Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Writing and Reading During the Dog Days of Summer

As a professional writer and avid reader, I must confess that both can be extremely challenging to pull off successfully during the dog days of summer.

The problem is that within that hot and sultry span between early July and early September, it also happens to be the absolute best time to be out and about. And as I also happen to be an outdoorsy person when the weather is nice, especially compared to much of the other time in the Pacific Northwest where I take up residence, I want to be anywhere but sitting at my desk typing away. Or curled up on the couch reading a book, even a good one.

Not when the call of the outdoors beckons me, much like the urge to go inside and cuddle up to a warm fire when the winter weather sets in. But that's for another blog posting. Here we're talking about summertime and all the joy that it brings, tempting me, such as festivals, fairs, concerts; not to mention barbecues, picnics, parks, the beach, the ocean (I happen to be less than an hour's drive away and cannot help but succumb to this at least three times every summer--usually resulting in an overnight stay or more each time, as my wife often insists.

But mainly during the dog days of summer, I simply enjoy the sunlight, breathing in the warm air, taking walks or runs around the neighborhood, conversing with other outdoor people, most that I may not see at all during the rest of the year when I am usually holed up in my office hard at work to meet the various deadlines my editors never let me forget.

Ahh, but those good old dog days of summer. Sometimes I have little choice but to pretend the weather is not so nice in order to keep writing or reading something I started.

In most instances, though, I prefer to enjoy the heart of summertime for all the wonderful things it presents and let the rest of year take care of itself.

How much writing or reading do you get done during the dog days of summer?

Is it hard or not so?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Healthy Writing

Don't move. Stay exactly where you are. Take a stock of your posture right now as you read this post. Are you sitting on your bed hunched over your laptop? Sitting at a desk but slouched down in your chair (my personal favorite)? Or sitting upright, weight equally distributed on both hips in an ergonomically-designed chair? If you are like me, you seldom find yourself in the third position. Your spinal cord is a bundle of nervous tissue. It has several functions but the main one is that it transmits neural signals between the brain and the rest of the body, including pain signals. The spinal cord is encased in and protected by the spine. No wonder that, if you don't take care of your spine your general health can be adversely affected, not just by chronic back pain but general malaise and even depression. This is a bit of a departure from our normal discourse but still very important to all us novelnauts. As writers we spend a lot of time behind our computers or over books and if we don't pay attention to our posture our health will be affected. Here are a few tips. When you sit: Your back should be straight and your buttocks should touch the back of your chair. Your weight should be distributed equally between both hips. Your knees should be bent at right angles. Your feet should be flat on the floor. Finally, be sure to get up and move a bit every 30 minutes. Best wishes for a healthy back!

Monday, June 27, 2011

For the Love of Books

I took a break from writing today to ‘fiddle’ with my books. That’s what I call it when I play with them. I rearrange and reorganize them on my shelves. I dust them and run my hands over their covers. I smile as I remember the particular pleasure one of them has given me. I doubt if I’m any different from a little kid playing with action figures and dolls.

Every genre is represented on my shelves, from the west that never was to the future that never will be. Every kind of cover can be found there, from the garish to the literary. These books hold dreams for me. I remember when I wanted to be John Carter of Barsoom, or Dray Prescot of Scorpio, or Flandry of Terra. I wanted to fly aboard the Enterprise, sail aboard the Nautilus or the Hispaniola. I wanted to ride with the Sacketts. I think it was just yesterday.

Once in a while I feel like I ought to cull my books a little, strengthen the herd by getting rid of the weak. But the few times I've attempted it, I've always regretted it. Even if I don't like a book, I find that I have to keep it around because someday I'll want to refer to it, even if it's just to pan it. I still have some of the first books I ever bought, back when my grade school had a reading program and you could get them for 25 cents each. I also buy books that I once checked out of libraries or that friends had loaned me. I didn't have much money in the old days so I scrounged for reading material however I could. Now that I have a bit more disposable income, I find I enjoy spending it on those pleasant memories from the past.

I love my Kindle and I’ve discovered many great reads that I might not otherwise have found, but it will not, cannot, replace the actual thing for me. I even ‘fiddle’ with my ebooks, placing them in folders by genre on my computer. But it isn’t the same.

I often wonder if mine will be the last generation to treasure books so highly. My students certainly don’t seem to value books. Most people today who see my collection express either amazement or amusement. Not many of them suffer envy. I'm already considered an eccentric because of how much I read and how many books I own. I wonder how long it'll be before I'm treated like the little old lady with 72 cats, how long before I become the: "creepy guy with all the books who keeps to himself?"

I think I might relish the role. And one thing for sure, I’m well suited for it. How about you?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Altered Expectations

Someone once said that disappointment is the difference between expectation and reality. Indeed I’ve seen it first hand multiple times. A week ago I took my mother to the place of her birth. You see, eighty-one years ago she was born in the Dominican Republic. She moved to St. Kitts with her Kittitian born mother when she was about three and became orphaned soon after. Since then she’d never been back though she desired to. Well, a few of her kids decided to make her dream of visiting her homeland a reality.

When we arrived on the island, Mother was touched to tears. It was beautiful. The area we stayed was touristy and beautifully built-up. The people were friendly and helpful. Everything was perfect until we decided to visit the city of her birth. We rented a car and took what was supposed to be a two hour trip to the city of her birth. The trip took four hours and when we got there, my mother became very quiet. A few minutes later she wanted to leave. Back at the hotel, I asked her why she wanted to leave the city of her birth so quickly. She said when she thought of her home city, she thought of a place with beautiful haciendas, lovely homes, nicely paved streets and artistically designed streetlights. Instead the place was a slum. There were dilapidated buildings, poorly maintained roadways, standing water along the roadways and sidewalks, garbage piled up on every corner. Needless to say, she was disappointed. The reality did not align with her expectation.

The same thing happens in writing. When we see the cover of a book, when we read the first few words, we have certain expectations. But if that book fails to meet our expectations we become disappointed. I shop for books by authors. I have a certain expectation in terms of the genre and the quality of the writing when I see that author’s name. But sometimes, when an author fails to live up to my expectations for them, I find myself disappointed to the point where future books from that author go to the bottom of my reading list. The same thing happens when I hear a good review of a book and it does not live up to the expectations that I have for it.

Have you ever read a book that failed to meet your expectations based on the reviews or the cover or the blurb at the back of the book or the author? How did that impact your decision to read a book by that author again?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Overcoming writer's block

Long ago, in the Precambrian era before I was a published author, I used to think that writer's block was an affectation trotted out by lazy writers who wanted to bask on their laurels instead of greasing up their elbows and getting down to work. Well, you know what they say about hubris. I've taken many a fall since.

I'll spare you the painful details of my own blood-splattered duels with blocks. What I will do is share some of the techniques I use to knock this opponent of productivity on to the ropes long enough for me to get some writing done.

1. Recognize it.
You may have lots of great story ideas but when you sit down in front of the computer to start working on your novel, you freeze up completely. Your mind goes blank and you cannot think of a thing to write. You wonder if you'll ever be able to write again. Every time you open that blank document, you question your ability to write anything of value. You begin to avoid writing altogether. This is writer's block, and it may last a few hours, a few months, or worse.

2. Understand what causes it.
Writer's block is another name for FEAR. It's the fear of failure, of writing anything that's less than perfect. It's no mystery why it hits hardest after a publishing triumph. The only way to get around this is to give yourself permission to write less than perfect prose. You might have to throw away nine paragraphs for every ten you write. This is normal. Why is it called a first draft? Because it's not supposed to be perfect.

3. Set realistic goals for YOU.
Forget about the writer in your group who churns out 1000 or 2000 words a day, or the one who sells three stories a month to magazines. Setting goals which you cannot possibly meet sets you up for failure and encourages writer's block. Set goals that work for you, even if it means writing for ten minutes several times a day. I've found that writing down my writing schedule helps. When I have a reasonable written plan, I often find myself writing beyond the time I've allotted for it and surpassing my modest word goals for the day.

4. Focus on writing for enjoyment rather than writing for profit.
Worrying about the marketing of the work while I'm writing it is a sure-fire killer of enthusiasm for me - that focusing on the side of publishing I dislike instead of the creative part that I enjoy. If your current project has become a chore, put it aside for awhile. The enjoyment fades when you have invested so much into a piece of writing it has taken on enormous significance in your mind and you begin to think it will never be able to live up to your expectations for it. Try working on something else. When you come back to the original work you'll be able to get back into the flow. If you still can't, there might be a problem with the work itself, and you should be able to recognize what's amiss when you look at it with fresh eyes.

5. Write.
Telling a blocked writer to write might seem counter-intuitive, but it isn't really. The longer you avoid writing, the harder it is to do. You don't have to work on your current project. You can free-associate, write in your journal, do writing exercises. The act of writing anything at all sometimes gets the ideas flowing again.

6. If you cannot make yourself write, take a break.
The break may be a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks. Set a date on which you'll begin writing again. Do not write or worry about writing during your break. Do things you enjoy; read, go for walks, live life. When you return to writing you might find you bring a fresh perspective to it and it begins to flow again.

7. Relax.
The more you obsess over the block, the harder it will be to overcome. Do not beat yourself up. Do not call yourself names. In the privacy of our minds we treat ourselves in ways we'd never dream of treating another human being. We insult, belittle, devalue, batter, despoil and ravage our abilities and our dreams as no one else can. Because the abuse comes from inside of us we believe it while discounting the praise and encouragement we encounter externally. To borrow a line from Desiderata, be gentle with yourself. Every time a self-directed negative thought takes hold, recognize it and stop it in its tracks.

8. Surround yourself with positive reinforcement.
I've found two books particularly helpful: Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. They're never further than an arm's reach away from my desk or bed. They help me to recognize writer's block when it hits, to understand why it's hit, to stop obsessing and panicking, and to get back to work.

9. Recognize avoidance activites.
Spending too much time online? Suddenly and uncharacteristically consumed with maintaining a spotless house? Schedule your Internet and cleaning time. Set alarms to tell you when it's time to stop surfing or vacuuming and get on with other things, like writing.

10. Take care of yourself!
Eat healthfully. Exercise. Reward yourself for a growing word count. Tidy your desk. Consciously decide what you'll let slide in order to get the writing done, and schedule your catch-up time. This way you avoid the panicky feeling that everything is going to hell in a hand-basket while you scribble away at your make believe world.

Almost every writer suffers from writer's block. Don't let it control you. You will overcome it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Historical Novel Society Conference

I attended my first Historical Novel Society conference this past weekend and had a blast. The Historical Novel Society has a broad definition of historical fiction that includes historical romance, historical fantasy, and alternate history. Thus, the master of alternate history, Harry Turtledove, not only was there but was also a guest of honor.

I'm not going to name any of the books I bought or heard about at the conference, both because I haven't read any yet and because I'd be afraid of offending an author by forgetting to mention their book, but I will make an exception for Dr. Turtledove because he spoke in his entertaining keynote address about the role of serendipity in finding cool book ideas.

Turtledove was looking through some stamp-collecting materials of his daughter's and found a reference to a false king of Albania who managed to reign for five days before skedaddling right before the rightful king arrived. Turtledove's interest was piqued. He researched wily circus acrobat Otto Witte and decided to write a book about him. However, because Otto's life was too strange to be plausible, Turtledove wrote the novel, not as historical fiction, but as a comic fantasy, Every Inch a King.

What a great reminder to look for story ideas everywhere! And I came home with a cool book I probably would never have heard of otherwise.

The hot topic at the conference was "marquee names." The historical novels that get the big publicity push from publishers not only tend to be set in a limited range of places and time periods, but also they increasingly feature people with "marquee names" such as Tudor, Borgia, and Cleopatra.

Anxiety about marquee names dominated many conversations and some panels. Although most authors wanted to write what they wanted to write, one editor on the "Selling Historical Fiction" editors' panel said outright that an author could not sell a historical novel nowadays without a marquee name unless she or he was "an amazing writer." On other panels, authors revealed that they had included a famous person as a minor character in their novels solely to make them more marketable. Other authors had been pressured by their agents to write a book starring a marquee name so that they could move up from the midlist to the big leagues.

I'm tired of reading about the same people over and over again, and many of the other historical authors I spoke to were as well. As a matter of principle, I no longer buy novels about Tudors, no matter how interesting the books look, and I do buy historical novels that are about everyday people or that are set in less-popular time periods or places.My tiny message to publishers that enough is enough.

Luckily, that editor did not speak for every publisher. I came home with many novels set in ancient times; who knew there were so many recent ones? I also bought many novels published by major publishers that were set in unusual times or places or that did not feature a marquee name.

The HNS conference was particularly fun because there were only 300 attendees. The small attendance made it easier to meet people, reduced the crowds at panels, and allowed you to run into people over and over again.

I could go on and on, but I'll just mention some of the highlights for me. •Having in-person conversations with my long-time friend and mentor Lynna Banning. •Being on a panel and making some good contributions to the discussion. •Seeing the look of excitement on the face of the person who won Like Mayflies in a Stream in the raffle after the panel. •Sitting next to fascinating people at meals and having interesting conversations about topics as diverse as Jewish mysticism and the Civil War. •Attending panels on YA books and talking to people who've written YA, which has convinced me to write a YA novel.

To learn more about the Historical Novel Society and how to join, visit Membership fees include two magazines, one that reviews new historical novels and one that features interviews with authors and articles about topics of interest to writers, as well as some marketing help. Next year's conference, to be held in London in September 2012, sounds as if it will be a real treat.

I'll be blogging again on Sunday, July 5. Until then, enjoy your summer!

—Shauna Roberts

Monday, June 20, 2011

Prayers for fellow author L.A. Banks

As many people know, our cherished and beautiful spirit, the talented New York Times bestselling author Leslie Esdaile Banks is gravely ill. She has been diagnosed with late stage adrenal cancer. This breaks the hearts of her fellow authors and fans, and we pray for her family, and for comfort and healing.

At the age of 51, Leslie has penned over 40 novels and 12 novellas, generating legions of adoring fans with her vampire huntress book series that she writes under the name L.A. Banks.

Last year, after being fed up with the soaring costs of health insurance, Leslie, a resident of Philadelphia, sent an email to President Obama, and before she knew it, the White House called and asked her to introduce the President before his speech at Arcadia University. She did so, and I remember watching her that day as she did her introductions, and our President approached the podium and hugged her. She did an amazing job - what an honor! I've never had the privilege of meeting Ms. Banks, but I watched her with great pride.

Ms. Banks could use our support in prayer. Blessings to you, sister-in-pen Leslie, and God's speed!

If you wish to send donations (please note that donations are not tax-deductible) to help Leslie, please mail a check to the address below, and note the acct. # and fund name:

Leslie Esdaile Fund
Account #81538801
Police and Fire Federal Credit Union
Operations Center
901 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107-2404

If you live in Philadelphia, PA, you may take donations directly to any Police and Fire Federal Credit Union branch.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Where are the red shirts when you need them?

Today’s column was not going to be about back up files, computer safety, or internet security. However as writers, relying as we do on our computers, it is something that should always be on our minds.

Some computer problems are mechanical. Case in point being the hard drive on my old laptop physically breaking. Some computer problems are viral, your computer falls victim to software meant to bring it down. Usually these attacks are motivated by greed – the program destroying your system is hunting for identity and financial information. Other times it’s random malice -- for reasons that make sense to them people write programs that destabilize or corrupt computers then release them on the web. Sometimes the computer is stolen or destroyed.

These days everyone has backup copies of their important files; but simply having a backup may not be enough. The home of my friend Phaedra Weldon was burglarized a few years ago. Along with her computer, the thieves took all of the disks – including CD back-ups of her novel – in her home office. Another writer I know kept his backups in a separate room, but one day came home to find the fire department soaking the smoldering ashes that had once been his house. One writer I know works in a small room above her detached garage. She burns a CD of her writing folder at the end of each day and puts the CD in a fire-proof box in her bedroom. I know more than one writer who uses an online backup storage service. However, despite these dangers and options, most writers do what I do: a simple flash drive, usually carried on their person, with all of their works in progress and competed mss.

A few days ago my laptop began acting up – hesitating, not opening files unless clicked multiple times, taking more time to open programs or web pages, etc. Last night at about 10PM the virus corrupting it came out into the open. Posing as a Windows XP program it advises me that my computer is under attack and I must go to a website and provide credit card and personal information – plus agree to pay money – in order to reactivate the Windows firewall and anti-malware programs that come free on XP in the first place. My AVG anti-virus and spyware won’t launch – the fake XP warns it has blocked a malicious program (AVG) when I try. Funnily enough, when I launch the Windows security that came with the computer, I get the same message, listing Microsoft as a known source of threats. My system restore, which establishes restore points every 48 hours, can’t go back beyond yesterday so I can’t reset to a time before the virus hit.

Annoying. I’m going to have to pay for a virus clean-out by folks who know what they’re doing. But not a real problem. I thought. Until I plugged my flash drive into the family desktop and AVG told me the drive was corrupted. It will reformat the drive if I’d like, but it won’t open it. I can’t access any of my files – including the column I wrote for today about the hero’s journey.

Monday I’ll let Nathan’s minions at Island Computers purge my laptop of all malicious programs. Then I’m going to look into an online backup service. I recommend you do something similar.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Clean Eating

Middle-age is kicking my behind, which is getting bigger everyday. Long, sedentary hours at the computer haven't helped.

So in addition to bigger jeans, I picked up Tosca Reno’s “Your Best Body Now: Look and Feel Fabulous at Any Age the Eat-Clean Way” on my last trip to Target.

The same day, I discovered (through Twitter) author Marie-Claude Bourque was incorporating clean eating into her diet. Though we’ve never met in person, M-C and I frequently hang out together on bookshelves.

M-C keeps track of her clean eating days on her fabulous blog, which I’ve been haunting all week for meal ideas.

Here are some examples on how my diet has changed this past week:

Low-fat string cheese and almonds instead of potato chips

Cereal with skim milk instead of my usual Starbucks butter croissant

Grilled fish and salad as my restaurant entrée instead of anything goes.

Hopefully making smarter choices will make me both a better writer and get me back into my skinny jeans.

This my last post as a regular Novel Spaces blogger. (Though I hope to be invited back as a guest.) So visit me at, where I’ll update you on my progress.

Meanwhile, I wish you all good writing days and lots of contracts!


Friday, June 17, 2011

The Chotskies Debate: Is a pen really just a pen?

I’ve never bought a book because of an ink pen!

How many times have I heard that statement at the dozens of marketing/branding workshops I’ve attended over the years? There always seems to be a divide between whether promotional items such as bookmarks, ink pens, excerpt booklets and the like are even necessary for author promotion. I’ll admit that I am a huge fan of promo items. As I say all the time, I like seeing my name on stuff, even though it’s not my real name.

When I go about choosing promo items, I try to get the most bang for my buck, choosing things I believe people will reuse over and over again. Some of the promotional swag I’ve given out over the years includes pens and bookmarks, of course, bandage dispensers, mini calculator key chains, and tote bags. The bags turned out to be a big hit the year I handed them out at the RWA National Conference. It just so happens that the bags provided by the conference that year were big and ungainly, so my cute pink bags were perfect for conference goers.

With the explosion of eReading devices that have made their way into the marketplace, I decided to look for something that would appeal to that segment of the reading population, which seems to be growing astronomically every day. I found these super cute and ultra useful screen cleaners. You simply attach it to the back of your device, be it a Kindle, nook, iPad, iPhone, etc., and when you get those grimy fingerprints on it, just wipe them off with the microfiber surface. It attaches right onto the device or the case, and doesn’t leave any residue. It is truly my new best friend. And, best of all, it can be used thousands of times.

Of course, the biggest question is whether any of these chotskies have influence over readers actually choosing to buy your book. Yeah, I don’t have the answer, either, but it won’t stop me from finding cool stuff to plaster my name on.

How do you feel about promo items? Like them? Can do without them?

Have you ever bought a book or just sought out more information on an author based on a promotional item?

As a bonus, I’ll send a very cool eReader screen cleaner to three people who leave a comment on today’s post. And for those of you attending the RWA conference, stop at my table at the mega-booksigning at the Marriott Marquis on Tuesday, June 28th and ask for one!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guest author Dayton Ward: Reviews: You Can't Win

Dayton Ward is a science fiction author primarily known for his Star Trek novels and short stories. He published stories in each of the first three Strange New Worlds anthologies, making him the first author to render himself ineligible under the rules of that series. As such, future authors who achieved the same feat were said to have earned a "Wardy." You can find him at home on his hilarious blog, A Pimple on the Ass of the Internet. Be warned, though: you'll be spending a lot of time there.

Of course I read reviews of my work. Every writer does.

Okay, ninety percent of writers read reviews of their stuff, and the other ten percent lie about it, all right? Anyway, with few exceptions, reviews of my writing have run the gamut from praising my stories as the greatest gift to the printed word all the way down to being so bad that it’s not fit to serve as birdcage liner.

That’s right: The hyperbole is free whenever I guest blog.

When it comes to reading reviews, I pride myself on not getting too excited one way or another. I’m not saying I don’t have reactions to them. Who doesn’t want that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you find out someone loved your book? Is there anything more satisfying than learning how you connected with a reader on some emotional level? Yes, it’s great to read glowing praise for something you’ve written. The trick is not to buy into the hype; to not let it distract you from continuing to work at improving your writing with the next project.

Besides, let’s not forget about those unfavorable reviews, right? Some of those make me laugh, while others cause me to grit my teeth so hard I get a headache. There are those “reviews” where I know…I just know…that the person didn’t actually read the book before rendering their verdict. On the other hand, there are those reviews which, while being very critical, do so in a manner that gives me food for thought. Such reviews make me realize that, yes, I could have done this or that better, and I set a goal to do just that with the next story.

Beyond that? I really don’t care about reviews. I tend to think that getting worked up about reviews—good or bad—is not at all a smart idea. For one thing, it can take time away from what you really should be doing, which is more writing. Also, becoming too invested in reviews can get you into trouble, particularly if you find yourself getting wrapped around the axle when someone decides they don’t like something you’ve written.

In recent months, there’s been more than one flap created by a writer taking none too kindly to negative reviews of their work, and doing so in a very public and—thanks to the internet—very long-lasting manner. In one infamous case which occurred just a couple of months ago, a writer took a reviewer to task on the reviewer’s own blog. The situation devolved from ill-advised to utter stupidity with but a modicum of keystrokes on the writer’s part. As I read the drama unfold, my mouth may have hung open in shock long enough that I’m reasonably certain fly eggs started hatching behind my molars.

As I commented after slogging through that particular slice of idiocy, “Reviews are the Kobayashi Maru for writers.”

I apologize to those of you who aren’t Trekkies and who likely don’t get the joke. In Star Trek, Kobayashi Maru refers to a training scenario inflicted upon cadets at Starfleet Academy. During this simulation, cadets acting as the captain of a starship are faced with trying to rescue the Kobayashi Maru, a crippled ship drifting in space behind enemy lines. The setup is a ruse, and as the cadet begins to make decisions and put his crew into action, the computer overseeing the simulation continuously modifies the scenario. Everything the cadet tries is countered, to the point where he and his hypothetical vessel face destruction at the hands of enemy ships. There is no way to win; there is no correct resolution. The simulation is a test of character, gauging the cadet’s reaction when faced with certain, unavoidable death.

For writers, I believe that reviews are a test of character, and responding to them is almost always a no-win scenario.

In the case of the writer who went ballistic on the reviewer’s blog, I Googled their name and the book being reviewed, and learned that people were talking about this incident everywhere, and not in a good way so far as the writer was concerned. In fact, the writer continued the fight for nearly two months after the original review was posted, with any semblance of professionalism and just plain good manners having been flushed weeks earlier. By the time a grudging, half-hearted apology full of excuses and justifications was finally issued, the writer and the incident had already become prime examples of what not to do when confronting a reviewer.

(Yes, I know I’m not providing the writer’s name or the book in question. To be honest, despite my initial reaction of “Serves you right, moron,” I actually feel sorry for the person…to a point.)

When it comes to fights like this, it’s like walking into an arena where you’re already outnumbered and hobbled, with the whole bloody universe watching you from the stands and cheering on the lions. Even if you “win” one of these shouting matches, what damage are you doing to your reputation and your career? In the current climate of social media, the immediacy of interaction between writer and readers can only magnify this problem. One ill-considered remark aimed at your readership can haunt you for months or years. An all-out jihad against a reviewer? Yeah, get ready for the backlash that’s coming your way, and be prepared to be the subject of many smarmy blog postings, most of them better-written than this one.

With respect to others reading what you write, the old adage about never being able to please everyone cannot be more truthful. Some reviewers will take absolute delight in pointing out the typos and grammar mistakes you missed even after proofing your manuscript six times. There are those who simply won’t like your writing style, or they’ll take issue with the subject matter. Others, doubtless believing they’re able to divine your political or ideological bent as they read your stories about zombies, vampires, Klingons or whatever, will believe you’re pushing some real-world agenda to which they take great exception. Heck, I’ve been called a wing nut coming at you from the left and the right, from different readers reviewing the same book.

Bottom line? Some way, somehow, you’re going to rub some reader the wrong way, and sometimes they’re going to make note of their displeasure in a public venue, be it their blog, some message board or the review space on So long as they’re not saying anything that actually falls under the heading of libel, there’s really little to nothing you’ll ever be able to do about it. Attempting to right such perceived wrongs is only asking for more trouble than any supposed victory will ever be worth. It’s far better to cultivate a reputation as a writer who can take the heat, who welcomes a diversity of constructive opinions regarding their work, and who can shrug off the other stuff, even if the occasional review does make you grit your teeth until your head explodes.

In fact, you should buy writers like that a drink when you run into them at their next convention appearance, because more than likely they’re fun people to hang out with.

I’ll be at the Shore Leave convention in Baltimore in July.

Just sayin’.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Favorite Teen Books

As the author of several well received YA novels, including HER TEEN DREAM, DANGER IN TIME, and GHOST GIRL IN SHADOW BAY, I am often asked what are my favorite teen books.

I have read so many great ones from over the years that I barely know where to begin in narrowing down to a manageable amount.

After giving it some thought, here are ten great books for teenagers that I enjoyed, in no particular order...

1. THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James--helped me to discover ghosts and the supernatural in fiction early in life.

2. ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare--star crossed lovers that sticks with you forever.

3. OLIVER TWIST by Charles Dickens--what was better to get a good look at street life in Victorian England?

4.HARRY POTTER books by J.K. Rowling -- fascinating series about young wizard Harry Potter and other colorful characters.

5. TWILIGHT series by Stephenie Meyer--great with teen romance combined with vampires and werewolves.

6. HARDY BOYS by Franklin Dixon --loved these mystery and adventure novels growing up and they still read well today.

7. BILLY BUDD by Herman Melville -- great historical tale of adventure on the high seas.

8. DARK SECRETS series by Elizabeth Chandler -- wonderful haunting and suspense stories.

9. BOTH SIDES OF TIME series by Caroline Cooney -- as a time travel fan, enjoyed this set of YA romance books.

10. THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS by Ann Brashares -- a fun and imaginative series on friendship and adventure.

What are your favorite teen reads? What would you read over and over again, if time were not of the essence?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Changing Art

When I arrived to pick up my son up from school last Wednesday, I found him sitting with his nose firmly buried in a new novel. I had to guide him through the packed parking lot to the car as he refused to stop reading long enough to manoeuvre himself, and there was none of the bickering between him and his sister that normally punctuated the afternoon car drive home.

"Mommy," he said, "I have to have this whole series!"

I frowned when I took my first look at the book. The cover was not a typical children's book cover. I actually don't recall the details, but it was a subtle illustration, more like the cover of a Tom Clancy or Michael Connelly novel than the books to which he was accustomed to reading. I quickly turned it over and noted with relief that it had won a children's award. I read the blurb and was surprised at the level of adventure, action and intrigue which the author purported to have fit into his children's novel.

I read sections of the book and, although it was like no children's book I had ever read, it was certainly appropriate. I realised at that moment that children's authors sometimes behave like parents. We don't want to acknowledge that our children (whether natural ones or our readers) must grow up and if we want to maintain our relationship with them, we have to keep pace with the level of stimulation to which our children are exposed today and which they have come to expect.

It was an eye opener to me, and a discovery which will certainly impact my future writing.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What's in a Title

Robert E. Howard died on this day in 1936, and is still one of my favorite writers. Howard was born and raised and lived in Texas, spending most of his time in the small community of Cross Plains. I’ve been to Cross Plains many times on his anniversary. I might have gone this year if I’d not just gotten back from a long trip out that way with Lana. The thought of another long journey, 22 hours round trip by car, just seemed too much. But wherever I am on June 11th, I like to think about Howard and give him his props.

Some of you may never have heard of Howard, but you’ve heard of Conan the Barbarian. Howard created Conan, and he wasn’t much like the “barbarian” played by Arnold in the movies. Howard’s Conan was smart, deadly dangerous and strong, but not muscle-bound. He was only one of Howard’s characters. Solomon Kane was another. And Kull. And Bran Mak Morn.

Howard also wrote horror fiction. One of his best stories, and it’s not just me saying it but people like Stephen King, was entitled “Pigeons from Hell.” I reread this story for Howard’s anniversary and I got to thinking about the title, wondering why it works for me. And wondering if it works for others.

Say you had “Hawks from Hell,” or “Bat out of Hell.” Isn’t there a sense of threat in those titles? Isn’t there some power? Those titles work for me too. But “Chickens from Hell” and “Turkeys from Hell” don’t, except to evoke laughter. I wonder why I think this way.

It occurs to me immediately that “Hell” is a powerful concept. The very word carries with it the resonance of danger, of evil. Hawks are also powerful and can present a threat, from their talons up to the wicked curve of their beaks. Bats, with their long association with night and evil, also imply danger. No one is scared of chickens or turkeys. We eat them.

Pigeons aren’t dangerous, though. And some people eat them, although they usually call them “squab” when they do. Why doesn’t “Pigeons from Hell” also evoke laughter. One reason may be that pigeons, unlike chickens, actually carry a little ‘heroic’ resonance. They’ve been used often in times of war, for example, to carry messages. I think a bigger reason, though, is that pigeons generally carry neutral associations for most people. Creatures that are associated with danger and death, such as vultures, can be linked the easiest to Hell. Creatures that are associated with weakness or with food cannot without sounding silly. Creatures that have neutral associations are in the middle. Howard’s story is so good, though, and his use of the pigeons so eerie and salient, that the pigeons take on some creepy resonance just within the span of the story. I think that’s why “Pigeons from Hell” works.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Healing Power of Poetry

Before I ever wrote a novel, before I considered publishing, I wrote poetry. I would not say that makes me a poet, but it was my way expressing those deep emotions within me during my teens and early twenties.

Last night I was feeling a little down. I dug up my old book of poetry. It’s an old orange Hilroy exercise book. The poems are written in pen with neat curlicue handwriting. Most of the poems are religious and there are little one-liners outlining what I was going through at the time they were written. This I guess was as close as I’ve ever come to having a diary.

As I read through I realized most were written as I was going through a period of transition and uncertainty. Many sought comfort in a confusing world. As I read them, my spirits began to lift. My faith in God and the goodness of man was restored. I was lifted from the doldrums. Those poems written decades ago still hold the power to cheer me up today.
I’ll share one with you:

Don't Worry Be Happy

Oft’ we’re burdened with troublesome life
Temptations, trials, heartaches, and strife
Yet when we think that all is amiss
God’s there to redeem us with salvation’s kiss
Don’t worry, be happy, God will provide
Who can prevail o’er us with God on our side?

Sadness and heartaches, violence and crime,
Overcast days, no sign of sunshine;
Be not dismayed, whatever you do
The good merciful Lord, will take care of you
Don’t worry, be happy, God will provide
Who can prevail o’er us with God on our side?

When low in the gutter, deep in the pit
Don’t shatter your life with a broken spirit
Put a smile on your face, say I’ll overcome
My Lord up in heaven will ne’er leave me alone
Don’t worry, be happy God will provide
Who can prevail o’er us with God on hour side?

Almost two decades ago when I came to this country I tried to publish the collection. I met with a stone wall; few publishers were willing to take a chance on poetry. But now as I read them I realize I would like to share them with the world. They may hold the power to lift another person’s spirits. So my question to you is: how do you go about publishing poetry?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Novelist and his Work: Degrees of Separation

The furor is at least a week old and has seemingly given way to newer feeding frenzies such as Weinergate. Yet, the uproar over VS Naipaul's recent pronouncements lingers in my mind.

Heralded for decades as the greatest living writer of English prose, Naipaul is no stranger to controversy. He has been characterized as a sadist, wife beater, whore-chaser and adulterer. His arrogance is legend.

So what has Naipaul, fellow Trinidadian, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, done this time to provoke the wrath of readers everywhere? Exhibit A: Excerpts from his interview with the Royal Geographic Society . When asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match, Naipaul replied: "I don't think so." Of Jane Austen he said he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world". He elaborates: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."

According to the great one, women are sentimental and have a narrow view of the world. "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too." He tosses the expression "feminine tosh" around.

Cue collective screaming on the part of discerning readers of both genders, a stampede to hurl the work of acclaimed women writers in his face, and impassioned avowals to boycott his books.

My initial horror fast gave way to restrained amusement, then outright mirth. Just reading the comments on the Guardian article elicited numerous guffaws; I even had to Google British slang to find out the meaning of some of the more anatomically baffling insults wielded at the man. Here's a random sampling of the epithets:

"Delusional and sick" - "A waste of space" - "Narcissistic old bore" - "A total tool" - "Silly old fart" - "Mega-misogynist" - "Grumpy old git" - "A bit of a d**k" - "A twat" - and this beauty, "A prize berk". (Wow.)

Why my lighthearted reaction? To quote one Guardian commenter: "Perhaps Naipaul the man is worthy of contempt [but] his novels are generally sublime." I have learnt never, ever, to confuse the writer (or actor, or painter) with his creative work. If we were to dismiss writers on account of their character flaws we readers would have lean pickings indeed.

As a matter of fact, we might have no pickings at all.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Day Jobs

I'm late posting this, because I have been working a day job for the last six weeks that has been exhausting. I write and produced on-air fundraising for Channel Thirteen in New York, and the job built up to a six hour music marathon on Saturday.

It was wild and crazy, live TV at its most challenging as we changed line-ups and segment lengths and orders to adjust our message as we enlisted new members. I am sorry I didn't get a longer blog up, but -- well, the reality of writing is that unless you are Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, you still need to work to pay the bills.

My cast and crew were great, I am exhausted, but the reward of the night was getting to meet Ronnie Spector, who was small enough to fit in my jacket pocket for a living Rock and Roll legend. There are some fun rewards of a day job from time to time, and I am going to appreciate the free time to write for the next few weeks even more as I look for the next gig.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Jumping to Conclusions: Remember the Roadrunner

My husband was sitting in the breakfast room last Sunday when a roadrunner came up to the sliding glass door, looked at him while wagging its upright tail, and held out a lizard. A few hours later, my husband went back to the breakfast room to finish the Sunday newspapers. The roadrunner came up to the door again, this time holding out a small bird. It then walked around the corner of the house, hopped up on one of the A/C units, and peered in the side window, bird still in beak, at my husband.

My husband thought the roadrunner was offering him presents. My reaction was that it was making sure we knew that it eats the creatures we spend so much time and money feeding. Later, I searched Google for a less anthropomorphic interpretation of the roadrunner's behavior. I found this at a page at the National Zoo's site:
Food items often play an important part in roadrunner courtship. In early spring, roadrunner pairs reaffirm their bond through courting and mating rituals. A male dashes close behind a female, a tempting lizard or snake dangling from his bill. He wags his cocked tail from side to side and occasionally springs into the air and clumsily hovers to keep her attention.

Apparently, I have a rival for my husband's affections. Either that, or the roadrunner is two-timing his reflection in the door with his reflection in the window.

What does this anecdote have to do with writing? It demonstrates that a piece of common writing advice —Show emotions through actions and reactions, don't tell them—doesn't work well. An action, unadorned with any hint of explanation, can lead to different interpretations or just plain confusion.

We each have had a unique life; the older we get and the more we've experienced, the more different our reactions seem to become. In book discussion groups and critique groups, I've seen each member derive a different meaning from a character's action. I often am confused while reading about what emotion the author wants me to assume underlies a character's pout or hand gesture or head toss. Without any further clues, I can think of several emotions that could cause a person to act that way.

Even if the emotion seems clear, the reason for it may not be. Recently, I was baffled by instances in a friend's fantasy manuscript in which characters drew away in disgust or showed revulsion after close physical encounters with dead people. I wanted to know what cultural taboo or religious belief caused them to react so oddly. My friend was baffled by my bafflement. Such a reaction seemed so natural to her that it needed no explanation. As a result of our different backgrounds and different experiences with dead bodies, we had very different assumptions about what is a "normal" reaction to a corpse.

I now ignore the advice about only showing the results of emotions. There are too many ways a reader can interpret any particular behavior. I encourage you, too, to ignore this advice. Remember the roadrunner, and give your readers a break. Give them some other hints about what your character is thinking or feeling. Let your readers know about relevant cultural mores or incidents from the character's life. Otherwise, they may find your character's behavior as baffling as that of the roadrunner at our door.

Have you ever had a reader grossly misinterpret something you showed without any telling? Have you ever been confused by a character's actions? Or do you think I'm wrong and that a good author can get emotions across entirely through showing?

Thanks for stopping by today. I'll be blogging again on June 21, the first day of summer.

—Shauna Roberts

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Strength In Numbers

Just as this wonderful community of Novel Spaces authors come together on a regular basis to blog about writing, I think it's important for authors to come together in general to support one another, discuss the business in general, and reach out to readers as a group.

This business is changing, not only from an electronic standpoint, but also as we've gone through a major recession and the business in general has taken a big hit. I find that more authors are writing collaborations and coming up up with ways to reach out in an effort to keep up with the changing and challenging times.

Recently, I organized a group of writers called Georgia Peach Authors (photo above - We're appearing at libraries, military bases, and local events. There's something special about sharing time and thoughts with fellow writers who "get it" and all walk similar paths, with similar interests, no matter the genre.

Also, the site I mentioned in a previous Novel Spaces post,, is a group of twenty talented authors offering their works, one month at a time. My contribution debuts today, called Turnabout Is Fair Play. I think this concept is ingenious!

More of us should reach out to each other and write anthologies, or appear to discuss reading and writing, Skype with bookclubs, create joint FaceBook and Twitter pages, and/or invite readers to sit down and chat with us, etc. Author Mary B. Morrison had a Heart-to-Heart reader/author chat in her hotel room in Atlanta recently, and it was an amazing experience. It was a group of women coming together in complete honestly, without judgement, to discuss our past, present and future, and all of the insecurities, dysfunctions and accomplishments that go along with life in general.

Have you thought about the strength that "numbers" would bring in your career? The ability to reach out to others as a unit is so beneficial. Think about it, and share this journey with new and established authors. We're all in this thing together and we all need each other. It's not a competition. And there are definitely enough readers to go around.

Write on!

Friday, June 3, 2011

All writing is ...

I'm on record in several places as being firmly in the Robert Heinlein camp when it comes to revising and rewriting. (Heinlein's Rules: "You must write. You must finish what you write. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. You must put the work on the market. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.") and a proponent of Dean Wesley Smith's codicil to Heinlein's Rules: "Write. Mail. Repeat."

Writing instructors often say things like "all writing is rewriting." I think the advice is well-intended. It's meant to take away the pressure many beginning writers feel, the sense of obligation that every word they write must be perfect. The assurance it's okay to throw something onto the page if you know it's only raw material you'll be able to shape and polish until you think it's ready for others to read gives them the courage they need to begin. But outside the classroom? You find very few successful writers give even lip service to the "all writing is rewriting" mantra.

But the prejudice against writing well the first time runs deep. Tell someone you wrote a novel in 90 days and they assume it's junk. Or that it would have been much better if you'd spent three times as many days on it. The fundamental credo underlying these attitudes is that the training wheels of composition/creative writing 101 are welded on; that whatever you write first is by definition simply a lump of raw clay. Weeks and months of further molding and shaping are necessary before it can be seen by anyone else.

The fact is the words written in the flow of creation are almost always the best. Rewriting, proceeding from the assumption that what you've poured out is fundamentally wrong and must be fixed, opens the door to beating all the life and spirit out of your story as you hunt for mythically perfect words.

Does this mean that one should print out and mail first drafts every time? Yes and no. In my response to XXXXX's * column on book signings, I mentioned passing the idle time by reading my own books and finding typos. I also find mechanical problems in my prose. For example, in Wolf Hunters (my 90-day, 93k-word novel) I have found nearly a dozen sentences that began and ended with 'though'. And occasional clusters of telegraphic sentences that I might now have linked with conjunctions. And this one gem: "Concerns such as budget didn't concern him." So there was a lot of housekeeping that would certinly have been taken care of before the ms went to the publisher. But none of them would have seen print if I'd had more than three days to review the proof pages; I'd have liked at least a week. But so far I have found nothing in the story itself that I would change. With short stories, when I am not on deadline, I usually do a pretty thorough job of scouring the grammar – which sometimes requires revising confusing paragraphs, clearing up subject/verb conflicts, eliminating redundancies, and deleting three in five adjectives. It is rare I rewrite any of the story itself. If I find several passages that need rewriting, I usually chuck the lot and write the story again without looking at the first effort. I've done that more than once.

I recently applied to an MFA program that required a selection of my fiction as part of the consideration process. In looking through my stock of unsold stories for examples of my style and craft I came across "Exploring," one of a half-dozen exercises I wrote during a short story workshop in 2005 at the late, and sorely missed, Oregon Coast Professional Writers Workshops. Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Gardner Dozois team-taught fourteen intense classes over seven days. In one afternoon session we were asked to write a detailed, multisensory description of a location we hated; someplace so negative we could not think about it without a visceral response. Then we were told to write a description of the same location – changing none of the details – from the perspective of someone who loved the place every bit as much as we hated it. The assignment for next day's session was a 2500-word short story set in that place. I chose the room my mother died in, and writing that story involved staring into space for a couple of hours after dinner, jotting occasional notes and thinking more about how I felt than plot, and two frantic hours of typing just before class. I had not looked at "Exploring" in over half a decade and though I remembered it fondly, I opened the file expecting to find something in need of a ground-up rewrite.

After reading it through twice and eating lunch, I changed one sentence. "The door to the hall had opened all the way and a nurse – at least he thought she looked too young to be a doctor – was in the room." became "The door to the hall had opened all the way and a nurse – or nurse's aid of some sort, since she looked too young to be out of school – was in the room." Anything more – any "polishing" – would have killed the story's spark and energy.

* (Say, did anyone notice the "XXXXX" in the fifth paragraph? Left that there on purpose. As I wrote that sentence I could not remember which Novelnaut had written the column on book signings. Rather than stop the flow of writing, fire up the internet and check, I put a placeholder – in all caps to catch my eye – and kept going. Do this. It prevents loss of momentum – or worse, loss of whatever it was you were writing. When everything up to this point and the closing paragraph were written, I did come online to check before posting. However, rather than put Jewel's name where it belonged, I decided to add a paragraph to the essay about the method. Because I wanted to mention that I also always go back over a story to check for placeholders as well. And yes, adding this paragraph did change the structure of my essay, which would appear to contradict the thrust of said essay. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.)

Do not ever assume the first thing you write has to be perfect. But just as emphatically, do not ever assume the first thing you write is nothing more than a rough lump of clay. Edit for clarity; revise for impact; regard with dark suspicion any urge to add words; and triple check to be sure all your placeholders have been replaced – but otherwise leave be. If you find yourself changing any more than 10% of your words – and I'm the lax student of prolific writers who put the number at closer to 5% – you are almost certainly robbing your story of the spirit that inspired you.

Because the truth is: All writing is writing.

[Note: If anyone is interested in reading "Exploring," say so in comments and I'll send you a PDF.]

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Life Adjustments: How Writing Helps Me Through Them

I'll admit it. I'm a creature of habit. I envy those people who can go wherever the winds blows without hyperventilating or having a full-blown panic attack. I crave routine, and when that routine is disturbed, it takes me a mighty long time to get back on track.

I'm going through one of those life adjustments right now, and yes, I've had a few panicky moments. Case and point, I just discovered that I completely missed my May 17th posting date on Novel Spaces! Oy! See what happens when your routine gets messed up?

However, I've discovered over the past few days that my one constant is my writing. The stories I worked on back when I lived in Texas just a few months ago are the same stories I pulled up on my computer while living in a hospital room while my mother recovered during her month-long stay. And I get to explore the lives of these same characters now that I'm back home in Louisiana, readjusting to yet another living situation. Once I open my manuscript, all the craziness of the past few months fades away. It's just me and the story. And it is wonderful.

Before I began writing, my favorite books served the same purpose. When I moved away for graduate school, I had a collection of books by my favorite author that I carried with me. I knew that no matter how difficult it was to adjust to my new environment, I could always find comfort and familiarity in those much loved stories.

How many of you have used writing or reading to get you through a rocky time?