudder at the thought of a writer calling them to run an idea or story dilemma by the them. But there's something about an author-to-author connection that can cause a one-minute phone call to turn into an hour or more of catching up on the goings-on of the business, or on each other's lives in general. There's also a magical need for writers to connect, if for no other reason than to help maintain one another's sanity.

In particular, one author friend of mine always seems to be going through, or has gone through, or can relate to, the same things that I'm dealing with, and vice-versa - or we can also tell each other to get a grip and wake up the hell up, lol. Also, our mutual good news never goes uncelebrated. We feed each other's souls with an unconditional nurturing that is so very necessary. It is a priceless friendship from one author to another that cannot be put into words.

Here's to author-friends who have shared ambitions and passions, connected and supported and endured and loved and enjoyed and sustained and shown up and listened to one another. Author camaraderie is priceless. And I was again reminded recently that not only do I love readers, I love authors!

My shout-outs are dedicated to Mary B. Morrison, Eric Jerome Dickey, and Victoria Christopher Murray, just to name a few.

Who would you give an author shout-out to this week? Cheers to them as well!

Write on!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Write a novel in a month

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.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Personal Marching Orders

Although I’ve done it before, I sometimes find the task of writing a 300-page manuscript totally overwhelming.

I walk into my office and have to fight the urge to run right back out the door (and to the kitchen for the crunchy comfort of Cheez-it’s).

So I keep, what I like to call, my personal marching orders framed and at eye level. Like a silent general, they tell me exactly what to do next.

How do you fight the feeling of being overwhelmed by your novel?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thankful for the Ants

After being away for nearly two weeks, I returned home to find that a number of uninvited guests had move in: ants! Apparently, the high waters of Hurricane Hermine that drenched Austin while I was away flushed the ants out of their home, so they took up residents in mine. I’m not a bug person, and while ants are probably the most tolerable, they are still a nuisance. I complained for a few minutes as I wiped ants off the counter, but as I listened to the local news anchor report on the body of a woman who was found after her SUV was swept away by flood waters, I realized how very lucky I was to have ants as my biggest issue. It was the same way five years ago when I lived through the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Other than a broken window and being out of work for a short time, I remained relatively unscathed.

The same has been the case for a storm I, along with several close writing friends, have been weathering in the publishing world. By now, several writers here at Novel Spaces have discussed the issues regarding my former publisher, Dorchester Publishing. I’d made the decision not to publish with Dorchester well over a year ago, and was lucky to land with another house, Harlequin’s Kimani Press, soon after. However, I still had five titles, both stand alone books and novellas, that had been published with Dorchester’s Leisure Books imprint, and was concerned about what would come of those books. Frankly, I still am, but I recently came to the realization that I am in a much better place than some of my fellow author friends.

The upheaval of the past several months has been tough, but compared to debut authors who thought they would get to hold their books in their hands, and all those authors who spent tons of money promoting a paperback book, I hardly have room to complain. It may turn out that I’ll never see another cent of the money I’m owed, and that the rights to my books may never revert back to me, but I’ve moved onto bigger and better things. I’m lucky. Even better than lucky, I believe I’m blessed, which is why I will try to curb my tendencies sing the woe-is-me song. When I take the time to notice how others are affected by a situation, I’ve discovered that, compared to many, I have nothing more than a handful of ants.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Guest author Debi Alper: A Writer’s Toolkit

Debi Alper is the author of the Nirvana series of thrillers set among the sub-cultures of south London. Her first two books were Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana. Debi has worked as a shop assistant, editorial assistant, data controller, book keeper, administrator, finance officer and farm labourer, among many other jobs, but she is now happy to be writing full time. She blogs at Debi Alper.

There are as many different ways of writing as there are writers, but I believe there are some items which are essential in any successful author’s toolkit.
  • Being a voracious reader. Some may say that writing courses are vital, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But you do need to read books; obviously in your own chosen genre, in order to see what the rules are and whether you have anything fresh and different to offer, but also more widely. See what works and what doesn’t and then work out why.
  • A notebook and pen at hand at every moment of your waking day. I have three: one for my WIP, one for blog posts and one for the rest of my life. As well as mountainous piles of scrap paper with notes scribbled on them …
  • An endless fascination with people. I never use people I know as models for my characters, but that child on the bus … the woman in the queue at the supermarket … the man staggering along the road … What are their stories? Where are they going? What will happen to them when they get there?
  • A passion for words. Aren’t they amazing? What a rich and textured language we have at our disposal. Look at what you can do with words; what magic you can weave; see how one phrase or image works so much better than another. All we do is pick the right words and put them in the right order. Simple, huh?
  • A natural storyteller. I’m always weaving tales from my own history for anyone who will listen to me. The art of oral storytelling is not lost and is a vital tool. We should never lose sight of this oral tradition. Everyone has their own stories to tell …
  • The will to escape into a fictional world of your own creation. I couldn’t count the number of real life problems that have the potential to grind me down if I wasn’t able to retreat to fiction world where I can sort them out with comparative ease. Alternatively, my WIP can provide a safe haven where those problems don’t exist at all.
  • The ability to hang on in there … eg when the words just won’t come; when you just don’t know where your book is going; when the rejection slips pile up …
  • And to let go … eg when the characters you have created take over and insist your book moves in a different direction to the one you had planned. We use the creative side of our brain when writing a first draft and need to disengage our critical faculties and just let the story flow. It’s only when we get to the editing stage that we should bring in the other side of our brain ie the ability to deconstruct, analyse, criticise and, when necessary, kill those darlings.
  • A love of solitude. Or at least the ability to cope with it. There’s no getting away from the fact that writing is essentially a solitary activity.
  • Somewhere to share and let off steam. But we also need to be able to offload our frustrations and share the inevitable ups and downs of this writing life. Whether it’s a Real Life or online writing group, a writers’ forum or a group of like-minded friends, the key here is trust, both in their opinions and their discretion.
  • A willingness to live in poverty. Non-negotiable, I’m afraid. The harsh truth is that very few writers are able to make a living from book sales alone. Editing, mentoring and hosting creative writing workshops are all that prevent me being forced to boil old socks to make soup to feed my children.
  • A spark of insanity. Some may feel they have chosen to write; most of us believe we have no such choice. From all the above, it’s clear that a spark of insanity is an essential item in any author’s toolkit.
Debi Alper

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Charge it to the Game

I am single again. Not suddenly: Divorced.

At the moment, I’m swimming slowly across a sea of emotions whose depths are labeled heartbroken, wistful, determined and optimistic, toward peace of mind on the opposite shore. (My bathroom scale, however, is ecstatic. It seems that as the stress dissipates, my pounds evaporate. Best weight loss plan ever! But I digress…)

My new office awaits
Uneventful and not the least bit contentious, the long overdue split was wanted by both of us. That blessing makes some parts of the transition much easier (like, well, leaving) and others remain just as tough (like, well, the children having to leave). While I’ve had this day on my far horizon for quite some time, the kids haven’t. And with them spanning 13 years in age and a chasm of developmental stages, they’ve each dealt with the break up uniquely; from sympathetic to (seemingly) indifferent to distraught.

If I could snap my fingers and make everything all better for everyone involved, would I? No. Instead, at this point, I charge it to The Game (of life, of course).

That’s part of why I share this with you today. As a writer, I think it’s the emotional experiences in life that keep us real. I’ve probably said this before in a blog, but I don’t think you can create believable characters if you’ve never been through anything. And I don’t mean that as in solely tough or negative situations. The joy of friendship or in finding your lost keys is a sentiment you can weave into the feeling of discovering love or a new planet for your readers. You have to live in order to write about life.

Even if your stories take you to the far reaches of worlds only you can imagine and pen, the plot, actions, dialogue and interactions are based on something real to you. Maybe in the world you create you flip your personal reality on its head and develop an alternate existence. You’re still examining your experiences or observances in order to move in that direction. To me, the small and big things that happen to us, don’t happen for us, that we long for, regret or aspire to, shape our thoughts as authors and what eventually lands on our pages.

So, would I change anything on this multi-year road to my now divorced state? Maybe. But, I can say unequivocally that the lessons I’ve learned – particularly over the last 15 months or so – are invaluable. I am stronger than even I, the self-professed Superwoman, thought. I am also capable of being selfless and sensitive in ways I didn’t think I would be. (I believe that’s called “taking the high road” in this situation. lol) And I remain convinced that I’m a very good mom, one who gets to add a few new nuggets of wisdom about how to take care of her kids as they embark on their new journey.

My hopes are simple: (1) That I won’t screw up and usher my kids onto Jerry Springer to diss me five or 10 years from now and (2) that I’ll soon settle into a new life space and new writing cave and get back to doing all those things I still love. Here’s to the freedom to move on. Paid in full.


Monday, September 13, 2010

A Writer's Favorite Books to Read

As a writer, I am often asked by readers what are my favorite books, own not included.

This is actually a question I enjoy answering as I have long been an avid reader and have found my life and writings shaped over the years by wonderful, inspirational, educational, and otherwise meaningful books.

I will list my all time top five books in no particular order...

THE FATAL SHORE: The Epic of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes tells the history of Australia's colonization with British convicts bearing the brunt and Aborigines being the most affected adversely as a consequence. Having always had an interest in Australia and its similarities to America, including its colonization by the British and uprooting of Native Americans, I found this book to be fascinating and enlightening.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD by Thomas Hardy is a true classic. From published in 1874, it tells the story of beautiful farm owner, Bathsheba Everdene, and three suitors, dishonest and unrequited love, and tragedy. Highly recommended. For honorable mention, I also enjoyed Hardy's absorbing 1891 novel, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES.

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff is a great read from a different era when correspondence (or snail mail) was still in vogue. It is the true story of a twenty year transatlantic pen friendship between a New York writer and a London bookseller. Having always enjoying the art of personal correspondence (though admittedly this has taken a bit hit in the digital age), I found this book to be thoroughly entertaining, funny, and poignant at times. The book was later made into a movie, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, as well as a play.

CELEBRITY by Thomas Thompson tells the tale of three high school seniors, a terrible crime committed and covered up, and the reuniting of the three former friends twenty-five years later as the price for past sins must be paid. I found this novel of how secrets can catch up to you no matter how long it takes and what paths your life has taken quite engrossing. Similar novels that captured my fancy include THE LAST CONVERTIBLE by Anton Myrer and CLASS REUNION by Rona Jaffe.

REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier is a wonderful gothic novel that kept me captivated with its passion, suspense, and engaging characters. I also enjoyed the author's mystery novel, MURDER ON THE CLIFFS.

I admit that I have yet to embrace ebooks, having not read a single book on my computer, Kindle, Nook, etc. Though I expect it is only a matter of time before I begin to make the transition, I still enjoy the old fashioned way of reading a good hardcover book while sitting comfortably in my favorite chair or a paperback while waiting for hours at the airport or enduring hours on a plane.

What are your favorite books?

Do you prefer print books or ebooks in today's times?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quirks and Inspiration

I know, it is a very strange photo, but it has been my inspiration on several occasions.

A few weeks ago, Phyllis spoke about her writing quirk - listening to a specific play list while writing. I added a comment indicating one way that I get inspired, and decided to blog about another.

When I come across an interesting image, I save it in a folder on my computer. When I have been staring at the blank piece of paper for a long time, I sometimes choose an image and challenge myself to come up with a background story. It may explain the painting or describe the events that led the artist to produce the artwork.

One of my favorite images for this purpose is the one I have attached. This is a piece of batik art from Uganda and the reality is that the woman who is walking away has probably been banished from her village and is leaving with her "georgie bundle" (all of her belongings) on her head. Sometime I create dialogue imagining what the seated woman is saying to her. My favorite scenario begins with "Go put some clothes on!" (The standing woman is bare behind that little black banner I added).

Other times, I think about why she is being banished, what she may have done, whether she is guilty or innocent of the crime of which she is accused. After having a little fun with this, I find that my mind is back in gear for writing and creating my own stories.

I would love to hear other exercises that you use to jump start your creative thinking.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Win the Day

I’m reading Drew Brees’s book Coming Back Stronger, which he wrote with Chris Fabry. For those of you who don’t know, Brees is the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, and of the first Saints team to ever win a Super Bowl. I’m a big Saints fan, and although I don’t often say that I “admire” human beings, I do have a level of admiration for what Brees has accomplished. He came back from both a knee injury in high school and a shoulder injury in the pros that could easily have ended his career. And he came back, not merely to play well, but to play exceptionally well at the highest level of his profession.

I’m always relating the stuff I’m reading to my own chosen profession, which is writing. Brees’s book is no exception. One thing the quarterback said early in the book really resonated with me. It’s something I’ve thought about often enough but hadn’t really put into effective words. When Brees started rehabbing his shoulder, a process that required an average of about 9 hours of work a day, he got some advice from a friend. His friend told him to focus only on “winning the day.” Brees knew it would take at least 8 months of rehab to regain most of the strength and flexibility in his shoulder, and he came to understand that he simply could not manage if he tried to consider that long period all at once. He could only think about what he was going to do “that” day, what he was going to do to “win” that day.

One could easily argue that life is like that, too. I know that writing certainly is. Novels, and even most stories, are like Brees’s months of rehab. Writing a “novel” is an impossible dream, a somewhat preposterous dream. No one sits down and writes a novel. What you write instead is a page, a scene, a chapter. Getting too far ahead of the immediate needs of the manuscript can be deadly to one’s progress.

I think is why many writers swear by an outline. The outline sets up the “steps” they’ll have to take to finish a book. And once that blueprint is there they can focus on one step at a time until the whole is completed. Such a plan makes the impossible, possible. Now, I don’t do a detailed outline myself for novels, but I do develop a rough outline of what is going to happen in my books at least a few chapters ahead. I’ve discovered that there’s a pattern I follow in every book. I get an idea and run with it for a few chapters. Then I hit a wall. Then I’ll figure out what’s going to happen a little further along and I race along for another few chapters before hitting another wall. The reason is that when I reach the end of my “few chapters plan,” I’m now faced with the monumental task of writing the whole book instead of having it broken down into manageable steps. I can’t “win” the novel. I can’t “win” 8 months of time at once. I can win today’s pages, today’s scene. I’ll let the rest take care of itself. Until I get there. I also know that I can even “lose” a few days. As long as I consistently win most of them.

So, what’s your idea of “winning a day?”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Comma Abuse

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?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Homeschooling: the plan

I plan to homeschool the kids through the rest of this year and 2011. This is because a new private school is being built nearby, but it won't open its doors till January 2012. Why we have to go private is because the language of instruction is English in the private schools and our kids just don't know enough Malay to cope well in the Malaysian public system. Also, we have been told repeatedly that there are no systematic language-support or immersion classes to help children learn Malay as a foreign language. It's sink or swim. When it comes to our children's education, I don't like those odds.

Our children also started schooling later than is usual for Anglo-Western kids. That is, at the age of 10/11yo, The Wast is in Primary-4 when he should be in Primary-5. Similarly, Little Dinosaur (8/9yo) is in Primary-2 when she should really be in Primary-3.

We are not unhappy with this because, quite frankly, our kids wouldn't have been able to cope with starting school at the age of five or six. The Wast couldn't even count to ten at the age of seven, leading to many accusations of "severe mental retardation", "autism disorder", and "systemic nervous system disorder" while we were in Australia. I have the written reports to prove it. And while, for a little while there, I was also wondering whether our son had a form of autism, he had enough other complex interests to convince me that the off-the-cuff diagnoses from nobody trained to give them were wrong. Yes, it was true that our son couldn't count to ten, but he was also able to identify jellyfish by their Latin specie names at the same age. He couldn't subtract one pebble from four pebbles to give three pebbles, but he was drawing simple machine schematics and taking an avid interest in how things worked. (Our daughter, Little Dinosaur, proved to be similar although her interests, obviously, ran to dinosaurs rather than jellyfish.)

So I knew that (a) our children had some intelligence, and (b) they could not cope with the established school system for their age. So we held them back. (Both children were born premature. That may have had an effect on their early development but, to what extent, I don't know.) Now, they seem to have caught up with the level that Western culture deems to be appropriate for children of their age. And I have a plan.

Because we're foreigners in Malaysia, we fall outside the scope of the Ministry of Education. We could have our children mining for tin in the centre of the state rather than attend school and there's not a goddamn thing the government can do about it. Nor do they want to. Foreign children? Who cares. But the apathy from the government gives me opportunity. And the opportunity is: Singapore curriculum.

A lot of Malaysian parents send their children to Singapore schools because they think the kids get a better education there. I know what I'm about to say is dreadfully unpopular but, having skimmed through both countries' school workbooks, there isn't that much difference between them. The maths is at a slightly higher level in Singapore, the science is completely screwed in both places, and the level of English is also a bit more rigorous in Singapore ... although you'd never tell listening to Singaporean schoolchildren talk. Interestingly, given an equivalent level of fluency, the Malaysian children speak English better and with more precision than their Singaporean counterparts.

So, because the Singapore curriculum is geared towards urban children and has a slightly tougher standard, that's what I'm choosing. I've just started Primary-3 and -5 this month. And, stalwart reader, here it comes: in May of next year, I'll be starting Primary-4 and -6 with them.

I'll hit the curriculum itself next post (24 September).

* Kaz Augustin is a writer and mother who's only somewhat ambitious. You can find her website at, she posts sporadically at and writes about food once a week at

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How To Help a Starving Author Part 2: The Don'ts

In my last post I discussed the ways in which readers can help their favourite starving authors. Today we're looking at the other side of the coin, the don'ts. Whether your authors are of the starving variety or bestselling, celebrity, household names, they wish all their readers knew the following:
  • Don't send foodstuff in the mail. Yes, authors love tokens of appreciation, but seriously? Don't. Send. Food. (It happens. I am not making this up.)
  • Don't send authors your manuscript and ask what they think. The only exception is if they personally ask you to. Between writing, editing and promoting, not to mention the day jobs most of them have to toil at to try and keep body and soul together, writers simply do not have the time to critique your manuscript. In addition to that, many of them are prohibited from doing so in their contracts with agents and publishers in order to avoid "You stole my story!" lawsuits down the line.
  • Don't send anything that's invaluable, irreplaceable, or perishable.
  • Don't mess up the display in the bookstore to put your pet author's books in a more favourable position. Do not move them to the new release tables. The bookstore managers will be mad at you, and will probably assume you're acting on the instructions of the author. They'll be mad at the author. Authors don't need to be at odds with bookstore managers.
  • Don't hesitate to borrow the author's books from the library. How do libraries get copies of the books? They buy them! If an author's books are in demand they are more likely to keep on ordering them in the future.
  • Don't sabotage the author's competition. This includes writing nasty Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Goodreads reviews about their books.
  • Don't worry if you didn't buy the book directly from the Amazon button on the author's website. While direct sales from the author's site means a commission in her pocket, the amount is so minuscule it really isn't worth sweating over. A sale is a sale, and the big secret is that the actual percentage of books sold by Amazon is shockingly small.
  • Don't special order copies of the author's books and then not purchase them. If you don't pick them up the bookstore sends them right back to the publisher who then deducts those sales from the author's royalty statement. He will not thank you for that.
  • Don't bug people to buy the author's books. By all means spread the word, but don't be so persistent and insistent that you begin to annoy people if they're not interested. Everyone's taste is different, and pressure to buy or read will very likely turn your quarry away from the author's work. On the other hand, I've bought books that acquaintances recommended casually years after the pertinent conversations.
The Facebook group How To Help A Starving Author that I impulsively set up two weeks ago while writing the first post on this subject has now reached 74 members. If you're on Facebook please visit us. Begin a discussion, or join in an existing one. Kevin Machin has started a list of review sites on one thread. We'd love to have your input, so come join in the fun as we explore the ways in which readers can assist their favourite starving authors.

On September 23rd I'll be discussing what authors can and should do for their readers.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Lies and Misdemeanors

I did something terrible recently.

I lied. Worst of all, I lied to myself.

A few weeks ago my writer friend Tananarive Due posted a great blog on writer’s fear -- on being productive and fearing it’s all crap, or being afraid you can't finish what you started...the whole nine yards. It was a great piece, summed up much of what the writing life was like, and I added a comment that she had really pinned it and gee, I was sure glad I’d gotten over all that...

When I read her blog I was in the middle of a major sorting of every box piled up in my loft and pouring out of the closet after my January renovation, a summer of stripping off old layers. I had decided it was what I had to do to move forward on book three and my new status as a committed novelist, a professional writer who takes his work seriously enough to do every day, in an environment that doesn’t get in the way. I was riding on a pasteurized memory of the year I’d spent writing my second novel, “Blood Pressure”, on the tail of my first, and in remembering had somehow edited out all the long nights of facing down the one year deadline like it was my execution date. Not to mention that really fun period about halfway through when I was convinced that I had leapt off the wrong cliff with no parachute and was headed for the rocks, not the starry skies...

Oh, I could go, on, but why torture myself?

What I thought I could knock out in a few weeks became a two-month project as life demanded equal time while I shredded, donated or trashed much of my past. It was in the middle of that, when I was writing only a little, now and then, on a serial novella I wanted to complete before I went back to the third of the Vampire Testaments, that I felt warm and secure in my writing - when I wasn't doing it. During this process, it was just a side thing to do when I’d gotten through another box, after paying the bills, cleaning, shopping for groceries and all the other endless distractions writers use to procrastinate.

Because my days were so filled with going through the boxes and re-organizing my life, I was able to delude myself that I was still in "process". After all, I’d finished enough of the novella to show it to my writing group, added notes to the novel file, and I was -- well -- thinking, yes, thinking about it a LOT, constantly in fact, why, I might even have one of the characters doing this very thing, clearing out the detritus of his life, which makes this all research, and it works so well in the new book...

Uh huh. A week or two after I posted my comment on Tananarive’s site, I was preparing to go back to work for real. The writing group had liked the novella more than I had expected, and I’d submitted enough material that had come back on a plate as shredded and fried as ropa vieja to know that if they were as complimentary as they were, I might actually have something here and might have to take it seriously.

Then I finished the boxes.

The endless physical labors suddenly ceased and it was done. Oh, I still have two chairs to refinish and reassemble, and a coffee and dining table to clear, but the massive task I had set before myself, taking a brief break from the third novel to prepare myself for a fall of free writing was done. No more excuses.

Writing time was here.

And it all came back -- all my old fears -- the first day I sat down at the keyboard to revisit the novella, to flesh it out and stop taking the shortcuts to characters and depth I had allowed myself on the first draft. I had to buckle down, do research on questions asked, expand moments I‘d danced past after pointing them out, and make the whole damn thing more real. Just leap in, wallow in it, dive under and breathe it in until it was as easy to live on as air and I could move through it like an Olympic swimmer.

I panicked. This sucked, I said to myself, as I reread what I’d written. Did the group really like this? Why had I listened to them? Sure I have a story, but who cares about this guy? How do I fix this? How did I get through two novels in the first place? Aren’t I just doing this to avoid the third one, the big one that pulls the trilogy all together like the last flip of a magician’s wrist as he reveals his last illusion? Wasn’t that all I was anyway, just a cheesy magic act splashing stage blood on a tacky set built by stoner high school kids who didn’t care and were just doing it to get out of detention?

Oh, I could go on. All the things Tananarive had said were true and I was reeling under self-doubt and recrimination, all in a voice so familiar and convincing I couldn’t disbelieve it -- my own. Except that the devil has many faces and this time I recognized that the voice wasn’t really my own, the one I should be listening to, but the one I’d spent ten years in therapy tracking down.

So I pulled aside the curtain, and there he was. I dragged my personal demon into the light and sat him down, stroked his hair and assured him I still loved him, as I do all my monsters. I gave him fresh fruit pie and cookies to quiet him down while I went on with the rewrite, plowed through as if I knew what I was doing, because -- and this is my only secret formula -- no one had to see it again until I was sure I had it right.

I Googled away to add elements of reality to the fantasy, found facts that fascinated and interested me, and made what I’d written already make more sense. I dug deeper into my characters and let them speak until I could hear them well enough to listen. I filled in the blanks of their past and sat at the keyboard more and longer as old mental muscles cramped from limited use stretched out again to carry the weight.

At some point, while I petted my monsters to keep them quiet and pushed ahead as if I wasn't terrified, the wonderful thing happened; I got so lost in the story that I forgot I was afraid of it. It became not just a comfortable place, but someplace I looked forward to visiting each day. I finished the story, went over it again and again, watching it improve, tucked in threads, snipped off loose bits, added more where it was bare and thinned it out in places it was overdone.

I printed it out and am ready to read it one last time and decide how I feel about it, then I send it out to a couple of writer friends from the writing group (who of course I now feel were all GENIUSES for seeing the potential in this thing) for a last look. Despite my terror at facing that blank page again after so long I got it done, enjoyed the trip, love the result, and am looking forward to leaping back into the novel.

So, I apologize to Tananarive for forgetting, when she reminded us all so well that the most successful writers in the world can still have that “Blank Page Moment”, so the rest of us should just accept it and do what the most successful writers in the world do -- keep on keeping on.

And I apologize to myself, for lying to me. I will remember next time not to get too cocky, too sure of myself. Writing is always new, each page the “undiscovered country” and it’s the one journey you can never be sure will end as you expect it to -- but that that’s half the fun.

(To read the post by Tananarive that inspired this, go to:

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Which Is Right? Style Vs. Grammar

Because I've been a copyeditor for a long time, people often ask me whether x or y is "correct."

Sometimes I can give an absolute answer because the question is a matter of grammar. For example, it is always wrong to say "neither x or y." It is always correct to capitalize the first letter of a person's name (although you can make exceptions if you like for e. e. cummings and other people who are widely known by a lowercased name). Sentences should always end with a period or question mark.

Grammar is not always this clear-cut. If someone asks me whether a clause should be preceded by "which or "that," I have to ask some questions before I can give an answer. Ditto if someone asks whether "none" takes a single or plural verb; the answer depends on subtleties of meaning.

Some questions, though, have no correct answer. They are matters of style. That is, different publishers or editors do things differently. My answer to, "Should I spell out the number ten?" is, "Who are you writing for?" In Associated Press style, which is used by many periodicals, the numbers ten and above are given as numerals unless they begin a sentence or are a date or a page number. But The Chicago Manual of Style (used for books) has complex rules, and one rule is that the numbers zero through one hundred are spelled out. Scientific style guides have yet more styles for numbers.

Here are a few of the probably thousands of variants of style in American English. All of the following are correct in some publication or another:
  • X-ray; x-ray
  • 10000; 10,000; 10 000; 104; ten thousand
  • 70°; 70° F; 70 °F; 70 degrees Fahrenheit
  • 4:30 p.m.; 4:30 pm; 4:30 PM; 1600; four-thirty p.m.
  • ten percent; 10 percent; 10%
  • Down's syndrome: Down syndrome
  • α-interferon, interferon-α, alpha interferon, interferon alpha, IFN-α, interferon alfa
With so many ways possible to write such things, how do you know what to do?
  • Look at previous issues of the publication you're writing for.
  • If you write for a publication regularly, ask what stylebook they use.
  • If you regularly write in a certain academic field, get the stylebooks used in that field, such as those put out by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Chemical Society, and the Council of Science Editors.
  • Google different versions of your word or phrase and see how many hits you get for each. Go with the majority.
  • If you write often for newspapers or magazines, it makes sense to own the most recent edition of The Association Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. If you write short stories or books, own the most recent Chicago Manual of Style.
  • Buy some grammar and general style books so that you can tell whether the question that stumps you is a matter of grammar or a matter of style.

I'll be blogging at Novel Spaces again on September 21. Hope to see you then!

—Shauna Roberts

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Which Comes First, the Title or the Story?

What's in a Title? Hopefully a lot of careful thought.

It is said without a good title your book will never make it off the shelf. But which comes first, the title or the story?

I'm wondering if, in the case of this cover image, the hilarious title came first. Seems it may have been an actual humorous, emotion-based thought that caused a light bulb moment in the writer's head. With a title like "If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?," readers would have an excellent idea of what the book is about, surely without needing to read the back copy. Obviously it is targeting women, and the reader would think self-help, humor, dating, breakups, relationships. Plus the cover itself is an illustration, much like a comic book, so the feeling is that you can expect to laugh. And the publsher made sure to note that the author wrote Sex Tips For Girls. Sold!

With the books I've written thus far, the titles usually come first. I enjoy selecting titles, and have a titles list on my computer, which I sometimes share with author friends. But I admit, I never would have thought of the "If You Can't Live Without Me ...." title. It is long, but it speaks volumes.

There was a time recently when song titles were popular as book titles. The title would hopefully ring a bell or spark memory of a time and place in the reader's mind - A Love of My Own and Basketball Jones by E. Lynn Harris. Some authors put a clever spin on a T.V. show, like instead of using Desperate Housewives, one very successful title was called Desperate Hoodwives. And some reuse a title that has proven to work for them, adding in the volume number, i.e., The Cartel 3, or Little Black Girl Lost 5.

And then, even though using cliches has been a considered a no-no in the story itself, cliches have become popular as book titles. I Second That Emotion, Never Say Never, and Be Careful What You Pray For, among others, come to mind.

It has been recommended that an author give his or her WIP a title as soon as possible, (at least a working title) so that it can be felt and owned and imagined, seeing the title in writing each time you open your document.

A lot of thought goes into deciding upon a final title. Editors and authors ponder whether the title is catchy, marketable, memorable, will it grab the reader's attention, is it too long, too short, difficult to spell, does it relate to the story or theme? Sometimes it's good to use a significant line from the story, maybe even purposefully hiding the title inside of the drama in a way that ties it all together.

It helps to run some final choices by a group of readers to get their opinions. My working title for the sequel to Hot Boyz was The Ladies of Ladera, and then I changed it to Housewives of Ladera, but after taking a reader poll, majority won, and the title is now Hot Girlz.

I think titles and writing go hand in hand. A great title is as important as great writing. I just purchased the book used in the image above. Can't wait to see if the writing lives up to the phenomenal title.

Have you ever decided against a title simply because someone had already used it? Which comes first for you, the title or the story?