The Most Dangerous Game

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”  – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I’m going to do my best to put this into words, despite my suspicions of their inadequacy to convey what I’m feeling.

We’re told as artists, from reliable sources, not to take things personally. Yet the act of being an author, or musician, or painter, is quite tied to our intimacies and close relationships. Any career that deals, even a little bit, with reputation is by default a career of duality. The self is suddenly shifted from a thing of sole possession, to a commodity to be bought and sold.

Don’t kid yourself—as an author, you are your writing. That simple truth is the reason why many authors choose to publish under pen names. It protects them. It shields them from some of the inherent pitfalls of this industry. In retrospect, I wish I’d used my pen as a true pen, instead of a novelty leftover from when I was a girl who once dreamt of being an author.

Why?

Because—just like in Son of Ereubus, nothing is what I thought it would be. I don’t feel like I thought I would. I am not reacting as I thought I would, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.  Blogging only goes so far. “Getting over it” only goes so far. “Holding your head up” only shuts out so much.

I mentioned, months ago, that everything was changing for me. Part of that change includes  sudden interest in my life, attention from people with whom I’ve tried desperately over the years to rekindle relationships—with whom I’ve tried to start friendships with, in some cases. It’s a double-edged sword. I am both grateful and heartbroken: Grateful because the support has been overwhelming; heartbroken, because it has nothing at all to do with me as a person.

I am now the equivalent of my accomplishments. This isn’t universally true—of course–there are some folks who have been in my life and been by my side since long before any of my dreams started to appear even remotely possible. This post isn’t about them.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s talk about relationships for a moment.

Brutal honesty, while honorable in some circles, is simply cruel in others. Siblings, parents, close friends and spouses often bear the brunt of our less-civilized selves, in part because we know they love us and that they aren’t going anywhere … when in truth, they should be granted only the best of what we are as human beings. They deserve our highest respect and deepest consideration. Yet, we seem to reserve those things for veritable strangers … people we want to impress or from whom we have something to gain.

We are not immune to this as storytellers.

Our fellow authors deserve nothing from us but the kindest regard and the sincerest empathy. Instead, we’re often consumed with jealousy or simply too absorbed in our own pursuits to realize how our actions affect our peers in publishing. It all stems back to this childish competition mode that a good majority of writers fall into … as if one person’s triumph has anything at all to do with yours.

Seriously, as a whole, authors can be the most self-serving assholes on the planet. I’ve watched writers tear each other apart, disregard favors, back-stab and sabotage till they’ve flat run out of ideas. Then they wait till opportunity knocks. If you don’t have any clue what I’m talking about, then good for you. But, read on anyway because if you stay on this career path, you will eventually understand me. It might take moving up the food chain a few notches. The darkness of human nature, in some ways, seems at its most raw and excitable in the creative world. Maybe this is because we deal with the soul on a daily basis. I genuinely don’t know. And religious authors are not exempt from this untoward behavior. They just do a better job of hiding their nastiness.

Not all authors are this way (yet those who are, are unavoidable). Some of us will genuinely do anything and everything we can to help out other people. We want to see others succeed because we remember what it was like to feel the all-mighty Power of Suck. Hell, I’ve given shards of my soul away for the benefit of others, and you know what … it was worth it. I’d do it over again in a heart beat. The problem though, is that a great portion of up-and-coming authors are downright selfish. Pure and simple. A great many mid-level authors, who’ve been in the game for years are even worse. They’re not just egocentric, they’re ravenous and exhausted from treading proverbial water. They’re tired of being the sum total of their achievements to their friends and family, and especially strangers, and some are out for blood.

And in a way, it reminds me of the 1932 film ‘The Most Dangerous Game.’ Why? Well, here’s the plot (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Famous big game hunter and author Bob Rainsford  swims to a small, lush island, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. There, he becomes the guest of Russian Count Zaroff, a fellow hunting enthusiast. Zaroff remarks that Bob’s misfortune is not uncommon; in fact, four people from the previous sinking are still staying with him: Eve Trowbridge, her brother Martin, and two sailors.

That night, Zaroff introduces Bob to the Trowbridges and reveals his obsession with hunting. During one of his hunts, a Cape buffaloinflicted a head wound on him. He eventually became bored of the sport, to his great consternation, until he discovered “the most dangerous game” on his island. Bob asks if he means tigers, but Zaroff denies it. Later, Eve shares her suspicions of Zaroff’s intentions with the newcomer. The count took each sailor to see his trophy room, on different days, and both have mysteriously disappeared. She believes their host is responsible, but Bob is unconvinced.

Then Martin vanishes as well. In their search for him, Bob and Eve end up in Zaroff’s trophy room, where they find a man’s head mounted on the wall. Then, Zaroff and his men appear, carrying Martin’s body. Zaroff expects Bob to view the matter like him and is gravely disappointed when Bob calls him a madman.

He decides that, as Bob refuses to be a fellow hunter, he must be the next prey. If Bob can stay alive until sunrise, Zaroff promises him and Eve their freedom. However, he has never lost the game of what he calls “outdoor chess”. Eve decides to go with Bob.

Eventually, they are trapped by a waterfall. While Bob is being attacked by a hunting dog, Zaroff shoots, and the young man falls into the water. Zaroff takes Eve back to his fortress, to enjoy his prize. However, the dog was shot, not Bob. Bob fights first Zaroff, then his henchmen, killing them. As Bob and Eve speed away in a motor boat, a not-quite-dead Zaroff tries to shoot them, but he succumbs to his wounds and falls out of the window where below are his hunting dogs, it is assumed that the dogs kill him for good.

Head on a wall anyone? There are days when this plot certainly seems to do a damn good job hemming up the publishing industry. And it certainly sums up what it means in this current climate to be an author in general. Whether it’s by fellow scribes, or old friends, we’re hunted once we’ve joined the game … one way or another. We can deny it all we like. But, we’re in this for better or worse. We agreed to this. Didn’t we? This most dangerous game?

 

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Passport Please

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.” ~Buddha

Ever have one of those days where you feel like any average exposition class, in any average college classroom in the world could take your novel and use it as an example of how NOT to write fiction?

Yeah … me too.

You read other people’s work and you marvel at their adept prose, their adroit pacing, and their irreproachable characterization. Their adjectives are just the right adjectives. The amount of description they’ve coupled with just the right bit of telling, has you salivating. It has you wondering how you could possibly have ever picked up a pencil (because surely that’s where this misguided calling to be an author started, right?). It has you doubting, with no wounded hands to pick at in your search for hope that what you suspect about yourself is wrong.

And all the blogs you read confirm it. Ten Ways to Plot A Bestselling Novel. You hadn’t thought of a single one of them. Why Your Scene isn’t Really a Scene. And your scene apparently isn’t a scene. Does Your Protagonist Suck … if so Here’s Why. He meets three out of five characteristics for a totally unlikable protagonist. Five Ways To Spice up Your Dreary Ending. Didn’t even know the ending was dreary till now, thank you. Nine Ways to Drop  Your Adverb Habit. Terribly true …

You read all those ubiquitous, helpful, posts … the ones that are followed by nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine comments (that have been featured as Fresh Pressed on WordPress AND by Nathan Bransford himself) … and you feel humbled. No, not humbled. Down-trodden. If you drank, you’d head for the whiskey. If you smoked, you’d have a head-start on half-a-pack for the day. If you gambled, you’d bet yourself right out of a career.

Here’s the thing … those posts, and those books on writing that read more like technical manuals, and all those guest speakers (the ones who tell you that without an agent you’re nothing), they can’t tell you what makes your fiction totally unique and therefore, worthwhile. Do you want to know why?

Because they don’t know.

That’s why I usually refrain from posting specific advice on writing. I could, I’ve got loads of it. But, I can’t account for the subtleties of your individual creativity and style. I can’t just tell you to add some tension to your last scene, without having read your last scene. I can’t tell you to just amp up your pacing, without knowing the rhythm of your novel. I can’t tell you any of these things with any sense of reliability because in some cases, I’d simply be wrong.

But, as writers … especially when we’re feeling that oh-so-familiar downtrodden pseudo-depression, we seek consolation in rules and tips. We want to know that we can get better if we just know where to put our right foot first. We want direction. We want guidelines. We want assurances.

In brave writing … there are no assurances.

Everyone in your critique group can whittle away at your manuscript till it’s a different novel altogether than the one that got rejected 34 times, and yet … when it’s sent out again it can still get rejected. Multiple times. And probably will be. But, we do these sorts of things because we want to share the burden. If you get rejected on your work alone, then you can think to yourself, “God, I must suck at this.” But, if you let a group (and this can be agents’ blogs too) tell you how and what to write, and that work gets rejected, then, “It’s OK because isn’t me or my writing. It’s the market.”

We do that, because our doubt is often stronger than anything else we’re feeling. This isn’t always the case, but when we feel it … we feel it.

In this world we live in as authors, we’ll have more than a handful of ‘guided tours’ available to us. But the fear doesn’t completely go away even when you sign up for one of them instead of the solo trek. All I can tell you with any measure of certainty is that the solo trek, while positively the scariest way to go, is the most  beautiful. It’s terrifying because at the threshold, you’re not just handing over your passport to be stamped, you’re trading it in for citizenship. You’re making a decision that will mean, there is no going back.

That’s not to say that you have to travel alone. I’m not guiding anyone anywhere. As a creativity coach, I’m damn good at motivating others to keep on, to keep exploring. But that’s not the same thing as a guide. And perhaps that’s the biggest difference: We’re all traveling together, my footsteps just as unsure as yours are. I find comfort in this. More so than having to stand behind a huge crowd and listen to some schmuck ramble on for hours about the local vegetation.

But, there are no assurances. I chose to take that chance and while it looks appealing from where I stand and eavesdrop (read those posts like gospel) … looking at that group of tourists all taking pictures of whatever the hell that spikey thing is … I wouldn’t be any more confident over there than I am here. And right now, for me, is one of those moments where I’m sliding on pebbles and having to stop every five minutes to empty shit out of my shoes. It’s OK though, because you’re with me.

And because I have no choice, but, for it to be OK. I’ve handed over my passport.

Creativity Coaching

“Creativity is a highfalutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.” ~Ray Kroc

We’ve all been there … a brilliant idea, a manuscript that’s spilling from your mind like water from a faucet … then something happens. Your boss yells at you. Your main character suddenly takes a hiatus. Your creativity seems to dry up completely. You’ve contacted your alpha readers, and your beta readers. You even broke down and called your mother. Still, nothing helps.

That’s where a Creativity Coach comes in. What we do, is the same thing that a mental health counselor does for a client: We talk things out. It’s as simple a concept as this … sometimes our writer friends and peers are simply too close to help us draw out what’s really holding us back. A third-party can do wonders at helping unblock the creative flow.

And as a Holistic Writer, I keenly believe in the integration of the creative brain and your personal well-being. Which, in a nutshell, is why I’m finishing up my Master’s degree in Professional Counseling over the next year and a half. Long story short, stuff going on in your personal life can seep into your writing and your ability to interpret what your brain is telling you. Creativity coaches help untangle the mess.

Why should I hire you? You’re an Associate Editor for a magazine and you only have a few books under contract … where are all the years and years of expertise?

Well, for starters, I have almost five years in professional writing under my belt. And because for one reason or another, I’ve always been able to cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of the issue. I have the psychology training to wade through the muddied waters of your characters’ issues and yours. Believe me, when you start talking about it all, it can get overwhelming and confusing quick. Plus, you can go to all the counseling sessions in the world, but it’ll take you YEARS to put what you learn through those sessions into your personal writing practice. I’m just skipping a few hundred meetings and getting straight to the heart of the matter.

What’s involved? Well, that depends on you and what you need. We’ll tailor a plan to fit your budget and your needs, but here are some general plans to consider:

Kick-in-the-Pants:
Accountability pure and simple. Some folks just need a face-to-face (or in this case, a Skype-to-Skype) kick in the pants. For $15 a call (fifteen minutes), I’ll literally keep your ass on schedule. You set the number of calls per week/month. Better than an app on your smart phone, I won’t take shit from you.

Basic GPS:
Just need an hour to air your frustrations with a manuscript/publisher/ agent or any other career related subject? We can go over everything from plot development and character construction, to career advice and help on queries. $50 for a one-hour session. Discounts for multiple sessions scheduled.

Greetings, I’ll be Your Guide:
Some novels are tougher to write than others and need a full service evaluation. This package includes a thorough read-through of your work, or work in progress and detailed notes on general observations (note, this is NOT editing). Then, a two-hour consultation where we can talk through the issues. $250 – $350 depending on the length of the work. Additional sessions are available to discuss the work further at the $50 an hour rate.

A Second Set of Eyeballs:
Your publisher hands you a PDF to proof, or you’re getting ready to shoot off your newly finished novel to an agent or a publisher, and you just want a second set of eyeballs on it to check for typos. Again, this is not editing, but simple proofreading.

Short stories 500-5,000 words $25.
Novelettes 5,001-25,000 words $50
Novellas 25,001-50,000 words $75
Novels 50,001 – 100,000 words $100
Novels 100,001 – 125,000 words $125
Novels 125,001 – 150,000 words $150
Novels 150,001 – 200,000 words $200
Anything longer than that we need to talk about when to end your story.

** For the record, I take Paypal and I can break anything more than $100 into payments. I will work with you financially. The only thing I can’t do is an I-owe-you. **

If you’re interested, please send me an email to batman0762@gmail.com for more information.

Two Pronouns and a Funeral

“Barring that natural expression of villainy which we all have, the man looked honest enough.” ~Mark Twain

The word anti-hero has been thrown around a lot lately. The concept of a mandatory likable protagonist has also made its loathsome rounds. Both proponents have aspects of them, and applications, that are correct. In the wrong context, and paired with the wrong character, however, they can be devastating to fiction. Allow me to expound.

But  wait … won’t an unlikable protagonist kill the narrative?

No, not unless you’re writing a romance novel. In that case, one of your two leads has to make up for the other’s initial likability issues. But barring that sole exception, no … this is a myth.

But wait … doesn’t your reader have to care enough to read on?

No shit. I mean, really, does anyone NOT believe that? Come on. I can think of TONS of horror novels whose main characters weren’t the least bit likable, but the story/plot/secondary characters were all interesting enough to propel the narrative to the end. Likability has nothing at all to do with whether or not a reader will carry on reading. Compelling is the word you’re looking for.

Hate me or love me … doesn’t matter whether you love the lead or hate them in the beginning, the motivation has to be there in enough measure to make you either want to see the character get his/her ass handed to them; Or, you have to like them enough to see them triumph. There is a breadth of psychological reasoning behind why merely ‘liking’ a character isn’t sufficient motivation to care what happens to them.

Think of it this way … how many funerals have you not attended for people you liked, but didn’t love? We’ve all been there. A distant relative, a neighbor, a classmate, a sort-of-co-worker … you liked them, but not enough to feel comfortable going to their funeral.

On the other hand, and be honest here, how many people have you known (directly or indirectly) whose death (untimely or otherwise) brought a tad bit of … dude totally had it coming? Keep in mind, this includes famous serial killers who were put to death.

So really, you have to create one or more of the following emotional environments:

1). Interest enough in the plot to compel your reader to rubberneck the impending train wreck.

2). Love enough for one of your leads to compel your reader to weep at the figurative funeral.

3). Hate enough for one of your leads to create an urgent sense of heroism (justice needs to be done here) and compel your reader to emotional action.

Still think I’m full of it? OK, fair enough, how about some examples from books that have done well? And keep in mind too that these aren’t anti-heroes. Not by definition anyway.

* The Shining, Stephen King: “Here’s Johnny!”

* Just about anything Jane Austen has ever written: Can we say, Mr. Darcy?

* Just about anything Bentley Little has ever written: The Resort anyone? What about The Vanishing?

* Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment (Dostojevsky): If anyone did like him right off the bat, please enlighten me as to why.

* Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: Come on … you can’t argue with this one. You KNEW he had it coming.

* Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair by, William Makepeace Thackeray. She grows on you eventually.

* Just about everyone from Lolita by, Vladimir Nabokov.

* Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by, Emily Bronte: And Catherine for that matter. But who’s counting?

* (I’d be remiss not to include this) Garren from Son of Ereubus by, J.S. Chancellor (ahem … that’s me).

And what about movies with unlikable protagonists?

* The whole cast of Blair Witch Project: No, really, go watch it again.

* Just about anyone in the whole of Stanley Kubrick’s portfolio: Brilliant characters, but … likable? I suppose it depends on your definition.

* Napoleon from Napoleon Dynamite: He rocked … he was a train wreck … but again, likable? Not really.

* Martin, from Martin: That’s kind of a trump card, I know …

I’m slowly realizing that this movie list could go on forever. There are too many horror movies to name them all, and a whole host of science fiction flicks. Frankly, I love Star Wars, but Han, Luke and Leia were all kind of a pain in the ass to start off with. Just go back and watch the scene where they’re about to get squished in the trash compactor and listen to all the whining and screaming. They become likable, but for me … definitely not right off the bat.

Bottom line, is that regardless of whether or not he/she is likable, so long as your protagonist is compelling your reader to either attend the ‘funeral’ or cheer at the ‘execution’ … then you’re good!

Guest Post: Jolina Petersheim

Today we’re joined by a delightful writer I met over on Twitter, whose blog I fell in love with (and I’m sure you will too). Her name is Jolina Petersheim, and I hope you guys will make her feel welcome here!!

“Hope is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all -“
~Emily Dickinson

This week I attended an author luncheon in Nashville. Over the course of my hummus wrap, I quietly listened to the realities of the writing life: backs aching from hunching over a keyboard or toting suitcases and laptops hither and yon; flying into beautiful cities that are never seen beyond a smattering of bookstores; the royalty checks that never come when they’re promised–or, even worse, those that do but aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed; the terrible book reviews; the end of the hardback book; the end of the tangible book, period….

Although the authors interjected a few jokes while discussing the publishing Apocalypse, the weight of their words resonated long after the bills had been paid and everyone had said their goodbyes. After I’d said mine, I drove toward Vanderbilt and parked near the coffee shop where my best friend and I were to meet after her class. Gathering 20 pages of my manuscript and a green Sharpie, I crossed the road and found a bench on the sunny side of the park.

But for a while I couldn’t even edit.

In that moment, with the authors’ words still echoing in my mind, editing that manuscript felt like building a kite when I know there will be no wind to take it up. I could edit and edit until I was blue in the face and my fingers stained green, and if there were no agents to represent my work and no publishing houses to receive it, what was the point?

But when you have time to kill, you do not want to spend it marinating in dramatics; so, I stayed in the park for two hours, doggedly editing. I only stopped when a straggly-haired homeless man came and sat on the bench next to me, took a long draw on his cigarette nub and rasped, “Sorry, you looked comfortable.” Trying to gauge how fast I could run in my boots and prairie skirt should he sidle closer, I decided it’d be best if I left the darkening park, for I was suddenly colder than I knew.

I crossed the street again and walked up to a local bookstore my best friend and I used to frequent that summer Vanderbilt Hospital became our second home. Strolling up and down those aisles, I felt like I should be holding my breath, clasping my hands at my sides like a child told not to touch–treating the interior of that place with the reverence of a shrine. Dust motes sparkled in the fading afternoon light streaming through the front window; the musty scent of books wrapped around the tiny space with a comfort of a grandmother’s quilt. The numerous shelves seemed to bow beneath the intellectual weight of their authors: Dickens, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Lewis, Hemingway, Austen, Chekhov, Steinbeck; newer writers like Ann Panchette, Lee Smith, Joanne Harris, Natalie Babbitt, Edward P. Jones, Frances Mays.

Sometimes I would take a title down and flip through the deckled pages; test the heft of it as a doctor who is convinced their patient is shrinking before their eyes. I stared at the book cover art. At the jewel-like tones of the older books embossed with gold; at the newer titles, all jagged fonts and glowing fluorescence. How can all this change? I wondered. How can we toss all this history, this tangibility, in exchange for a tiny, strolling screen?

Once I’d been up and down every aisle, I rolled my manuscript up like a newspaper, took a deep breath and moved toward the door. But then I paused, looked over at the silver-haired woman reading a book behind the cash register. Both the woman and the cash register looked like they’d seen better days.

“What’re we going to do about the eBook?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything at first, just set her hardback book down, took off her glasses and looked up at me with clear blue eyes that reflected the weariness of her soul.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Take it as it comes, I guess.”

“Has it been very hard on you?”

“The dawn of the eBook, you mean?”

I nodded.

“Well, it’s certainly not helping matters, but we were hit long before that. In this economy, people just aren’t buying books.”

I unfurled the papers in my hand, showed the green stains marring the script. “Before I came to your store, I was in the park revising my novel. But…well, it seems kinda foolish when books are coming to an end.” I shrugged. “At least books as we know them.”

“Hey, maybe these changes won’t all be bad….You remember LPs?” The woman smiled, shook her head. “Never mind, you look too young for LPs. Well, I remember my husband saying that LPs were going out. That these little disks about the size of our hands were going to replace them. I couldn’t believe it, but then — within a couple of weeks — LPs were completely gone, replaced by CDs. Now, CDs are gone, too…replaced by iPods.” The woman sighed, ran short-nailed fingers over the glossy cover of her book. “Change is the way of the world. Always has been, always will be….We just have to learn to change with it.”

A dark-haired woman stepped out of an aisle and looked between the two of us. The curious expression on her face made me think she’d been listening. “Do you all know any good classics?” she asked, pointing to the rows and rows of jewel-toned, gold embossed books. “There’re just so many, and I want–I want one to put on my bookshelf. It’ll look so nice. Especially one like these.”

The silver-haired woman and I shared a secret smile. She then stood, adjusted her dangly, stone earrings and walked over to the classics. I suggested a few titles as well and touched the silver-haired woman on the back.

“It was nice talking with you,” I said.

“You, too,” she replied, looking over her shoulder. “Good luck getting your novel published.”

“Thanks, I think I’m gonna need it.”

I walked out of the door with the bell chiming and crossed the street. I went into a store known for its stationary and unique invitations. How long until they go out of business, too? I thought, staring at the shelves of graduation, birth and engagement announcements; old-fashioned red wax seals and onionskin paper tied with burlap string. Who even sends cards anymore?

Then something in the display window caught my eye. A desk. A towering, scarred wooden desk I couldn’t have sat behind unless boosted by a library of dictionaries. On top of it was a typewriter. An old typewriter. The kind that cherrily ding! whenever you reach the end of a row. The kind used in movies so the aspiring authoress can wrap her arms around it and sob into the button-like keys.

Behind it was a toppled pile of books as ancient as the typewriter. If opened, it seemed the covers would waft the tobacco smoke and brandy used by The Inklings; shimmering silverfish would fall out from between the pages like odd, pressed petals. I must’ve stared at that desk and typewriter for a moment too long, for one of the employees came over and asked, “Can I help you?”

I turned around. “No, no…I’m fine. Love your display here.”

She waved her manicured hand. “Oh, we’re getting ready to change it out.”

“I think it’s beautiful, just beautiful,” I breathed. I wasn’t about to burst into tears, but I did feel like wrapping my arms around that worn typewriter, kissing each of those faded keys like a mother kissing her newborn’s perfect fingers and toes.

I’d probably get thrown out if I did either, and this gum-popping girl didn’t seem like she was trembling at the dawning of the eBook age, so I just smiled and left.

Walking toward the coffee shop where my best friend and I were to meet, I passed the dark-haired woman from the bookstore with her little boy in tow. On her arm was a white sack. I could see the square contents inside it. The books, the classics. I looked over at her and grinned as if she’d just handed me a pot of gold. She smiled and nodded in a I-know-you way.

In that simple exchange, hope fluttered back to perch in my resigned soul, and I almost started skipping and swinging on a lamppost à la Singing in the Rain. But I didn’t. I just kept walking toward that coffee shop, clutched my rolled manuscript a little tighter, and wondered if I could revise a few pages before my best friend’s arrival.

For, regardless if my work will be placed in a jewel-toned hardback embossed in gold or a tiny, scrolling screen, the weight of the medium doesn’t matter as much as the weight of the words. And I must keep editing and editing until I am blue in the face and my fingers stained green, so those words — that story — can bring a smile to someone’s face, put a spring in their step, and a joy in their heart that regardless of the changes of the world, hope in the midst of uncertainty will always, always remain the same.

**Jolina Petersheim’s blog, The Happy Book Blog, at a year old has been featured twice on Southern author River Jordan’s Clearstory Radio. Currently it is featured under author Jessica McCann’s “Stuff for Writers,” award-winning freelance writer Melissa Crytzer-Fry’s Blogroll and numerous other creative writing sites.

A graduate from University of the Cumberlands with degrees in English and Communication Arts, Jolina’s short story, “Security in the Shadows,” and article, “The Support System,” were the university’s 2006 and 2008 Creative Writing Award recipients. Her current publishing credits include Muscadine Lines, Tales of Kindness, Cicada Magazine, Maypop, Waiting Room Magazine, Washington Poets Association, Pensworth, Branchwood Journal, The Patriot, and The Robertson County Times. She lives in the mountains of Tennessee with her Mohican-man husband, their 40 acres of untamed territory, and one unruly but lovable Southern novel-in-progress set on a tobacco plantation in northwest Tennessee that is in the final editing stage.

Bizarre Behavior (and other revolutionary concepts)

 

**If you don’t care for profanity, or get offended easily, or if you already have your panties in a knot, I’d suggest you skip this post and go find something else to read … maybe something about puppies … or the Junior Women’s League.**

“No matter how calmly you try to referee, parenting will eventually produce bizarre behavior, and I’m not talking about the kids.”  ~Bill Cosby, Fatherhood, 1986

And I’m not talking about literal parenthood.

This quote perfectly explains how I feel about being a career author. If you’re going to get anything out of this post, then you might as well get over the fact that I use children as an analogy for my writing. Or else you’ll find the next few minutes an utter waste of your time.

You see, I just finished getting my second child ready for graduation. We’ve been through birth, the terrible twos, the worse threes, and all of the educational, meet-with-the-teacher kind of stuff, and here we are, a few months away from taking the final exam (the final exam being the moment where the novel gets sent out into the world). It’s all over. The fat lady has sung. I’ve had my last chance to wipe lint from his shirt or smooth down his unruly hair. And funny enough, I don’t feel like I did with the first one.

Like with children …. you mellow out a little with time. I’ve noticed this more as I speak to fellow authors whose first novels are releasing this year. They’re hyper-sensitive. I was hyper-sensitive … though I didn’t know it at the time. Now, I’m kind of … well … over it. I’m excited, enthralled, and all of those other buzz words. But, I’m OK with everything. I feel a tad less neurotic this time around. It’s nice. It’s a pervasive feeling of, “I’ve been down this road before.”

By the time June 30th rolls around, I will have turned in my third and fourth novel. Come March 2012, numbers five and six will have passed on as well. What then? Will empty nest ensue? Who knows. That’s new territory. I’m looking forward to finishing that horror/dark fantasy novel that has been DYING to be written (Of Blood and Bone). If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to write it a little bit at a time between revising and polishing and proofing everything else.

But, the point in sharing all of this with you, is that if you’re destined … correction … if you work hard enough to make a life out of this calling, then most likely you’ll be where I am as well, and I wanted to tell you that it’s a nice place to be. There is peace to be had. And I think a lot of this comes from steering clear of reviews and media-hype. What am I talking about? I’m talking about getting caught up in blog-talk about the industry, reading reviews of other books (which we’ll invariably relate to our own work), Facebook, Twitter and all of those other, totally-useful-yet-insidious time traps.

I swear a little bit of my soul gets sheared away with every hour I waste ‘marketing’ and ‘networking’ on those various sites. I don’t give a great goddamn what the authorities on this stuff have to say about how valuable all of that can be. It depends on you personally. It’s the same idea as this drivel you read in parenting magazines … not every concept will work in every situation, or with every child. There are thousands of theories on parenting … this isn’t without good cause. The idea of pimping yourself and your work in order to make a career out of your writing, may work for some folks, but I’ve got to be careful how much involvement I have in that aspect of things. Because the separation between my writing life and my personal life is non-existent (see Holistic Writing), I can’t shut off my emotions like a lot of authors can. Believe me, I wish I could. I’d be a better marketer.

What I mean by all of this, is that ever since I made a firm decision to step back … I’ve written more and been more productive than I have been in YEARS. It doesn’t have anything to do with stars on a calendar (though, I’m still doing that because it’s a cool idea). In other words, I stopped giving a flying frack about how other people see my work. Or me, for that matter. I didn’t realize how much I’d started to care. But, after taking a lengthy emotional inventory, my give-a-shit meter was set on ‘high’ and it shouldn’t have been plugged in at all. You catch my drift here?

Two dear friends, Vin and Michelle, came to visit us in January. Vin knows how to do handwriting analysis (among many other really cool things … and you should SEE how gifted his wife is. AMAZING peeps). Anyway, he analyzed my handwriting … and months later, two things that he said still ring loud and clear in my head.

“Wow … you really don’t give a fuck what people think. I mean … I knew you didn’t, but … you really don’t.”

“You aren’t living up to your potential, {insert lengthy dramatic pause for effect}, and heaven help us all if you ever decide to start.”

No, I’m not paraphrasing. I actually wrote that down in the journal I had in my hands right after he said it (yes, all the way down to ‘insert lengthy …’ cause that’s totally how I roll).

I thought long and hard about that. Especially the latter part. And I had to ask myself what was going on that was preventing me from deciding to go down that road, and came to the startling conclusion, that nothing was keeping me from doing what I want to do with my life. I was putting roadblocks up by doing everything in my power to make myself give a damn about acceptance and peer approval. I guess, somewhere down inside, I thought I was supposed to … give a damn that is … that maybe I was a bit inhuman for not caring.

Then it dawned on me, that such a crotchety attitude, is what allows me to write the way that I do in the first place. If I take that away, then I take away everything that makes my life worth living. And frankly, whatever I deem to be a life worth living, is all that should matter to me.

No more crap. No more ploys or gimmicks or wasting time with useless ‘strategies.’ I’m focusing on my craft alone, and sharing what I learn with others here, and that’ll just have to be enough. It’s the only way I’ll keep living that life worth living.

What does this mean, literally?

For starters, I’m not doing another blog tour. Sorry. I can’t slow production down to a crawl, which is exactly what happens whenever I do stuff like that. It isn’t worth the five extra copies that it will sell of whatever book we’re pimping. I’ll still do guest posts and all of my stuff at Best Damn and Suspense (especially Suspense, which has given me some newfound sense of purpose and responsibility). But as far as drawings, or contests, or whatever … sorry … not happening. You’ll have to win an iPad2 somewhere else, from some other really-way-too-excited author.

I’m also done soliciting reviews. If you want to review my stuff, the right people will find you. Or you’ll find them, I’m sure. Or you’ll flat out ask me. Why would I go this route? Because what really, really, really sells a book anyway? Great writing. I can’t give you great writing unless I’m .. gasp … writing. Yeah, I know … all writers must market: **cough cough** I get it. I was there for the memo. Truth is, I can’t remember the last book I bought from a blog comment, a review, or a stupid contest. I buy books because people recommend them to me, or I like what I read of the excerpt. That’s it. Occasionally, I’ll look into a book because the cover is too awesome to bypass, or the title. But past that, it’s sheer dumb luck if I come across a book and buy it without being prompted to. There are all sorts of reasons to argue this, and there is plenty of ‘proof’ that certain strategies sell books. Look at James Patterson. He’s a brand.

I don’t want to be a fucking brand. Allow me to rephrase. I’m NOT a fucking brand.

And besides, the majority of the ‘evidence’ for low-level marketing hype reminds me of television ratings. Have you ever had one of those boxes in your home? I sure as hell haven’t. Who ARE these people who are buying books out of the great blue nowhere? Who are these illustrious individuals who buy into these gimmicky strategies? Talk about bizarre behavior. It’s like the father I heard behind me with his son a few days ago at target. I’m SURE he sounded like a rational, sane, human being before he had children. But by the time he was there in line behind me … he’d lost at least 50 IQ points. How do I know this? Because he said to his seven year old, “You betcha, sodas are yucky ucky!”

Ahem … yucky ucky? Wow. You’re wearing a suit and tie … and not a cheap suit either. Somehow I don’t get the impression that you use that phrase in your day job. What the hell comes over a parent?  And before you say anything, my parents never baby-talked me. Because of that sound parenting decision, I had a better vocabulary at seven than most fourteen year olds.

What comes over writers? When did writers first get roped into the whole media, one-liner, catch phrase bit and start sounding like total douche bags? We’re not used car salesmen folks! We’re already at the very, rock bottom of the food chain here. No, really, we’re the ONLY part of the equation that can’t be removed, yet our percentages are the lowest. We make less off our own books than anyone else involved in pushing them in the marketplace, INCLUDING the twenty-two year old chick who rings you up at the register at Barnes and Noble. Yup, she makes more than most published authors. **smacks gum to paint a mental image of Obnoxious Register Girl**

I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in …

Take away agents, and publishers would be forced to deal with authors directly. Take away publishers and agents, and authors would become their own publishers and would still continue to write and distribute their stuff. Take away authors … do you see where I’m going with this? Yet the average percentage an author gets for a novel is what? The average advance (assuming you are lucky enough to get one in the first place) is what? And yet … there are some well-known publishing houses who require authors to put a percentage of that advance back towards marketing? Even those who don’t require it, expect it. Most expect it. All of them expect you to market your stuff like hell online, in-person, and on the radio.

I’m not saying that I’m not going to help market my stuff. On the contrary, I’ve decided that I’m going to do what I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the ONLY thing that will help my career and assure longevity in the marketplace (brace yourself for this revolutionary concept): I’m going to be a writer.

A real honest-to-goodness one, who writes more than markets, and who only engages in the kind of bizarre behavior that comes naturally to a Holistic Writer.

Consequences be damned …

Any Way But Lightly

“Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion.  You must set yourself on fire.”  ~Arnold H. Glasow

No matter how you measure it, writing has to be done on a regular basis. Like any other art, it has to be practiced. Yeah, you already know this. It wasn’t news to me either, but for one reason or another, my motivation has been lagging ever since I signed my first book deal.

So, a decision was made today and I figured hell, why not share it with you guys?

The picture to your right is my bulletin board. I added the calendar on the bottom. If you look at it closely, you’ll see stars. I’ve decided that each day I write, I’ll mark the day with a color-coded star (beginning today). At the end of the month, they will all get tallied up and however much money I’ve earned will go into my little “writer” savings account. What do the stars mean?

Gold = 3,500 words or more   $5.00
Silver = 3,000 words                 $2.50
Purple = 2,000 words                $1.00
Green = 1,000 words                 $0
Red = <1,000 words                  $0

Dumb … yeah, sure. I should be self-motivated. I write full time, why is there this ridiculous need for an accountability chart? No clue. Maybe it’s the lack of a schedule. Maybe all those hours writing through lunch breaks and after work conditioned my creative brain like Pavlov’s dogs to a bell. Who knows. But, I’m not going to sit around and wait for inspiration. Oh, and editing won’t count toward stars … only new material. Revision might in the case of added scenes, but only in those instances. So, we’ll see how it goes.

Now, you didn’t think I’d just end this post here did you? No, this got me pondering about other writers and their habits—how they manage their time. I’ve often heard the, ‘thousand words a day’ thing tossed around. Here are some famous authors and their particulars:

Stephen King: In his book On Writing, he said that he writes 10 pages a day, even on holidays. If you average 350 words per page, that’s about 3500 a day.

Ernest Hemingway: He wrote 500 words a day, no more, no less. It’s also been said that he only wrote in the morning and never wrote drunk. One fact might beget the other.

Here is a GREAT post on writers and their rooms of choice, weapons of choice, and times of choice. Really, really, it’s a post worth reading so do yourself the favor and read it.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a  quote from King himself on the act of writing: “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

Natural Selection: Writers Edition

“Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”
-Oscar Wilde

Oscar, I love you, but for once … I don’t agree with you. Not after reading about an author’s book review meltdown on Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. I took a good, lengthy read, and couldn’t get over how simple a discussion this could have been had Ms. Howett kept her cool. If you go and look at Amazon, that book has gotten (as of 9pm my time) nine 1 star reviews TODAY. Ouch. {Update: 4:20am. There are now 20 1 star reviews} {{second update 4/28 9:55pm 46 1 star reviews}} {{Third update 4/29 7:23pm 64 1 star reviews}}

And what’s worse, is that the review wasn’t particularly scathing. In fact, there were places in the review where the reviewer pointed out what he liked about the novel (I think it’s a he).

At this point I don’t read reviews. I try my damnedest not to go over to Amazon or Goodreads at all. I am aware of a handful of not-so-awesome reviews for Son of Ereubus, and that’s totally normal and to be expected. It isn’t my place to whine or complain. In fact, if you don’t have any negative ratings or reviews, I would wonder if you’re getting enough exposure. Meaning, is your novel getting reviews beyond friends/family members and FB friends?

I shouldn’t have to remind you that every author who makes it will have readers who will loathe them. Period. Almost every major author who has become vastly successful has been sued—for something or other—so go ahead and get used to the dark side of this industry. None of this is changing anytime soon. If you can’t handle a couple negative reviews with dignity, then there’s no way in hell you’ll make it in the long haul. Natural Selection will throw you out of the game before you’ve had a chance to score a single point.

Don’t ever do what Ms. Howett did. REALLY. It isn’t worth it. Not even a little bit. Controversy sells, but not nearly as well as a well-written novel will sell. In my not-so-humble opinion, this was a career-killing move. If I were an agent or publisher, I wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole. And yes, I know she is an indie author. But, considering how she responded to anyone who commented, I’d gather she’s this fiery with readers. Who wants to deal with that?

Further, who wants to support that kind of nastiness? Reviews are important to writers. Even though I don’t read most of them, that doesn’t mean that I don’t deeply appreciate each and every one of them. I will occasionally comment—if a friend or my publisher sends me the individual link. I did so just a few days ago when a reader who’d downloaded the book from our free ebook event gave it a fantastic five star review. But, I will ONLY say something, if that something is positive.

SO, writing tip #327: Don’t tank your writing career by biting the hand that feeds you. Say unto others, as you would have them say unto you.

Guest Blogger: James Thayer

A character’s weakness is a story’s strength.

“Your characters are going to make or break your story,’” Stephen Coonts said.  No matter how deftly the plot is put together, not matter how exotic the settings, no matter how vividly written the story is, readers won’t become involved with the story unless they are attracted to a character.  Novelist Sol Stein said, “Readers value and remember extraordinary characters long after tricky plots are forgotten.”

Sometimes creating that magnetic character is difficult.   James Michener said, “I have tried every device I know to breathe life into my character, for there is little in fiction more rewarding than to see real people interact on a page.”

Here’s a proven technique; give the character a weakness.  Nobility, intelligence, determination, wisdom, humor: all of these attributes can work well in fictional hero, but nothing endears readers to a character more than a weakness.  And Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda said, “Characters’ weaknesses are more interesting than their strengths.”

An example is Sherlock Holmes, who was brilliant, daring, and witty.  But, as Sol Stein points out, Holmes’s “drug addiction worried his friend Dr. Watson.  Watson is critical of Holmes’s habit, but does not condemn him for it.  The reader wishes Holmes would abstain, and knows he can’t.”  Holmes can sometimes be arrogant and waspish, but Stein says the addiction helps the reader feel compassion for the detective.

Even well-crafted superheroes have weaknesses.  James Poniewozik said that we need superheroes “to suffer our heartbreaks, reflect our anxieties, embody our weaknesses,” and notes that Clark Kent’s “sad-sack personality is as essential to fans as Superman’s ability to turn steel girders into pasta ribbons.”  Stan Lee of Marvel Comics listed Spiderman’s weaknesses: “Despite his super powers, he still has money troubles, dandruff, domestic problems, allergy attacks, self-doubts, and unexpected defeats.”

What about more down-to-earth characters?  In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s weakness is blind love that makes her fail to find true love and happiness. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s weakness is an amoral scientific curiosity.  Macbeth was undone by arrogance, and Othello by misplaced trust.

In Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander novels, Jack Aubrey’s weakness is befuddlement regarding how the world works on land, as opposed to the sea where he is indeed a master.  In John LeCarre’s novels, George Smiley’s weakness is his baffling tolerance for his wife’s affairs.

Anne’s weakness in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is a touch of haughtiness.  In I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, Charlotte’s weakness is naivety,  Same with Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island.  In Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan is plagued by a prickliness to insult stemming from a sense of inferiority.

A weakness endears a character to readers because we aren’t perfect, and so we see ourselves in character’s weaknesses.  We root for people with whom we sympathize, and so we want to accompany the character on her adventures, cheering all the way.

**You can find out more about James, and get more of his sage advice at his website here. I haven’t personally read his book yet (as I just recently had the pleasure of ‘virtually’ meeting him through comments on Best Damn), but if it is anywhere near as excellent as his blog, then it ought to be well worth the money to purchase it!

I’m Just Saying…

“Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”
Eli Wallach

I just read ANOTHER post on the pitfalls of praise. It even had a cute trendy title and came from a, gasp, respected trustworthy source.

Why is it that somehow praise is always to be regarded with a skeptical attitude, but criticism is not? I realize that this is rarely stated as being 100%, but it still seems like every other blog post I read these days is all about gleaning nuggets of wisdom from the negative reviews and “plugging your ears” when the praise comes around. I’m not saying that there isn’t some truth in being cautious with how you interpret reader reaction, be it positive or negative, but this #trendy topic I think has grown a bit big for its britches.

You know how small our percentages are as authors, how much we get paid in reality (even those of us on bestseller lists), and yet the one thing we get to really enjoy … we’re to plug our ears to? This was a great post that I just read, and I understand where she was coming from, just like I’ve understood the perspective of every other post on this subject. Yet, it still chaps my ass a little. Why?

Because we grew up in a world where things like 5th place exists. Because every other profession gets to celebrate, regardless of where they fall on the continuum except, it seems, for authors. Honestly, I’m a little tired of it. Who really stops growing as a writer because they think that they’re made of awesome? Seriously, are there that many authors out there who are throwing all their forward momentum into the trash because their latest novel was well received and they’re reveling in it a while?

I doubt it. Maybe one or two … but it’s hardly the epidemic that the blogosphere is making it out to be. If the temperature of the literary community is in any way related to how bloggers see this subject, we’d all be proclaiming our own worth like Capote on steroids. But, we aren’t.  No one writes blog posts about how much they rock (no author I’ve ever heard of anyway).

Unwarranted praise? I believe in the existence of unwarranted criticism, but a wealth of praise from the anonymous public without cause seems … um, legendary? I can’t even think of the right word for this. I get what she’s saying if the praise is coming from friends and family, but give us some credit for not being totally brain-dead here. We know genuine praise from total crap. And even if it is from family, it depends on which member of the family the praise is coming from. If your uncle has told you that your stuff is shit, 9 books out of 10, then you’re more than free to take that 10th book’s praise to heart.

I’m SO tired of hearing this chanted like a mantra for newbies. The Pitfalls of Praise. It’s cute. It’s catchy. It’s everything you’d want in a viral blog post. It probably even looks good printed out and posted over an aspiring author’s desk, but I can’t bring myself to agree with it. I think if you’re in-tune enough with your voice, as an author, and your editor, as a professional, then you’ll be just fine.

If, for some ungodly reason, there is a giant steaming batch of unwarranted praise hanging out there for a novel, your publisher/agent and/or editor, will tell you not to let your head get too big over it. I’m sure. Can’t say that I see that scenario actually happening in real life, but perhaps for someone the words, “All those comments about how strong your characterization is, are total shit. You need to seriously work on it in the future,” have been spoken.

Whatever. All I’m saying is that I doubt Stephen King takes advice like this. Or J.K. Rowling, or Dean Koontz. Or hell, even James Patterson. Maybe they just don’t care and I’m too bitter to see the forest for the trees … or, just maybe, we’ve let Twitter and Google Ads overtake our want for genuine writing guidance and sound mentoring. Most things worth hearing don’t fit into the viral scheme, so that stuff doesn’t get blogged about all that often. It doesn’t easily fit into packages with shiny ‘totes fave’ Blogger of the Week badges, or into the top five sponsored Twitter topics.

Real gold takes a little searching. It doesn’t pop out at you from a laminated sticky note above your desk. It comes from inside your head or your heart. The real gold is you, your special gifts, and your unique voice as an author. It’s the stuff only you’re capable of telling yourself.

So, instead of shunning praise and scouring criticism … how about we spend a little more time invested in finding out who we really are as authors?

I’m just saying …

The Biggest Lie of Them All

“I grew up in a place where everybody was a storyteller, but nobody wrote. It was that kind of Celtic, storytelling tradition: everybody would have a story at the pub or at parties, even at the clubs and raves.”  Irvine Welsh

It’s visceral, isn’t it? This calling that we’ve entered into?

It’s no wonder we take things like criticisms, rules, guidelines, reviews, and the like, so seriously. I posted a link on my FB page several days ago that led to a post written by a good friend of mine over at The Lit Lab. The heart of the post was centered around the lies we’ve allowed ourselves to believe about writing and about being a professional author (you can find that post here). Reading that inspired list led me to start thinking…what lies have we told ourselves, or allowed ourselves to believe, about what it means to BE an author—a storyteller?

*You can’t develop your voice as an author until you’ve written for years and nothing that you write prior to your first published work will be worth holding onto.

Um…shall I list all of the famous works of literature that were the author’s firsts? I’d rather not, since it would take me more room than a single post on WordPress allows. This is utter bullshit, I don’t care if an agent (or any other authoritative figure) has told you otherwise. Think of it like this: Not everyone needs to date around before finding the one they’re destined to spend their life with. Some do. Others know the moment they meet them. Some authors spend years in silence, never penning a thing, then suddenly they find their voice and set off writing like their keyboards are on fire.

*All advice from reputable sources (agents, publishers, editors, critique group members, alpha & beta readers), is good advice.

Need I mention again, Tolkien’s advice to Lewis to nix Father Christmas from the Chronicles of Narnia? Even as I type that it sounds like good advice doesn’t it? Except for all of those children who listed it as their favorite part of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. And the fact that Lewis, in his heart, knew that Father Christmas couldn’t be cut from the story.

*You MUST know everything about the craft of writing, in order to be a good storyteller.

Have you never been to a bar before? Have you never sat around a campfire and heard Uncle Whoever retell his childhood escapades in such a way that has the whole crowd dying with laughter? Have you never been to summer camp and been huddled beneath your sleeping bag in dread terror while some counselor (me), or fellow camper (also me) told you the scariest story you’ve ever heard? Do you live under a rock? Storytelling, to some folks, is second nature. I think I can safely say that I’m one of them. You likely are as well, but haven’t gathered the guts to state that you believe that for the record. And before you go there, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn the basics. All I’m saying, is that the first guy or gal who told a story, likely didn’t know the parts of the story by what would become their “proper” names. Those are merely formalities. Imagine it like two people who speak different languages, meeting and falling in love. Sure, there might be a little fumbling around in the beginning, but eventually you develop your own method of communication and everything else falls into place. If it’s meant to be, you don’t have WORK at it that hard. It. Just. Is.

*In order to be a great author, you have to be able to write outstanding queries.

I’m sorry, I can hardly type from the tears I’m shedding in laughter over this one. I’ve read this on more than one agent’s blog, and a couple of publishers, but ironically, I’ve never seen it on an author’s blog. Wonder why? Gee…hmmm….give me a second. ‘Cause it’s…you guessed it….total shit. Some of us, just aren’t short-winded. Period. Yes, it’s a fault. Yes, it sucks. YES, it means it’ll take longer to get someone’s attention if you’re in that category and you’re unpublished. Does it mean you won’t ever be successful or famous? No. Not at all. And frankly, I have no idea where this idea came from. Queries and novels are not the same thing for a reason, and the pervasive idea that if you can’t sum up your novel in 300 words or less, then you don’t know what it’s about, is LUDICROUS. And I don’t mean the band.

Seriously, this one is one of the worst bits of writing “truth” I’ve read. It’s terribly discouraging and does nothing but make writing a query harder for those of us who struggle with writing them in the first place. So, do yourself (and me) a favor and don’t spread that horse manure. If you only knew the number of NYT bestselling authors who hired a ghost writer to write their queries for them…(how do I know this? Because I know a handful of ghost writers who have written them for NYT bestselling authors).

*The difference between authors and writers, is that authors have been traditionally published.

I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. Really? I’ve read that one on writers’ sites. Shame on you! You ought to know better. Do you think that because you are published that you have the right to make others feel less worthy than you? No, writers are folks who write. Period. This encompasses everything from obituaries and classified ads, to text books and personal weblogs. Authors, tell stories. That’s all. That’s the distinction. Check out Webster if you don’t believe me. Now, I will give you the caveat that in order to be an author, you do have to have actually *finished* a novel, short story, or novella. Publication has nothing to do with it. That’s merely recognition for having done something, it doesn’t have any bearing on whether you’ve actually done the thing or not. If you’re still “researching” that first novel, and have been for the last ten years, then you’re still a writer. Only when you’re done do you get to call yourself an author. Even if your cat is the only sentient being to set eyes on it after that.

I think even Donald Maass may have stated that in one of his many manifestos on how to be a bestselling author.

How ’bout I’ll just settle for being an author, and let the cards fall where they may. Hm? K. Thanks.

*But, the biggest lie of them all is this: As an author, I am worth the value that others place on my work.

Nothing, nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve told myself this one. I’m willing to bet that at some point in your writing life, you will too. There are two kinds of authors: Those who’ve bought the bullshit, and those who will. Not a single one of us is exempt from taking a reviewer too seriously, or a crit partner, or an agent, or an editor. Not a single one of us is exempt from wondering, at some dark moment, has this all been worth it? Not a single one of us is exempt from feeling, in a moment of weakness, like our hold on the English language is a tad more tenuous than we’d suspected.

Truth is, we’re all learning, and no work is perfect. No work is without its quirks. No author is free of them either, but isn’t that what makes our calling so great? No other profession in the world is quite like it. Some might come close, but they’ll never reach the heights that being an author will show you. You’ll never take another path and reach a higher summit.

Whatever lies you believe…don’t believe the biggest of them all. At the very least, do yourself, and the rest of us who will (or already do) love your writing, and your characters, and your worlds, do us the favor of having faith in your natural instincts.

Sex and the Art of Author Marketing

“There are three possible parts to a date, of which at least two must be offered:  entertainment, food, and affection.  It is customary to begin a series of dates with a great deal of entertainment, a moderate amount of food, and the merest suggestion of affection.  As the amount of affection increases, the entertainment can be reduced proportionately.  When the affection is the entertainment, we no longer call it dating.  Under no circumstances can the food be omitted.”  ~Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour

As I stated in a status update mere moments ago, it’s like taking the magic out of Christmas. Or rather, it’s like talking about the mechanics of sex, while in the middle of the act.

No, I don’t mean dirty talk. That’s entirely different and is actually quite effective. Usually.

What I’m talking about, is the crappy work of promoting your stuff, yourself and then on top of that, all of the conversation about your work that goes on while you’re doing the aforementioned “deed.” For example, your beloved Ariana becomes your “main character.” Your carefully crafted evil, yet complex, master race becomes “central destructive force.” And so on and so forth. Shall I give you the run down of genital comparisons? No, I’d rather that I didn’t either.

Part of becoming successful is marketing. Because, let’s face it, publishers either won’t or can’t, do it all. Large publishers could, but don’t give a damn until the marketing part is almost unnecessary because your stuff is selling itself. The little guys want to, and sometimes try, but can’t due to budget restrictions and the realities of being a modern day book press.

Most authors I know, THRIVE on this stuff. They host giveaways, they write brilliant, witty blogs on how to do this, that or the other thing. They glow when they talk about their stuff.

I wither. I wilt like a ten year old little girl who has just found out that Santa Claus isn’t real. My creative spirit dries up, my mojo runs low, and my muse all but goes on strike. It’s the number one reason I never got an English degree. I just. can’t. do. it. I can’t talk about my work as if it isn’t a sentient thing. After the fact I can, sometimes. I don’t know what this makes me (this is not the best moment to answer me here). Something of a naturalist perhaps? It reminds me a little of folks who love music, can play the piano (or other instruments) by ear, but don’t know the notes. I adore writing. I’m at my best when I have written. I am a miserable excuse for a human being when I haven’t been writing.

But I don’t like talking about the technicalities. Oh, I’ll talk about story all day long. I’ll talk about characters, world building, etc. But, for some reason, the technical terms just totally drain me. Weird right?

I want the date to go along without stopping and analyzing when the entertainment should decrease, and the affection increase…etc. How awkward would that be? Or to be more crass, if my husband and I are having sex, let’s just have sex, huh? And if there is any talking, let’s NOT use medical terms? Please?

Problem is, if you want people to see your stuff, you don’t have a choice. I don’t have a choice. I have to market and trump up stuff to gain media exposure and all that jazz. God, I envy Salinger in this. I have to tweet and FB and Digg and a whole myriad of things that I really don’t care all that much about. I like FB because I’ve made invaluable friends through my contacts there. But, everything else…par for the course I suppose, but it still sucks the muse out of me.

I want what all writers want deep down…just to write. Pure, and ridiculously simple. I want what nature intended for us.

Instead, I have to woo the masses. I have to date them, entertain them, and with any luck, at the end of the night I’ll get laid. But GOD, how I hate this. Can’t we just skip all of that and get on with it? Whatever happened to an author’s business being the written word, and the book seller’s business being marketing? It DID used to be this way, once, long long ago when curling irons were iron fire pokers. And don’t go into the whole bit on everything else that was different back then, I’m not a total douche. You get my drift here.

Am I alone here? Anyone else feel like this? It’s OK if I am alone here, but….still….thought I’d ask.

Own Your Story

“No man but feels more of a man in the world if he have a bit of ground that he can call his own.  However small it is on the surface, it is four thousand miles deep; and that is a very handsome property.”  ~Charles Dudley Warner

Sitting down to a new story, is like opening your vehicle to that, oh—so—wonderful, new car smell. You know what I’m talking about. It permeates everything—the seats, the trunk, and if you have a leather interior you get that old spice suave smell in addition to it. And like cars, stories need gas. What sort of gas am I hypothetically talking about? Well, that depends on you. Fuel is fuel. So what fuels your story? Some require premium, others you can get by with the cheapest stuff available. But there is a larger question at hand here:

Are you leasing, or buying?

You might not think there is a difference, but there is, and that difference determines how you’ll treat that story. Renters tend to ignore all of the little things because they aren’t fully invested in their acquired merchandise, or where they live, or what car they drive. When you first see that story, when you open the door and smell that delicious smell, you’re making a choice right then, whether or not you’re going to be with this thing for the long haul. You might not know that, but you are. Please trust me on this, you are.

If you’re buying, your maintenance will be more regular (usually), the grade oil you use will be higher (let’s assume for the sake of conversation that the oil here is the level of time you spend invested into your craft to make it all run smoothly), and you’ll take better care of it. Why? Because you envision a future with it. You make a commitment to it.

Is it your first work? Are you afraid those bloggers might be right? You know the ones—the guys and gals who emphatically state that all novels are total shit up until your fifth or sixth (or whatever the trend is at the time)? Whether or not you are a beginner, pro, or indeed a writer of total shit, you’re still making a call when you sign up for a fresh work. If you go at it with half your heart because deep down you’re letting your insecurities and fears make your decisions for you, then you’re leasing. If you go at it with all your heart, even if you’re scared to death of the commitment, then you’ve purchased.

Sounds too simplistic doesn’t it? It isn’t really, not when you look at it carefully. Contracts are sticky, complex things. And after all, any agreement between two parties is nothing more than a contract. You’re laying out your terms, and so is the story.

So what are the story’s terms?

Well, here’s some insider information—stories don’t like to be leased. They’ll offer you all sorts of incentives NOT to lease, but if you aren’t paying any attention, you’ll look right over them. Reminds me of rebates on cars—if you don’t ask, they don’t have to give them to you.

Stories don’t want you to bail after a certain number of rejections. That’s leasing. That’s turning it all back in, after a certain number of months (form letters from agents, or publishers, or both). Less the damages of course. And whatever damage you’ve done will cost you if you invest in another story at the same dealership. You’ll carry the cost over, just like you’ll carry the wounds of rejection letters over. And the thing is, if you’ve purchased, you don’t have to deal with that—not in the same way.

When you buy, you have the right to do whatever you want to with it after the title is in your name (that would be finishing the story). You can sell it if you’d like, pocket the profit, or keep it till it has to be retired. Bottom line is that the choices here are all yours.

When you lease, you don’t own anything. You aren’t investing in anything. Sure, there are perks. It’s cheaper, for starters, to lease than to own. Maintenance is taken care of (those are all of those classes and online critique groups you’ve spent years in). The second something is “wrong” and deemed beyond repair, it’s covered and you get to turn the thing back in, whether time is up on the lease or not.

When you buy, anything beyond the warranty is your responsibility. Yet, here’s the thing: Despite all the upkeep and the hassle, once it’s paid off, then it is truly YOURS. Forever. No take backs.

For better or worse, it belongs to you. And there isn’t anything better in this world than ownership. I saw a bumper sticker once that read, “Quit laughing jackass, it’s paid for!” You might not get published right away. You might never get published. You might get published, but not make a huge career out of being an author. But, it’s PAID for! You wrote the novel(s) that most of the world merely wishes to write. Don’t ever, ever forget this. It’s the only thing that matters.

So, you tell me: Are you leasing or buying? Really look at this question and answer it for yourself as honestly as you can. It’s really easy to say, “Yes I am buying.” But are you? Do you have one foot out the door, just waiting for something better to come along so you can slide out of one lease and move onto another one? When you get a form letter, or personalized rejection in your inbox, do you console yourself by saying inwardly, “Well, it’s not my best work anyway. I can do better. Maybe they’ll like the next thing I write?” Nothing wrong with hoping for better luck next time, but my point here is this: Are you giving your story less credit than it deserves because you really don’t plan on being with it for the long run?

The new car smell fades, yes. And it’s exciting to jump into a new car every couple of years. But nothing smells as good as a title, (pun intended) fresh off the press and I can guarantee you that with a lease, you’ll never see a title. You’re only borrowing it from someone else who will one day own it.

Which I suppose brings up the final question: Are you prepared to give it up to someone else? If not, then might I suggest you renegotiate your terms before your time is up?

It’s been long enough. You’ve waded into the shallow end. Take the plunge and OWN your story!

Welcome to Fight Club

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”  Robert Frost

It’s no secret that being published changes you. We’ve covered that here—at the Asylum. What we haven’t delved much into, amongst other things, are the dirty sides of the industry. Yes, there is more than one.

And no, I don’t mean smut…

I’m talking about politics. Don’t think there are any? Don’t think this will apply to you once you get published because a) you firmly believe you’ll be J.K. Rowling, b) your novel is beyond reproach, or c) you self-publish your material and call your own shots?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that a & b are unlikely. If you think you’ve got a get out of jail free card for c, then you’re in for a HUGE surprise. Whether you sign with an agent, a large publisher, small press or set-up your own outfit….the same politics that plague the corporate ladder, plague a writer’s career.

There are rules of etiquette. There are rules for even getting to enter into the game, let alone win. But, you hear all sorts of contradictory things about breaking rules, or the consequences of being a follower. SO what’s the answer? How do you know what to do and when to do it?

Here’s a few places to start. Though, I don’t profess in any shape, form, or fashion to be an expert on any of this. I have learned some things these last few years and just feel like sharing them with you. That’s all.

1. Don’t burn bridges. I don’t give a damn how unstable they look, how pissed off you are, or how much you want to flame someone. It isn’t worth it. You don’t know where that bridge could lead later on. This industry is all about networking and the stronger, and truer, your connections are the better off you’ll be when you need a leg up. And believe me when I tell you, every writer has more than a few moments when a little help would go a long way to stabilizing a career.

2. Don’t bad mouth other writers. Published or otherwise. Really, really, really, REALLY think through everything you put out there for the public—especially when it concerns your own ilk. I’ve read a ton of blogs lately where one author or another decides to suddenly go off on a rant about famous writer X, semi-famous writer Z, or unknown writer M. Why? Because if your career goes half as well as you think it will, you may very well find yourself sharing a publisher, agent or hell…in some cases a dinner table (yes, this has happened. No, not to me). It’s EASY to feel like an authority on writing right after you get your first book deal (yes, this has happened. Yes, to me).

3. Pay it forward. Sounds easy, huh? It is. I was blessed so much last year by a few folks, but one in particular who inspired me to do everything I can to repay that kindness and encouragement by doing exactly what he did for me, for fellow authors. Lend a helping hand, pure and simple. Don’t forget where you’ve come from and how you got there and especially don’t forget those who are still treading that pre-publication path. Don’t lose track of how frustrating that felt to not know and to wonder what the future held. I still wonder what the future holds, but it’s a different kind of wondering. I can’t explain that…it’s just one of those things.

4. Don’t, don’t, DON’T be a pain in the ass to work with. Don’t whine, complain, demand more than you’re owed, or act like a diva. I’ve seen this happen and the results ARE NOT pretty. Whenever you work for someone, or under them, or with them in a publisher/writer sort of situation, you want to make yourself indispensable. Do everything you can to help those who have invested in your future, to succeed. This means some time and effort that you won’t be paid for. Be prepared for this—it’s part of the deal if you want to get anywhere. If they win, you win. Easy math.

5. Shit happens. Even if you sign with one of the big five. You need to be prepared for this too and you need to handle it with dignity and grace. Publishing companies, distribution centers, printers and literary agencies are all run by…gasp…human beings and humans make mistakes. There is no getting around this. Folks who don’t realize this will give you crap for it. Put on your big girl panties (or big boy briefs, whichever the case) and deal with it.

6. Celebrate the success of your fellow authors any way you can. When you’ve got 5,000 Facebook friends, most of which are other writers, you obviously can’t rejoice with everyone…but don’t neglect those closest to you. Don’t ignore their achievements. This situation is especially tricky when you’re in a critique circle, or have an online group of writer friends. Bridges get burnt this way. They can also be built from scratch this way. Kind of like tea in hot water, you see the strength of your friends when any sort of success engulfs your group. In layman’s terms (forgive my crassness here): Don’t be a douche bag. If you’re a writer and you’re relatively close friends with other writers, whether you like their stuff or not,  don’t pick and choose whose victories to highlight based on social stigmas or literary status. Give equal blog footage to the indie author and the six-figure author. You’re asking for hurt feelings and resentment otherwise.

7. Don’t begrudge the success of others. If you just signed a half-a-million dollar contract with Random House (have I mentioned how great you look today?) then you won’t have this issue. But, for the rest of the writerly population, be mindful of the green-eyed monster. Don’t get miffed if your book has less good reviews than someone else’s book. Don’t block their status updates on your FB feed because you can’t stand looking at their awesome cover art avatar. Don’t bad mouth publishers, especially when you know authors who have signed with them (vanity presses don’t count here. You can bad mouth those guys all you like).

8. WATCH YOUR MOUTH ON FORUMS! Can I say that again? Watch your mouth on forums. I can’t say it enough. Don’t get into heated arguments or circular logic type pissing contests with other writers, agents, or god forbid, publishers. Just like your Facebook page, your name WILL show up in forums on a google search. You also need to watch your comments on blogs. ALL OF THIS can, and will, come back to haunt you if you aren’t careful. In this industry, unless you’re too rich to care (you really do look amazing today) then you might as well date your calendar 1984.

9. You aren’t J.D. Salinger, Hemingway, or C.S. Lewis. Or Tolstoy for that matter. You can’t afford to pretend that the cyber universe doesn’t exist. I’m not saying to totally conform here…but unless you have a publicist to do it for you, there is a certain amount of damage control that you’ll want to watch out for. Misconceptions or misunderstandings can be quickly fixed if you’re aware of how people are seeing you as a public figure.

10. Did I mention not to burn bridges? Those bad boys go up in flames right quick and it doesn’t take much. The more surface your connection is, the faster your ties will burn. Tread lightly. You can’t afford to be ignorant or naive here. Second chances are for sentient beings and though it has a pulse, this industry doesn’t have a conscience and therefore can’t grant you forgiveness. See, I just caught you thinking that bridges being burnt between two people, or groups of people, are related to emotions alone. They aren’t. And you’re not just cutting the cord between you and whoever is on the other side. You’re cutting the cord between yourself and all of the places their bridges lead. In a way…when you burn down one…you’ve burnt down fifty. So, bottom line here….better to be safe than sorry.

The biggest one, is too big to assign a number to and it’s this: Pick your battles carefully.

This applies to everything in your career as a writer. You will have to bend a certain number of times with your agent, publisher, or both; then your editor(s), then your cover artist(s), then your reviewers, and non-professional readers/fans…lastly….your family and friends. If your book deal is perceived as being “big enough” then both of those last two parties will suddenly grow in both numbers and their interest in your life. Don’t let that take you by surprise. You won’t be offended if you know in advance. It’s your choice how to respond to all of it. There have been numerous blog posts, on too many blogs to name, that address professionalism in dealing with reviews and readers. The most important thing is to remember that at some point, something will come along, that will REALLY mean something to you. So, don’t cash in your chips every time you get the chance.

SO, if I haven’t scared you away from the industry…welcome to Fight Club. For those of you who have been here for more than five minutes, have you got any stories? Any lessons learned? Feel free to share!

And have a great and SAFE new year!!!

Just Breathe…

Nothing that is complete breathes.  ~Antonio Porchia,Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin

I have to keep reminding myself of this. I’m not “done” until I’m dead…and neither is my story—the most important one I’ll ever be a part of. Due to the nature of time, we never quite know where we’re at in the plot of our own lives (though some have a better idea than others). But, I know this much is true—there is conflict. And like any good story, there will also be set backs, red herrings, lost time and disappointment. I don’t know what kind of story this is and I’d love to be in the mood to make a witty joke or two about it having something to do with satan wearing designer duds.

But, I’m not in the mood. I’m breathless.

My first novel, as most of you know, debuts in a few months and I’m experiencing what all new authors (and seasoned) go through: cold sweats, tears, laughter, woe, etc. I’m learning to develop, as Ien called it, a filter. It’s tough. I don’t know how to avoid the media and yet maintain a presence in it all the same. In but not of, I suppose.

It will always be Fable to me. And now, as I feel the heat inherent in public viewing, I resort back to that title in my mind. Guardians, is what has been picked up and published. Guardians is what will be reviewed and pulled apart and critiqued—for better or worse. Guardians is what will either sell or not sell and what will ultimately bring in royalty checks—or not.

Fable is the story I fell in love with long ago—the characters who rest as much in me, as beside me on the page.

The decision to step out in faith and welcome a career as an author, instead of living that calling without the professional validation, feels a little like dying inside. And perhaps that is also what Porchia was referring to. In an effort to move closer to completion, you lose a little of who you once were. You die a little. But, so long as you’re still breathing, you’re not done yet.

Your first crush took your breath away. Your first real, deep, chest rattling cry, took your breath away. Your first love took your breath away. Your first loss threatened to take it away permanently. Your first rejection did the same. Your first job interview, your last day on the job, the birth of your children…all the important stuff, whether good or bad, mimics death in part because it is a birth of sorts. A new beginning. And don’t newborns cry? Perhaps my response to this isn’t so unusual after all. Maybe no one talks about this internal struggle because they feel obligated to express only sheer elation over being published.

Allow me, if you will, to once again be transparent. Yes, there is a wonderful, magical sense about all of this. But, like cracks in glass, I feel the cold seeping in. It keeps me real and makes me who I am. I’m not complaining. But, if anyone else is feeling this and thinks they’re alone…rest assured…you aren’t.

So I guess this isn’t it. I’ve still some story left in me. And there’s only one thing to do…

But, I said pretty please…

Yup, that's shit all right...

“One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.”  ~Chinua Achebe

I’m good at offending folks. No, it’s quite all right. I have come to accept that trait like one would a tarnished piece of silver. You keep it around because you can’t bear to part with it, it belonged to your grandmother, it has her initials engraved on it…

Humor me, this hypothetical situation if you will:

You are unemployed. You go to a temp agency to be placed with a company that may or may not keep you on past the trial period. You buy your best suit to wear to the interview. You spend weeks preparing to answer any and all questions. You arrive early (not too early though). You wait with everyone else in a ridiculously large waiting room. Several hours later the interviewer emerges, shakes the candidate’s hand who has emerged with her, then—the moment the candidate leaves—the interviewer turns to those waiting still and makes light of how awful the interview went. Pokes fun at it.  Reads aloud some of what the candidate said because it was “atrocious.”

When everyone has stopped their guffaws, she asks a few questions surrounding if her ‘ass looks big in this‘ (to which of course everyone in the room jumps to slather the interviewer with compliments and adoration). Then, after pausing long enough for dramatic effect, you’re called to return to the interview room with her. Everyone gives you piranha eyes as you clumsily gather your belongings. Once you’re in the stifled, legendary space, you stand before her desk and deliver flawlessly your thirty-second introduction as to what you are looking for in a company and why you are the best candidate for the job. The interviewer looks at your resume and then, without word one, hands you a slip of paper and ushers you out of the door.

The paper reads: Dear Candidate, thank you for your time. You’re one of the lucky ones! You got the green letter!! We’re going to look over your resume in more detail. However, this will take 3 to 6 months. You are, of course, expected not to interview with other temp agencies and certainly not to look for a job on your own.

And so, being a ‘professional’ candidate, you agree and you wait. You don’t look for another job. You don’t interview with other temp agencies. Then, one day, 6 months later, you receive this letter in the mail: Dear candidate, thank you for interviewing with us and allowing us the opportunity to look over your work history and references. While you show merit, we feel that we would be unable to place you in this market. This is subjective, so feel free to continue interviewing with other agencies. Best of luck!

You dry clean your suit and start all over again. Sound ridiculous? Does it sound absurd that you would be expected to sit on your rear end while the TEMP agency decides whether or not it can even try to place you? Really? What do you think you’re doing every time you agree to that same request from a literary agency?

But that’s different…

How? You’re unemployed or not employed in the field you want. Be honest for once in your life and answer truthfully if you’d really do that if the situation were literal. Would you really sit there, waiting on a form letter, from a TEMP agency? I don’t think so. Why? Because it’s unrealistic. It would take YEARS to find a job. Yet, someone said the fated words…if you’re a professional you’ll agree to this…and like magic, it became unwritten law.

For shame. No wonder we spend so much time picking on each other…we’re sitting on our hands by agreeing to this load of horse manure. This is our fault, as authors, because we’re the ones who let it get this far. No, not all agencies ask this…but the great majority do. The wise ones know what it’s like on our end and allow multiple submissions. The bottom line is that if you haven’t even been hired, then you’re under no obligations of any kind…to anyone.

These agencies need to learn that losing out is part of the game. If they don’t read fast enough, tough luck. Why should writers always get the shaft? Before anyone even goes there, yes, I think there are rules of etiquette. Those rules don’t include lying down as a doormat. They include saying please and thank you. They include being grateful when things go your way and gracious when they don’t. They include a great many things, but under no circumstances should we have handed over the reins like this…not even when they said pretty please.

So, yeah..I’m fairly sure this will piss someone off. Maybe they got the red letter instead…

Evergreen

“If in my youth I had realized that the sustaining splendour of beauty of with which I was in love would one day flood back into my heart, there to ignite a flame that would torture me without end, how gladly would I have put out the light in my eyes.”  ~Michelangelo

I hear, from time to time, other authors speak of their old work in hushed tones, often in embarrassment or disdain or both. I’ve grown considerably since I first began to try my hand at this particular art of storytelling, but I realized something tonight that I’d known, yet forgotten all the same; youth is exempt from the fear of mortality and therefore has no concept of future misgivings. For most children there is always the promise of tomorrow and with it, the possibility of everything they long for. The fear of failure, when it comes to their dreams, is as foreign as the reality of income tax and termites.

After sending out a submission and getting unrealistically (and unnecessarily) wrapped up in all the ‘grown-up’ stuff we authors have to deal with, I sat down in my oversized chair and randomly went through a few old files—stuff I hadn’t so much as glanced at in a decade. I flipped absentmindedly through the papers and before long, I found myself stunned by my own past, in awe of a love affair with worlds I’d long since forgotten. I knew I’d written five ‘books’ when I was fourteen or so, in collaboration with my best friend at the time. I’ve read over them now and again for old times’ sake, but what I’d apparently put out of mind was a staggering amount of work—prologues, story sketches, scenes, character and plot maps; pages upon pages of what probably amounts to over 500,000 words or so. This is just prose, not journal entries (which exceed that number by far).

You’re probably asking yourself why you’re still reading this post by now, but give me a second here. My point in bringing this up, is that I want to remind you what it meant to write with such abandon. I clearly, clearly couldn’t have cared less if those words ever saw daylight, let alone publication. As adults, we still write with ourselves in mind (mostly—then editors, our readers, etc), but there is such a tremendous difference. It isn’t merely the lack of experience or lack of quality that would accompany any childhood ramblings that makes these penned worlds what they are. There is something else, something evergreen that literally jumps off of the pages. This girl, who worked free of boundaries, is why I started writing again three years ago. I didn’t merely love to write: I wrote with no concept of what it meant to be an author. I walked through the divide between what is, and what can never be, with no consideration of how it affected me personally.

What I’m saying, is that I didn’t care about voice, or style, or genre; I didn’t have any notion of royalties or advances or contracts. I didn’t fear rejections because frankly, even had I known what they were, I still wouldn’t have given a damn. Put simply, the story was all that mattered. We say this all the time as adults, but do we mean it utterly?

And really, when the day ends, what differentiates good prose from great? What distinguishes one work and discards another? That single quality, that crucial element that will, without fail, lend validity to your work is its ability to be evergreen. The irony of it, is that it isn’t something that can be forced. It either is, or is not. The choice is up to you and how willing you are to let go of your boundaries. As youth, we gather our materials and ready ourselves to construct mythical kingdoms, great and lofty palaces. Yet somewhere along the way our adulthood steals our confidence, tells us that all we have collected is of no consequence, convinces us that degrees and titles and awards are the only things that will build a future.

To hell with adulthood.

It’s in my blood. Perhaps I am romanticizing this time, but you didn’t spend the last three hours reading what I read. I’m ashamed of how much fear I’ve let slip in over the last year or so. But, the good thing about writing youthfully; there is always tomorrow. And tomorrow, I start fresh…no more fear or doubt (or Dragons if you’ve been reading this blog), only evergreen.

Doesn’t Play Well With Others…

It isn’t that I feel your criticism unworthy of making my work better—that isn’t the case at all. It simply makes my work yours and I’m not willing to share the burden. You see, I don’t play well with others. Well okay, I didn’t just figure that out—I’ve known most of my life. It has just been brought back to my attention.

Yeah, I understand that this is part of the industry, get a thicker skin, blah, blah, blah. I’m not talking about career moves here. I know better than to argue with the editor who is trying to get my manuscript in shape, or to refuse my agent’s suggestions. I do have a brain and a smidgen of common sense (not much past that, mind you). I simply have a different opinion on the value of a ‘critique’ than most.

Before I say anything else, let me make clear that I have beta readers—a couple of which are brutally honest and I handle it just fine. I want to hear what they have to say, because I trust them. I know where they are coming from—I know their bias and their preferences. We don’t always agree on things and more often than not, we clash. But the dialog is always beneficial because I know what to do with it. Now, with that said, let me state that I personally would never join a critique group. Why? Because my belief in positive reinforcement pervades my ability to give what others consider ‘useful’ criticism, and I am an independent creator. I’m not alone in this viewpoint. There are a slue of other authors who agree with me, but an even larger population that doesn’t. When I’ve voiced my opinions on this in the past—without fail, I always get the you should toughen up and take what’s good for you lecture. It’s always well worded and backed up with solid logic. Problem is, Thalidomide also had fairly sound logic behind it…oops. Feel that an unfair comparison? Toughen up and take what’s good for you. Thalidomide is a powerfully effective drug, and works wonders for patients with Multiple Myeloma and Leprosy. In other words—what’s good for one person, isn’t necessarily good for everyone.

I did a little research to see if I was being a sissy. Turns out there are more than a few authors who swear by cautiously accepting critiques on their work. According to Kristen Painter:

“Luna/Berkley author P.C. Cast doesn’t use a critique group for two reasons. One is that she feels her writing process works best as a solitary endeavor. “Often it feels as if I’m soughing through mud, but it’s mud I have to fight through myself. That’s how I resolve plot problems and how I develop characters. If I had help, or even too much input from others, I don’t think my end product would be the same.” (http://www.kristenpainter.com/writers/CritiqueGroups_RWR.pdf)

Painter goes on to list the second reason Cast doesn’t use a critique group as time. “Many authors produce work at a greater rate than a critique group can critique.” To be fair—in addition to the authors she lists as not using groups, Painter also shows the other side. So, I’m not saying that there isn’t value in it. I’m merely saying that it doesn’t work for me. I find it infinitely more useful when a reader points out areas of strength than when they comment on what they personally didn’t like. If eight out of nine readers mention my character development as being strong and no one ever says anything about the worlds I’ve created—I’m going to get the idea that I need to work on my level of description. Maybe some authors don’t take subtle hints…rest assured, I do and have no need for others to tell me what they would have done had it been their story.

I suppose that gets to the heart of my issue. When you hand your work to other writers, you are asking for just that. No writer can read something in the draft stages without the question, ‘what would I have done here’ staining their ability to be objective. And that’s the problem, it isn’t your story. You’ll never hear me tell another author how a story should have gone—that isn’t valuable feedback. Nor will I ever suggest tearing a story apart because it isn’t ‘marketable’ the way that it is. Critique groups as they are now, are a relatively new creation. A writer in decades past would have a few trusted readers, if he/she showed an unpublished work to anyone aside from their editor. The concept of a collective or collaborative effort is an invention of mass market production. If you want to produce a manuscript to please the masses, show it to them first.

Personally, no thanks. I’m a purest when it comes to fiction. If it didn’t happen that way, I’m not changing it or adding fluff to make it more palatable to the market. Period. Burn me at the stake for it—the masses are good at that. I’m simply tired of seeing it worded as an absolute, when it isn’t. I’m tired of reading that in order to take yourself seriously as an author, you should sign up for the unsolicited criticism of an anonymous online community or a face to face, weekly commitment with other authors…because no serious author does it alone. This simply isn’t true at all. While we may be the exception, we aren’t a myth.

I’m not interested in hearing critique groups or critiques in general defended. I’ve heard it all, more than once, and saying it again won’t change how I feel about it. Writers get up in arms over this…which makes no sense if you think about it—I’m criticizing the norm and you’re immediately rushing to the defense…doesn’t that fly in the face of your argument? Shouldn’t you take my words for what they are and maybe see if you can’t learn something from them? Improve? My favorite argument thus far is the assumption that since a work hasn’t been published yet, there must be something inherently wrong with it. Really? You believe that? And passing it through enough critiques will eventually whittle down the ‘errors’ and you’ll have a ‘publishable’ novel at some distant point in the future? Formulas don’t work. That, is a formula. To hell with those who say it needs shredding. Tolkien himself told Lewis that he should scrap Father Christmas from The Chronicles of Narnia. Several years ago a poll was done in the united states that asked grade school children what part they liked best, and wouldn’t you know…Father Christmas won by a landslide. So, it isn’t even a matter of who is giving the criticism—whether they are qualified or not—you know when something is right or wrong in a story. Have a little more faith in yourself and your ability to write.

Stephen King said it best, No, it’s not a very good story – its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.”

You Want a Piece of Me?

Time

Olympic athletes train every day. They wake up at absurd hours because they need more time than a normal human schedule allots. Before the average Olympian has ever won a medal, they have supporters. The public cheers them on because they want them to succeed. When they compete, they are known for either life altering mistakes (broken limbs, public falls, etc.), or dream achieving performances. If I have my facts right, most of them don’t hold full time jobs while engaged in a ‘training’ season.

Writing is no different. Save the public’s basic understanding of what it takes to become a master of our craft. Family members question our absence at holidays or get-togethers. Friends whine about unanswered phone calls, unaddressed emails or short visits. In-laws, acquaintances and neighbors ask why we don’t do something more directly related to gainful employment…or worse, success. I suspect they don’t truly know the definition of the word.

Publishing companies, those few who are willing to accept unsolicited submissions, make the bold requirement, ‘No multiple submissions’ yet with the same tongue, ‘Expect a reply within 6-8 months.’

For each agent, a writer must research all the particular likes and dislikes, the format (there are just as many ways to submit a query as there are stars in the sky), the amount to include (five pages, no pages, query only, full synopsis), and even how to address the agent. This essentially boils down to personal preference. Agent X doesn’t appreciate being addressed by their first name. Agent Y wouldn’t get past the greeting if it didn’t specifically address her by first and last name. Bottom line: you don’t want us to succeed.

I don’t want to hear the usual crap I hear from the publishing world about professionalism, courtesy and all of the excuses used for  supposedly ‘streamlining’  the process. We get to read all of the time about one author or another who had the audacity to….fill in the blank with the offense of the week.  I’ve read more than once how it isn’t possible for an agent, NOT to be FOR authors. Really? Step outside of your self-righteous shoes and read your bullshit for what it is. “Don’t submit to anyone else for half a year, wait for me to send you a form rejection.” Really. That’s–FOR authors? Did that sound supportive to you? Oh wait, you didn’t say it like that, did you? But that’s what you meant. There are whole blogs dedicated to educating authors on how to better get along with agents by way of bettering their queries and synopses. How about a blog dedicated to agents on how to respect the amazing amount of time and soul it takes to write a single piece of work? I’d be blacklisted in a NY minute. If I’m not already. Oh and don’t bother telling me that they are being magnanimous enough to spend a few moments of their precious time to ‘help’ us out.

*Sigh* I’d love to see just one agent, make a single dime from selling books without the authors they’ve signed. Wait, books don’t exist without us. So, unless HAL develops literary aspirations, we won’t EVER see that.

Why would I be blacklisted? Free speech right? For everyone but us. I have a big problem with the amount of arrogance it takes to expect every writer to take hours out of their time researching your personal tastes in such depth that a simple slip of the tongue could warrant a rejection slip. Don’t think that possible? Do a little research and then come tell me it’s never happened. I have better things to do—like, I don’t know, bettering my craft, for example. I know, how dare I expect to spend my time actually practicing, actually writing. Will I stoop to this heinous act myself?

Yeah. Because if I ever want to see my work on the shelves of a brick and mortar store, I don’t have a choice in the matter. But let me assure you—should fortune ever smile on me, and I find myself in a position to REALLY say something about this, they’ll get a serious piece of my mind.

Oh, and because I know some smart-ass will either ask or think this. Yes, I would be saying this if I were published or currently signed with an agent. Don’t believe me? Well, nobody’s perfect.

The Etiology and Treatment of ‘Authoritis’

Authoritis is an unfortunate syndrome, which has only recently begun to receive attention from mental health professionals. It has, however, been in existence for ages and was only considered to be more than merely an ‘inconvenience’, with the invention of the Gutenberg press in 1440. With the dawn of the information age, it is now a recognized syndrome (Gore, 1983).

Those suffering the condition in years gone by were told to “take two aspirin and see if the urge passes (source anon).” Despite a history of clinical neglect, it is estimated that more than half of all books found in brick and mortar stores, were penned by someone suffering some form of Authoritis, also called an ‘author’. According to the DSM V-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), American Psychiatric Association (2009), there are five characteristics required to warrant a proper diagnosis of Authoritis.

  1. Adolescent onset
  2. Cyclic anti-social behavior
  3. Cyclic psychosis; to include hallucinations (auditory and visual)
  4. Obsessive behavior; to include insistence of imaginary creatures called, ‘agents’ and ‘publishers’
  5. God complex; consisting of claims that one has ‘created whole worlds,’ and ‘characters’.

Clinical Features of Authoritis

ADOLESCENT ONSET

Clinicians aren’t certain why the syndrome begins in adolescence. It has been recorded in some children, as early as the age of six—though it is usually a less severe form of the syndrome and studies have shown that 78% of children, who demonstrated three or more characteristics of the disorder, would later develop full blown Authoritis (R.L. Stine, 1990). Typically, adolescents will begin by writing in what is called a ‘diary’: Recent research has shown that diaries are ‘gateway’ perpetuators and may serve by their use as an early indicator of the syndrome. Curiously, some adolescents may throw the term around loosely in reference to their identity, though it has been proven that while children showing signs are more likely to develop the syndrome, only 35% of adolescents claiming the diagnosis, ever go on to develop more than the characteristic God complex.

CYCLIC ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

This aspect of Authoritis, despite the hallucinations and psychosis, is the single most prevalent symptom reported by the friends and family of those with the syndrome and is typically what prompts interventions and eventual medical treatment. The author will be perfectly social one moment, only to sink into a depressive anti-social trance. This trance will often find the author sitting in one place for extended periods of time, often more than five or six hours straight, sometimes staring at nothing but a blank sheet of paper or computer screen. Phone calls, visits from friends and family, personal hygiene and health are all abandoned in favor of engaging in a trance or a trance-like state. Any attempt to break the author of this behavior has proven to be detrimental to the concerned friend or relative, and in some cases, fatal.

In the most critical cases, this anti-social behavior becomes what is known as a ‘writer’s block’. Hygiene is said to be at a critical low and will typically be accompanied by crying, cussing and screaming fits.

CYCLIC PSYCHOSIS

For those living with an author this may be the most unsettling characteristic of the syndrome. The author is often seen speaking to themselves, sometimes repeating the same sentence in a variety of tones or voices (King, On Writing, 2001). At times, particularly after a lengthy trance-like state, the author will even use more than one voice and appears to be conducting entire conversations between multiple personalities. Any attempt to question the sanity of this action results in a blank look, followed by aggression or the abrupt closure of the psychosis—which will only resume later with greater intensity. Clinicians recommend, in order to minimize the severity of the episode, that the author be left alone.

OBSESSIVE BEHAVIOR

This is reportedly the most curious behavior of authors. Despite habitual assurance that ‘agents’ and ‘publishers’ do not in fact exist and even if they did, they wouldn’t have any desire to see the author’s penned psychotic episodes; those suffering Authoritis press on and insist that their delusions will prove true by the achievement of ‘publication’ or representation by an ‘agent’ or some other ephemeral creature (Critique Circle, 2006). While half of all books are rumored to have been penned by an author, this is believed to be a classic situation of correlation not equaling causation (Miss Snark, 2005). This shared delusion among authors has even held its own against the adversity of being shown without doubt that books are indeed created and placed in brick and mortar stores by monkeys.

*As a side note, the CLC, or Coalition of Literary Chimps, is outraged by the publication of this article and is threatening libel, claiming that this will project their members into the spotlight and out of obscurity where they have remained since leaving NASA (CLC, 2009).

GOD COMPLEX

This is the easiest symptom to identify, merely by the author’s own need to habitually tell others about the worlds they have created (Facebook, 2006-2009). It manifests very early in the syndrome, and is seen by medical professionals as progressive in nature, sometimes leading to multiple worlds, characters and volumes of written or printed material to validate the author’s creative and God-like abilities. It is said, with no uncertainty, that this characteristic is directly related to the psychotic episodes, though some authors have been found to record words amounting to nothing more interesting or ‘creative’ than the phone book (Left Behind Series, Jenkins & LaHaye, 1999).

Causes of Authoritis

With the official, medical, recognition of Authoritis, there has been a concerted effort at identifying its cause. So far, there are several models to consider:

Sociological Model

Most authors are woefully bereft of gainful employment. Some individuals who were discovered by the monkeys and had their books created, make the incorrect assumption that it was because they are authors and thus subsequently they report that this is their livelihood. This has been shown as unfounded time and time again with little or no impact on author’s claims (Harlequin, 1994). Other authors may be so incapacitated by the syndrome as to be unable to do anything else but write, which leads to poverty, eventual hermitism and in the most severe cases, suicide (Hemingway, 1961).

Biological Model

So far, cross-culture and regional studies have shown that while creativity may run in families, there is thus far no evidence that parents suffering the syndrome pass it on to their children (Tolkien Jr., 2007).

Psychological Model

There are a significant number of psycho-social and psychiatric based theories explaining Authoritis, the most notably being: Organized Schizophrenia. There are several more that claim the syndrome is not of any biological origin at all, but due to a lack of attention in early childhood; evidenced by the presence of imaginary friends and need to color on inappropriate things (Sesame Street, 1987).

Treatment of Authoritis

Treatment of Authoritis has proven most elusive. There have been centers created for the practice of group therapy (Also called MFA’s), and many institutions are offering classes in an attempt to help those suffering the syndrome cope with it .They are usually referenced as ‘English’ degrees, though very little evidence may be found relating their existence to effective management and in some cases may even cause the frequency of the psychotic and anti-social behaviors to increase significantly. They have however gone on to serve as more proof that being an author is not actually required to write books, as many non-author students have gone on to be discovered by the monkeys (Harlequin, 2005).

Prognosis

Prognosis of Authoritis is bleak. Medication has shown absolutely no effect whatsoever on the lessening of the syndrome’s most cumbersome manifestations. Authors can expect, however, a normal life-span. Despite this positive revelation, most authors will write for years or even decades before Alzheimer’s sets in or the syndrome mysteriously disappears. There is said to be some correlation between the loss of ‘agent/publication’ delusions and the remission of Authoritis.

This article was written after reading the brilliant ‘Etiology and Treatment of Childhood’ by Jordan W. Smoller, which you can find here: http://www.pshrink.com/humor/Childhood.html