Friday, December 31, 2010

Tracking My Reading

by Scott Rhoades

For the third year in four, I kept track of the books I finished. I think this has officially become a habit. I recommend keeping track to any author, book lover, or journal keeper. For one thing, if you're keeping a list and sharing it at the end of the year with a select group of friends, you'll probably read more. That's always a good thing. The list says a lot about your interests and who you are. And, if you care about books, it helps you see your strengths and weaknesses. For example, my list tells me several things:
  • I read a lot this year, considerably more than the other two years, when I thought I did pretty well
  • I have pretty decent reading habits
  • I read a reasonable variety of books
It also points out some glaring holes, like:
  • Current bestsellers
  • Local authors
  • South American, Eastern European, and African authors (all categories I keep meaning to read more)
  • I reread quite a bit (although, is it really rereading if you last read a book 20 or 30 years ago or more?), which, considering the number of books I haven't read but want to, can be seen as a flaw in my list
Those holes will help me set reading goals for next year. I'm not really a formal goal setter when it comes to reading, but it will point me in certain directions when I choose a new book.

Keeping track of your reading has never been so easy, thanks to, a social network for readers.

The first year I tracked my reading, I made a game of it. I counted every page of every book I finished as one mile for a journey I tracked using Google Maps. I had to finish the book for its pages to count. This was fun, and was a great motivational game. I saw much of the US and Northern Europe. I haven't done it that way since, but I'm not counting it out.

How about you? Do you keep a list of the books you read? What do you get from your lists? Do you use (If you do, feel free to add me as a friend.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Story is Conflict

by Deren Hansen

Writing Wednesday

Have you ever watched an ant hill? It's hard not to marvel at how all the individual ants work together. The magic, according to entomologists is in the signal chemicals that the ants exchange when they meet. Those chemicals allow them to recognize each other and coordinate their activities.

There's a good case to be made that for us story-telling is like the ant's signal chemicals. Long before we worked out conventions for courses, text books, encyclopedias, etc., we told stories. Story-telling has been a part of human culture for ages because beyond entertainment it serves the fundamental purpose of conveying information. Think of stories as a primitive "how-to." Stories essentially say, "if you find yourself in a situation like this, here's how to deal with it."

This is the reason why conflict is essential to stories.

A story must have an unmet need, an impediment, more than one possible action, and a resolution. Without all four elements, you're doing something other than telling a story.*


If you're perfectly content, there's no story because there's no need to make any changes. If you want nothing, then you can do nothing but live happily ever after.


So now you want something. If you can satisfy your want with simple and/or well-understood actions, then again you have no story. "Fred was hungry, so he made a peanut butter sandwich." Well, good for Fred.

The impediment is usually what we focus on when we talk about conflict. The antagonist is almost always the impediment, but it could also be something external like a force of nature.


"I have an antagonist, so I have conflict, so I have a story, right?"

It's not that simple. If your protagonist has one or no options, then you still don't have a story. Remember, as a primitive how-to, a story tells us what to do in a similar situation. If there's noting you can choose to do, then you don't have a story you have fact (i.e., "If you step off the cliff, you will fall").

It's also not a story if the situation is resolved by events beyond your control. "I was poor, then I won the lottery," doesn't tell me how to change my state from poor to rich.


A story isn't just a relation of cause and effect, but if the narrative doesn't show how some action removed the impediment and satisfied the need then it's still not a story. There is a special case, the cautionary tale, in which you want to show why nothing works and admonish your listeners to avoid the situation entirely. But in general, only stories with solutions have value for their listeners.

* I originally heard about the four elements of conflict from Clint Johnson.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a the land of Bloggerton, there lived a blogger by the name of T.J. He was privileged to join the Utah Children's Writers blog as a blogger. And then the evil warlords known as Workaholics recruited T.J. to be a member of their dark forces. The Workaholics forced T.J. to forget repeatedly that he had an assignment to the Utah Children's Writers blog. Their evil powers prohibited the good, well-beloved T.J. to fulfill his assignment. T.J. grew jealous of his friends on Utah Children's Writers that were so good at writing their posts.

However, T.J. snuck away from the evil Workaholics long enough to write a post finally. And thus, let it be known, that before the year was up, he was able to get one last post in saying "I'm still here!"

The End

But not the end of this post. Bwahahahah. I'm here and I have something to say. No wait. I do. Seriously, I do.

Sometimes, life gets in our way. I was sitting at home for five days this past weekend, mostly holding a one-year old with a double-ear infection. Yesterday I was granted some time to write. Really, most of November and December were spent wishing I had more time to write. Wishing I even had more drive to write. I once heard Robison Wells state that he wakes up at 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning to get writing done before work. I used to wake up at that time in high school to get to 6:00a.m. early morning seminary (and my unfinished homework completed.) But, nowadays, I just sit and admire the drive it takes to do that. His brother, Dan Wells, seems to have had the opposite pre-full-time-author approach by going to bed late.

I, however, go with the "I've got a one-hour lunch to write" approach. Unfortunately, I wasn't granted lunchtime where I could easily do that during November and December. I do think that the ridiculously busy time is over. And I have my drive to get things done in my book before May when I will be pitching to an agent at LDStorymakers.

Time: Isn't it about finding some?

And as always:

Alien abductions are involuntary, but probings are scheduled.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Best Advice for the New Year

By Julie Daines

The year 2010 is almost over.  Now is the time for taking stock of our accomplishments and preparing for the year to come.  New year's resolutions and all that.

Maybe we can help each other out here.  What is the best advice you received this year?  What chestnut of knowledge can you pass on to the rest of us?  What great truth about writing did you learn?  What was that one epiphany that changed your writing for the better?

It doesn't have to be profound, just a tidbit of wisdom that might help us improve our craft.  Everyone approaches writing differently, so what works for some may not work for others.  But we can still learn from each other.  It's easier than learning the hard way....

Here's something I got from local author Rachel Nunes:  "If you want to be a better writer, read better books."  Sounds obvious, I know.  But there's a lot of trash out there in the young adult genre.  And there's a lot of really great writing too.  Read the great stuff to elevate your own writing level.

Leave a comment with your piece of advice.

Friday, December 24, 2010

So? Whutcha Get? Brag here.

What is the best writing related gift you got for Christmas? And books you'll read for pleasure count.

And, if your haul included something really cool you want to tell the rest of us about, even if it has nothing to with writing, go ahead and rub it in.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Agents are Business Partners, not Leprechauns

by Deren Hansen

"A leprechaun is a type of fairy in Irish folklore, usually taking the form of an old man, clad in a red or green coat, who enjoys partaking in mischief. ... If ever captured by a human, the Leprechaun has the magical power to grant three wishes in exchange for their release." (Wikipedia) 
I hope the title of this piece elicited a profound, "Duh." But after listening to writers talk about their quest to secure an agent, I can't shake the suspicion that most of us harbor the fantasy that once we capture one they will grant us three publishing wishes.

I spent a weekend several months ago with a group that included an agent (no, she's not my agent nor were offers of representation forthcoming), and discovered that the mythical creatures are, in fact, people too.

What does this mean?

First, that agents do not possess publishing magic. Having one does not guarantee publication, though it may help.* In fact, getting an agent is generally the precursor to a great deal more work on your part (revisions, galleys, promotion, etc.).

Second, as people (not Leprechauns), agents have their own personalities, backgrounds, and biases. You will like some and dislike others. By the same token, some will like you and your work while others won't care for one or both.

A corollary is that there is no universal and objective standard of book goodness to which all agents subscribe; there is no college of agents and publishing professionals who bless or condemn manuscripts; no matter how great your manuscript is, some, perhaps most, agents will not offer to represent it.

Third, and most important--as fun and interesting as agents may be as people--at the end of the day the relationship between author and agent is that of a business partnership. Proper partners have something to contribute to each other's business. And between them can create a whole that feels magical because it is greater than the sum of its parts. But don't be deceived: what seems like magic is the product of synergy and a whole lot of hard work.

* Similarly, getting published doesn't guarantee success. Consider this variation on the old philosophical question: "If a tree is cut from the forest, pulped into the paper on which your book is published, and sits on the shelf until it's remaindered, is that any different from a tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear?"

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Self-Publishing with Author and Agent Marsha Casper Cook

A lot of writers have toyed with the idea of self-publishing. However, how do you know if it is the right choice for you or your book? Well I’ve asked my friend and World of Ink Guest Marsha Casper Cook to share her thoughts on self-publishing. She has self-published her children’s books, but she is also an agent and knows how hard it can be to break through the red tape to be traditional published.

By: Marsha Casper Cook
Over the years many people have asked me why I self – published my books. Actually, that wasn’t exactly what I had planned. However, over the years and after many rejections I decided that it was time to start my writing career with or without a publisher behind me.

When my books are being read, the reader isn’t as interested in the publisher as they are in the author. They really don’t care who publishes the book, they are reading the story. If they like what they have read, I have done my job. With all the talk about self-publishing, the one thing that is hardly ever talked about is the reader. If the reader is happy, I am happy. Therefore, when you’re sitting at your computer wondering if what you are doing makes any sense at all try to remember, give your reader a good story and they will come back for more.

After many years of self-publishing, I have never been sorry. There are times when I send a letter or two out to publishers thinking that it’s time for the traditional publishers to take a look at my work and my accomplishments, but is appears that nothing has changed. Publishers are rejecting writers without reading their work. Sometimes I can tell the manuscript has never been touched by anyone. At this point in my career, it doesn’t bother me. I am very happy my books are on the market and doing well.  

As an agent, it is still almost impossible to get new writers published. One of the discussions I have with new clients is about self-publishing and usually their answer is no that self – publishing is not for them. I say yes, self-publishing is for you if you want a career in writing. Start will not be sorry. Some say yes others say no. The clients that have said yes have never been sorry.      

About Marsha Casper Cook:
Marsha Casper Cook is the author of six published books and 11 feature-length screenplays, a literary agent with 15 years of experience and the host of a radio talk show about the business of writing and entertainment, “A Good Story is a Good  Story,” on the Red River Radio network.

Her published works include “Love Changes,” a romantic novel about a family in crisis, and “Sala, More Than a Survivor,” a non-fiction biography about surviving the Holocaust. She has also written three books for young children, including the short stories “Snack Attack” and “The Magical Leaping Lizard Potion” and the poetry collection “The Busy Bus.” She has just completed the fourth book in her children’s series. Marsha has also published a book version of her romantic-comedy screenplay, “It’s Never Too Late.”
Marsha’s other screenplays range from romantic comedies to crime thrillers to family dramas. Movie studios optioned her scripts “Grand Central Station” and “Romancing Gracie”, and the latter was named a finalist at the ASA, Houston and Chicago Film Festivals.
Wanting to help new writers reach their goals, Marsha founded the literary agency Marcus Bryan & Associates in 1996, and achieved signatory status from the Writers Guild of America (WGA) within two years. In that capacity, she has represented more than 100 screenwriters and authors, and has also optioned books to movie production companies. Marsha has spoken about her work and the craft of writing to a wide range of audiences including bookstores, schools, museums and local cable and will continue to speak to the media. 

Publisher Website:

You can learn more about Marsha Casper Cook and her World of Ink Tour at

Marsha Casper Cook’s next stop on her World of Ink Tour is December 20th at Blog Talk Radio-RFK: Stories for Children with hosts VS Grenier, D.M. Cunningham and Tiffany Strelitz Haber. They will be chatting with author, agent and host of "A Good Story Is A Good Story" Marsha Casper Cook and about her books, “Snack Attack,” "The Magical Leaping Lizard Potion," "The Busy Bus," and what it has been like doing the World of Ink Author/Book Virtual Tour. Marsha will also be sharing agent and self-publishing tips; along with the trials and tribulations of the writer’s life.

Friday, December 17, 2010


by Scott Rhoades

Woke up this morning to the terrible news about the Provo Tabernacle, one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the area. It looks like it might be a total loss due to fire. I hope it can be restored, but even if it can, it won't quite be the same.

My heart goes out to all of you who have good memories of that building, whether you just admired it as you drove by, or participated in events inside.

This tragic event made me think of one of my favorite aspects of art: the preservation of specific times and places in a world where change is inevitable. Often, change is important and necessary and improves the world. In those cases, it's important that art preserves the reasons why the change was needed, so we don't forget. Other times, change rolls over us like a bulldozer, destroying beauty and happiness. Often, change is a combination of these aspects, bringing about improvement but still destroying good in the process.

Writers have a unique roll in preserving the past. We can describe the physical world that was destroyed, but we can also provide a view into the time that captures events and psychology and life in a way that is difficult in other art forms.

A lot will be written about great times in the Provo Tabernacle. I look forward to reading other people's memories.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Gift of Relaxation

Writers can always use a little time to refocus and recenter themselves.
Sometimes all it takes is chocolate, soothing music and maybe beautiful pictures of nature.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Characters: Flawed = Strong, Stupid = Weak

by Deren Hansen

I read a review of a book that follows its protagonist through a dazzling array of bad choices. That final phrase, "dazzling array of bad choices," catalyzed my thinking about character flaws.

I trust you've been around the block enough to know that perfect characters aren't very interesting. Superman without Kryptonite and his ethics is simply a demigod, unconstrained by the limitations of mere mortals. It's much more interesting to read about someone with an identifiable mix of strengths and weaknesses.

But there's an important difference between characters with flaws and characters who are stupid. Characters with flaws believe they are good, moral people who are trying to do the best they know how. Characters that are stupid know what they are doing is wrong or self-destructive but do it any way.

"Wait," you may say, as you rise up in righteous wrath, "there are really people like that in the world and I have a duty to tell it like it is."

"Yes," I answer. "And there are people who lead utterly unremarkable lives, who put the bore into boring. Why don't you also have a duty to tell those stories like they really are?"

To be clear, I'm not arguing stories that are all sunshine and flowers. Indeed, there's a grand tradition of cautionary tales whose purpose is to warn by showing us the full extent of the tragedy. I'm arguing for strong characters.

A character headed for tragedy along a trajectory that makes sense (at least from their perspective) is far more interesting and far stronger than a character that knowingly fails because they haven't the energy or strength of will to do anything else.

Perhaps a simple way to sum this up is with the reminder that the antagonist believes they are the hero of their own story.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

I'm taking a 32 hour class on becoming a Red Cross First Aid, CPR/AED Instructor. And because I think that you personally are worth saving, I'm hijacking this writing blog to share this non-writing information with more people. This is tonight's homework assignment (besides the test and the 72 pages of reading):


-persistent chest pain or pressure (starting under the breast bone) that lasts longer than 3 to 5 minutes or that goes away and comes back.

-chest pain spreading to shoulders, neck, back, jaw, stomach, or arms.

-shortness of breath or trouble breathing.

-nausea or vomiting.

-dizziness, light-headedness, or fainting.

-pale, ashen (grayish) or bluish skin.


-denial of signals. 

Women are FAR more likely to experience some of the other warning signals than men, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain. Women are far LESS likely to have heart attacks, but are FAR more likely to DIE because they delay seeking help/treatment for 4 to 6 hours because they don't want to be a burden to others by worrying them. 


If you see someone who is having symptoms of a heart attack, call 911. Better to be safe than sorry. If you are having symptoms of a heart attack, do not attempt to drive yourself to the hospital. Get help or call 911. 

Now that you know, tell someone else. See how many lives we can save by telling people what to look for. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Overused in YA Literature

By Julie Daines

YA Author Joelle Anthony read hundreds of young adult and middle grade novels to create a list of the fifteen most overused things in YA fiction. 

She says she wanted to encourage YA writers to “stretch beyond the first things that they think of when writing.  The idea behind the list was to point out areas where authors seem to think they are being unique, but actually aren’t.”

Here is her list:  A Countdown of 15 of the Most Overused Things in YA Fiction

15.  Stories of irresponsible parents with main characters who end up paying bills, cooking, cleaning, etc.

14.  Characters who like retro music – generally of the era that the author was in high school.

13.  Really hot, young-looking moms – often portrayed as main character’s best friends.

12.  Female characters who are obsessed with Jane Austen in general, and Elizabeth Bennet in particular.

11.  Lab partners where one person does all the work – often the geek who ends up being the love interest.

10.  A main character with only one friend.  The plot almost always includes the compulsory argument scene, leaving her to eat lunch alone for weeks – usually in the library.

9.  A poor girl who is a scholarship student in a fancy private school.

8.  Books told in first person and the description of the main character is given by having her examine herself in the mirror.

7.  Tomboys who can’t sew or cook and hate dresses (most common in historical and middle-grade novels).

6.  Gorgeous, popular younger sisters (this role used to be reserved for older sisters).

5.  Authors who work vocabulary words into the dialogue and then pass them off as knowledge the characters have because the words are on the SAT list.

4.  Main characters who are the only ones in the world without a cell phone.

3.  Clumsy characters who can’t dance or play sports to save their lives.

2.  Guys with gorgeous/stunning/flashing/jewel-like/piercing green eyes.  Green is the new blue.

1.  Main characters who hate math.

From SCBWI Bulletin, Nov/Dec 2010

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Loading 16 Tons

by Deren Hansen

Now that the excitement of NaNoRiMo has subsided, I thought you could use another shot of encouragement.

I'm sure most of you have heard the old mining lament about loading sixteen tons ("and whadda ya get? Another day older, and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't ya call me cause I can't go, I owe my soul to the company store.").

I have a thing for numbers, so I had to figure it out:

WikiMedia: A mule pules a load of coal.
One ton is 2,000 pounds, so sixteen tons is 32,000 pounds.

That sounds like a lot.

If you have an eight-hour workday, you'd have to load 4,000 pounds (2 tons) an hour.

That still sounds overwhelming.

But if you could load 100 pounds in a minute, it would only take 40 minutes to load 4,000 pounds. I'll leave it up to you to decide how to split your 100 pound load over the course of a minute (I like the idea of two 50 pound lifts), but I want to point out that at this pace, you'd have a 20 minute break every hour.

There's no question it would take strength and stamina to keep loading all day. Still, after we break it down, the job moves from overwhelming to doable.

Writing a novel is a lot like loading sixteen tons: in general, you've got to produce somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words. That sounds like a lot. But if you break it down to 1,000 words a day (and keep up the pace) and you'll finish your novel in two or three months.

My point isn't that you should write everyday, it's that you'll be surprised at what you can accomplish if you move your project forward by a doable, sustainable amount each day.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: luigi diamanti /

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Getting to Know Author & Illustrator J.D. Holiday

I thought I would do something a bit different this Sunday from my other posts. Instead of listening to me babble on about marketing, I asked my fellow writing friend J.D. Holiday (who is currently touring her book “The Great Snowball Escapade” in the December ’10 World of Ink Tour) a couple of questions about believable characters and how she creates her characters. I also asked her a few other questions. Therefore, I hope you all enjoy this little interview today with author and illustrator J.D. Holiday.

J.D. Holiday is the author and illustrator of two children’s books: “Janoose the Goose” and “THE GREAT SNOWBALL ESCAPADE.”  A chapbook of her short stories called, “Trespasses” was published in 1994 and she has had short stories printed in literary magazines and numerous articles about writing and publishing published.

I want to thank you for being my guest here on Utah Children’s Writers.

You‘re welcome. Thank you for having me here today.

What inspired you to write?

Stories of all kinds throughout my childhood opened up my imagination. I enjoyed coming up with my own endings to sad stories though I really only wrote one story as a child. I think that was in the fourth grade on a rainy day.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If yes, how did you ‘cure’ it?
Not really. I have had times I didn’t write mainly because I was discouraged by rejections from agents, editors and publishers.

What is the most difficult part of writing?

I would have to say that editing is the most difficult part for me. Grammar is not
my strong point. I have to rely on others to edit for me.

Tell us about your writing space.

My writing space is an office/TV room/computer room. My computer table is one that if you put the back-up you have a bench but instead the top have a computer with the monitor, keyboard and scanner/printer on it. The TV sits across from a small couch or loveseat. I write sitting on that comfortable couch.

What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?

Before I sit down to write when I’m creating a story, my mind begins racing. I write by hand, paper and pen because I can’t type fast enough to get all my thoughts in. 

Editing gets to be difficult because I keep writing notes that end up in every available space, in the margins and between the typed name it. This all makes it hard to edit and near impossible to read my own writing. I’ve tried changing this hobby many times. But nothing else works while I’m creating. A pencil and eraser only make it harder still with the eraser’s smudges!

How do you create your characters?

I start plotting my story, working out all the details and as I’m doing that the characters start to form. By the time I have the story outlined I also have my characters in place. I never seem to have to worry about coming up with characters for my stories.

Once I have the characters, then I do an outline for each one, from a few paragraphs to a page or two for the main character or characters.

I ask myself how do they look, where do they live, who are their family if any. Are they students or full time cashiers. Round out their lives even though I will not use or write all of it in my story. I know who they are.

Nevertheless, I need to see all there is to my characters so I can make them real for the readers.
Your characters must show themselves to your readers. You should not tell the readers, John hates school. Have John show them. You do this through the scenes and dialog.

                        The bell rang. Most of the kids moved faster as if they liked being here.
                        Slamming his lockers door John put one foot in front of the other hesitantly wanting to delay entering the classroom.
                        First Mrs. Smith, then hairy face Hairyluke’s class, Michelillen’s all before shop where he can breathe a bit.
                        He smiled slyly. That’s if he didn’t get thrown out of a class first.

What is required for a character to be believable?

A believable character is one that can show human traits and emotions through body movement and dialog. Know your characters well.

Each character must have an identity; name, age, background, a hobby or two and likes and dislikes. Your readers have to see where your characters live what the characters think and feel about the situations they find themselves in.
  1. Do they play an instrument?
  2. Do they run in the park mornings or in the evenings?
  3. Who are their friends? And on and on.
I put myself in their shoes and use myself as a model for all sorts of emotions and problems my characters face. This applies to even emotions I have not felt or traits I don’t have. If my characters have to be something I am not or feel what I have not, I picture myself being or doing what my characters must and write it down.

Do an outline sketch of each one and even with all of that, your characters, especially your main character should standout and for the most part, are likable to the readers.

The characters personalities have to be consistent throughout the story.

What voice do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?

I like both, but prefer third person. The reason being is I need my main characters to think in my stories. I find my characters are well rounded that way and the readers understand them better.

What do you recommend I do with all those things I wrote years ago but have never been able to bring myself to show anyone?

What I think you should do if you haven’t done so already, is to research and learn all there is to know about the genre or field your stories are in. Read the same types of books you have written. The same ones your story’s readers are reading.

Once you understand your genre and see that what you have written is right and correct for its and sure that readers will like it, it’s show time for your stories.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Readers can find out more about me and my books at:

I thank you for taking the time to share with our readers and me about being an author.

You are welcome! Thank you so much for having me here today. I appreciate it.  

If you would like to learn more about J.D. Holiday and her book “The Great Snowball Escapade” you can follow her World of Ink Tour at

You can also join us December 6th on RRRadio-Stories for Children with hosts: VS Grenier, D.M. Cunningham and Tiffany Strelitz Haber as we chat with J.D. Holiday Live at 11am MST (10am PST, Noon Central and 1pm EST) at

The call in number is (646) 595-4478

J.D. Holiday’s next World of Ink Tour stop is December 7th at the KidsRead Blog 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gifts for Writers

I'm curious. What kinds of writerly things are on your Christmas wish list?

My own list starts with books. Lots of books. Books about writing. Books by favorite authors who inspire me. Books about the English language. But it also includes things like t-shirts, a Shakespeare bust, office supplies including some computer items, and a few items for my Schreibwinkel (writing nook/den/whatever you want to call it).

What about you? Are you wishing for the latest gadgets, like an ebook reader or something portable you can write on? Do you go for the mugs and t-shirts and posters and trinkets aimed at writers? Are you looking to update your word processing software or get some other computerized gizmos to help you create? Or do you like comfortable, old-fashioned writing tools like a nice pen set? Or maybe you consider writing work and like to keep work and holidays separate.

Leave a comment and tell us. Your wishes might give others ideas of stuff to ask for. And maybe Santa's watching our little blog. You never know. Little feller's got spies everywhere.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Christmas Oranges by Linda Bethers, Ben Sowards

There are so many great Christmas picture books it's hard to choose just one to read.

Linda Bethers loved the story of the Christmas Oranges. She started reciting it at parties and family gatherings. Word got around of this story and storyteller and Linda became busy during the holidays. Others were called, asking for the written version. Someone even suggested she send it in to Covenant, which she did.
They accepted the story and published it as a booklet. Christmas Oranges sold out its first printing and Covenant scrambled to get a second printing by Christmas.
They printed more the next year and sold out again. It wasn't too long before someone realized this story would sell big every Christmas so why not make it into a picture book?

I love to read this book every Christmas year to my family. It's a great way to help get us into the Christmas spirit of giving and having a grateful heart.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Publishers as Risk Aggregators

It's comforting to believe that there's something inherently noble about books; that pages covered with words and stitched together between covers represent a repository of the thoughts, compressed and distilled, of others.

I think that's why we find the dissonance between books and the businesses that produce them fundamentally disconcerting, particularly in the way in which content seems a secondary concern at best.

One of the most important things I learned as an anthropologist is that there are almost always reasons, usually structural, for why things are the way they are.

Coming to publishing from a career in high-tech, it didn't take long to notice the similarities between publishers and venture capital firms. Venture capitalists, for example, expect only one in ten of the companies they fund to succeed.

The structural role of publishers and venture capitalists is explained well in a post I came across about the role of big record companies by "A Photo Editor" that included the following quote from the Adam Carolla Podcast:
What record labels are really good for is essentially risk aggregation. It’s a very small percentage of bands that get to the level of being signed and even of those people who’ve gotten past that very high bar only about 5 percent succeed. So, 19 out of 20 fail. If it was your own money, you would be a moron to spend it, because there’s a 95 percent chance that money’s not going to come back even if you’re already at the level that record labels want to sign you.
So, the only way people can make that bet is to conglomerate all of them. You sign 100 bands and assume 5 of them are going to succeed and the other 95 fail you just need to make enough back from those 5, which is why record contracts are so onerous in the first place for successful artists, because the money you are now making is paying for the other 95 percent who failed.

Somebody needs to be doing that risk aggregation unless we only want the independently wealthy who are artists.
So, here's the punch line:

Why must publishing companies be risk aggregators? Because no one, absolutely no one, really knows what will sell.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Friday, November 26, 2010

Using Your Computer to Strengthen Your Language

by Scott Rhoades

We live in a wonderful age for writing. The personal computer has made writing and editing so much easier than it was in the old days. Word processors, with their spelling and grammar checking, make it easy to find the basic errors we all make. We can edit a manuscript without having to retype the whole thing because our changes on page 28 messed up the pagination.

We can use our computers to do much of our research from our living rooms, to keep track of notes, to create mind maps and other planning documents. We can even have our computers read our stories back to us.

There's another computerized tool that can be exceptionally valuable and goes deeper into what computers can do than many of the applications that are part of our writing routines. Computers can provide an analysis of our text that would be impossible or at least extremely laborious without them.

Many of us already use computer analysis tools to check the complexity of our documents and to help us determine the grade level of the language of our stories. But there's another analysis tool that never fails to surprise me when I run it: a simple word list.

I recently installed a free program called TheScribe, developed as a simple word processor and detailed language analysis tool for linguists. The feature I find most valuable is the word list. I pasted the first 30 pages of a manuscript I have revised several times into TheScribe, and viewed the word list. What I found was much more enlightening than I'd hoped.

For example, the word "was" appears 39 times in those pages, even after editing specifically to reduce "to be" words. "Wasn't" is in there 19 times, "be" 20 times, and "were" 11. There are 37 uses of the word "but," which could indicate a need for more variety in my sentence structures. Other words appear more often than they probably should, and for no good reason. I don't know why "Something" appears 24 times in 30 pages. I also don't know why a weak verb like "put" appears 12 times. Approximately once every three pages a character puts something somewhere. That might be a problem, or might not, but it's definitely something to look at. Something is "held" 12 times. There are certainly more interesting words than that. And why would "like" be useful 38 times, more than once per page?

Analyzing my word list makes it obvious that there's an even bigger problem, potentially, than repeating some words that are not especially strong. I'm very aware that the senses are important for helping the reader become absorbed in the character's experiences. I try to pay attention to all five senses, I think. (See the "Sensory Details" post by Julie Daines.) And yet, in these 30 pages at the beginning of my novel, "looked" appears 22 times, "see" is there 16 times, "saw" twice, and other words like "stared," "glanced," "gazed," and similar synonyms for seeing make one or two appearances each. Other sense words like "heard" are almost non-existent--not necessarily a bad thing because those verbs are almost always telling words, and there are better ways to show the senses. Still, it's clear that I rely heavily on vision, and not in especially interesting ways, and need to go back and look at those sentences.

It's hard to find these kinds of problems when you read through a manuscript, no matter how carefully you edit. But, when you take the words out of context and look at them in a list, possible problem words stick out. Many of those might be perfectly fine, but the word list gives you a guide to potential problems that need to be examined.

If you know what to look for, a word list generated from your manuscript can be enlightening and troubling. Patterns emerge that you might not be able to find on your own. Weak verbs and nouns that feel fine in context look dull in a list. Adverbs and adjectives jump out. Examining those potential problems will help you strengthen your writing in ways that would have been nearly impossible 40 years ago.

TheScribe is a Windows application, available from (While you're there, check out their excellent dictionary and thesaurus application.) It is not necessarily the best of its kind for Windows, just the latest one I've tried. I've also used TextSTAT with success. Other free word list generators can be found for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Try googling "mac word frequency" or something similar and you should find something you can use, such as Word Counter for the Mac, which I've never used, but looks interesting on its Web site.