Have Books, Will Read, Need Time

November 25, 2013

Recently, I’ve had the good luck to acquire a nice stack of new (or new-to-me) writing books.

Writing Books

They are …

Publishing E-books for Dummies by Ali Luke – This is fairly technical reading, but after checking it out from the library, I really wanted my own copy as a reference. I’m about halfway through and plan to use it as my Bible for formatting and publishing Rumpled.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide by Angela Ackerman – I bought this one because I wanted to bring an Amazon order up to $25 so I could get the free shipping. I read about this book in Writers Digest and put it on my wishlist long ago. It has an alphabetical listing of emotions, along with some common facial expressions, gestures, or other mannerisms that are outward signs of that emotion. It’s not the type of book one reads cover-to-cover, but I thought it might be useful when I feel there’s too much lip-biting or hand-wringing going on. I haven’t used it yet, though … now that I have it, I almost feel as though using it would be cheating. It’s probably a better tool for revision than rough-drafting, anyway.

The Creative Life: True Tales of Inspiration by Julia Cameron – Another one I read about in Writers Digest. I still haven’t even cracked The Artist’s Way, but I’ve got the follow-up ready to go for when I do!

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card – There are not a ton of writing books out there that are genre-specific, and this is only the second one I’ve come across for sci-fi and fantasy. The other one I’ve read is How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction by J.N. Williamson, and that was over 16 years ago when I was writing my first fantasy novel. I’ve written about my ambivalence toward Orson Scott Card, so I feel it behooves me to say that I got this book through Paperbackswap so OSC isn’t making any money from my acquiring it. And when I’m done, I’ll pass it on via PBS again.

Magazine Article Writing by Betsy Graham – My dad bought this for me at a secondhand shop and recently rediscovered it in his basement. It’s over 20 years old, but good writing advice never goes out of style. And as much as publishing has changed and expanded over the past 10 years or so, magazines themselves haven’t changed much — aside from developing robust online counterparts and/or folding altogether.

If and when I get around to reading these, I’ll be sure to post my reviews here. And now that I’ve shared them, it’s time to finally make room for them on my shelf!

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My Marketing Revelation

November 18, 2013

Cover image from Sarah Pepper’s newest release.

Last week, I went to a community ed class about how to market your book put on by Sarah J. Pepper, a local author who has achieved success through both traditional and self publishing. I always wonder when I show up at these things whether I’ll learn anything new, and I always walk away from them glad that I went. Along with some potential freelance contacts, great handouts, and frantically jotted notes, I also came away with this revelation:

To really market, I need to stop writing.

Not forever (God no!) but long enough to not be distracted. Long enough to let my writing energy rest and build up. Long enough to really commit myself to marketing, and long enough to possibly see results.

This came when Sarah admitted that her husband told her she “can’t start” writing a new book until after her soon-to-be-released Death of the Mad Hatter is released. So all that writing energy goes toward … promoting the upcoming book.

I’ve never been good at marketing because I always try to squeeze it in on the fringes of my writing work (which I try to squeeze in on the fringes of my paid work). And since I don’t like marketing, it’s easy for it to fall to the bottom of the “to-do” list. It’s not so much that I don’t like talking about my work — like most writers, I enjoy that very much. But I don’t like feeling like I’m “bugging” people. And as an introvert who doesn’t really like to be “sold to,” I project that onto anyone I might try to sell myself to, and I sort of crumple up inside. And I retreat to writing. True, there could be worse ways to avoid a dreaded task. But I really, really, really need to give this self-promotion thing a try if I want to keep striving to make writing central in my life. And I do.

Now the decision point comes — I know that my focus needs to be on my Dark Crystal submission until I send it off, hopefully in early December. After that, my initial plan was to return to work on my Rapunzel novel and work on preparing my Rumpled ebook for distribution. But it may not be wise to pursue both at once, as I’m likely to hide from the ebook within Rapunzel. Still, I’m thinking a good strategy might be to complete my second draft of Rapunzel, then set it aside to work on Rumpled. I’ll probably have some fresh insight when I return to my Rapunzel draft afterwards. Now the real question is whether I can accomplish all this before next November, which is supposed to be my “on” year for NaNoWriMo. Stay tuned!


Are You a Success? By Whose Standards?

November 4, 2013

I’m still a little bleary-eyed and disjointed from odd train schedules and driving throughout the night — I just got back from the annual Call To Action conference, where I came up with ideas for at least two blog posts for Young Adult Catholics, so overall, I think it was a fruitful trip. Between audiobooks on the drive and traditional books on the train (not to mention a 7-hour wait at the station), I also finished three books–one of my favorite parts about traveling–including APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which I’ll review here by next week.

Source: Flickr: Jim Henson’s Fantastic World

On the drive home this morning, I was listening to the new biography on Jim Henson. I’m always a bit nervous when I pick up biographies of creative geniuses, afraid that I’ll feel woefully inadequate by the time I’m done. I thought that would be the case with this one; Jim was already well on his way to the legacy that would become The Muppets by the time that he was in college. But as I follow the story more deeply, I realize that success to the rest of the world and success to Jim weren’t necessarily the same thing. Jim’s characters are recognized and beloved around the world, yet he spent years trying to break beyond being “a puppet guy”–even before he worked on Sesame Street, launched The Muppet Show, or created any of his feature-length films. He wanted to expand into doing “arty” films, including experimental videography, live action, and ambiguous messaging. He only attained moderate success in that arena, with many of the projects he wrote and devoted himself to during this time failing to find an audience. Those that did find an audience met with mixed reviews, and have faded into obscurity today.

It reminded me of the article I found most intriguing in Write Good or Die, “Success” by Kristine Kathryn Rush. In it, she talked about how many writers who are outwardly successful didn’t consider themselves successes because they hadn’t achieved what they really wanted to do. I can relate to this. I used to think being published in something besides a student journal would designate me “successful.” When I hit that milestone at age 21, I wanted to have something published in a book, then write for a wider audience, then publish fiction. Around this time last year, I even ended up with my name on the cover of a book (although I didn’t write it), and I felt as though I were a “real” writer for about a week.

There are other external measures of success, too. While I’ve never made a ton of money, I’ve been privileged to find work I enjoy ever since college, not to mention work that is in my field. My current combination of working part-time as an employee for a news organization and freelancing to round out my time and my income is my “sweet spot” as far as work-life balance is concerned. By my own standards, I consider myself pretty lucky. I know others who are as smart, talented, and educated as I am who have not been so lucky in their work lives, and I remind myself often that I’ve got nothing to complaint about.

Except. I don’t really consider myself a success. My dream of publishing a novel, which I’ve cherished since I was about 10, is still out of reach. And it’s hard to feel successful after spending over half my life writing books and still feeling like I don’t have the right answer to the question, “Have you been published?” or “What have you written?” I feel that the answer to what I’ve published and what I’ve written are not really the same, although there’s the tiniest bit of overlap.

I believe that writing is its own reward; in fact, it’s so rewarding that I have a lot of trouble getting myself to devote as much time to submitting my work as I devote to writing it. The E in APE totally freaks me out. But I know that if I go through life without publishing a novel, I will feel like I’ve failed at my own measure of success, regardless of what else I might accomplish. And if I do publish one? I have a feeling I’ll be plagued by wishes that more people had read it, that it got better reviews, that it sold more copies.

This all might seem like a rather discouraging thread, but its effect on me is the opposite. It helps me keep things in perspective. Even Jim Henson received three years’ worth of rejections on a project he loved that never did get produced. I hope that at the end of his too-short life, he was able to appreciate everything he had done, and not dwell too much on what he hadn’t. I hope I’ll be able to as well.

Because ultimately, the next dream will always be out of reach. That’s the definition of dreaming. And maybe that’s why so many people who were “success stories” by the world’s standards felt like they fell short of their own. And maybe that’s not as depressing as it seems.


NaNo’Ers, I’m With You in Spirit

October 28, 2013

Although I usually take one year to “recover” between attempts at NaNoWriMo, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at November the same way again.

This year, I’m on “recovery,” still working on the novel I pounded out last November (I’ve discovered that novels written in a month take two years to revise). But as November draws nearer, NaNoWriMo is still very much on my mind. On Wednesday night (October 30), I’ll be leading an online chat about NaNoWriMo at New Moon Girls, which is free for members. I’m also leading, “So, You Want to Write a Novel?”, a webinar for girls ages 8-14, in which I’ll share some of my tips for writing and finishing novels.  Girls need not be members of New Moon to attend. The webinar is offered twice — once on November 5 and once on November 7. If there’s a girl in your life who is tackling NaNoWriMo or novel-writing in general, send her my way!

As for me, I’ll be finishing up my Dark Crystal submission in November, while a friend is working on producing one short story a week. May this November find you keeping the winter writing spirit in your own way!


Rumpled ebook Cover – Your Opinions

October 14, 2013

I’ve been reading a lot about self-publishing ebooks lately as I slog through APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur and Publishing e-Books for Dummies. A few months ago I made a “final” decision about the cover for my retelling of Rumplestiltskin, Rumpled, but I’ve been second-guessing myself and overthinking it. So I’ve decided to open it up to “crowd wisdom” with a vote on the following designs, all of which come from artist Krystl Louwagie.

Cover 1

Cover 1

NewVersion2 copy

Cover 2

Rumpled Cover

Cover 3

RumpColorEmily1

Cover 4

Some of the covers have different taglines than others; please disregard those and consider design elements only (color, font, illustration, etc.) when you vote. You can click on the images to see them bigger, but it’s important that the cover look good in small scale, since ebook covers are often displayed as thumbnails.


To Outline or Not to Outline: A Question Only You Can Answer

September 17, 2013

A few weeks ago, as I fretted over my Dark Crystal submission (which I still haven’t started), one commenter authoritatively told me I must write an outline for it. I did, and I am, because it’s such unfamiliar territory for me that I just feel a lot safer going in with a map. But that’s not always the decision I make.

Currently, I’m reading APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which recommends outlines and disses authors who don’t use them handily in one tidbit of advice:

“Many authors find an outline too constricting, but an outline sets me free. If you can’t write an outline, perhaps your thoughts are insufficiently organized.”

I had to bristle at this. It’s one thing to offer advice to would-be writers, quite another to imply that they are lacking if they do not follow your advice. The March/April issue of Writer’s Digest featured a wonderful article on “organic writing”; that is, writing without an outline, seeing where the story might take you. I used to be an outliner, but then I met NaNoWriMo, and I discovered the joy of flying by the seat of my pants. That’s when I learned I could be an organic writer, too, and now I often write without an outline. The advantage is a heightened sense of discovery; the disadvantage is the potential to panic if you don’t know what’s next, which can perhaps lead to an increased risk of writer’s block (at least, it does for me.)

A friend in my writer’s group has recently begun writing his short stories without an outline. There is no difference in quality between those that were written with or without outlines; if anything, the ones written without outlines are better, because he continues to develop his skill as a writer.

I once read something about Stephen King in which he said he no longer used outlines, that he could “feel” when the story was getting off-track and self-correct it. I find that writing without an outline has developed this sixth sense in me as well. If you think of an outline as a map, it makes a lot of sense to use it in unfamiliar territory to keep you from getting totally tangled in your jumble of prose. But after you’ve been writing for years, especially in a particular genre, you probably will get through the thicket just fine without a map to guide you. Your intuition will tell you when you’re going down the right path, and when you aren’t. And if it doesn’t? Revision is your friend.

I’m currently working on a novel-writing webinar for girls that I will offer in partnership with New Moon Girl Media. I plan to start with the idea that there are two types of writers: “planners” and “pantsers” — those who plan in advance of writing, and those who get by “by the seat of their pants.” Both types can and do win publication, popularity, and acclaim. I recommend trying both methods to see which you prefer, and more importantly, to get a sense for which approach is appropriate for each particular work. And if you ditch the outline? It doesn’t mean your thoughts are too “disorganized” to make a good book — only that you’re brave enough to tackle your adventure without a map.


Speculative Fiction … Literary Fiction’s Best-Kept Secret

August 19, 2013

A couple weeks ago, I commented on a newly published author’s implication that the reason many writers are not getting published is because they’re writing stories with fantastical elements (and received a very insightful comment from one of my readers that the nature of this particular author’s novel, Race Across the Sky, follows fantasy’s “hero quest” paradigm. Hm.)

This same podcast series also included an interview with Emily Croy Barker, author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. There was no denying that this was a book of fantasy; the interviewer admitted that she didn’t read much fantasy and was “pleasantly surprised” that she enjoyed the book. She then went on to ask Ms. Barker whether she read fantasy, as though we were about to receive a scandalous reveal. Not surprisingly, Ms. Barker said that she did, without hesitation. (I would have been disappointed if she didn’t, as I don’t think authors have much business publishing in genres they don’t even read.)

I’ve been noticing this tendency to eschew the sci-fi or fantasy label amongst other recent books that clearly draw upon the genre for their premises. The July issue of BookPage includes a review of a novel called The Humans which is told from the perspective of an alien who seeks to intercept humans’ development of a certain technology, which he doesn’t believe they’re ready for. In case you missed this important point, this book is told from the perspective of an alien. But instead of being labeled as science fiction, it receives the rather vague designation of “popular fiction.”

On the next page, we have a review of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a novel in which the main character time travels and inhabits different lives while she receives electroshock therapy for depression. The genre? Literary fiction. That’s shortly followed up by Sisterland, a novel about twins with psychic abilities, which is designated as merely “fiction.”

I saw something similar happen with The Time Traveler’s Wife. It has time travel in the title. There is actual time traveling in the book. There is even a (somewhat weak) “scientific” explanation for the time travel. I defiantly shelved it with “science fiction” on my Goodreads account, although you’ll find it under “fiction” or “literature” in most libraries and bookstores.

Can you think of other examples?

So, if time traveling, aliens, and the ability to predict the future don’t qualify as science fiction, what exactly does? To me, this comes down to the problem of a desire to elevate “literature” above genre. Literature is read by those who like to feel superior, convinced that they read for enlightenment rather than for entertainment, and that their college + educations make them oh-so-much-better judges of good literature than the masses. If you want women’s book clubs to buy your book, or to have a shot at that Oprah sticker on the cover, you better not be shelved with genre fiction.

Literary fiction is generally understood as fiction that is character driven, that is concerned with the artfulness of the storytelling, and that attempts to say something “larger” about humanity and/or the world. I have no doubt that the books referenced above fit these descriptions. They may not follow what are considered “typical” fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but then, the very best in any genre reaches beyond expectation. And genre fiction will continue to struggle to be taken seriously if those who are employing aspects of genre as central features in their story deny their association with their high-fantasy and space-opera writing kin.

Despite all the talk about geek being “chic,” apparently in the book world science fiction still reeks of fanboys dressed in Trek gear and shelves cluttered with action figure collections. I’ve certainly encountered this culture (and found much to love in it, btw) as a lifelong lover of science fiction and fantasy. But I’ve also found people who are willing to look critically at the world, to ask the big “what if?” questions, and to join in deeply exploring this thing we call life. Although reading sci-fi and fantasy is certainly not a prerequisite for friendship with me, I find that all my closest relationships are, indeed, with other speculative fiction readers–because they are willing to “boldly go” into new territory of the mind, and bring a continued sense of wonder to the world.

Thus, I think it’s a shame that fantasy and sci-fi writers with a somewhat literary bent distance themselves from this rich community, reinforcing stereotypes that it is not real literature (as opposed to their own story about an alien). I, too, strive to infuse my fantasy and science fiction with literary conventions; plot tends to emerge as secondary behind writing and characters for me. But when I publish, I will wear the label of fantasy/sci-fi writer proudly, and have no doubts about the good company I am in.