Since I'm in the process of shoring up my own edits before handing it off to my esteemed cadre of beta readers, I thought it was a good time to share a little more of my next novel... Please enjoy this little snippet of Nick's unlucky Guy Fawkes night, and I'll see you all here next week!
Hello, again, everyone! It feels good to be back after a very crazy April. Sadly, I did not reach my Camp NaNo goal, but I did get some great writing done, and I have my energy back again! This week, I want to step a little outside my author circle and share a bit about my life ... I promise, it relates to the writing process. Ready? I'm going to tell you about how and why I spent seven years of my life running in the wrong direction.
When we're young and first starting out in the world, we're told we can be anything, but we still have a lot of expectations and standards to consider, whether they're spoken or unspoken. We must get A Good Job, make Decent Money to Support Yourself, and have certain other criteria to meet, as well, depending. We try to do these things because they're supposed to let us be able to do what we want. So, I got A Good Job to make Decent Money and Have A Career so I could Support Myself, and the moment I started there, they said, "Hi, Ang. Nice to have you here. We're all really happy to see you, and we like the work you do, so ... we're going to give you a gift."
I was so excited about being appreciated and wanted as an Official Working Adult that I didn't care what the gift might have been: they liked me enough to give me it! How cool was that? "A gift? Oh, THANK YOU, that's so awesome, what is it?"
"It's a carrot!" They said, smiling. "See, we know you said you like to do all these different aspects of your job, and we decided that if you can catch the carrot, you'll be able to do them ALL. Your dream job. We want you to have what you want. Just ... get the carrot."
It's a pretty thin allegory, I know. I'm sure you're all familiar with the metaphor of the carrot and the stick. But the tricky bit is this: for the first few years, I thought that carrot was the best thing ever. I wanted it. I needed it. And even more? The people around me reinforced that. "Wait, they're going to give you a carrot?? That's amazing! I'm so excited for you! When do you get it? ... Oh. You don't know? That's okay! Be patient! It's totally going to be the best carrot ever."
But after four years with not even a peel of carrot skin, I realized I was feeling pretty unfulfilled. So I went back to writing. And when I wrote, I found the sort of satisfaction I'd been chasing after every time I reached for the carrot. I felt like I was doing the work that resonated with me, that mattered. The more I wrote, the less I wanted the carrot.
But after six years, the string the carrot was on wasn't any shorter. And I decided it was time to say something. "Hey," I said, "you told me that I'd get this carrot soon if I worked hard enough and did these things, and if I was patient."
"But things have changed," they said, "so we couldn't quite give you the same carrot. We've got another carrot for you, though, and it's pretty awesome, if you'll just hang in there and wait for it."
I thought, why not? I still had my writing, and at that point, two books under my belt. I could wait a little while for Carrot 2.0. And then it arrived, and it looked something like this:
,Needless to say, I wasn't happy. I went back and said, "You call THIS a carrot? I'm insulted. I do a lot of work around here, a lot more than you initially asked me to do, and I'd like a little more than this shrively thing."
They said, "We know you do - so we're hiring help."
They hired another manager - all ego, buzzwords, and bluster who was no actual assistance to those of us still doing just as much work as before. And then they gave us MORE work. To make matters worse? One day, they called me in and said, "So, we were able to get the carrot you originally wanted ... sort of. With some modifications. In fact, it's not really the carrot you want, it's more ... the carrot WE want you to want, with just enough in common with yours to make you think it'd be pretty good."
I said, "Okay, but I'd better get it, or I'm leaving the farm."
Long story short? I didn't get it. I'm leaving the farm. In two weeks, I'll have a new job, and I made sure before I even took it that I'd have what I wanted: enough to Support Myself, and enough time to do what makes me happy, to do the Real Work: to write.
So ... next time you sit down to your Real Work, whether you write, paint, fix machinery, tie lures ... look for carrots. See if there's anything that you think is helping you do the Real Work, but is honestly just getting in your way and dragging you down.
Cut the string. Throw the carrot back in their face. And go find a piece of cake instead.
Until next week, try everything!
Comedian Bob Marley has a somewhat famous routine about camp in New England, specifically Maine. I won't link it here, but those of you who don't mind explicit language can easily find it on YouTube. "If you're not from New England, camp is a structure ... next to a body of water. It's not a lakehouse, it's not a cabin, and it sure as shit ain't a cottage, 'cuz we ain't Hansel and Gretel. It's a friggen camp. You don't go down to camp, over to camp, or through to camp, you go upta camp. ... Can we get a screen door at camp that doesn't sound like we shot someone every time it shuts?"
Bob then goes on to extoll the unique little aggravations that every New England camp seems to have - and while he's spot on about all of them, I'd like to share the better things about camp, having grown up at one on the occasional summer weekend.
When we went "upta camp", it was always by boat, since Camp JanJuKip was on a tiny island on Lake Winnepesaukee. It was named after my great-grandfather's three kids, Janice, Judy, and Kip, and I always thought it sounded appropriately like something out of Salute Your Shorts. Camp had no electricity, just a small generator that made an awful lot of noise, and was used primarily to keep the ancient refrigerator with the faded Trix bumper sticker on it running. My mother's hand and footprints were in the cement step onto the screen porch, which was high and wide enough that some genius had fixed a swing to the ceiling beams. Until I got too heavy for that swing, I spent a fair share of afternoons on it, pretending I could let go and fly up, up through the air and splash down into the lake like a kingfisher.
Camp was for cookouts, snacks, puzzles, and time-worn board games. It was for reading old and musty books long abandoned by others but brand-new to me. It was for coloring, drawing on yellowed sheets of construction paper, and singing at the top of my lungs on the bow of the boat as we hummed across the lake. (In my early teens, I discovered that despite the rushing wind drowning out the world around me, everyone had been able to hear me the entire time, to my great embarrassment.) At camp, we were cut off from the world. No phone, no TV, and usually no radio ... then, later, once it became a possibility, no internet.
My creativity always flourished at camp: I would spend long, lazy afternoons sunning myself on the boulders at the water's edge, listening to the waves from boats' wake lap the shore, and hear other worlds in their song. Socked away in my little corner of nature, cut off from the rest of the world, it was always easier to dream. Out of sight, out of mind.
When Camp NaNoWriMo began to roll around earlier this week, I started thinking more and more about Camp JanJuKip. It's changed a great deal since my younger days: repainted, fitted with a new deck and chimney, a better generator, and - yes, Bob - a screen door that doesn't slam like a gunshot. Wireless internet had made the world accessible from the boulders. The last time I went, I had to admit... it had lost a great deal of its magic. The rough edges had been sanded down, and much of its simplicity had fallen away. It no longer seemed like an old, well-loved treasure tucked away in the wilderness: somehow, camp had become just another house, though harder to get to. But I keep its spirit in my heart, and as I take a break from this blog for the month of April, I'd like to think that every time I sit down to write, I can hear the lake lapping near my feet, and hear the buzz of a hardy generator in the near distance, keeping the hot dogs and my soda cold.
I'll see you all in May,
One of my favorite stories when I was very small was “Stone Soup”: a tale where a community is coerced to make a delicious pot of soup by each adding their own ingredients. There are plenty of reasons why this is a great jumping-off point for analogies about writing, but today I think I’d like to talk about the ingredients which are currently simmering in my own imaginary cauldron.
Every story is inspired by an amazing assortment of things: people, places, memories, and other stories. One of my college professors, the amazing Ann Page Stecker, taught me a wonderful term for this: bricolage. (We would call it to each other from across hallways, imitating the old Ricola commercial: “Briiiiii-co-laaaaage!”) When familiar things are mixed together in their own soup, something new, complex, and wonderful emerges. If it’s done properly, some ingredients aren’t even evident at first taste: like zucchini snuck into brownies. The contents of a story soup don’t have to be consciously added, either: it’s the reason why so many authors say that voracious reading is one of the hallmarks of a great author. What we experience comes through in our writing voice: I learned quite early on that my writing tended to sound like whoever I’d been reading, without trying. Now I look to it as a tool: I read a bit of whoever inspires me whenever I’m writing.
For me, the most fun thing about the story soup cauldron is that books aren’t the only fuel. Every now and then, some other sort of media grabs my writer’s brain and won’t let it go. Bioshock Infinite has that hold on me now: a 2013 video game which takes the turn-of-the-century United States and introduces elements of alternate worlds and timelines. There’s a bit of steampunk worked into the world setting, and the gorgeous visuals and styling sucked me in right away … but what is firing my brain is the seamless telling of the plot and the revelation of its twists. (If you would like to play it for yourself and experience it, I strongly advise you not to read anything about the plot, because it’s very easily spoiled.) Every event, every line of dialogue and piece of scenery, quietly advises the player what will eventually happen. It’s done with such care and subtlety that the massive revelations in the last two hours of gameplay still come as a complete gut-punch, and it’s the sort of master storytelling that every author hopes they will be able to pull off. I’m in the middle of a second play-through so that I can deconstruct it with a writer’s eye and tuck its tools into my kit.
The other large ingredient simmering in my soup is Disney’s new remake of Beauty and the Beast. Those who personally know me understand that the original is one of my favorites, and Belle has a special place in my heart. I went into a viewing as a skeptic, not sure that I’d care for it at all. Some elements didn’t pass my personal litmus test, but they are minimal in comparison to the wallop the story now packs. Every single character has been filled out with new depth, and none of it feels stilted or forced: the Beast’s history fits him like a glove, the deeper current of Gaston’s ego is as natural as breathing, and the story of Belle’s mother is heartbreaking. The new movie shows how adding to a beloved story can enrich it and make it thicker, like flour or cornstarch in a broth. This technique came in a very timely manner, since I’m gearing up to flesh out the history of two Aviario characters in a pair of novellas.
Since Camp NaNoWriMo fires up in two short weeks, I’ve got to bring my camp stove with me, and I’ve got a few great ingredients to cook over the fire. Are any of you participating in Camp? Look me up under user name “chartharsis”: I’d love to chat with you! If you’re not a Camper, I’d still be curious to hear what you put in your own story soup. Leave me a comment below: hearing from my readers makes my day!
Have a great week, and I’ll see you back here next Wednesday!
It's been a while since I shared a straight excerpt here on my blog, and since I am almost through editing The Proper Bearing, it seemed fitting to give you all one now. Our hero, Nick Forsythe, has just entered his final year of secondary school (what the English consider high school). His friends, trouble-making twins Cris and Terry, have been late in returning from detention for a couple of hours, and when they finally arrive, their reasoning is not what he expected in the least...
It's editing season for yours truly, and since I'm about to dust off The Proper Bearing after its hibernation for some fine-tuning, I thought it was a good time to talk editing. As I've said in previous posts, it is vital to edit before self-publishing, and not just with a peer. If your budget for editing is non-existent, you have to be even more critical of your writing ... but with time and practice, good self-editing can become second nature. Without further ado, here are some of the resources I've used in the past to build my own habits!
Starting with the basics, ReadWriteThink has a checklist that's meant for classroom use, but still has some great starting points. It's also printable for use in writers' groups, workshops, or NaNoWriMo Write-Ins!
Fiction University has two great pages: The Spit Shine, which is a great last run-through, and more importantly, Crossing Words Off Your List, which covers the author's most important self-editing tool. The "Bad Words" list, which goes by many names, always serves the same basic prinicple: to help remove words which are either unnecessary or overused. Every author has a handful which are unique to them, and sometimes they aren't even words. (Confession: In The Cards had a lot of unnecessary ellipses before the final edit.)
Though those words are a good first step, they aren't everything. Grammar Girl's Editing Checklist covers the bases on ... you guessed it, grammar! This one is laid out simply, and yet very comprehensive, which makes it a good one to print out and keep in your editing binder if you prefer to edit on paper (like yours truly).
WordStream's Self-Editing Checklist includes talking points on all of the above, with an extra dose of humor. I take their final point with a grain of salt, however: they stress paring down your sentences as much as possible. While I'm a fan of a tightly written sentence, I also believe that keeping some of the proverbial meat on the bone helps you define your writing voice. Your mileage may, as with most method advice, vary.
Finally, there is my own Rainbow Editing Method, which I use in conjunction with my personal Bad Words file. I developed it while I was working on From The Desk of Buster Heywood, and it's gone a long way toward helping me identify my own problem areas. You're welcome to use it, too! There's a wrap-up post with links to all the sections right here.
Now, I'm about to dive into my own manuscript, so I'll see you all next Wednesday! Should you be up to the same task, happy editing ... and I hope you all have a great week!
Frequent visitors to Between The Lines will remember that back in January, I interviewed Sara Secora about her debut novel. After that interview, she was kind enough to send me a review copy ... and I am ready to share my thoughts on it with you all!
Throne of Lies is the first in a fantasy trilogy, written for Young Adults. Its heroine, Amethysta, is a princess unhappy with her destiny: to ascend to the throne of her kingdom. She also posesses a strange ability which has come to light just prior to the beginning of the story, and must keep it a secret from the kingdom for fear of how they might react. The typical duties of a queen-in-training - studies, social niceties, betrothal - all stretch Amethysta to her breaking point, and she begins to rebel in what small ways she can. When too many things go wrong in too short a time, she begins to finally seek out answers about her mysterious abilities, and where they came from. Her questions and troubles all come to a head at the ball where she is meant to formally assume the role of the heir to the throne, and by the end of the night, the stage is well set for the second book in the series.
Sara Secora's greatest strength as an author is her honest, straightforward portrayal of Amethysta. As a teen, she is subject to mood swings, a rebellious streak, and the confusion of first love ... and Secora handles them all deftly. The novel is told from Amethysta's point of view (aside from an attention-grabbing prologue), and her voice is not only convincing, but real. Some of the other reviews I have read lambaste Amethysta for being "wishy-washy" ... I consider this a great strength which lends to fantastic character development over the course of the trilogy. We know quite quickly, as readers, that we will be watching her grow up, and I have little doubt that the end of the third book will show her to have grown into a strong, capable woman.
The only complaint I have about the novel is not even a complete problem: the plot contains several standard fantasy cliches. However, they are each given just enough of a twist or alteration so that they are still enjoyable, even though the reader can make a pretty fair guess as to what will happen. Reading Throne of Lies was like going on a drive through the town where you grew up: the roads are all still familiar, but so much has changed along the way that there are still plenty of pleasant surprises.
Also of note is the amount of detail and work put into creating Amethysta's world. Her history lessons with her professor, the somewhat suspicious and memorable Gethin, showcase details of a richly layered history which hints at possible directions for the current plot. Secora's prose is in turns both simple and elaborate, flowing like the best of the high fantasy novels I grew up with: Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's countless Dragonlance trilogies and the work of Brian Jacques especially come to mind. If you know a teen who loves fantasy, or is struggling with anxiety issues, this book would make a wonderful gift. You can find it here on Amazon. For more information about Sara Secora, please feel free to visit her website!
Thanks for joining me this week, and I'll see you all back here next Wednesday!
Until then, let your imagination lift you into the light,
Okay, everyone, this is my last post in this series, and boy, is it a big pet peeve of mine. While I agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion, there are some very, very angry people out there who don't believe self-published authors deserve to call themselves "real". Don't believe me? There are two extremely awful articles in particular by a blogger named Michael Kozlowski on Good e-Reader. You can read them here (one and two), but if you're an indie author, I'd really advise against it: especially if you have high blood pressure. (See "you'll never be an author if your head explodes", several blog posts ago.)
The truth of the matter is: writing is just like any other profession. We start out by deciding that is what we want to do, and we begin to practice. A widely quoted axiom states, "If you write, then you are an author". You put words on the paper, and voila! A writer!
The trouble is, it may take you a while to think you're a real writer. Or even an author. (And that's before we even start talking about how others see you!) So you keep working, and get second opinions, feedback from fellow writers... maybe make a friend or two of some already-published folks. The more work you do, the more you live your life wanting to be a writer, the closer you come to believing it is true. And isn't that exactly what happened to ol' Pinoke, here? He had to prove himself brave, truthful, and unselfish to become a real boy. As for authors, I believe we have three different criteria to fill.
Prove your writing to be richly detailed, full of believable characters, and free of grammatical nastiness, and someday, you will know you are a real author.
Once you know that, you are your own Blue Fairy. You give yourself that spark: and no one will ever be able to take it away from you. If you need another pep talk, I can do no better than this one by long-established indie author guru Kristen Lamb. Go forth, prove yourself to yourself. I'll be here to cheer you on.
Until next week,
How many of you have encountered the opinion that independent, self-published authors are "taking the easy route"? I first became aware of it about twelve years ago, working in a local bookstore, when self-publishing was still a young concept. I still experience that overall attitude from some folks in the public eye, and I think it's time I broke down exactly what a self-published author has to do for themselves...
1. We do our own formatting. Every chapter starts on a fresh page, indented, maybe with a few fancy flourishes. There are separate pages for the dedication, title, and About The Author which are usually standard. All of that has to be coded in, and the manuscript document has to be carefully formatted so that its page margins are just right and the font size is reasonable. We take for granted some of the things which make a novel look "real", or up to professional publishing standards. True, self-publishing providers such as Lulu, Smashwords, and CreateSpace provide templates to work within, but it's the author who spends hours making it all look right.
2. We handle our cover design. Hiring others to design cover art is a luxury, and usually the one most independent authors are willing to spring for. Even with a helping hand, there's a great deal of collaboration involved. For those who won't or can't hire an artist, we're on our own for that, too: and covers do still get judged, no matter what the old axiom says. There are margins to contend with here, too, the same as with the inside - I had a SNAFU with the cover of In The Cards' first edition and had to work with Lulu's lovely support team to get it straightened out. Which brings me to #3 ...
3. We deal directly with our vendors. Printing, business cards, sellers, libraries, website tech support ... any issue that arises must be handled personally. Traditionally published authors have agents or other folks at their publishing house who take care of this, so the author can focus on their writing and their public appearances. The self-published author is on their own.
4. This includes marketing and social media. Some people are born marketers and networkers, but you'll find that by and large, authors aren't necessarily social butterflies. I myself am a right-brained person who has always considered the concept of "selling" to have a used-car salesman feel to it... and now, here I am, confronted with my own business plan and marketing strategy. I've recently taken an online course and begun to learn that marketing is much less ... er, icky ... than I once believed, and I'm excited to get started. It is, however, another case of hard work and more time spent away from the page.
5. It's not our main source of income. I know that this isn't necessarily true of traditionally published authors, either ... but their income system works differently than an indie author's, too. We get nothing up front, no promise of a fixed sum with each book we write. Our revenue comes in quarterly royalty checks from whichever publishing outlet we've chosen... and it depends on our sales, which depend upon all of the other factors I've covered here, in addition to how good the book itself is. Which means - yes - indie authors do all of this while balancing full-time jobs. I think of it as being a super-hero, with the day job as my alter ego.
When you break all of this down, it equates to about 50% time spent marketing and promoting, and 50% spent writing. This goes up to 100% marketing, promoting, design, and formatting when a book release is on the horizon. Consider how much time the average full-time working person has to themselves when the day is done, and you'll see just how much an independent author has to bust their butt in order to get their book out into the world. Lazy? Easy way?
If you've stumbled upon this post as a budding independent author, I don't want to discourage you by any means. Be proud of the choice you're making. Yes, independent authors do a LOT of work ... but we do it because we believe in what we're doing enough to devote ourselves to the work. We know where we're happiest: writing. We know that our creativity makes a difference in the world. We're not willing to jump through hoops or only "write what sells". We are making good art on our own terms, and for every person who says "hey, I'm reading your book", our spirits soar.
Every bird had to fall out of the nest and flap its wings like hell in order to learn to fly. Don't let a little hard work stop you from knowing how it feels to soar.
'Till next week,
As an independent author, I encounter the same stereotypes, repeatedly:
Ouch, right? So I’ve decided to do my part by creating my own little toolkit to help fellow indie authors ensure that their writing shatters those stereotypes into tiny little splinters. I know there are a million other blogs and e-books that hand out this advice, but everyone does things their own way … why not document mine? This week, I’m going to start with the most technical of the three: Your Writing Must Not Be Good Enough.
In order to debunk this, we indie authors must first define what constitutes “good writing”. For my own part, when I review a book, I look for the following benchmarks:
This can be subjective. There are some very famous authors (I am looking at you, James Patterson and Danielle Steel) who can use almost cookie-cutter elements like sex or action scenes to string together the weakest of plot points. They have found something that works for them. The trouble is, if you want to be truly noticed as an indie author, cookie-cutter is not going to, well, cut it. Your plot should have a good, sharp hook or a unique element to it. Take a look at your writing, and if you can compare its plot easily to that of a famous author, try to find what makes it uniquely yours. Are you telling people “it’s just like (insert best-seller here)”? If they want Best-Seller X, they can just go and read it again. Tell them why they want YOUR story.
Well-defined Characters We Can Care About
I’m not just talking about lengthy, detailed descriptions of their hair, eyes, body, and clothing. What makes them tick? What do they fear, love, or have inside jokes about? Give your readers a glimpse of this before you’ve ended Chapter One - even on page one, if you can manage it. Also, I cannot stress this enough: character is not plot. If your main character is in trouble because they have to evade fifteen unpaid parking tickets and the police in their dystopian future consider this punishable by death? That’s plot. If they didn’t pay their parking tickets because they lined their guinea pig’s cage with them as a form of protest, and/or donated the money to the homeless guy on the corner of their block instead? That’s character. They can run from the cops all they want, but unless I know about that guinea pig and/or homeless guy, I’m not gonna care, even if they are gorgeous.
No Typos, Excessive Verbosity, or Overused Words
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Unless you are Lemony Snicket, if you say “The bomb covered in multicolored wires of various lengths and thicknesses like a spaghetti casserole from hell was getting closer to detonation. Esteban opened the junk drawer of the oaken hutch that his Great-Aunt Hattie had left to him in her will before she died of dysentery and gave it a thump to keep it from sticking, before pulling out the neon orange tool set at the back right corner of the drawer and opening it. He popped the latches and pulled out the smallest pair of tweezers with their red rubberized handles and whirled back around to face the explosive device with fervent determination” … your readers are going to be praying for that bomb to go off.
Consider, instead: “Esteban pounded on the junk drawer, cursing. Behind him, the bomb ticked on. He wrestled out his toolkit, almost dropping it in his haste to pop the catches. The pair of tweezers shook in his hands as he turned back to his work.” Sentences of mixed length help the prose flow more naturally, but leaning on short phrases with sparse description help create the sense of urgency Esteban is probably feeling as he’s trying not to get his apartment blown up.
Few to No Cliches
Unfortunately, the genres I see most in self-publishing are those which fall prey to the most clichés: romance and fantasy. Yes, I know that clichés and tropes exist for a reason: we love them, they’re fun. But they’re also super-predictable. If your reader knows what’s coming, they’re not going to want to bother reading it… unless, as with your plot, you give it that little dash of spice that makes it uniquely yours. Exhibit A: The brooding love interest who has to do That One Big Epic Thing to redeem their reputation. Make them less than perfect in the looks department, or completely unable to resist a sing-along. Give them a life-long dream of raising hedgehogs. It all goes back to the first two points: plot and character. Make them as indisputably yours as possible, and you’ll be well on your way to shattering the first Indie Author stereotype.
Thanks for joining me Between The Lines! Please share your thoughts below, and I hope you’ll join me next week, when I’ll bust the stereotype of The Lazy Indie Author!
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