N is for Nope

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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You know, one of the finest pieces of the indie (or self-pub) author community is the general willingness of authors to pass along advice to newcomers. This is usually couched in terms like, “don’t do what I did,” and today I am going to be a part of that proud tradition. Don’t do what I did. Learn to say no: to other authors, to readers, to editors, to agents, to publishers, and above all to yourself.

I said yes to almost everything when I started out: interviewing other authors, running social media accounts everywhere, hosting giveaways, and assigning myself writing targets anywhere in the range of inadvisable to utterly insane. No matter how over-scheduled I was, I would tell myself that it was only a little bit more effort. I was paying my dues. I was helping other people out, and what sort of sad person couldn’t take an hour to help out another author? What sort of person couldn’t get another book done within the month? (An over-scheduled person, and a normal person, respectively. That’s who.)

My burnout took two and a half years to arrive. In the Walker Art Center sculpture garden near my house, there is a series of granite benches with little truisms carved into them. One of them says, “There is a period when it is clear that you have gone wrong but you continue. Sometimes there is a luxurious amount of time before anything bad happens,” and my burnout was a lot like that. It went on for long enough, with me promising myself that I’d stop for a rest after the next book, the next interview, the next clever advertising push, and still somehow not burning out, that I managed to believe it wouldn’t ever happen.

The thing to remember here is that everyone watching could see what was happening. In lucid moments, even I could see it. But just as an author’s brain is capable of both believing their book is the greatest book ever written, and the worst book ever written, so we are capable of believing that we are approaching burnout, but we are also not approaching burnout and everything is fine. It’s a Schrodinger’s author thing.

All the more alluring is the siren call of art-ly misery, the longstanding myth that True Art comes from depression and alcoholism. Pardon my language, dear readers, but bullshit. True Art in the form of writing comes from writing, writing, more writing, editing, rewriting, honing, and writing some more. Like any craft, it becomes art by dedication, passion, and discipline. Though you will undoubtedly go to dark emotional places while writing, your art no more requires your misery than any other part of your life. You’d never think cooking a good dinner required unending emotional pain, would you? No. But when we’re tired, over-scheduled (because being busy is a virtue, you know), and courting situational depression, there’s that little voice telling us that this is how things should be.

Learning to say no is a solution that takes a lot of guts. We’re authors, so we’re mainly introverts. We may write epic space battles, but in reality a lot of us have trouble getting the courage to call for pizza. And what’s more, we generally like being helpful. “Oh, sure, I’ll just whip up a book that contains every painful lesson I’ve learned in this industry, it’ll take a few days, tops. Hopefully I’ll still be able to finish my manuscript in three weeks like I planned, though.” We know it’s conflict avoidant, but most of us still don’t have it in us to say no.

So say it to yourself first. Yeah, Stephen King got up at 4AM to write. Yeah, you could do another blog post. Yeah, you could spend some more time interacting on twitter. Yeah, you could get that book out in 9 weeks instead of 12. But maybe try saying no next time. Pause to think before telling yourself, “of course I can do that!” It takes a lot of willpower to say no to yourself, and a lot of practice, but if you can learn to stick up for your health when talking to you, you’re golden!

M is for Mercantile

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Oh, right, selling books. That reason we’re all here as authors. Yeah…how, exactly, does one go about doing that? Fear not! This is your one-stop shop for getting ready to publish. Once you have a manuscript. So, you know, if you don’t yet have a manuscript, bookmark this post and come back to it.

First things first…what do you need to publish on an online site?

  • Blurb: you need a blurb for your book. There are two basic formulas. The first is: [selling point, such as an award] [another selling point, maybe a quote from a review] [brief overview of your book, using not only words that describe the narrative, but words that describe why your narrative will appear to readers]. The second is [really amazingly engrossing synopsis that sets up the main question of the book]. Both work. Both will seem like a very simple proposition and then will drive to screaming insanity. It’s harder than it looks – just stick with it!
  • Author photo: you need a good head shot of you. Just you. Not with someone else cropped out of the photo. It doesn’t have to be super formal, but if you don’t have a good one, get one! Or be mysterious and put up a picture of a chipmunk.
  • Author bio: your author bio should let a little bit of you shine through, whether that’s whimsical or serious. If you’re writing non-fiction, list credentials. If you’re writing fiction, list awards. Either way, don’t be afraid to get a bit whimsical. Remember – you’re not selling this one book, you’re selling you, as a brand that has created this one book and can create others.
  • Keywords: an oft-overlooked portion of book uploads, but an incredibly important one. The difference between sloppy with this and being precise is about 20 minutes of research, so get on that. Spend 5 minutes brainstorming how you think readers should find your books. Should they search for “dragons”? “Young adult fantasy”? Type those into whichever site you’re using and see what comes up. Is it books like yours? Cool. Then make sure to leave room for one or two keywords that are the names of books or authors yours are similar to. Ha! Done. I told you that would be a minimal effort.
  • A cover: oh, my goodness, the cover. GET A GOOD COVER. It is impossible to stress this enough. People do judge a book by its cover. There are fantastic premade covers (I’d urge you towards sites that will only let each cover be sold once), and there are great independent artists who will make original art. Take your time, do your research, and maybe skip some going out to eat or coffees or something. Get a good cover. Get a good cover. Please, get a good cover.
  • Bank information: you need to put in your social security number (for taxes) and some way to pay you (for fairly obvious reasons; if you don’t want the money, you can give it away – but they do have to give it to you first). You won’t need this while uploading the book specifically, but they will ask you for it at some point.
  • A formatted manuscript: this can get a little bit tricky. Amazon is notoriously easy for uploading (.doc or .docx are welcome), but other sites tend to be a bit crazy. If you don’t feel up to the challenge, you can always hire someone to format your book for upload (general rules: someone with verifiable testimonials and up-front pricing). BUT… I believe in you, and it is completely doable for you to manage this on your on. Mark Coker of Smashwords has a Style Guide that, while geared to Smashwords uploads, is just pretty for formatting. Author Susan Kaye Quinn also has applicable posts on her blog. I’m linking you to the iTunes one, for the simple reason that iTunes is the one I find most frustrating.

Got all of these things collected? Great! You’re almost done! One last choice (and it’s okay to spend some time thinking, or change your mind after a little while): do you want to go Amazon Exclusive (KDP Select) or cross-platform? There are benefits to both, and philosophical arguments in both directions. I personally do not do KDP Select for most of my titles, because I want people to be able to search out my books no matter what kind of e-reader they have; Hugh Howey, on the other hand, loves KDP Select because he believes (perhaps quite rightly!) that he reaches far more readers that way. The thing to remember is, neither KDP Select nor cross-platform is irrevocable. Like everything else in indie publishing, it is something you can switch up if your first choice isn’t working for you.

In fact … that’s good advice for quite literally everything in this post. Write a blurb. Get a cover. Choose some keywords. And don’t be afraid to change them up if they’re not working for you.

Onwards and upwards!

L is for Length

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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A while back, my parents were on the hunt for a picture to go in a particular place in their house, and for this reason they were looking for something smallish. They popped in and out of galleries around our house, and couldn’t find anything. Finally, one of the gallery owners explained that artists were shifting away from smaller paintings, because the time-cost was nearly the same to them but buyers expected a much lower price.

Oddly, we’re seeing some of the same dynamics in the writer market. Over a few decades, authors have moved away from short stories as their bread and butter, to novels – specifically, really long novels. Whatever confluence of factors conspired to create this shift, one thing that is certain is that it has been embraced enthusiastically by readers. Raise your hand if you’ve seen a review that mentioned how disappointingly short a book was for its price. Okay, everyone put their hands down. Remember when I said this was odd? Well…it is. Because, you see, it actually doesn’t work the same way for authors as for painters. The time cost of short stories and novels is not nearly so equivalent.

Look over the backlists of some of the genre greats, and you’ll see novellas, collections of short stories, expanded short stories… At the time that Science Fiction was rising to prominence on the wave of Le Guin, Bradbury, and Card, an author could expect to earn much of their money from magazines. They wrote short stories, because that was what sold, and they sometimes expanded or combined those that sold well. Different market pressures from today, where films and books sell markedly better in series, where longer novels are becoming more popular. Of course those writers did a lot more short fiction.

But before you write this off under the umbrella of, “times change,” think how much this must have expanded their repertoires. An author had permission to explore the crazy, the wild, the strange, without trying to make the whole thing hang together with a cast of fifty and three distinct sub-plots. A short story could be spun out in a day – and some of the greats allegedly were. And even if the day’s  (or week’s) work was not publishable, the author had spent that week working on their craft, exploring ideas, and perhaps sparking another idea that would be publishable.

If you’re now beginning to have nostalgia, don’t worry. It seems like short fiction is on the way back in. After all, starting into a series of multiple 100k+ word novels can be daunting, but a novella or short story is a few days’ worth of lunch breaks or after-dinner reading. For all that one or two readers might 1* for having the temerity to ask them to pay however much for a short story (or novella, or anthology), others will happily devour short fiction.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, one of the main craft themes of this blogging challenge is to explore and get out of your comfort zone. So, yep, consider this your exhortation to write things out of your standard format or book length! Write the weird, the wacky, and the things you aren’t sure you have any hope of pulling off. Sink a night or two into something with no definite future. Explore. Afraid you’ll write a piece of crap? Well, you might just write the next Ender’s Game. So remember…

no time spent writing

 

K is for Kangaroo

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Think about the last story or novel you wrote with a scene outside. The character might walk through a field or a forest, for instance. There could be a long journey! An alien world! There are quite a few wonderful stories that take place all inside, but the vast majority will involve the outside world, full of sun and wind, kangaroos and ferns, and all manner of other wonderful things.

At CONvergence 2014, however, fellow indie Tania Richter pointed out something: most fictional worlds (i.e., worlds shown in media) don’t contain all manner of wonderful things. There’s grass and there are trees, often there’s birdsong, sometimes there are flowers. Fantasy worlds often have deer and horses. But when it comes down to it, we don’t build the richness of the worlds our characters would be experiencing.

The point has stuck with me. The richness of the flora and fauna, I realized, was part of what informed the worlds of Cherryh’s Cyteen and Downbelow Station. The lush elegance of the Chinese landscape in Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars perfectly complemented the elegance of the culture he described, by turns civilized and cruel, and spoke to the wildness of the myths he explored. Even in YA, a genre often elegant for its simplicity, Dealing With Dragons and Beauty stood out for their descriptions of the landscape.

This isn’t a minor thing. Nature is beautiful, dangerous, often chaotic through a sentient being’s eyes, and above all dangerous. How your characters interact with their surroundings is a more elegant method of description than exposition, and it provides opportunities to show a character’s complexity. In Cyteen, the characters’ struggle against the harshness of their new planet provides unique challenges that Cherryh is very willing to explore, using the starkness of a world in which everything earth-like must be imported to make a commentary on just how human we can be when not on Earth. In Beauty, our protagonist’s interaction with the fields and stables of her home in the country is not only contrasted with her previous and later lives of luxury, but gives us a chance to see how she tackles adversity (which is pretty well, actually). And in Dune, one of the seminal books of genre fiction, the harsh realities of Arrakis provide both conflict and resolve, in many directions – contrast, for instance, the resolve of the Sardaukar to withstand adverse conditions, with Liet-Kynes’s resolve to create a lush paradise.

So the next time you slog through a freezing cold puddle, or flail desperately around the kitchen trying to kill a centipede, or get hay fever, remember how much the natural world subtly influences your life every day. When you smile at the green fuzz on budding trees, or the profusion of wildflowers in a field, or the tenacious grasp of lichen on a mountainside, you can reflect on how muh you were born to be awed by this earth. So go out and watch some nature documentaries (Planet Earth is a pretty good starting point), maybe read Into Thin Air or peruse this list HERE over at Goodreads.*

When we fail to develop the flora, fauna, and weather of our worlds, what we have lost is not only an additional level of complexity in our descriptions, but an entire dimension of who our characters are in relation to the vagaries of life. Nature is adversity, adversity provides conflict, and our character’s actions in the face of conflict are what give our story its momentum.

Questions? Comments? Let me know what you think!

*Just don’t have your characters do pretty much anything the woman in Wild did if you want them to survive.

J is for Joking

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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My goodness, what a start it’s been. We’ve talked about characters, about keeping track of our money, about themes and interpretations, about the frustration of people not liking our work (or taking something completely weird and out of the blue from it). So today, we’re going to go a little bit lighter and talk about jokes and general humor in books.

The wise-cracking main character is definitely a mainstay, especially in mysteries, romances, and spy novels – James Bond, anyone? And these jokey characters can be witty in two main ways: first, they might be funny in an aspirational way, having the perfect witticism for any given moment (or being brave enough to say it; second, they might be using humor to help themselves cope with something truly awful. While it’s great to have a character that people cheer along with for saying all those things we sometimes wish we could say, it’s the second way I’d like to talk about today.

Humans need humor. Even a rudimentary web search will turn up tons of articles, of which I have selected two for your perusal:

Sure, it’s not food or air, but beyond its general health benefits, humor provides humans with things that really, truly help us: the ability maintain good spirits in dark times, a mechanism to laugh at a world that’s far bigger than we are, a way to poke fun at things that are terrifying to us. And I say that these are beyond the health benefits of humor, but in fact they’re part and parcel of them: we can let ourselves be eaten alive by insecurity, doubt, and fear – or we can find humor in those moments and distract ourselves from our worries.

So why would we leave humor out of our novels? Novels thrive on conflict (in fact, a good novel is so dependent upon conflict that I’m thinking I should have done C is for Conflict), and conflict cause stress, worry, sadness – all of those things that can be helped immeasurably by humor. And while we hardly want to rid our characters of conflict entirely, the fact remains that they would at times be tempted to explain away the angst with a well-timed joke or two. Sometimes, we have to laugh at the darkness.

Still, authors are resistant. It’s been shown that serious media garners more awards, and adding jokes just reeks of genre fiction, doesn’t it? Better to be serious. Better not to taint a genuinely moving work with frivolity.

And yet… The greats manage to bring humor even into dark stories: Hamlet uses humor as a way to lash out at a world he believes has betrayed him; The Hobbit is full of whimsy and amusement, just as much as adventure and drama; The Sparrow has humor and laughter as well as sadness; and writers such as Mary Roach and Bill Bryson manage to bring much needed humor into the serious topics of history, science, and our place in the universe. In fact, this Goodreads list HERE has scores of books with humor and drama! We, writers and our characters, are humans, not some creature with only sad feelings. So why do the writers want to limit our characters to a half-life?

The next time you want to add that joke? The only thing to worry about is whether or not that particular character would make it. Beyond that – full steam ahead!

I is for Interpretation

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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This is mostly a post about awareness of our own hang-ups as authors, but we’ll be focusing on interpretation. I’ve touched on it many times already in this series – the right of others to take different meanings from your book than you might like, or to like your books or not as they choose. Some of this interpretation relates to execution, how well the reader believes you’ve pulled off what you meant to pull off, while another part of the interpretation relates to what the reader thought you were trying to pull off in the first place. As an example, I’ve included excerpts from some of the reviews for Shadowborn below:

The most annoying cliffhanger ever.

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Of course the ending was great so [I] felt inclined to read the 2nd book.

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The pace is slow the story drags you down and at times is extremely depressing.

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…a steady pace, but kept interestingly bright. A good light read…

As you can see, readers have different opinions about the end, pacing, and tone; in other reviews, you can see wildly disparate views on court intrigue, the first person narration, the central mystery of the books, and whether or not the protagonists count as whiny. This really isn’t anything unique to writing, either. Look at reviews of movies, restaurants, or museums, and you’ll see the same thing. (While the comments on news articles also make an excellent example, they may destroy your faith in humanity, so tread carefully there.) The one point to hold on to for the rest of this post is that just like you and your friends have differing opinions on books sometimes, people will have differing opinions about yours – and this is okay.

On the other hand, as an author, you have the undeniable upper hand in this argument. You know what you were thinking when you wrote the book, so your interpretation is the One True Interpretation…isn’t it?

Well…

This is an extreme example, but let’s say you’re at a convention, author-ing things up, when someone approaches you with one of your books clutched in their hands, a tale of swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, a book you wrote to be fun and silly. This fan tells you that your book meant the world to them, because they identify strongly with one of the secondary characters, a ship’s cook who escaped their life as an indentured servant and followed their dreams to sail the seven seas. The fan tells you that because of this character and your message of inspiration, they chose to leave a horrible home situation and are much happier and healthier for it. You pause before answering. To be frank, you always thought this secondary character was pretty annoying, and furthermore, you never really intended the book to be inspirational in the first place.

Still, you’re probably not going to tell this to your fan. You will probably thank them for their kind words and sign their book, and you will go home feeling a warm glow inside, pretty much entirely untroubled that this person interpreted your book differently than you did. In fact, you may begin to assimilate this into your own opinions, accepting that Annoying Ship’s Cook is an inspirational character. Cool!

Now imagine if that reader had come up to you to say that although they enjoyed your previous works, they felt that the character arc of your swashbuckling pirate was a bit wooden, and although your theme of equality and emancipation was all well and good, they hoped you would return to your previous series instead of writing more Dread Pirate Roberts Clone. Of course, it’s possible that you would take a hard look at DPRC and decide the backstory was, in fact, pretty wooden, and therefore you would edit the sequel heavily before uploading. However, it’s far more likely that, although you would still be polite, you would probably be much less likely to accept their interpretation of the character arc or book as an entirely correct, valid opinion. You’d go home poking at the memory like a mental bruise, and either decide the person was wrong, or decide not to think about it anymore.

My point is that arguing with readers over interpretation is something we do pretty much exclusively when we feel it tarnishes the reputation of the book. It isn’t a conscious thing, it just happens, and only by practice and discomfort do you acquire the sometimes-skill of opening your mind up to a different interpretation of one of your books. Because just like you don’t assume that your friends and family are wrong when they don’t like your favorite books (although at this point I might sell one of my organs for a friend who loves Cyteen like I do), it also incorrect for us to think that people are “wrong” when they interpret our own works differently than we do. A reader sees the book through the lens of their own life, experiences, and sense of self, and our book may unnerve them in ways we did not anticipate, or uplift them in ways we could not have expected. Although we may feel free to give our own interpretation when asked, it is not for us to pass judgment on how closely their interpretation aligns with our own.

Authors, do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments!

 

H is for Honey Badger

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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A starting note: on the off-chance that you missed the cultural moment of the honey badger, I suggest watching this video before reading onwards.

 Good? Good.

There are many ways in which I hope you won’t emulate our friend the honey badger, most notably hunting cobras and diving face first into beehives. However, your ability to adopt the honey badger’s Don’t Mind lifestyle will give you a certain edge in the writing business. Sure, the magical ability to shut down negative press might seem like a good thing now, but really all it would mean was that we couldn’t trust book reviews anymore because all of them would be 5*s, and what’s the point of that? And in practice? There IS no magical ability to suppress bad press. You can try, but all you get is high blood pressure, ulcers, and more bad press, so it’s really just not worth it.

I’m relatively sure that since someone first began telling stories, there was always someone around the campfire (and later in the temple, grove, agora,  you name it) who was rolling their eyes because the language was too boring, or the character didn’t speak to their innermost soul, or there weren’t enough dragons, or whatever. This person was right, in that there are never enough dragons, and in that their opinion on the story was completely valid.

However, the storyteller had put themselves in a uniquely vulnerable position socially: by telling their story, they were showing off daydreams and desires, things not lightly shared amongst humans. They were opening themselves up to ridicule on a very personal level, and in that moment of vulnerability, they could not likely discern the difference between, “I really think they ‘wherefore’ should have been a ‘herein'” and “Bob, you are a despicable human being.”

When we get bad reviews, we must channel the honey badger. First, we remember the books we have not liked in spite of a glowing recommendation from a friend, and we therefore remember that not all books are for all people. Next, we take a few deep breaths. Then we must do something to distract ourselves, like going out for a walk or sobbing brokenly into having a cup of tea. Then we start writing again.

I think that review was really unfair, your brain will say, and you must serenely tell it, honey badger don’t mind, because among other things it is really difficult to have a serious conversation with someone who says that. Your brain will probably persist. But other people liked my book, which means that negative review was wrong. Keep writing. After all, what have they written? They don’t know how difficult it is to write a book. Keep writing. …But what if the review was right? What if my writing is just unutterable crap? What if I’m a huge failure. You may at this point remind your brain of the good reviews you’ve gotten, and repeat that honey badgers don’t mind this sort of thing, and at least you had a better dinner than raw cobra.

It’s not just reviews, either. There may be message boards, facebook groups, comics, or even people talking about your book. You may consider responding to it. Do not do this. Do not. Close the browser tab. Shut off your laptop. Walk away. Remember that you are emulating the cobra-killing awesomeness of the honey badger. If you are in desperate need of a distraction, look at this picture (not really NSFW, but a language warning) and then emulate its excellent attitude.

It hurts, it really does – which is why writers wince when we see one of our own lashing out about reviews. Yes, in case you wondered what would happen if you did speak up, that is (alas) not even close to a mystery. It happens all the time, and some of the meltdowns are…glorious? Epic? Whatever the case, we wince because even though we shake our heads, we also understand. Sometimes seeing a negative review does absolutely nothing (this will become more common as time goes on), but more often it either tears a gaping hole in your chest, or slides you into a slow but seemingly unstoppable funk. Ye gods, it hurts. These are your characters! Your words! You spent hundreds of hours on this book, and this random person is saying awful (to your ears) things. The next time social media flutters over one of these meltdowns, hopefully you will be wincing and shaking your head, because it will not be you.

Be nice to reviewers (the rule is mainly: don’t interact with them, and don’t sic anyone on them). Sweep your arm out majestically and say “behold the field…” Channel the honey badger.

And then keep on writing.

 

 

G is for Genre

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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I never could read science fiction. I was just uninterested in it. And you know, I don’t like to read novels where the hero just goes beyond what I think could exist. And it doesn’t interest me because I’m not learning anything about something I’ll actually have to deal with.
James D. Watson
There’s a saying I’ve been taught since I moved to the American midwest: “some people’s kids.” You look out at someone doing something terrifically stupid or upsetting, and you sigh, and you say, “some people’s kids.” And everyone nods knowingly. And here’s where it gets wonderful: as far as I can tell, other than rehashing the story over the dinner table, the event is forgotten after that. Some people’s kids. What’re you going to do. Anyone want to go get ice cream?
Frankly, it would be great if we could apply this as a standard to the literary industry, where there seems to be some sort of universal license, as displayed in the quote above, to be a massive asshat about what kinds of books are Real Books, and what kinds of books have Value, and what kinds of books are Emotionally Compelling. We talk smack about adults who read YA, about any sort of genre fiction, about literary fiction writers being snobby and self-published authors being sloppy. In the end, we’ve managed to waste a while bunch of time…and make some writers and readers feel terrible about themselves.
For. No. Reason.
Originally, this post was about learning what’s in and out of style in your genre and why, being familiar with tropes, and learning to work with what your audience expects. To paraphrase Larry Brooks of “Story Engineering” (a book I heartily recommend, but maybe look at the reviews so you know what you’re in for before you read it), what is overdone and boring in one genre may be groundbreaking in another. I wanted to teach you to work with what you’ve got.

And then I got sidetracked. Which happens incredibly often. Ah, well.

Instead, this post became about something very dear to my heart: writing the book that’s in your head, that you are passionate about, that shows the characters you love. Damn the torpedoes genre naysayers, full speed ahead. To illustrate, I want you to try an experiment. Think of a book or movie that filled you with emotion, go look it up on a review site, and skip straight to the 1* reviews. You’ll see “boring,” you’ll see, “lacking characterization.” You’ll see reviews by people who were seventy kinds of un-wowed by this book, and some by people who hated it with a burning, fiery passion.

The reason I say to try this experiment is that it’s far easier with someone else’s work. You know how you felt when you read that book (or saw that movie). It’s non-negotiable; it just is. The experiment is still going, though: now I need you to realize that not only were there people who did not feel the same as you, there are people out there who think that the entire genre of this book or film adds nothing to the human experience.

They are clearly wrong. So we can leave that in the dust and move on.

So I’m going to lay out some truths for you, and these are truths I want you to cling to when people talk crap about your chosen genre – because they inevitably will, and somewhere in the raw-feelings wasteland of having published a book, you’ll stumble across this diatribe and soak it all up and get magnificently angry while kind of wondering if everyone else believes it. (Spoiler alert: they don’t.)

  • Sad-spectrum feelings and serious feelings are not the only important feelings in the human experience. Write a happy story if you want to. It does not lack merit.
  • There is no genre that has a monopoly on all the available reader feelings. Anyone who says that a particular genre can’t elicit serious feelings is wrong, full stop (and not so great at philosophy or logic, either). Your choice of genre says absolutely nothing about your skill as a writer. Your choice of genre does not lack merit.
  • It is almost inevitable that your book will share qualities with other books, and I only say “almost” for the sake of statistical accuracy. Your book will share qualities with other books. You will hit tropes. This does not mean you have nothing new to say. This does not mean you have not said it well. Similarity does not mean your book lacks merit.
  • If your book gets popular enough, there will be people who talk smack about whether or not your book is really whatever genre you’ve billed it as, and whether your fans are real [genre x] fans. Have some tea and ignore it. This does not mean that your book lacks merit. Some people’s kids, right?
  • Oddly, if your book gets popular, there will be a lot of people who find this a reverse-indicator of quality. I suggest reading Don Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” for an informed and unapologetic look at why books get popular, and then shake your head at the idea that people who read books are not good arbiters of what makes a good book. Popularity or lack thereof correlates with merit, but is not an indicator that your book either has merit, or lacks it.

So I will leave you with this wonderful quote from Madeleine L’Engle, and go back to writing. Happy reading, happy writing, and ignore the haters!

Madeleine Quote

F is for Failure

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Dear authors, you will fail at many things in the years to come. Just today, for instance, I have failed many times at writing this blog post.

Ahem.

However, and more to the point, you will fail at writing your stories, and that is more troubling to deal with than, say, a burnt quiche (depending upon how hungry you are, and how much you like quiche). It is truly a terrible feeling to sit down at the computer, your mind brimming with ideas and your fingertips fairly dancing, and spend the next hour feeling like your brain has been dragged backwards through a hedge, and you have nothing to show for it. You were absolutely sure you had this story down pat, after all. You were composing it in your head! You had come up with wonderful sentences, only now that you see them on paper the words are very, very wrong.

To be honest, I wish I could tell you that you would, from Day One, write wonderful novels without any typos or other flaws, publish them into a niche market upswing, win universal and international acclaim with well-deserved piles of money, and somehow still maintain your privacy. And if you do, in fact, accomplish this, I wish you well and will only be a little bit jealous. I know some people who have come really close to this, and they’re all fantastic individuals. Unfortunately, and I hate to blow their cover, these are people who have also known failure. JK Rowling didn’t start out rich, George R.R. Martin took YEARS off from writing after his career failed to go anywhere, Hugh Howey spent ten years working in bookstores. Even Stephen King didn’t start out with a bang.

So what about failure? What about the legitimately good aspects of failing? What do you learn from having one of your stories hit the market with a whimper rather than a bang – or having readers and critics alike hate it? Your stories pull the emotional guts out from inside you and show them off to the world – and there’s no hurt quite like someone looking at that and going, “eh.”

So let me tell you about failure. In my first ten months as an author, I sold two books. Two. They were $0.99, and I only sold TWO. And you know what that taught me? Sometimes you only sell two books, and the world keeps right on spinning, and you still love writing. Pretty reassuring, that. And not to spoil you on the process, but what happens after that is you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and write another book. And that next book is better, because you have more experience under your belt, and more confidence that you can write a book, and the daredevil thrill that says, “I’m going to bare my soul to the world and see what happens” – because that thrill is addictive. And lest you think that failure will dog you forover? Less than two years after that first dull thud, I had sold 20,000 books, which was something I wouldn’t have thought possible when I started out.

Failure makes you dig deep. Sure, your writing will push you to emotional lows and highs you didn’t know existed as you grapple with portraying the entire range of the human experience. It’s not only getting into your character’s head, after all, it’s finding the words and sentences that will breathe life into them. Writing is a fraught endeavor, one Robin McKinley aptly described by saying, “Every once upon a time for me is another experience of white-water rafting in a leaky inner tube.” Even more emotional draining than writing, however, is failing at writing, and you will inevitably do so. When you do, I hope you remember this blog post. I hope you think to look up JK Rowling’s quotes on failure. I hope you take solace in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I hope you clutch your mug of tea and realize, in some distant corner of your mind, that things will not always feel so awful. That you are going to love writing just as much tomorrow – and that you will know more about the process, and push gamely onwards.

Good luck. May you fail often, and succeed gloriously!

E is for Editing

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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You knew we’d get here eventually, right? Right?

Right. So here we are, and this post could be pretty short. If you DO need to read and dash, here’s the condensed version:

  1. Editing is a thing that needs to happen
  2. You should edit the crap out of your own work (in all senses)
  3. You can’t do all of your own editing

If you’ve got a bit more time, we can go through all of these points a bit more thoroughly.

Editing is a thing that needs to happen. You’re really proud of your manuscript, and I get that. It is a thing of beauty and grace, and I am super happy that you’ve completed it, and I’m proud of you. Finishing a manuscript is not easy! It is really, really hard work and you deserve a cup of tea (or a glass of wine). In fact, please don’t think that we’re passing any sort of judgment on your manuscript by saying it needs editing, because we aren’t. You could write the most beautiful novel in the world and there would inevitably be a few typos and one or two paragraphs to move around in editing – but in point of fact, the most beautiful novels in the world got that way because of editing. Editing takes your glorious concept and distills it, rearranges it, takes out the jarring bits.

Editing takes your manuscript from, well, a manuscript, to a novel. You don’t even have to take my word for it – just set your manuscript aside for a few weeks and then look back over it. You’ll notice some areas you want to flesh out, some sentences you might not actually use. You might shift a plot point earlier or later. Editing is like washing a car – you’d never assume there was something wrong with the car because you needed to wash it.

You should edit the crap out of your own work. Edit like mad! Edit until your fingertips hurt! (Or your red pen has run out of ink!) It will hurt. It will be exhausting. You will realize how much you need to change and you will think, “I cannot cope, I must go take a nap.” But as with writing discipline, you must forge ahead. Edit, copyedit, edit some more, shriek in frustration, keep editing. Then send the manuscript to your beta readers. Then have a nap.

You can’t do all of your own editing. Every once in a while, a seasoned writer will say that they don’t need an editor anymore. This is usually a sign to run for the hills (or at least wait for reviews on their next book before buying it). The truth of the matter is, while you will undeniably get better at writing as you continue to do it, putting together a novel is DIFFICULT. Copy-editing ten words? Not so big a deal, but what about a hundred thousand of them? Checking a 1,000 word story for continuity? Again, hardly as difficult as a novel. And there’s so much more an editor can bring you – perspective, suggestions about moving bits here and there, showing you where you made a leap and they couldn’t follow. You’re too close to your work to see everything. Please, please, find a beta reader (or ten) and an editor.

One last piece of advice… If you hire an editor, stick to a few basic rules for one. First, make sure it’s clear from their website (or first email) exactly what they do and how much it costs. It’s a very good sign if they link to a professional organization for standard rates and so on. It’s ideal if they have references online. Do a web search on their name and see what comes up on sites like AbsoluteWrite and Preditors & Editors.

Questions? Suggestions? Leave a comment!