Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest author Jeffrey Rasley: 3 Requirements for Meaningful Memoir Writing

Jeff Rasley
I began keeping a journal when I hitchhiked from Indiana to Florida and then to New Orleans for Mardi Gras at age 18. For a small town Hoosier kid, some of the characters I met on the road amazed and moved me. There was the back woods Tennessean couple who lived off shooting squirrels and rabbits. They drove me as far as I was willing to pay for gas.  The town constable of Pleasureville, Kentucky put me up for a night, fed me, and staked me in a match with the local table tennis champion.  I lost.  Four guys from Chicago loaned me their Ford Maverick to drive from Miami back to Chicago while they went to Jamaica to become drug dealers.  They were kicked out of Jamaica and had to retrieve the car in New Orleans where I left it with a burned out clutch.

My travel adventures over the years have taken me to many places far more exotic than Pleasureville, KY, and led to encounters with characters more interesting than incompetent Chicago drug dealers.  But that first great adventure inspired a habit of keeping a travel journal.  As I developed an interest in writing and began to practice the craft by submitting feature articles, my journal served as a primary source.

Of course, a publishable article requires more than a mere recording of events.  The serious memoir writer must interpret meaning from one's  experiences, but meaning beyond the immediacy of the moment.  I would record in my journal the facts of a travel experience and my reaction to it.  To turn the journal writing into a worthy article or book there had to be an insight, lesson or wisdom which I could offer to others.

The personal essays I have been inspired to write are mostly about extreme experiences such as Himalayan mountain climbing or solo sea-kayaking.  I have learned important lessons about life from these adventures.  For example, I was inspired to write about the strength and beauty of the human spirit and the willingness to be self-sacrificial after witnessing a Nepalese guide and porter risk their lives to save and care for others who had been trapped by an avalanche.  I wrote about the need to respect other species and their habitat after an encounter with a mother humpback whale and calf.  The mother allowed me to caress her calf because I approached them with respect.

After twenty years of article writing I had accumulated enough material and confidence to risk a book.  I was lucky.  I sent it unsolicited without representation to Conari Press, and they published Bringing Progress to Paradise.

Essential to making a memoir interesting and worthy of publication is to have a central theme that carries the narrative forward.  Without a thematic narrative, we are back to mere observation or a random collection of insights without a guiding light.  The narrative must include factual details to make it interesting.  Without interesting, quirky or astonishing factual details, a personal essay is boring.  A point made in the abstract is likely to be forgotten as soon as the reading device is turned off.

Finally, the memoirist should have a fine tuned sense of personal ethics.  The last point I cover when teaching a class about memoir writing is to consider carefully whether to identify or to change the identity of individuals, organizations or companies referred to in the piece.  Friendships can be damaged and libel/defamation suits can be filed.  It is easy enough to disguise an identity with a fake name and to attribute some intentionally misleading characteristics to protect the privacy or reputation of a person or organization.  Consider the consequences and choose wisely.

In Bringing Progress to Paradise a character named Bill represents the quintessential "ugly American" tourist.  I included accurate descriptions of Bill's culturally insensitive behaviors in the book.  I decided it was important to the narrative theme to show the negative of one of the truths I wanted to convey, which was how to engage productively with local people in alien cultures.  The name "Bill" was a pseudonym and aspects of him were changed so as to disguise his identity.  Still, I lost a friendship as a result of the book.  I'm still ambivalent about whether it was worth it.

Jeff is giving away a copy of Bringing Progress to Paradise to one lucky commenter on this post. Good luck!


Jeff Rasley is author of Monsters of the Midway, Light in the Mountains—A Hoosier Quaker Finds Communal Enlightenment in Nepal, Islands in My Dreams, Nepal Himalayas in the Moment, False Prophet and Bringing Progress to Paradise.  He has published numerous articles and photos in academic and mainstream periodicals, including Newsweek, Chicago Magazine, ABA Journal, Family Law Review, Pacific Magazine, Indy’s Child, The Journal of Communal Societies, The Chrysalis Reader, Faith & Fitness Magazine, Friends Journal and Real Travel Adventures International Magazine.  

An avid outdoorsman and recreational athlete, Rasley leads trekking-mountaineering expeditions in Nepal and has solo-kayaked around several Pacific island groups. He is currently partner in Knowledge Capture Publishing and Editing, president of the Basa Village Foundation USA Inc. and U.S. liaison for the Nepal-based Himalayan expedition company, Adventure GeoTreks, Ltd.  He teaches classes for IUPUI Continuing Ed. Program and Indiana Writers Center.

Jeff Rasley's websitehttp://www.jeffreyrasley.com
His author page on Amazonhttp://tinyurl.com/jeffrasleypage

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Do you know where your stories are?

This post is very late, please accept my apologies. I had everything typed up and ready to go and then I left my laptop on a plane somewhere between St. Kitts and Washington DC. It could have been devastating. Of course, there was one absolutely brilliant short story that I had written that I have now lost (I dare you to prove otherwise), but other than that, everything was backed up, so my loss was the hardware, which is significant but thankfully replaceable.

So this post is on the mundane issue of backing up. We can write the most articulate and mind-blowing stories, however, if we don't back up, we are basically playing the lottery with our work.You don't even have to be as careless (I prefer 'temporarily confused') as I was to lose your data. A power surge (ok, maybe that only happened in Ghana), a random hard drive crash or a virus (a whole other topic) can cause you to lose all of your data.

You can use CDs, DVDs or flash drives but my personal opinion is that it is never a good idea to keep anything sacred on media that is so easy to misplace or to sustain damage. External hard drives are also a good option, although you need to keep them somewhere separate from the rest of your hardware so that if there is a physical problem - power surge or fire, it will not affect your originals and your backups.

Cloud backups (backups to online servers) are becoming very popular now and are a good option. Some are free, but most are inexpensive. This is a good option once you go with a reliable provider.

What do you use for backing up your work? How often do you backup? Share your experiences with us.

Friday, July 27, 2012

How-To ...

Hard-pressed to find a short story idea? Look no further than the How-To genre.  Offering simple directions for accomplishing specific tasks, How-To articles provide an ideal starting point for your next short story.  They begin with a problem and end with a solution – the perfect short story arc. 

A cursory review of How-To articles currently floating around the internet turned up the following:

1) How-To Find Love on Twitter
2) How-To Train Your Cat to Use the Toilet
3) How-To Lose 200 lbs. in 200 Days

Each one of these is a prompt for a story waiting to be told.  The trick to crafting a good How-To story is to select the right article, one that meets the following three criteria:

1) the topic must be interesting
2) the topic must be doable
3) the topic must be somewhat complex

Consider the following ideas:

1) How-To Carve a Potato – this fails the first criterion.  Nobody cares.  Anybody who wants to do this already knows how.
2) How to Make Kittens – this fails the second criterion.  It is not doable, unless you’re a cat, so there’s no point in writing it.  Cats are poor readers.
3) How to Make Orange Soda by Combining Orange Juice and Club Soda - this fails the third criterion.  There is no complexity to it.

So what works?  The following titles are up for grabs.  If you like one or more of them, go for it.  Just remember me come holiday time.

1)    How-To Make Toothpaste from a Mango
2)    How-To Erase Wrinkles Using Just a Crock Pot and a Garage Door Opener
3)    How-To Protect Your Pet from Identity Theft

Here’s an example of a successful How-To piece that meets all three criteria.  It’s interesting, doable, and complex enough in these tough economic times.  It was a story waiting to be told.

How to Buy Vodka in a Recession

“I don’t have a lot of money,” I told the liquor store clerk.  He knows me; we go way back.  “But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to sacrifice on quality.”

“How much do you have?”

I held up a handful of coins.  “$2.34”

He reached for a miniature bottle of Smirnoff.  “This is the best I can do.” 
“No.”  I shook my head.  “It’s really too small.  What else do you have?”
“Nothing, nothing at all, except … no.”
He sighed and pulled a liter bottle from under the counter.  The label was Russian.  “I don’t know if you’re ready.  It’s made from turnips.”
“What’s it like?”
“It’s a low-born vodka, sullen with a harrowing finish.  It’s the kind of tipple you’d want along on a cold November morning if you were stripping wallpaper in Minsk.”
“How much?”
I did the math.  “I’ll take two.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Social Media Strategies...HELP!!!

Sunny Frazier’s Novel Spaces blogpost, “Why you got that rejection letter” was an eye opener for me. You see, when I first wrote my books, my aim was anonymity to some extent. At least I wanted to keep my personal and professional life distinct from my writing life. It came immediately apparent that that was not to be. Liane invited me to participate in this blog. I had never blogged before, and I wasn’t even sure I knew what a blog was. But I accepted the invitation and it opened up a whole new world to me. Then I got a Facebook page, mainly for contact with readers, and LinkedIn profile.

The problem is I still don’t know how to effectively utilize the social media. Yes I have the Facebook page, but I find it unappealing to log on and read “friends” posts of what they had for dinner last night or their high scores on internet games, or see a million and one invitations for Farmville or Cityville or offers of alien cookies. I got sick of people I know personally airing their dirty laundry about their relationships and venting about how life screwed them. I hear people talk of spending hours on Facebook just hanging out and not writing. I have the opposite problem. I have to make an appointment with myself to log on, and I have a hard time posting updates. It’s even worst with LinkedIn and I would not know what to post on Twitter if I had an account.

So here is where you come in. I would like tips on how to best utilize social media to market yourself even if you don’t have a published book or one ready to hit the market.

How can we make Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, Twitter work for us in getting our names out there?

What is your personal strategy?

What blogs are the most effective in accomplishing high profile name recognition?

Whether you are a published author, aspiring author, Indie author, agent, publisher, publicist or reader please let me know in your comments what social media strategies are most effective for promotion and name recognition.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Can't Authors and Reviewers Just Get Along?

It’s quite possible that you’ve missed the entire brouhaha ricocheting through the internet these past couple of weeks among blogger/reviewers and authors.  If so, good for you but, since I’m going to add my little two cents, you might want to get a taste of what has been going on here and here.  Don’t forget to come back once you’ve scrolled through as much as you can take.

Okay, now you’re more or less up to speed on the opinions and perspectives of the various parties, you’ll have realized that the discussion has become a bit heated.  Creatives and critics have always had differences.  (Read about a famous one here).  It comes with the territory.  A writer, painter, composer, whatever, comes up with a marvelous idea and works hard to make it real.  They think their creation is the greatest thing since sliced bread but, when they put it before the public, somebody begs to differ.  That was okay back in the day when expressing an opinion required sitting down and writing a letter to the editor.  Only the very passionate would bother.

Nowadays, though, we have the internet where opinions on either side can flame through the online community in just hours, pulling hundreds of partisans into the fray.  Given all that, and given the fact that I’ve just released a book and have learned a few things about the experience of being reviewed I’d thought I’d share how things went with me and even offer some advice about how you might want to approach reviewers if a release is in your near future.

While Jessamine was still in the editing stage I started going through the Net looking for blogs that reviewed books with plots similar to Jessamine.  Jessamine is set on a Caribbean island and is told from the point of view of two very different women from two very different eras.  I considered it literary women’s historical fiction so I looked for reviewers who liked books in any one of those genres.  I avoided bloggers/reviewers who concentrated solely on YA, urban fiction, science fiction, etc.  Basically I Googled ‘women fiction reviews’ and also reviews of books I thought were similar to mine.  I came up with a list of about fifty or so reviewers.

Every time I found a reviewer who looked likely I spent time on their blog.  Most reviewers have a Review Policy tab at the top of their page (some put it under their Contact information) and I made sure to read what they’d written carefully.  If they were closed to submissions or if they didn’t review indie authors, they didn’t go on my list (unless I was really, really impressed by the blog and found the reviewer’s opinion on books very similar to mine and hoped against hope they’d take a chance on Jessamine).  If some reviewers have a form on their site they like authors to use or require the inclusion of very specific information, I made a note on my list.

Reviewers, like agents and editors, appreciate knowing that the people contacting them took the time to find out their name so, if that was available on their About Me page or in their profile, I wrote it down.

Then I drafted a short email, very similar in tone and content to the kind of query I’d have sent to an agent or editor.  The email gave a brief summary of the plot, the page count, information on where and when the book would be published and a few details about my own publishing history.  What I didn’t do was attach the manuscript.  Instead, I asked them to contact me if they would be interested in receiving a PDF copy of the manuscript to review.

About half never replied at all.

Of the half that got back to me, a handful responded to say that they were backed up and wouldn’t be able to get to Jessamine by my publication date.  Fair enough.  The rest said they’d be delighted and would I please send the manuscript.  To date, of the ones who said they’d do a review, only slightly more than half have followed through and actually done reviews on their blogs and/or at Goodreads or Amazon.  Why did those bloggers/reviewers ask for a copy of the manuscript and not do the promised review?  I haven’t a clue but I don’t suspect malice – maybe they’ve had a medical or other emergency, maybe they wanted to do it but just haven’t found the time, maybe they started reading it and found it wasn’t quite their cup of tea.  There are probably as many reasons as there are reviewers and I’m not going to lose sleep over it.  Since I sent the manuscript electronically, it’s not as if I lost out on the postage or am out of pocket in any way and, who knows, maybe they’ll do it at some point in the future. 

So what would I advise?  A few things.

1.  Choose bloggers/reviewers wisely.  Research them so you’re not sending historical fiction to someone who mostly reads urban fiction or a thriller to someone who doesn’t often read outside the romance genre.

2.  Take the time to learn the blogger’s name and try to personalize your email, insofar as you can.  Treat a review request as professionally as you would an agent query.

3.  Cast as wide a net as possible.  Most writers send out dozens of queries before they land an agent and you should expect to do the same for reviewers.  Remember, it’s unlikely that everyone you send a review request to will do one, so the more people you ask, the better.

4.  Don’t hound them.  I have not contacted any of those who received a copy of Jessamine but never posted a review.  Maybe they’ll get to it, maybe they won’t but, right now, I’m concentrating on finishing up the edits to my next novel.

5.  Thank the reviewers who followed-through, even when they didn’t love your book or gave you less stars than you think you deserve.  If you’ve got a back-list, consider rewarding reviewers of your latest book with a copy of a past release.  If you’re offering a novel or novella free for a short time, make sure to send an email about it to everybody who has ever reviewed you.  It’s a nice way of saying thanks and maybe you’ll get another review out of it.

6.  Never, ever get into a debate on the merits of your work with a reviewer.  If someone didn’t like your book, never mind, move on.  Even if their review was scathingly over the top, even if you felt personally attacked, move on.  Readers may not notice when you take the high road, but they will certainly notice when you don’t.  Pour all your bile and vitriol into the characterization of the villain in your next book, see if there’s anything at all you can learn from the negative review, and MOVE ON.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dorchester debacle: A happy ending?

Amazon.com, in its quest to cement its position as a major publisher, has started buying the backlists of troubled companies. It recently acquired Avalon Books, and next in line is Dorchester Publishing whose author list includes Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, Connie Mason, Nalini Singh—and several Novel Spaces members and former members including Jewel Amethyst, Farrah Rochon, Phyllis Bourne and yours truly, Liane Spicer. 

There’s an old Chinese curse that goes ‘May you live in interesting times’. I’m not sure whether I’ve been blessed or cursed to have entered the mainstream publishing arena at a time when things got ‘interesting’. The influence of the Internet and social media, the advent of e-books and digital readers, free reading apps for devices, independent publishing opportunities with Amazon and Barnes and Noble—all of these began to snowball around the time my agent sold my first novel. The industry has been in turmoil since, with Dorchester becoming one of the early casualties.

Dorch has been embattled for years, selling the backlist of its historically top-selling authors to Avon Publications (now an imprint of Harper Collins) about two years ago in an attempt to become financially viable. It also discontinued production of mass market paperbacks and moved to digital and trade size, then to digital only. None of these manoeuvres saved the company, however. Debts to warehouses, distributors and authors went unpaid: it is estimated that the company owes several million dollars in back royalties alone.

The authors gritted their teeth and prepared for drawn-out bankruptcy proceedings that would tie up their rights for years and pay them pennies on the dollar, or nothing at all.

In a move that left the industry slack-jawed, Dorchester’s owner foreclosed on the company earlier this year to recover a 3.4 million dollar loan. In March, the Dorchester Media magazine division was sold, with the expectation that the book publishing division would be next. The publisher’s representatives began dropping hints that a deal with a ‘major publisher’ was in the works. Three weeks ago the speculation ended. The ‘major publisher’ was Amazon Publishing—just as industry insiders had suspected.

What does this mean for the Dorchester authors who will have the option to sign on with Amazon if all goes as planned?

My take is that it means different things for authors at different stages of their careers. One author who has been a bestseller for many years now publishes her backlist herself and makes royalties of 65 to 80 percent on those indie titles. She plans to turn down Amazon’s offer. Others with sizeable backlists whose rights were reverted before the meltdown have done likewise and are making more money now than they ever did with Dorchester. The rest of us are neither in the position of the NYT bestsellers nor the ones with a pile of reverted titles: we don’t have sizeable backlists; we have not been in the business for decades; we do not have a readership built up over many years. Amazon is offering us a viable option to build our audience with the backing of a major publisher. Many of us did not get that chance because Dorchester sank before our careers got going.

My first novel, Café au Lait, garnered stellar reviews. The second, Give Me the Night, was optioned to Dorchester but they never even got a chance to look at it before they tanked. Phyllis's Operation Prince Charming was released the same month the publisher virtually went out of business, and even the great reviews could not save it. A number of authors waited in vain for their debut titles to hit the shelves. The last couple of years have been disastrous for all of us with titles tied to Dorchester; many authors have been battling the company to recover royalties and to have the rights to titles reverted, and the Amazon buyout could mark the end of a gruelling road. According to Publisher’s Weekly:

Moving forward, Dorchester authors will, Amazon said, be offered the choice about how they want their titles published. An Amazon spokesperson explained: “We want all authors to be happy being a part of the Amazon Publishing family going forward and we have structured our bid so that we will only take on authors who want to join us. As part of this philosophy, if we win the bid, Dorchester has committed to revert all titles that are not assigned to us.

So, would I take up the option to become a part of the Amazon Publishing family? Very likely. Amazon Publishing is in a growth phase, unlike the decline being experienced by the other players in the industry. It has the immense clout of Amazon’s marketing machinery behind it. It appears to be the future of publishing (at least in the short term) with its emphasis on innovation, and on giving customers what they want in terms of both product and service. It offers competitive royalty rates and does not try to hold on to authors’ rights for five to ten years as was the norm.

None of the authors I know who have already signed on with Amazon are complaining. I don't expect to either.

Liane Spicer

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lessons Learned

I have been a writer, which is to say, a storyteller, all of my life. I've been writing and mailing out stories since 1966. I am also a teacher, though I didn't realize that until I was an adult. The quarter century immediately prior to my decision to write full-time was devoted to teaching in public schools, community colleges, and the community. Both writing and teaching are, I think, matters of temperament. Certainly no one does either for the money.

For a decade or so I've had the idea of combining my two interests and teaching creative writing at the university level. The practical obstacle to what seems a natural move is a piece of paper. Specifically, my lack of a terminal degree in writing – a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing – means I have not established my bona fides as one worthy of teaching the craft at a university. Daunting were the facts earning an MFA-CW would require at least two years and would cost a good deal more than I'd make as a writer during that time. Wal-Mart's decision to no longer hire senior citizens as door greeters caused me to reevaluate my options vis-à-vis late-life careers. Valerie, CFO of the Killiany family, helped by pointing out a Stafford Education Loan would push the problem of cost out to 2015 – plenty of time for me to either earn the money or declare bankruptsy. The clincher was a careful analysis of the calendar. It seems that in two years I'll be sixty-one whether or not I spent the time working toward something I want. So I decided to go back to school.

The first MFA program I considered was that offered by UNC-Wilmington – mostly because it's right down the street. I interviewed with a gatekeeper who looked over the body of work I'd brought in – or rather, looked at the covers of my Star Trek and MechWarrior books – and without a glance at my transcript suggested I try a few undergraduate classes before undertaking an MFA. Just to see if I was "ready for serious writing."
I scouted the internet for programs that had minimal residency requirements or were completely online. Found an online program, researched to make sure the degree it awarded was honored by more traditional universities (VERY important), and enrolled.

My first 600-level course was in the English department; straightforward academia with no delusions of art. The Pedagogy of Composition class spent a lot of time on the elements of rhetoric: ethos (character), logos (reason), and pathos (emotion) – though eros (porn) was never mentioned – purposes and methods of composition, and agreeing thought itself is not possible without language. (Which is silly; language slows thought down. Ask any math major.) Pretty heavy going for an old man who hadn't been in school for a few decades, but I managed; even enjoyed myself.

I admit I had some trepidation going in to my second class: a seminar on creative writing. The academics didn't bother me: reading about writing, reading short fiction by various authors and Butler's Kindred – one of my favorite novels. I had no problem with weekly writing exercises and was looking forward to producing a short story. What worried me was the fact we students were to critique each other's writing exercises and short stories. Not to mention the final assignment is to rewrite our short story to reflect what we've learned from the others' critiques. Though I've taken part in professional workshops – training in specific markets and techniques – folks who know me know I don't think much of writers' groups in which peers analyze each other's work. (Francine Prose once imagined a group steeped in the argot of writing groups telling Kafka they couldn't connect with the idea of a man turning into a beetle and recommending he rethink whose story he was telling and what was at stake.) Plus ... Do I really need to reiterate how I feel about rewriting?

Six weeks in I'm not ready to reverse my position on writing groups or peer critiques, but I'm less hostile than I was. My fellow students are an eclectic lot – people who are educators, business owners and managers, serve in the military or are unemployed – from all over the place (including two overseas students for whom English is their second language). Skill levels range from high-school-esque to I-hope-I-write-like-that-when-I-grow-up. And critiquing/being critiqued has not been the purgatory I expected. Going into detail would betray confidentiality, but I will tell you that the least proficient writer makes the most useful comments and has the most telling insights into the work of others. I'm thinking future editor.
However, though my feelings toward peer-group critiques are mellowing, I don't think this is the most important – or useful – component of the class. Those are, in ascending order:
The structure of the class; the calendar of short and long deadlines helps reinforce the habit of discipline (something freelancers are known to struggle with).
The weekly writing exercises (from Kiteley's The 3 A.M. Epiphany), which provide us with needed challenges and practice (Professional writers should practice at least as much as professional pianists – a fact writers tend to resist. We like to tell folks we're working on our novel, not practicing POV shifts.)
Finally, and most enlighteningly for me, reading established classics. Chekhov, Faulkner, Kafka, O'Connor, Pynchon, Tolstoy, Twain – writers I either rarely read or have not read since, well, college. I'm pretty good about keeping up with current writers in the genres that interest me as markets – I watch trends and note tropes handled well – that's good business. But the classics became classic for a reason; and great writers were great writers before literature courses glommed on to them. Time spent reading their works is not only rewarding for the reader, it's instructive – and challenging – for the writer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Selling Yourself.

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

Oddly enough, I tend to suck at selling myself.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Guest editor Sunny Frazier: Why you got that rejection letter

Sunny Frazier
Acquisitions Editor
Oak Tree Press
You've worked hard on your query. You followed all the “rules” you read in writing magazines. You've sweated blood to create a great opening, to get the synopsis down to a page. I'm the acquisitions editor who received this carefully constructed letter.

To be honest, before I read your synopsis, I googled your name. Where is your website? I didn't see a blog. You're on Facebook—I'm not impressed. There was no activity indicating that you read and comment with the writing community. I'm not just evaluating your manuscript, I'm evaluating you. Are your ideas for success realistic? Are you dreaming of a NY Times bestseller listing? Do you hear Hollywood knocking on your door? 

I feel marketing and platform building starts the minute a writer decides to write a book. Yes, that early. Anyone aspiring to a career in publishing in the 21st century cannot be blind to all the posts and forums talking about branding. So, where is your voice?  

When I write and ask you about this void in your social marketing, you ask, “What am I suppose to market? You haven't published my book yet!” You market what you've got—your name. Name recognition is the first step toward building a platform. You make contacts, commenting on the blogs of others so people can see YOUR NAME. You add a bit about yourself so people can get to know the person behind the name. You blog at websites that give you your own page, like Book Town and Book Blogs. You “friend” others on the site, people who are readers, writers like you, industry people like me. You network and build connections.

I can understand when you tell me you don't know anything about marketing—that can be corrected. It's a learning process. But I tune you out when you tell me it's somebody else's job to market your book. You are the author, the artist, not a person who soils their hands with promotion.

Prima donnas need not apply. In this day of tough competition and stretched budgets, nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and wait for royalty checks. We all get out there and hustle. I would rather contract a good book with a strong marketer than a great book from an author who won't lift a finger to promote.

Don't undercut yourself by adding in your query, “I have macular degeneration, can't drive anymore, get around with a walker, have a phobia about flying and I'm computer illiterate. My dream is to have a book published before I die.” Why anyone would give full disclosure so early in the game is beyond me. What can I do except send a rejection?

And finally, please don't try to sway me with a list of university accomplishments, lofty credits and literary aspirations. You read the guidelines on our website, right? We're looking for genre fiction. You know, the stuff average people want to read: a good mystery with a dead body on the second page; a romance where the boy always gets the girl; a Western where the good guys wear white hats and ultimately win the gunfight. Not highbrow, but immensely entertaining. Something we can sell.

So, all I can do is write, “Thank you for your query letter, but I'm sorry we cannot publish your book at this time.”

Sunny is giving away a copy of Fools Rush In to one lucky reader chosen at random from the comments. Good luck!

Sunny Frazier is a Navy veteran and former newspaper reporter who has worked with an undercover narcotics team in Fresno County. After 17 years in law enforcement, she turned her energies to writing the Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries. Based in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the novels are inspired by real cases and 40 years of casting horoscopes. Frazier is also acquisitions editor for Oak Tree Press

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Gondola in San Juan

As a lifelong travel aficionado, I am drawn to the far away, to the exotic, and to the undiscovered.  For me, a big part of the allure is the chance to wander nearly aimlessly, and in the process of doing so, to stumble onto something unexpected. 

And when this happens, I’m always eager to share my discoveries, to pen a review of my new find and send it in to the travel guides, to the newspapers, and to travel websites. Recently, however, the joys of parenthood have curtailed my explorations, and my wanderings are more theme park in nature. 

Then I read an article about people who read travel guides, travel websites, and travel magazines.  I learned that a significant percentage of them are armchair travelers, never intending to venture far from their homes, but still hungry for tales of the exotic and foreign.  As a fiction writer, I saw my opportunity. 

I was determined to continue my wanderings, and if they ventured off the beaten path and into the realm of fiction, so be it.  The following are my top ten travel picks for 2012:

1) Barnacle Bob’s BigTop Bluefin Barbeque (Paris, France) – After a long day of sightseeing, visiting the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, why not stop in for a bite?  Just across from Notre Dame, Connecticut-transplant Barnacle Bob has created a seafood sensation you won’t want to miss.  The kilo-o-krab is a win-win.  Upgrade to family size for just 12 euros more!

2) Haunted Muncie (Muncie, IN) – You’ve heard the rumors, now take the tour.  Your expert guide will lead you through the storied streets of this fascinating city.  You’ll see first-hand the hospital where Wyatt Earp almost died, the café where Quentin Tarrantino ate chili while reading Stephen King’s Cujo.  After a brief visit to the morgue, your guide will take you right into the heart of the municipal graveyard, where dead people are.

3) Olive Garden (Rome, Italy) – The eternal city has long been known for its culinary delights, but this out-of-the-way bistro, a block from the Trevi Fountain was a hit with Grandpa and the kids.  Unlimited salad and breadsticks, it felt like we were family.

4) Changing of the Guard at Newark Savings & Loan (Newark, NJ) – No vacation to this New Jersey paradise is complete without watching the changing of the guard.  With all the pomp and ceremony of their Buckingham counterparts, Norm Lubensky and T.J. Mankewiczk punch out and punch in respectively, at the door to this majestic but unassuming bank.

5) Bahama Llama (Nassau, Bahamas) – Have you always wanted to ride a llama along a tropical beach at sunset?  Well, we can’t help you there, llamas are too small to ride.  But the folks at Bahama Llama will hand you the leash to a rental llama, alpaca or billy goat for your own special sunset walk.  Sunscreen is recommended.

6) Sombrero World (Wuhan, China) – Do you wonder where all those great Mexican sombreros are made?  Wonder no more.  Visit the actual factory where 7,000 adorable workers toil night and day churning out sombreros by the truckload.  After your tour, you’ll leave with your very own souvenir keychain.  Midnight tours are available for that unforgettable romantic touch.

7) A Gondola in San Juan ( San Juan, PR) – Never made it to Venice?  No sweat!  Now you can ride in an actual gondola without even leaving the hemisphere.  Brothers Tito and Manuel Hernandez brought a gondola home from Venice, added an outboard motor, and tonight it can be yours to explore Old San Juan.  Add rum for an unforgettable night of romance and song. 

8) Maniacal Mort’s Carnivorous Plant Farm (Mandeville, LA) – If you only have a day or two in New Orleans, then you’re probably better off exploring the French Quarter and the bayous, but if you have three days, you won’t regret visiting Mort’s.  Wander through Flytrap Forest as mouths snap shut all around you, then enjoy a light lunch by the shores of Mucilage Marsh, as Pitcher plants devour both spiders and your leftovers.  Not recommended for children under 40 lbs.

9) U Store It / U Tour It (Sacramento, CA) – Where did all those old VHS tapes go?  Mom’s old bell-bottom jeans didn’t just fade away, and Dad’s Nordic Track was too big for the garbage can. No visit to Sacramento is complete without this double-decker bus tour of all the major self-storage facilities.  From the I-5 overpass to the Business 80 loop, you’ll see it all.  Bonus: first month free with contract.

10) 1313 Hellbound Circle, off the Route 666 Overpass (Minneapolis, MN) – Just a couple of old people live in this renovated pre-war bungalow, but it sure is a scary address, right?

In conclusion, travel writing is a great way to practice your craft, and share your passion with others.  And if you don’t have the time or the inclination to wander the world’s narrow paths, feel free to let your imagination wander.

Visit www.themummiesofblogspace9.com to learn more about things.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Stealing Time

A year ago I had a fulltime day job, three small children and a writing schedule that was erratic at best.  So when I lost my day job, after the frustration and the anxiety subsided, I decided to make lemonade out of the lemons I had been dealt and embrace my new status as a full time mother and author.  The three things on my list that I wanted to do: teach my toddlers to read, find a new job, write and publish at least three books.

Last summer I was off to a good start, at least on the third aim.  I had collaborated with my oldest (then eight years old) and together we wrote the first of a series of children’s novels.  But the other two aims had not been met.  So at the start of the school year, I made an active effort to get things done.  Each day I ran my home like a preschool, teaching my then two and three year old (now 2 and 4) in a fun and interactive way.  I decided to dedicate a few hours each day to job search and even more hours writing.  And of course I wanted to be the best homemaker this side of heaven with a clean house and exciting healthy meals for the kids and hubby.
Boy, was I naïve!  When your toddlers are in daycare until 5 or 6pm and their bedtime is 9, you have no idea the amount of mess they can make throughout the day. Despite all my best efforts, I found myself cleaning four to five times a day, just to keep the house from disintegrating into an uncontrollable mess.  It’s not just the toys all over the place, but the drink spills, the crumbs, the cereal all over the house.  It is their mischief as they strip and powder themselves from head to toe, paint themselves and the walls in lipstick and ink, perform open heart surgery on their dolls, and give cell phones a bath when left to their own devices.  The demand on my attention was so great that I found less time to write than when I had a day job. 

After going crazy for a few months I decided on making a to do list.  It looked like this:
1.      Work out
2.      Teach the kids
3.      Find employment
4.      Write
5.      Do housework
6.      Help my oldest with her homework
7.      Put the kids to bed
8.      relax

What ended up happening was this: 1. Make breakfast, 2. Feed the kids, 3. clean up, 4. Chase them down for a bath, 5. Round them up to teach them, 6. prepare snack. 7. Clean up, 8. Make lunch 9. Chase them down to eat lunch, 10. Clean up….. and so it went on and on. By the time they got to bed, I was so tired I could not even write.
I found myself waiting for their naptime and asking: should I work out, write, do job searches, cook or clean? Sometimes I took so long to decide that they were awake before I had done anything.  My writing was more erratic than when I had a fulltime day job.

Sometime around January I finally found the solution. I decided to steal time. I incorporated them in my workout.  While I worked the treadmill, I had them jump their hearts out in an inflatable bouncer.  I did Zumba on the WII and they danced right alongside me.  I did Pilates.  Sometimes they did it with me; sometimes they did it on me.  They became my weights.
I ditched the formal teaching and used everything as a lesson.  They cooked with me. They cleaned with me.  We did colors, shapes, and numbers with each trip to the grocery store.  We did letters and letter sounds at the park.  The backyard became a hotbed of science lessons.  And when I got on the computer to write, they got on their little toy laptops and wrote too. 

The result?  I can’t say that I’m prolific by any stretch of the imagination.  But I’ve completed the second of the children’s adventure novel, and am almost finished a second full length romance novel.  Four in a year with the majority being done between January and now isn’t that bad.  What hasn’t happened as yet is the publication aspect.  And this summer, now that my oldest is at home and follows me around constantly talking  like an insect in my ears, I realize that I have to get back to the drawing board and find ways to steal time once again.  As for my home pre-school, well, even the public schools take a break during the summer.  Suffice it to say though, with my informal pre-school program both my two and four year olds are where they should be academically, maybe even a little advance.
How do you steal time?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

An Introduction to Eugenia O'Neal

Wow!  I'm the newest member of Team Novel Spaces and I'm very pleased to be here!  Thanks so much, Liane, for inviting me.  I'm really looking forward to getting to know everyone. 

My first post is going to be pretty short because I just, basically, want to introduce myself.  I'm a writer from the British Virgin Islands, a territory just south of Puerto Rico.  If you check the map, you might mistake us for specks of dust but we're a bit bigger in real life. :-)  I've lived most of my life in the BVI but I've lived in the United States, England and in other Caribbean countries, too.

I started writing years ago but it wasn't until Greenwood Press published From The Field to The Legislature: A History of Women in the Virgin Islands that my writing career got off the ground.  Really, I should say, it lurched off because I didn't publish anything else for years and there have been big gaps between my books.  Small publishers issued the historical adventure romance, Dido's Prize, and the contemporary romance, Just an Affair.

I decided last year to get serious about the whole thing - it was now or never time - so I started a blog, became more active on social media like Facebook and Goodreads and began looking around, once again, for a publisher for Jessamine.  I'm going to blog about that experience in a future post but right now, to make a long story short, I decided to self-publish and Jessamine, a full-length novel, is now available from all major ebooksellers.  My first two novels were romances but Jessamine and the other manuscript I'm working on are not.  I read in all genres and I'd love to try my hand at a mystery or a horror so we'll see how that goes. 

I've learned, and am learning, a lot about writing and publishing and I hope to share what I've learned with you as this exciting journey continues.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Verifying Copyrights

Recently, I found it necessary to search the Copyright Office catalog to make sure that all of my titles were indeed registered with the copyright office, not only titles I'd published, but also titles that other publishers were to have registered, as per my contract(s). And if you get your rights back, this should be one of the first things you do.

I found the below link to be very helpful in locating this information, and I wanted to share it with my fellow authors. Simply searching the copyright website might lead some to believe it may be necessary to pay for a search by submitting the title information and then paying a certain amount per hour. This is not the case if you simply want to check titles.

The link is: Copyright Search and you can check any title from 1978 to present, using either the title, author's name, or keywords, or any registration/document numbers.

Obviously, the importance of having your work copyrighted cannot be stressed enough. While it is true that your work is under copyright protection "the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device," it is very important to have an original certificate of copyright in your possession just in case it becomes necessary to dispute or defend your works against infringement by others. You may also prefer to have your copyright as public record for many reasons.

Please visit www.copyright.gov for more information - you can use the eCO option to register your works electronically for a fee of $35. This can be used for ebooks, as opposed to back in the day when the only option we had was to mail the printed books months after the publication date.

Write on, or should I say, Copyright on - (I had too much 4th of July BBQ - sorry).

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

An Evening with Oates (and my daughter)

As some of you know, I'm in the throes of earning my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. One of the good things about the process, and there are several, is working our way through the stories by a wide variety of writers that Joyce Carol Oates gathered for Telling Stories; an Anthology for Writers. (New it's $40, but my used copy cost me $8; I highly recommend getting your own copy.) We've been discussing Oates' theories on writing and her reasons for selecting these stories, so of course I was reminded of the time in October of 2010 my daughter took me to hear Joyce Carol Oates read from her work, speak about writing, and answer questions about the craft. I wrote about the evening in my now defunct LiveJournal. Since plans for publishing the leather-bound limited edition of my old posts have hit a snag, I thought I might share the story with you.

My oldest child, Alethea (I wish I had an icon of just her and me together), took me to hear Joyce Carol Oates last night.

"Do you like Joyce Carol Oates?" she asked as preamble to the invitation.
"Joyce Carol Oates, the breakfast of intellectuals?"
"You do know you don't have any grandchildren because I think that's hereditary," my daughter said.
"Does it help that I was quoting someone else?"

At length I was able to convince Alethea that though I've never read one of Oates' novels (thus blowing my creds as a 'serious' reader) I've always liked her short fiction and would love to hear her speak. I even promised to make a passable attempt to control myself in public. Thus, against her better judgment, my daughter took me with her to Keenan Auditorium at UNCW.

The program, which was hosted by the English and Creative Writing Departments of UNC Wilmington, consisted of Oates standing on a bare stage behind a simple lectern and talking for a bit about her life as a writer and the craft of writing, then reading one of her stories, then answering questions that had been submitted in advance by creative writing students to be read in stilted academic tones by an English professor. There was a reception of sorts and a book signing after, but the poor woman was so mobbed we did not stick around for the chance to say what everyone else was no doubt saying about appreciating the honor of meeting her.

I decided I liked Oates herself when she walked out on stage. Her blouse was teal, UNCW's primary color; a nice gesture toward her hosts. And she was carrying her purse – a largish, practical sort of bag – as though it hadn't occurred to her to ask someone to hold it and she was too conscientious to leave it lying about. She plopped the bag matter-of-factly on the lectern and pulled out the rolled pages from which she would later read before taking a moment to regard the audience with evident pleasure.

"This is exciting," she began. "I spend most of my life alone in my study obsessed, as all writers are, with structure or this or that or some other aspect of whatever I'm working on with only my cat, who is never impressed with me. So whenever I'm out in public and get to see real people who seem genuinely interested in me and what I have to say I'm always a bit giddy."

She spoke for a while about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction. (Simplistic summary: Nonfiction conveys information while fiction conveys knowledge.) She told us it was impossible to ever say what a story meant; you can recount the events, but to be understood the story must be experienced. She used Shakespeare's "King Lear" as an example. She spoke of the differences between art from the heart, such as van Gogh's rich oils, and art from the intellect, which she called 'calibrated,' using James Joyce as an example. Anecdotes connected and illustrated these points. As she spoke she would occasionally make languid gestures that did not always seem to correspond with her words, as though directing our attention toward distant objects. My thought is she was indicating where these ideas she was sharing with us lay in the landscape of her mind.

The story she read was "Pumpkin-Head," the opening piece of her new anthology Sourland. It is a brutal tale – a story of brutal events that is equally brutal to the reader's expectations and emotions – Alethea and I were riveted by Oates' quiet, compelling reading. She lightly affected the accents of her characters, indicating without belaboring the differences in heritage and social status. The description of the violence was surreal in its poesy – the victim of sexual assault distancing herself internally from the event even as it was happening made more immediate through Oates' voice. (In discussing the story after the fact, Oates said that neither of the characters was wholly good or wholly bad. I understand her point, but gotta say I think one was a lot badder than the other.) Sourland is on my buy list.

One of the student's question asked her to explain or expand upon a quote of hers about writing. "Did I say that?" Oates asked. "I've been around forever and have been talking most of that time. I've said just about everything at one time or another. I have no idea what I meant by that."

Another student challenged her to defend Rape: A Love Story, which she did ably. However based on Oates' summary of the plot, it's not on my read list. I would get too angry and I've got to watch my heart rate these days.

Of interest to me was her response to a question about the characters in the story telling the story in their own voice. Oates quickly dismissed the notion of a story's characters being somehow out of the writer's control, speaking their own minds and finding their way self-directed through the plot. However, she emphasized, it is the writer's obligation to find each character's voice. She said one of the most damning criticisms is to have a reader say all of your characters sound the same; it means you as a writer did not take the time to understand who you were writing about.

Then, to preface or frame her point, Oates described her own upbringing. Her family had been working class and often below working class – aspiring only to have sufficient employment to provide for their own needs. She was the first in her family to not drop out to find a job to help the family, the first to complete high school. This opportunity and the experiences this opportunity made possible enabled her to become an intellectual. But through her background, her life, she knows that intellectualism has nothing to do with intelligence; intellectualism is just a manner of organizing thought. The wisdom of others is no less real because they lack the tools to compare and contrast or construct and defend a formal thesis. The writer is by nature an intellectual because the writing process, done well, is an intellectual process – a craft of carefully calibrated choices. Sometimes you are aware of the calibration process and make deliberate choices going in, other times the process is more organic, but even at its most organic it is still a deliberate intellectual act. As a writer to find the voice of your character, particularly if your character is not an intellectual, or even intelligent in the formal sense, you have to respect the wisdom of the character; respect who they are. Then as a writer you have to find a voice that is somewhere between their own 'unintellectual' thoughts and nature and self-expression and your own intellectual, calibrated writing process.

The craft, Oates said, is in using your writing skills to give your characters their own voice so they can speak as themselves.