Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Guest author Christine Stovell: Recurring Writemares

Christine Stovell jokes that her journey to publication has taken her from chocolate to Choc Lit. Winning a tin of chocolate in a national essay competition at primary school inspired her to become a writer but losing her dad to cancer made her realise that if she was ever going to get a novel published she had to put her writing first.  Her first novel, Turning the Tide, published by independent publisher Choc Lit, is a Kindle bestseller in the UK.  Her second Choc Lit novel, Move Over Darling is an October 2012 release.

Hello again!  Thank you, Liane, for inviting me back and to all of you for allowing me to be your guest at Novel Spaces.  October 31st, Liane reminded me.  Halloween. But rather than talk about the supernatural, I’m inviting you to share some of your worst ‘writemares’, the fears that keep you awake at four in the morning. Or maybe you’ve conquered your night ‘write terrors’ and can share the secret.  As a small thank you for having me back I’m giving away a copy of my second novel, Move Over Darling, which came out this month and is published by Choc Lit.  All you have to do is leave a comment and I’ll pick a name at random next Wednesday, 7 November. To set the ball rolling, here are few writerly worries that scare me when they go bump in the night.

The Ghostly Whisper
‘Hey Chris,’ the Inner Critic whispers, shaking me awake, ‘that novel you’re writing?  It’s rubbish – I’d stop now if I was you because you really don’t want anyone else to read it.  Delete it now before anyone sees!’ To think I thought that, having overcome the dreaded Second Book Syndrome, writing Novel 3 would somehow be easy, but I’m back in the same scary dark place looking for a glimmer of light.

The Ghastly Apparition 
Absolutely the best bit about writing for me is when a reader tells me they’ve enjoyed one of my novels. It’s not about my ego, it’s the sheer joy of connecting with another person.  The not-so-great bit is having someone tell me how much they hate my work.  One particularly well-crafted dissection of my first novel left me tearful and trembling… although I had to smile at the person who added a comment to the effect, ‘I agree.  This is a terrible book,’ or similar.  (I can’t quite face going back to check!).  That’s fine, I hope the dissatisfied readers find something more to their taste, but, just as experience has taught me I’m easily spooked by scary movies and should avoid them, I’ve now discovered the same probably applies to scary reviews.

The Dead End
Uh-oh! These characters are going nowhere! I’ve forced them into a situation because I thought it would make life easier for me and now they’re dying of boredom and I may not be able to resuscitate them. This one’s a problem of my own making – usually because I don’t know my characters well enough so I’m moving them around like bits of plastic and that’s how they’ve started behaving. Having to retrace my footsteps can leave me in a cold sweat, but sometimes the only way to make progress is to go back.

The Unknown
With my second novel, I’ve had to leave the safe, familiar comfort of my desk to venture out to promote my book. I’ve experienced live radio for the first time, as a guest on Roy Noble’s Show on BBC Wales, I’ve been interviewed for local press and I’ve written an article making the case for romance in a national magazine. Believe me, I’m flattered to be asked and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to talk about what I do – but it has caused me a few sleepless nights fretting about all of these events in advance.

The One About Being Naked in Public
Two weeks ago, Move Over Darling did something extraordinary, racing up the Amazon charts and settling – for a heady moment – at #2 in the Movers and Shakers chart and at #3 in Women Writers & Fiction. I was very tickled to see my title with its bright cover and Doris Day references resting between two editions of Fifty Shade of Grey. Then I remembered the old saying about the higher you climb the pole, the more of your backside you reveal! I felt better, mind you, when a friend observed that she couldn’t help feeling that E. L. James had shown a lot more of her backside than I had writing FSOG!

Well, that’s my top five writemares, although there are many more, but what about you? Do writing worries keep you awake? The first name out the hat gets a copy of Move Over Darling, so you can put on the light and read instead.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The truth, the whole truth and ONLY the truth

A few weeks ago, Dayton wrote about Research and the importance of this task in a writer's work. I've been immersed in some research myself recently. In fact, I have read so much about snakes for my new children's book 'Sea Scapes' that I was really not surprised to find that one had materialized in my garage last week.

I do a lot of my research on the internet. It is convenient and it can be comprehensive, however, I was interested to realise how completely unreliable internet sources can be. Try to find out whether or not snakes can see in colour and you will find a plethora of experts contradicting each other and even more amateurs commenting although they know nothing concrete on the topic.

Today's writers rely quite a bit on the internet as they research topics to make their characters and scenes authentic. However, we have to be extremely careful about where we get our information. Do a search on the internet and Wikipedia is sure to be in the top ten results on your search page. It is true that this source contains a great amount of information, and it is true that much of it is accurate but consider the description the site proclaims--"the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit"--and you will understand the need to be cautious. The information is provided by volunteers and the site relies on the users to point out errors. The views are often biased and can be inaccurate.

For my snake research I had to do things the old-fashioned way. I headed out to my local library to get the information that I needed. What sources do you rely on when researching for a book? 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cold Case Murder

In conducting research for my archaeological mystery American Caliphate, I spent five summers investigating a pyramid complex on Peru’s north coast.  I’ve written of these excavations before, but I left a few details out. 

Some grisly murders took place here. 

The culture that built the pyramids is called Moche.  They were a warrior culture, profoundly violent, yet at the same time, their pottery betrays an unexpected sensuality. 

Archaeologists are the detectives of prehistory.  We investigate the past, and in the case of the Moche, our investigations often enough turned up evidence of violent crimes.  One day we were excavating a platform off the back of one of the pyramids, and we came across a skeleton lying partly under a wall.

Yup, that’s a mud-brick wall dating to about 500 A.D. that’s on top of the skeleton.  And here’s me getting down into the pit to work on the excavations.

Here’s a close-up.  I was a little concerned when I saw the teeth in the eye socket, but it turns out one of the excavators put them there for safe keeping, so they wouldn’t get lost.  And that was a relief. 

And there’s the leg, just sticking out of the wall.

Then we brought him to the lab and started running some diagnostics. 

He was a young man in his mid- to late twenties with perfect teeth.  A thorough examination of his bones revealed hardly any wear and tear.  He was a noble; someone who had enjoyed a life of luxury – up till a point.  Up until the moment someone stood him on the edge of a ledge and smacked him in the back with a sword.

Those are the marks the sword made on his ribs. The blow drove him over a ledge.  Exactly how he died, whether from the fall or from further injuries, we can’t know.  But immediately thereafter, for reasons not yet understood, a wall was built over him.

Are we going to solve the case?  Will the killer be brought to justice?  I doubt it.  This murder was committed more than 1500 years ago.  No, our killer got away with it.  The tools that archaeologists can bring to bear on the violence of antiquity are blunt.  There’s only so much we can resolve.

But the tools that a mystery writer can bring to bear on the violence of antiquity are robust.  I’m never going to forget that man who got smacked with a sword, then buried under a wall.  He’ll turn up in my stories here and there.  That’s basically how I built my story for American Caliphate, by letting the clues lead me to a place the scientist part of me couldn’t answer, but the writer part of me could run with.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The definition of success

While watching the local newscast, I heard a reporter introduce a prominent doctor as a successful surgeon, before proceeding to recite a long list of his achievements.  I turned to my husband and asked sarcastically, “So if another surgeon doesn’t accomplish all that he has, does that make him an unsuccessful surgeon?” 

 My husband shrugged nonchalantly and responded, “I guess it depends on how you define success.”

I smiled.

When I first decided to publish my stories, my idea of success was getting a traditional publisher to publish my story.  At that time, I was not thinking about self-publishing and (now shamefacedly) like many authors a few years back, I didn’t think of self-publishing as being successful.  But now that I have gotten my work published, and spent three years without another in print, my idea of success has changed.

What makes a successful author?  Is a successful author a prolific author?  I can think of one Pulitzer Prize winning author who only published one book.  Harper Lee is by any measure a successful author.  Not only did she win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, but her book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, is considered an American classic and is assigned reading for English Literature in most middle and/or high school classes.  Yet Harper Lee is not prolific.

Is a successful author a rich author?  Well in that case the successful authors are few and far between.

Is a successful author on the NY Times bestseller list?  That is one measure of success.  But does that mean any author who is not on the NY Times bestseller list is unsuccessful?

Is a successful author published by a traditional big publishing house?  I’ve seen many successful authors who have self-published, even some producing bestsellers.  I’ve seen huge publishing houses publish books that tank.

What I’ve concluded is that what defines a successful author is dependent on the definition of success.  And that definition is not only subjective, but is also dynamic.  The definition of success as a writer is constantly changing for me.

What do you define as success for an author?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A writing space of her own...

Liane's post about proper attire for writers got me thinking about proper writing spaces, after all, I've got the attire down pat and have never worn sequins and sandals in my life, but what about the places where we write?  For a couple years now, I've written at a mahogany table set up in the living room.  The table faces one of the windows.  As you can see from the picture below, it's a pretty orderly space - everything is, basically, just so.  My pen mug is always on my right and the glass paperweight always on the left.

Below is the view through the jalousies - a couple trees to the left, a road in front and, beyond that, the ferry terminal.  The sun is usually just as bright as it appears in the picture so I mostly keep the jalousies closed.

I've learned to shut out the noise from the street as I write, the beeps as people hail each other from passing cars, the snorting of heavy-duty trucks and the roar of muffer-less scooters.  Thankfully, the horns of the inter-island ferries and the loud blare from the occasional cruise ship are not an every-day thing.  But this is far from ideal for me.

Ideal for me would be a vine-covered wooden shed, set apart from the main house, in a country which cared about such things as noise pollution and actually took steps to curb it.  All I'd want to see from my shed, when I looked up from my keyboard would be the flowering shrubs in my garden.  In this shed, all my books would be stacked from floor to ceiling.  A comfortable chaise for naps and reading bouts would be the only piece of furniture other than my desk, chair and cabinet.  Oh, and moving from the shed to the kitchen would require more than the ten steps it now takes which would do wonders for my waistline!

So, what about you?  What would your ideal writing space look like?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dress code for writers

Johnny Depp in Secret Window

Try to picture a writer at work and what comes to mind? I'm willing to bet it's something like Johnny Depp's character in Secret Window—wearing a garment so ancient and ratty he could push his fist through the holes and still have room to spare.

I'm here to tell you that writers do not dress like that for work: we discard the robes when the holes are big enough for us to poke two fingers through.

Not long ago, the issue of attire came up among Novel Spaces members. Several of the females confessed that we—coughthey pretty much lived in jeans and sandals and avoided events and places that required anything more complicated. Certain male members, on the other hand, appeared to think that 'formal' and 'business casual' meant they had to wear pants. The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn was that male writers, um, hang around pant-less much of the time.

Ratty bathrobes, no pants, jeans, sandals, and event avoidance? We decided an intervention was needed. After much intelligent discussion we arrived at a sensible dress code for writers. Since there is no way to enforce any kind of code in the privacy of people's homes, we stuck to public appearances—the ones we can't come up with creative reasons to weasel out of.

The Novel Spaces sartorial code
  • No sequins and fisherman's sandals worn together (both sexes)
  • No bare shoulders (both sexes)
  • No cleavage (anyone who has)
  • No mini anything (women)
  • No Armani dinner jackets over Speedos (men)
  • No jeans and sandals—no sandals! (both sexes)
  • No topless ensembles (both sexes)
  • Kilts, to replace the dreaded pants (men)
The code was proposed, ratified and adopted by all. Writers, be guided accordingly.

Liane Spicer

Friday, October 19, 2012

Nothing Rhymes with Poetry

I dislike poetry.

I was never able to avoid poetry growing up, much as I tried. From junior high school through my first run at college every English or Lit course had an obligatory poetry element. Pretty much against my will many of those required poems have stuck with me, not so much as influencing forces but as bits and pieces of rhyming detritus lodged in unused nooks and crannies of my frontal lobe (of which there are legion); Frost with his horse in the snowy wood, Sandburg with his cat-footed fog, Kipling keeping his wits - all the standards are in there somewhere. And of course I can recite what every teenager thinks is the heaviest piece of writing they've ever seen, the single most quoted (and practically inescapable) poem in the English language, William Butler Yeats's The Second Coming. Fragments of that poem are everywhere.

Actually, I think I should specify I dislike reading poetry. Listening to it is fine; Shakespeare's plays, the lyrics of any song, all of these are poetry. Even some ad jingles, Lord help us. They are composed of words chosen for sound and imagery that have been carefully set in a structured cadence and rhythm to create a desired effect. (And cadence is not rhythm. If a poem's in iambic pentameter, iambic is the rhythm and pentameter is the cadence.) Even blank verse – a complete mess on the page as the poet tries to use white spaces and oddly positioned words to imply grammar and relationship – sounds good when read aloud by someone who gets what the poem is about.

I think my dislike of words scattered across the page is a function of my dyslexia; b, q, d, and p are the same letter to me, identical if presented without positional clues. I spent so much time learning to figure out what I was looking at growing up that I can sight-read a find-a-word puzzle. Really. You think a word like "disenfranchise" is hard to read when spelled backwards in an ascending diagonal? That's how it looks to me half the time anyway. Being able to read upside down as quickly as I read right side up was a real boon as a classroom teacher. (Doesn't work for reading in mirrors.)

After three point five paragraphs devoted to my dislike of poetry it should come as no surprise that I have favorite poems and poets or that I have had one (count 'em, one) poem published in my lifetime. It was written during my Bohemian period, the year I took off between high school and college. It was chosen by a regional literary quarterly that paid in copies and disappeared without a ripple three and a half decades ago. In other words it was not a professional sale, but at the time I was impressed with myself.

Something times One is said
to equal Something.

In math that
is called
of Identity.

I need someOne
to times with.

Pretty much adolescent angst on a stick, I know, but I hadn't yet turned twenty and was still mistaking doubt for depth and hormones for passion. An astute student of the late Beat period may notice the work shows influence of one of the first poets I 'discovered' on my own: Richard Brautigan. (Actually, you'd have to be a very generous student with intuitive skills bordering on the clairvoyant.) For those unfamiliar with his work, I recommend you start with his novel Trout Fishing in America and/or his collection of poems The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. One of my favorites is the title poem from the collection, here in its entirety:

When you take your pill
it's like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
lost inside of you.

I know some, like my brother who teaches English at a real university, dismiss most of Brautigan's work as word play. I'm going to come back to that idea in a moment, but first one more poet: Billy Collins. A former USofA Poet Laureate, Collins does atypical things with words. I don't think I'll ever get tired of his delightful Tension, for example. In fact, I think you should go read that now. I’ll wait.

"Tension" looks a lot like word play, doesn't it? But yet it's still with you, and will stick with you; just like "The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster." And they'll stick with you in part because, as I said of poems earlier, they are composed of words carefully chosen, balanced, and positioned to evoke a desired effect. This effect is amplified when the choice, balance, and position are unexpected.

The myth of the dreamy-eyed poet is as stereotypically erroneous as the myth of the starving writer. Writers and poets are craftsmen (mostly because I can't bring myself to use "craftspeople" and I can't think of a gender-neutral equivalent) who work at mastering the tools of their trade then use those tools to the best of their ability. And you know what? Poets are more disciplined than writers. They use fewer words to greater effect. For this reason alone every writer should study poetry. Listen to poetry if you have as much trouble reading it as I do. Go to a poetry jam – where poets face off, building on each other's words to create a new whole, the verbal analog of jazz musicians letting loose collaboratively when the mere hearers are gone, creating what won't be repeated. Study why poetry works, the nuts and bolts and wordplay that make verse memorable. Because, while you as a writer probably never have to be as spare and structured as a poet, knowing how to use the poet's tools will make your own work stronger.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Research, Research, Research!

[sarcastic voice] Who doesn’t just love homework research? [/sarcastic voice]

Most writers likely will agree that research is a very large part of the job. I also figure I’m not alone in that I tend to run hot and cold on actually doing the research, depending on the topic. For example: legal matters or politics? Yuck. Military history or blowing up stuff? I'm there.

As one who toils mostly in the realm of science fiction, the research I sometimes have to undertake is of its own special flavor. There are many, many occasions when I have to do a fair bit of science homework, mostly so that I can understand a “real world” concept or piece of technology in order to be able to sound like something less than a total moron when I’m writing about it.

Results on that tend to vary, by the way.

For science fiction writing, that also can mean being able to grasp the concept well enough to then extrapolate from the real information in order to take a stab at where that idea or technology might be fifty or a hundred years down the road. Even if you’re making up a chunk of technobabble, more often than not you still need to ground it in something that’s not a bunch of stuff you just pulled out of the air, or some other place we probably shouldn’t mention here in this more or less family-friendly blog.

When it comes to licensed works like my Star Trek novels, there’s also the requirement to be updated on that universe, its characters and technology and, yes, even the internal “mythology” which spreads across six television series and eleven films comprising a “future history” of hundreds of years. In some cases, there’s more to track, because I might be writing a book in an ongoing series which carries forward story arcs spanning multiple novels written by other authors. And if I get something wrong? There are legions of fans and readers out there, just waiting to pounce. Hey, I knew the job would be tough when I took it, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Of course, sometimes the needs of a project end up taking me in the opposite direction, too. A project on which I’m currently working has a plotline that unfolds over a period of many years, beginning in the 1940s and extending to the late 1960s. My research has caused me to read up on such topics as the Cold War and the Space Race, but also more mundane subjects like how telephones worked, what people wore or the newspaper they might read or the brand of cigarettes they smoked. Everybody smoked back then, right? And it was good for you. What was on television or the radio on a given day? Which day of the week did a particular date fall? Was it a full moon? The Internet makes research like this so much easier than it might’ve been even ten or fifteen years ago. If you can conjure the right search query, there’s likely at least one website out there with all the information you might possibly want.

Naturally, there’s a pitfall here: You risk becoming so fascinated with a particular topic that you end up spending hours reading just for the kick of it, rather than taking notes for use in your story. This has happened to me on my current project, in which I found myself reading about UFO sightings in the 1950s, and the Air Force’s Project Blue Book. I’ve even tracked down books on the subject written during that time period, just so I could get something approaching a genuine firsthand perspective of the era. Of course, another danger comes from getting so caught up in your newfound knowledge that you’re unable to resist sharing all the minutiae with your readers. I’ve caught myself doing that over the last month or so as I write. Danger, Will Robinson!

How about you? What sort of research do you do for your particular brand of writing? Do you like research, or dread it?

Stay or Stray?

A friend who was reading my latest book, The Water of Sunlight, emailed me while she was still on chapter one to say, and I quote, "Wow!  You've strayed far from your romance roots!"  And I have.  It's true.  Sunlight is a gritty story of one's woman redemption after she is imprisoned for the attempted murder of her drug dealer.  There is no romance of any kind in sight!  Yet, my first novel was a light novel set in the Virgin Islands - lots of sun, sand and sea, a handsome hero and a strong-willed heroine.

So, how have I found myself in Sunlight tackling issues like drug abuse, women in prison and HIV/AIDS?  Aren't I, perhaps, damaging my career by writing all over the map?  My second novel, Dido's Prize, was a historical adventure romance and the third, Jessamine, hmm, well, that had a bit of romance, a bit of suspense, it had a strong historical element but it was also partly contemporary so it was quite the callaloo as we would say in the Caribbean.

A lot of what I've read on the subject (see here and here) suggests sticking to one genre and becoming known in it before branching out and, hopefully, taking your readers with you.  The argument is that when you jump from one genre to another, you don't get the chance to establish a relationship with readers who may trust you enough to follow you to another genre.  I can see the merit to this argument.  Nora Roberts is said to have waited until she was well known in romance before branching into her J. D. Robb series.  But I read in all genres - why shouldn't I write in them, too?  (For a discussion on the topic, check here.)  I like romances and will probably return to them but there are other stories I want to tell, as well, and not all of them will have a happily ever after.

What do you think about multiple genres?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Guest author Graeme K. Talboys: The Story of a Circle

Graeme K Talboys was born in Hammersmith, London. He still blames his parents. Since then, he has been coming to terms with the fact that he had his head taken apart in the ‘60s, whereafter the bits were exposed to loud music from various sources, strange movies, stranger writings, and some downright weird people. It eventually got put back together, but there were bits left over and they never did find the budgie.

In between being a space cadet and teaching in schools and museums, he has written nine works of non-fiction, eight of which have been published (on museum education, drama, and matters spiritual). He has also written twelve novels. The first (written when he was seventeen) was lost on a train. The next two (written in his early twenties) he wishes had been. Four later novels have been published, three of which are still in print (Wealden Hill, Thin Reflections, and now Stealing into Winter) and a collection of short stories (Stormwrack) will be published later this year.

The Story of a Circle

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a land with no computers, just two channels on the television, and a distinct absence of central heating (otherwise known as 1960) a young boy made a discovery. He was surrounded by books, had learned to read at an early age, and around about the age of seven he realised you didn’t just have to read other people’s stories, but that you could make up your own and write them down.

That was how it all began. Sitting at a small table in his bedroom, he would fill little red cash books with stories that were lavishly illustrated with brightly coloured felt tipped pens. It might all have faded away; he was also rather fond of an enormous construction kit and loved to build things. But in 1962 he started to take a new, weekly magazine for children called Look & Learn.

Look & Learn was a large format, full colour magazine packed with factual articles and superb illustrations. It covered every subject under the sun and was well balanced between the sciences and the arts. What particularly captured this young boy’s imagination were the articles about writers and the serialisations from classics of literature. In a pre-computer age when owning a television was still considered a luxury, this magazine opened up the world to a hungry mind. It stuck a compass point into a blank sheet.

The young boy grew up and eventually I became a ‘proper’ writer; a journey that had the best send off imaginable. I still revisit those magazines, appreciating as an adult just how well-written they were: informative, interesting, literate, never patronising. That the magazine later incorporated such comic strips as ‘The Trigan Empire’ was just the cherry on an already well-iced cake. For such a confection, it was nourishing fare.

The writing journey has never been an easy one, but it has always been fascinating, with an almost obligatory surprise at each turning. Somewhere along the way, quite early, I began to read the books of Michael Moorcock and New Worlds, the magazine he edited. The fertile ground in which my imagination had thrived was given a whole new slant (and some very weird fertilizer). Much later I became associated with a project that is compiling a Michael Moorcock bibliography. There I learned that early in his career, he had written for Look & Learn; a fact that had the compass turning to sketch in, for me, parts of a circle.

Looking back over my books, I now realize it is the joy and wonderment I found in Look & Learn that I have tried to evoke in my own writing; that and the economy of language allied with an assumption of intelligence on the part of the readers. Another arc completed.

But the closing of the circle, and an event that has given me enormous satisfaction, is the endorsement for my latest novel provided by none other than Michael Moorcock. As one of those instrumental in inspiring me to start writing, who encouraged me in the ‘70s to continue, and whose work (in all fields) I much admire, I feel honoured to have one of my titles associated with his name.

This foray into a more commercial form of fiction is not exactly new (I had a spy novel published in 1999), but it is the first time that I feel I have come full circle and, armed with experience, I now feel ready to set out on a whole new journey.

A free, signed copy of Stealing into Winter will be sent to someone chosen at random from the comment trail.

When Jeniche, a sometimes successful thief, found her prison cell collapsing around her, she knew it was not going to be a good day. Certainly, the last thing she wanted once she had escaped into the war-torn city was to become involved with a group of monks and nuns on pilgrimage. Even less did she want to help them escape and guide them through the desert and into the mountains so they could get home. Of course, the last thing you want is often the first thing you get. In a world growing painfully from the ruins of a long past catastrophe, it is not just the Imperial ambitions of the Occassan nation that worries people; it is the all too real danger of the past rearing its vicious and mysterious head. What did happen all those centuries ago? What has it do with a thief? And why are the Occassans so interested in her skills?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Are You a High Maintenance Author?

If you love to read, then the job of acquisitions editor for a small press is a dream come true. If you hate to dash dreams, are easily swayed or thin-skinned, find another occupation.

I am the gatekeeper who stands between you and the publisher. The publisher concentrates on production and relies on me to take queries and make decisions based on the needs of the publishing house. We share a vision and it's my job is to find manuscripts for that vision.

So, read the guidelines and study titles we've published. Get an idea of what we're looking for. We concentrate on our strongest genres where we have marketing expertise.

Note our word length. Larger outfits can produce huge books and charge more; we have to keep production cost down and make books affordable.

If it's a mystery, kill somebody already! The days of long literary passages are over. This is a TV generation, so grab my interest and do it quickly.

Show me craft. Anyone with a computer can write a novel, but few realize that writing needs to be studied like any other profession. Craft is more than punctuation.

Don't be high maintenance. What do I mean by that? Here's a list. If any of the descriptions sound like you, change your attitude or change your profession.

THE BRAGGART. “This is the best book you'll ever read. All of my relatives say so.” I'm not impressed, nor am I going to let the opinions of others sway me.

THE BEGGER. “Please publish my book before I die. I just want to see my name on the cover.” I sympathize, but that's not a good reason for me to send a contract. That's what vanity press is for.

THE DEMANDER: “Have you read my book yet? Will you read it in the next 24 hours?” No, so don't bug me every week. The more you ask, the longer it takes.

THE SENSITIVE: “You don't like my book? You don't like me!” I'm not rejecting you, and I will take the time to tell you why your book didn't make the cut.

THE IMPATIENT: “I got the contract a year ago. Where's my book?” Publishing is slow. We do our best, but we get the flu, have the occasional crisis and sometimes get overwhelmed with the workload. I work on Christmas and Thanksgiving—do you?

THE SLOB: “I wrote the book, now you fix the punctuation, grammar and spelling errors.” Nope. I'm going to pick manuscripts that are clean.

THE INFLEXIBLE: “My words are precious, so don't change them.” I respect your opinion, but it might lose you a contract.

THE LAZY: “Me, market? That's for underlings. I'm an author!” I need authors with marketing savvy and a willingness to promote.

THE CLUELESS: “I want to be on the bestseller list. And I hear Hollywood calling.” Make sure your expectations are realistic.

THE BAIT AND SWITCH: “Thanks for doing all the work on my book, but now I'm going to give it to another publisher.” Time and money wasted. Plus, some deserving author lost an opportunity.

I look for red flags early on in our relationship. If you are a problem child, I'm not going to make my publisher deal with you. Like I said, I'm manning the gate. I'm looking for authors who will work WITH the publishing house, not consumed with their own self-worth that they demand special treatment. It's important to keep your individualism, but not at the expense of a contract.

What kind of author do you want to be?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Final Fullstop

I sent off Book 3 of the series Chee Chee's Adventures today. People compare releasing a book to giving birth, but this was more like sending a kid to college because it has been loafing on my computer for weeks, but I haven't been ready to let it go. What finally spurred me into action? The sounds of Christmas that are softly making their way into my consciousness as the weather gets cooler and the store sales get more intense. Let's face it, Christmas is the best time to sell children's books. I've been working on a plan for the season and it finally dawned on me that it might be useful to have a few books to market! (We can't all be rocket scientists, okay.)

But that's not the point of this article. (Yes, I ramble when I talk as well.) I wanted to talk about the process of writing, self-editing and knowing when to stop. You know how it goes. Every time you read the piece you can change something; maybe for the better, maybe for the worse. Even after an independent editor has reviewed it, you still go at it again searching for something that could improve it. This challenge may be greater for those who self-publish because our deadlines are self-imposed and easier to ignore.

We all want to put out the perfect book, story or poem. I promise you that there comes a point, and fairly early in the process (after the grammatical, logical and spelling errors have been removed), when the longer that you work on it, the more likely you are changing things for the worse. You start removing phrases that were beautiful when they flowed spontaneously from your pen and replacing them with more stilted wording. At some point, before you start hating it, you have to trust that you have raised a wonderful child ... sorry, written a compelling story, and send it out into the world.

How do you know when it is time to stop working on a story?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lend A Helping Hand

As a college professor, I get a lot of students coming into my office to discuss career plans.  And if they’re coming to me rather than to a counselor, it’s for one of two reasons: 1) they want to be an archaeologist; or 2) they want to be a fiction writer.  And I feel duty-bound to encourage them to do neither.

Seems harsh?  It seems harsh to me to, so let me explain.  From my vantage point, here in the nearly bankrupt state of California, I see students graduating with little in the way of marketable skills.  And I much as I love the idea of college as a time to find yourself, it’s also the best time to find yourself ahead of the competition.  Because that’s what all those other students are: the competition.  Do what you want in life, but you still have to put beans on the table.

Years ago, as a student, I attended a seminar given by the actor William Windom.  He spoke to an audience made up largely of drama students.  One student asked him what advice he would give an aspiring actor.

“I’d tell him not to be an actor,” Windom said.  “It’s too hard, too cut throat, too demeaning, and there are already too many people who want to be actors.  Your chance of success is negligible.”
The student who asked the question was speechless.  “I can’t believe you’d say that,” he said.  “It’s my dream.”
“Then get over it,” Windom told him.  “Look.  Everybody wants to be an actor.  Most will fail.  Some have it in them to really do the work, and take the chance, and be a grunt for years without recognition.  Most don’t.  So if I can scare you off, then you have no business being an actor in the first place.  You’ll never make it.  If you shrug off what I just told you, and you start acting anyway, then you might be one of the lucky few.  But it’s not my job to encourage you.”
I never forgot that talk.  

And that’s what I tell my students.  It’s not my job to encourage you to pursue your dream.  It’s my job to present you with the cold facts.  I love archaeology and I love writing.  So does everybody.  But these are hard dirty paths.  One involves a tireless commitment to drudging toil, hoping day after day that you will come across something of value, and the other involves digging in dirt.  

So when I tell my students to go be a nurse instead, or a programmer, I want to see their reaction.  Because if they laugh it off, and tell me they don’t care, and that they’re going to be an archaeologist or a fiction writer anyway, I’ll tell them to have a seat.  It’s time to make a plan.  And I’ll be right there to lend a helping hand.

(a mummified helping hand from the site of El Brujo, Peru)

Because if you’re willing to give up on your dream just because someone told you to, then it’s time to rethink your commitment to that dream.  If, on the other hand, you know the odds, and you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and spin the wheel, you might have a shot.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Red hot chili peppers—the spicy side of romance

I was at a party a few weekends ago where I met two young ladies.  A relative of mine introduced me to them as an author.  They proceeded to ask the question that most authors get, “What kind of books do you write?”

When I responded that I wrote romance, one of the ladies said with disdain, “That kind of stuff is too hot for me.”

“What kind of stuff?” I asked.

“If you write anything like what she [my relative] reads, well that is just wild stuff.”

Turns out my relative reads erotica.

Of course I defended the genre by saying romance is about love.  A discussion ensued where I tried to show the difference between romance and erotica.  I described romance as being driven by the love between the main characters, while erotica is driven more by the sexual content whether or not there is a love story.  Furthermore, the sexual content in erotica is generally more explicit than in romance.  But after a few minutes of discussion and a few blatant examples, I realized the lines between romance and erotica were sometimes so blurred it was difficult to distinguish.  

Why? The romance genre is a spectrum when it comes to the sexual content.  On one end of the spectrum lies the inspirational romance based on faith, where there is no mention of sex or even male/female contact besides holding hands.  In those, even among married characters, sex can only be implied.  On the other end of the spectrum is the spicy romance that contains so many explicit sex scenes that they can be categorized as erotica.  Between the extremes there are the sweet romances, the mild romance with just an implication of sexual activity and the more spicy romances with one more sex scenes between the characters in love.  Even then it can vary from sweet and romantic, to hot and spicy, to outright erotic.

So how can a reader tell whether a romance is sweet or spicy?  I guess they can read the summary at the back of the book.  But that often times tell the story line without indication for the spice level.  They can use the author as a guide.  If the author is Leanne Banks they can expect something a lot spicier than if it was Debbie Macomber.  But some authors write both sweet and sensual romances.  A third way to distinguish is by the imprint.  We can expect Harlequin Blaze and Kensington Brava to be spicy hot, while traditional Regencies and Harlequin’s Silhouette would be more on the mild side. But with the increase in self-published books, using the imprint as a guide may not be so helpful.

Well, some groups have provided a spice ranking on their blog reviews so one can tell how explicit the books are.  “All About Romance” rates books as Kisses, subtle, warm, hot or burning.  Their descriptions are posted on their website  My favorite ranking system, mainly for its metaphor, is the chili pepper ranking by “notyourordinarybookbanter”  Their rankings include the chili green pepper, chili red pepper, chili pepper on fire and chili pepper roasted.

While these rankings don’t give the intimate details of the book or storyline, they do give a good indication of the sexual content of the book.  For example, my novel, “A Marriage of Convenience” was given a “warm” ranking which aptly indicated the level of sensuality. The unfortunate thing about these rankings is that you cannot find them on the books when you purchase them in the bookstore and they are only available when those particular blogs post a review of the books.  Maybe in the future Amazon will do a similar sensuality ranking or publishers would put those rankings on books.

But until that is done, to determine the spice level of romance readers will just have to depend on the resources they have at their disposal: the blogs, the quick scan of the books, author stereotypes, or recommendations from friends.

As for those two ladies at the party, by the end of the conversation, they were eager to obtain copies of my romance novels. I guess I didn’t do too bad a job of selling myself and my genre.