Friday, December 30, 2011

Resisting the Temptation

Here I am after Christmas with a fresh pile of new books to read but I’m rereading Harry Potter again… It is however, benefitting me in some ways: By now I’ve memorized all the plot twists and my mind is able to focus even more on the clever writing.

When I last posted about Rowling’s genius a question popped up concerning how the young wizards who aren’t muggle-born get educated before Hogwarts. I pondered this a bit while reading but the answer never came up. It got me thinking about how there are many other huge important aspects of this world--that has become real to so many of us—that are never covered in the books.

I promise I’m getting to the point.

The question about the young wizards’ and witches’ education was just that, a question; a speculation of how the younger wizards lived. We inquired “How were they educated?” It was never, “Why didn’t Rowling think of how they had been educated?” This is because we have grown to trust her. She has formed the world so flawlessly with Harry being introduced to features about it little by little all the way to the end of the story. We never doubted that—whether Harry’s been given time to find out about it or not—the answers to our questions exist. Rowling may or may not know the answer to how the children were educated before Hogwarts, but we have no problem trusting that there is one.

I am one of those writers that has a problem of pausing the story for pages at a time hoping to get all of the aspects of the world I’ve worked so hard on across to my readers. It is extremely difficult for me to tone things down and weave in the description I would much rather just give in an info dump. This becomes especially hard when my MC is already familiar with parts of the world; I always fear that my readers will never have a chance to learn everything.

The simple truth is that most of the time, they probably won’t. If you have done your job as a writer and made your world whole and complete, then while your readers explore parts of it with your MC they will grow to trust that the rest of it exists. We need to learn to enjoy the fact that much of our preparation with worlds and characters will never make it into the manuscript but that our knowledge of their existence gives what is written there a new depth and reality.

(Though I may never hear of any goings on in South Dakota, I trust that exists and has just as much of a history and culture as Utah.)

Book Review: The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by the editors of Writer's Digest Press

by Scott Rhoades

How can you not like a book that ends with "Some people have no sense of humor when it comes to great literature. Or arson."?

This hefty collection of articles from Writer's Digest was an enjoyable read. It's 77 chapters are full of quotes and interviews and advice from writers on the writing process, genres, being a writer, and just about every other conceivable topic. Like most collections of this sort, I expected it to be hit and miss when it came to personal relevance, but there was very little miss.

Even advice on writing in genres that I will likely never write was useful. I might not write romance, but I need to know about writing sexual tension and how to set a story in a historical period. I'm not a big fan of thrillers, but I can always use more advice on increasing suspense and avoiding the pitfalls of withholding information from readers.

I always like to read about the ways established writers struggle just like I do, and how they work through it. That Margaret Atwood has abandoned forever some of her novels after writing 200 pages or more because they just weren't working gives me hope.

The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing is like attending a huge writing conference or lecture series featuring established writers and editors from Orson Scott Card to Kurt Vonnegut. Whether you read this cover to cover like I did, or just seek out the articles that will kick start you out of your writing doldrums, this is a book that should be on your shelf or in your e-reader, where it is handy whenever you need advice.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Sky is Falling

by Deren Hansen

Between the economic downturn during 2008 and 2009, and the rise of e-books in 2010, it seems that the voices prophesying upheavals of apocalyptic proportions for the book business this past year have grown louder and more insistent. With the annual odometer about to tick over, it seems like a good time to celebrate doom and gloom for the publishing industry.

Of course, there's been a book business for roughly four hundred years, so doom and gloom are nothing new. In just the twentieth century--and not counting the Internet--radio, television, paperbacks, video tape, and computer games have all been identified as evidence that the sky is about to fall on the publishing industry.

'Wait," you say, "this time it feels different."

Perhaps. But things tend to survive, sweeping change notwithstanding. Automobiles are pervasive, but there are still buggy whip manufacturers.

Books aren't going away any time soon. The book business, however, is another story.

If I asked you to name the major players in computing you'd likely answer, "Microsoft, Apple, and Google." If you're tech-savvy, you might add Amazon (because of their cloud computing services), and if you have a sense of history, you would include IBM. With the single exception of IBM, it wasn't that long ago that a completely different pantheon, with names like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Cray, dominated the industry. And before them, there were the elder gods like Control Data Corporation.

Other industries have seen a great deal more changes. What is it that has shaken publishing to its roots?

It's simply that we can no longer rely on the certainties that defined the business for decades.

So, what's going to happen to publishing?

The most cogent argument-by-historic-analogy I've heard is that publishing is more like television than music. (See Kristine Kathryn Rusch's piece on changing times in the publishing industry for a much more thorough and thoughtful analysis of the structural changes facing big publishers.)

The key similarity between the two industries is that they grew up around a distribution network that was, for a time, basically the only game in town. If you wanted your television program to reach a national audience, it had to go through one of the three major networks. If you wanted your book to reach a national audience, it had to go through one of the major publishers. Remember, the key service historically provided by publishers was distribution.

Television changed when cable systems expanded and provided new channels outside the three networks. As viewers, we have more programming options than ever before. For broadcasters, it looks like the audience is smaller because we now spread our attention across all the providers. (And for the national networks, it feels like fall from grace because they're just one of many providers now.)

The new distribution systems supporting ebooks will most likely produce an analogous change: readers will have more to read than ever before, while the major publishers will have to compete for what looks like a smaller audience.

We clearly are subject to the old Chinese curse that says, "May you live in interesting times."

Deren blogs at The Laws of Making.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Future of Books?

Interesting article:

What do you think?

Oh, and of course, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How to Hear Success Stories

by Deren Hansen

Aspiring writers are drawn to success stories, like moths to flames. And we're all guilty of a little twinge of jealousy that we aren't the subject of the story. But as inveterate optimists (what else can you call someone who devotes years to a single manuscript), we soak up the stories hoping that one day we will be the hero of a similar story.

So it's deeply ironic that we who are storytellers often fall prey to the tricks of our own trade when we hear these stories and afflict ourselves with unrealistic expectations. We hear, for example, of the writer who went from query to book deal in 37 days, note that our own queries have gone unanswered for more than 37 days, and conclude that we're not worthy.

Why do we do this? We forget that the foundation of the storyteller's art is to skip the boring bits. Advice about pacing, pithy dialog, and scenes ("in late, out early") all comes down to artfully avoiding the boring stretches that are an inevitable part of real life.

And how will you tell your success story? Fresh from the process of scrupulously scrubbing all the boring bits out of your manuscript will you say, "Then on the following Tuesday, I wrote 1673 words. But when I looked over the new material on Wednesday, I decided I needed to rework half of it so I didn't reach my new word count goal that day ..." No, you'll apply your craft and weave together a concise narrative of the highs and lows of the experience with a sprinkling of lessons learned. Above all, you will make it a story with protagonists, antagonists, try/fail cycles, a climax, and a denouement.


Because that's the essence of what you do as a storyteller.

The next time you hear a success story, remember that it is a story. Learn what you can from it, but don't compare it directly with your experience because you simply don't know all the boring bits that were skipped to make it a good story.

Deren blogs at The Laws of Making.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Real-Life Fiction

by Scott Rhoades

If you've ever been in a writing group or taken a creative writing class, you've no doubt listened to a writer fight against suggestions for change to a fact-based piece of fiction on the grounds that "That's what really happened." This is one of the drawbacks to turning real life into fiction. Fiction has certain requirements, and real life often does not fit. There's story structure, characters, conflict, all those things we know about.

If you want to base a story on a real event, you need to be ready to invent new characters for the sake of the story, combine others, change events, play loose with facts, make up dialogue, and cut out real events and characters who do not move the story forward, no matter how important they were to the actual real-life story. There could also be legal implications when you put real people into your stories, exactly as they really are.

There can also be problems when you write about something you are very close to. The way you and your spouse got together (or split up) means a lot to you and your spouse. Keep things exactly as they were if you're writing for yourself. But people who are not so close to the real-life story will not love reading a fictionalized account unless it meets the requirements of a good story, no matter how touching and poignant the real thing was.

I highly recommend Robin Hemley's book, Turning Life Into Fiction, for anybody who wants to write a story based on real life, whether it's your own life, somebody's you know, or somebody who lived long ago.

By all means, go ahead and base a story on real life. We all do it to some degree. Just make sure you put the reader and the story first, not the events that inspired the story, if you want it to be an enjoyable read for people who aren't as close to the things that really happened as you are.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Publishing Options and Exploiting Your Intellectual Propery

by Deren Hansen

Given the recent discussion of traditional and self-publishing, I feel the need to join in with some structural observations. My aim is to give the conversation a baseline of economic reality.

First, however, I have to say that the degree to which partisans are vilifying each other reminds me of the Mac vs. PC religious wars of the '90s. As someone who understands that all Turing-complete computational devices are provably equivalent, I grew impatient with the name-calling in that context until I came to understand that the deep feelings arose because people needed to justify the $3000 - $5000 investment they'd made in one platform or the other.

In addition to the investment dynamic there's a notion of art and its noble pursuit wrapped up in our aspirations as writers. You're here because books have affected you deeply--probably more so than any other expressive medium. That experience elevates reading and writing from the level of mere commerce. But the fact of the matter is that if you want to trade your words for money you're squarely back in the realm of business.

Writers who charge for their work are in the business of exploiting their intellectual property. It's unfortunate that the word, "exploit," has few positive connotations because it is the correct term: you're trying to derive benefit from your words and the stories they contain.

In the past, the best way to exploit your intellectual property was to license it to a publisher--effectively entering into a partnership designed to benefit both parties. Similarly, in high tech launching a start-up became practically synonymous with securing venture capital because the necessary equipment was too expensive to finance yourself. In both cases the pattern of trading future returns for current working capital was so dominant that alternative approaches could be written off as non-starters.

But things change.

In high tech you can rent all the computing power you need (and only what you need) from cloud computing providers. In publishing, you no longer need $30,000 to $50,000 to print, store, and sell books. In other words, it's now not only possible to exploit your intellectual property rights yourself--doing so in the right circumstances might make better economic sense.

All of which is a long way of saying that finding a publisher or becoming your own publisher can and should be a clear-headed business decision. And just like any other business, you must understand the full implications of your options: licensing your intellectual property to a publisher doesn't guarantee you'll be taken care of; publishing it yourself isn't a short-cut to the fame and fortune the gatekeepers have wrongly withheld from you. Both paths (in all their variations) require hard work over a long time with no assurance that you'll ever see a return on your investment.

We need to move past trying to justify one approach over another and take a clear-headed look at the promises and pitfalls of all the expanding opportunities for writers.

Deren blogs at The Laws of Making.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Finding Your Voice"

"...I was searching for something outside myself-- some sound that did not belong to me, that was not a part of me and was never to be created by me. And all the time I could have spent investigating my own instrument was instead trying to imitate [the] 'perfect voice'... Remember your true voice can only be arrive at with a relaxed concentration and careful attention to individuality."

-Carolyn Sloan
"Finding Your Voice", page 46

**I believe I have posted this quote before. I was going through some papers of mine and came across it again. I read this book during a brief time of delusionment when I believed I could learn how to sing. I loved the quote so much that I wrote it down. Finding your voice is a powerful drive for writers. We cannot succeed when we are attempting to imitate someone's work. We must be true to ourselves and our own creativity ability. The world does not need another JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, or ___fill-in-the-blank___. The world is missing you and your work. You, uniquely, imperfectly, gifted, exactly, you.

What are you doing to find your own voice?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Self Publishing...Or Not...Again

By Julie Daines

There's been some sparks flying--again--on the whole To Self Publish or Not debate. So, I'm chiming in with my two cents.

Here is a great quote by Edan Lepucki (The Millions) from an interesting article about her reasons for not self publishing. I agree with with much of what she has to say, but not all.

I found this especially in line with my own thoughts:
Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?

Is the public ready to meet the slush pile? I'm not. And as more kids are getting e-readers, parents have to be doubly vigilant to ensure their kids aren't downloading anything worse than just a poorly written book.

But, as she points out, blogs and other forms of reviews are already popping up to help readers wade through the slush.

My personal reasons for going with a traditional publisher are similar to Ms. Lepucki. Mainly, I want my manuscript to be its best. I want an editor telling me what's working and what's not. I want that stack of revisions to make the story better.

I recently started reading a self-published book with at least FIVE editing errors on THE FIRST PAGE! I don't want that to be me. I had to put the book down.

I have nothing against self-publishing whatsoever. It's just not for me--at least right now.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Archaeology of Storytelling

by Scott Rhoades

I recently read a quote from Stephen King in which he compares writing to walking through a desert and finding a chimney sticking out of the sand. That stuck in my mind because I've been going through that experience myself lately.

I was reading a pretty good book last week, when something in the story sparked an idea for a story of my own. That happens fairly frequently. Sometimes it's something I'm reading, but it might also be a place I'm visiting, a person I see, or any of several other triggers. The entire world is that desert King mentions, and when my eyes are open, I often stumble upon chimneys.

But then what? I tend to get more sparks of ideas than I could possibly have time to write. What happens once I discover the chimney, or some other artifact? That's when a writer has something in common with an archaeologist.

First, we have to examine the artifact and determine whether it's worth exploring. That often means fighting an inner critic who automatically tries to discredit the new find as not being worthwhile. That's like our archaeologist trying to get funding for a dig. It's not fun, but it's necessary. It can also be hard. Why should we invest time and energy on this particular dig when there's so much out there? And what makes us think we're the write person for this exploration anyway?

Once we fight that battle, things get more interesting. First, we have to look closely at the artifact (a whole story idea, maybe, but more likely a brief glimpse at a character, a snippet of conversation, a bit of setting, or something even less material). How can this little bit of almost nothing turn into a story. We get out our picks and brooms and start working away at the layers.

Can we find the motivation for our new character? Other necessary characters? Can we work him into an interesting story? What does he want and who or what stands in his way? Layer by layer we try to find something significant in that little bit of brick we found sticking out of the sand. And all of this is before we've even started writing.

If there's enough there, we can start writing and see what we find as we unravel more and more of this hidden civilization.

I'm exploring an idea right now. I don't know yet whether I'll actually start writing something new. I know from past experience that most ideas don't pan out. And often, those that do end up having little or nothing to do with that original spark. The manuscript I'm shopping around now is nothing at all like it was when I had that first bit of an idea. Everything is different--the setting, the characters, the plot.

That chimney in the sand might turn out to be the remains of a lonely cabin, or a house, or a factory, or a city, or a movie set, or a discarded piece of masonry that somebody dumped in the desert, with no significance whatsoever. But you'll never know unless you study it and do a little work.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Revisions: Nice and Slow

by Deren Hansen

Agent Jessica Faust offered excellent advice on responding to revision requests from agents.

She wrote her post after @agentgame tweeted, "I've gotten back revisions on an overly fast turnaround that damaged the book rather than making it better."

Jessica says she understands why authors might be anxious to respond quickly (e.g., fear she'll lose interest or hope to appear responsive), but cautions:
"getting it back to me quickly isn’t going to do you a damn bit of good if what you send back is in even worse shape than the first version. If you think it had to be perfect before, now it has to be even better than perfect. There aren’t many second chances in life. When you get one, use it wisely."
I found the second of her suggestions for handling a revision request particularly illuminating:
"Remember that revisions to a submission are only just the tip of the iceberg. Revision letters to my clients can be pages and pages long. I’m not going to spend that time on a submission. Therefore, you have to carefully read between the lines. Look at what I’m saying and then beyond that, and fix it all."
I encourage you to read the entire post.

In the spirit of using second chances well, there's another reason not to rush your response to a request for revisions.

We advise writers to let some time pass between completing a draft and diving into revisions so that they can approach their work with fresh eyes.

There's a similar dynamic with readers: over time the specifics of a story fade into a general impression. The agent who asks for a revision clearly wants to see the project again. Why squander the opportunity to have them take a second look at it with fresh eyes?

Deren blogs at The Laws of Making.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"5 Books your Teenage Boy will Actually Read"

I'm always curious to read what other people say about the books that *every* boy/girl/adult will read. This list from KSL actually surprised me. Only one of them was published within the last 10 years. The rest are older than that.

It makes me realize I need to rethink the books I'm getting for my son to read. I've gotten stuck in the "what's new" or "what's hot" mindset to the exclusion of the classics.

What do you think about this list? Do you agree? What did they leave off?

"5 Books your Teenage Boy will Actually Read"

Friday, December 2, 2011

Character Development: Innie vs Outie

By Scott Rhoades

There are many ways to develop characters and create fictional people whose personality types help to ensure realistic conflict. I've written before, for example, about the Enneagram personality profile system, which can help create compatible and incompatible characters with realistic traits.

A simpler way to make sure two characters have natural conflicts is to make one an introvert and one an extrovert. Literature is full of innies because they are easy for many writers and readers to identify with. We sometimes have trouble with outies.

I've been reading lately about the differences between innies and outies. This week I came across an interesting web page containing a lexicon that nicely illustrates how introverts and extroverts see the world differently. You can find it here.

Two characters with such different ways of looking at their worlds will conflict, especially if the want the same things. The lexicon can also help you understand your characters and depict them realistically, especially if you are an innie and your character is an outie. I hope you find it (and other discussions about how introverts operate in an extroverted world) useful.

Another useful article:

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Last week, I made the jump from a PC user to a Mac user. Thanks to a great deal offered to my husband at his work, I got a screaming deal on a MacBook Pro. It took a week or two to get my files and such transferred and then I finally did it.

Last Friday, I broke the reliance on my PC. First time for years that I didn't turn on my laptop and use it. I'm all Mac now.

Before now, all my word processing has been on Microsoft Word. Now I'm left to wonder if I should invest in a copy of Microsoft Office for Mac as a default, fall back to my old comfort zone, or do I explore the new range of options available to Mac users? What say ye?

A good friend of mine recommended Scrivener. Any of you heard of it? Any of you use it?

What other Mac programs do you recommend I look into? If I'm going to break out of old habits, then I want to do it all the way. But since I'm a Mac novice, I need your help/suggestions/insight.

Leave lots of comments below for me! :o)