Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

My favorite holiday, after Christmas. If the amount of decorations in stores and catalogs is an indication, it’s many others’ favorite as well. In an earlier blog, I’d mentioned I was finishing off a Halloween story inspired by a catalog description. A few days ago, I received word that Shadowfire Press wanted it! So the contracts for the story, called Reflections, are going out today. Yippee! Because it’s a Halloween story, though, it won’t go online until Oct. 2, 2009. But I have little control over a muse who strikes me late with the inspiration wand, and I’m happy with the story, so I’m not complaining.
I’m always fascinated with the origin of holidays. According to NPR’s Writer’s Almanac, Halloween began about 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. For the Celts, the new year began on November 1st, and October 31st was their new year’s eve. On that night, “the division between the world of the living and the world of the dead dissolved, and the dead could come to earth again.” Oh, yeah – I used that.
“The druids built huge bonfires, and regular people put out their own fires in their homes and crowded together around these fires, where they burned sacrifices for the gods, told each other's fortunes, and dressed in costumes — usually animal skins and heads.” Rather crude costumes, but for the times, apropos.
Recognizing its growing popularity, the pope in the ninth century decided he wanted part of the action, “so he just moved the holiday called All Saints' Day from May 13 to November 1. All Saints' Day was a time for Christians to honor all the saints and martyrs of their religion. The term for All Saints' Day in Middle English was Alholowmesse, or All-hallowmass. This became All-hallows, and so the night before was referred to as All-hallows Eve, and finally, Halloween.”
So when you light your pumpkins tonight, be on the lookout for an all-too-realistic ghost costume. Bwahahaha!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Meeting Readers’ Expectations

While “writing to the market” is generally a bad idea, as I said in my earlier post, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take into consideration what your readers expect from a story.
Laura Yeager’s What Fiction Readers Want lists a wide array of reasons a reader will pick up a book. Although some are dependent on the selected genre, any number of these could cause a reader to put a story down before giving it its full due. For instance, the Happily Ever After (HEA) is a must in romance, but not in literary stories.
The flip side of that is: What do you want readers to take away from your story? Identifying this idea can help you identify your story’s theme. Plotter or pantser, you can take it from there. As Linda Seger advises, Push Boundaries and Make no Excuses as you write. Make your reader’s experience a vivid one by packing your story with emotion. Bring your reader inside your protagonist so s/he can feel every emotion as it takes place on the page, bringing the story to vibrant life. Again, the notion of visualization comes into play. Use your writer’s imagination to play your story in your head, as if in a movie theater. Just don’t forget to note all the details as they play out, to share the experience as fully as possible with readers. Give them a satisfying experience, and they’ll come back for more.
Happy writing!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Finding Success in Writing

From the dearth of how-to articles and books on writing, it would appear some writers have identified the Holy Grail of writing: how to find success. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against how-to books. My shelves are packed with them. But they will not do the grueling work of writing your story – only you can do that.
James Bonnet’s The Real Key to a Writer’s Success pinpoints several key factors in attaining success as a writer: a special knowledge, a serious commitment, dedication, a thick skin, and lots of hard work. The first can be overcome with research, which I love to do. Research can take as much time as actual writing, and is key to including authenticating details in your story. The rest require self-discipline.
Before all of that must come a great love of story. Carole Lee Dean states, in Your Mind is the Key to Your Success, that believing in oneself is critical. Not just believing, but visualizing your success after the fact. The old Field of Dreams theory, but instead of making one baseball field on which others gather to play, you have the ability to create endless worlds for readers to visit.
In order to get to that place in your mind where you are secure in dreaming your own success into being, you must first know yourself. Sound silly? Not really. As Howard M. Gluss says in The Writer's True Self and Success, “What you want out of life will, in return, create and nurture your sense of self.” He’s provided several sets of questions to help you delve deeper into what your true goals are, and strengthen your resolve in the face of the ever-elusive “success.” As many a writer can tell you, having success with one book doesn’t ensure success forever. In fact, publishers can be tougher on second-time novelists if the first book’s sales underperform.
While some writers may find limited success in “writing to the market,” the better tack is to write the story only you can write.
Michael Lent shares his story of overcoming personal obstacles in Be the Writer You Want to Be Now. Although his article is aimed at screenwriters, the main thrust – believing in yourself – rings true with any writer. Read Marilyn Beker’s Dare to Dream – Write Anyway! if you need more of a pep talk.
Don’t allow yourself to be led by dreams of success. Write for the love of story, as only you can tell it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Value of A Good Rejection

This week, after waiting months (and months) for what I thought was a sure acceptance, I received the dreaded soul-crushing rejection. Sorry, not right for us, it said. Your story had some of what we were looking for, but lacked in others.
I was devastated. I had been so sure I’d nailed it, with good characters, an original and interesting premise, and the right mix of suspense and sex. Or so I thought. But what was the problem? Did they not like the premise? What, exactly, was lacking?
In the interest of bettering my writing, I ran the risk of asking the editors. After I hit Send, dread filled me. The editors would hate me for pestering them. I would be blacklisted. Most certainly, I would be ignored.
To my surprise, the email was passed on to the reviewing editor, who took the time to explain specific problems. Her comments were enough to give me hope. My writing wasn’t total crap after all. I missed a few key elements, which, for this story, I have to decide whether I’m willing to change or not. But moving forward, I feel better armed with knowledge of specific points I need to aim for.
Most importantly, I was heartened by her last sentence: Good luck, and I look forward to future submissions!
I know most editors are overwhelmed with submissions and don’t have the time to critique every one, but even a few helpful hints make all the difference between leaving a writer dismayed, or arming him or her with suggestions to improve. I’m grateful this editor took the time to respond. I have work to do!
Happy writing!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hooking an Agent

So far in my writing career, I haven’t felt the need for an agent, although at some future point, I suppose one will become a necessity. I’m in no rush. I want to be sure if I enter into such a relationship, it will be worth it. Any writer who produces the best story s/he can deserves someone who will work hard to get his or her work in the best possible market.
As in Dennis Palumbo’s article, Three Hard Truths About Agents, jokes about agents abound. Like all good comedy, some are rooted in truth. As Palumbo points out, first and foremost, it’s a business. You’re both in it for the money, honestly. But like any good relationship, it needs to be based on trust and honesty, in addition to a sincere liking – or at least respect – for the other person.
With that in mind, Marisa D’Vari advises us on How to Get an Agent. The easy answer? Write a great story! Avoid the slush pile by first reading Chuck Sambuchino’s article, What Agents Hate. He compiles the dislikes of noted agents with regard to prologues, description, voice and point of view, action, clich├ęs and false beginnings, and character and backstory.
As always, research any agent before approaching him/her. Be sure s/he is worth spending the time in preparing a query. After verifying the agent is reputable, genre is next important. Don’t submit to an agent who doesn’t handle your type of story. Find out from the guidelines whether the agent prefers a query letter alone, a query letter and 10 pages, a query letter and the first three chapters. Don’t assume that, because your work is so special, s/he will surely want to read the entire manuscript.
Think you’re ready to send your stuff out there? First, read Chuck Sambuchino’s 10 Tips for Querying an Agent. Then read through Sambuchino’s list of 28 Agents Who Want Your Work.
And don’t be discouraged if you get a rejection. Maybe the agent already has a full stable of authors. Maybe (gasp) s/he didn’t thoroughly read your submission. It’s a purely subjective process, as Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul outlines:
- Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull: Rejected by 18 publishers until Macmillan picked it up. Went on to sell 7 million copies.
- Louis L’Amour received 350 rejections before making his first sale. Went on to write more than 100 bestselling novels.
- Mary Higgins Clark received 40 rejections before his first sale. More than 30 million copies of her books are now in print.
- John Grisham was rejected by 15 publishers and 30 agents for his first novel, A Time to Kill. More than 60 million copies of his novels are in print.
And the list goes on. So don’t take rejection to heart. Keep searching for the right agent for you.
Oh, and if you hadn't noticed, I beefed up my Blog List. It includes several from agents as well as other authors, so check it out!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Getting Motivated for NaNoWriMo

In preparing for NaNoWriMo, I’ve been busy trying to finish up a lot of loose ends. First, a Halloween tale inspired by the photo of a crystal ball and its description in a catalog. (I love those kind of ideas that pop up from an unexpected place.) Next, revisions on a story I’d submitted to The Wild Rose Press. As painful as revising can be, it always strengthens the story.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be researching for the story I plan to write – an historical romance. Although I won’t begin any writing of the actual story until November 1, I’m going to prepare a rough outline of where I’d like it to go. So it can be within the correct context, I need to learn as much as I can about mannerisms and customs of life in the 1800s. And what it was like on a tall ship (no, it’s not another pirate story – it’s much more exciting!).
I ran across a site named as one of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2006, 2007 and 2008. If I thought NaNoWriMo was daunting, the premise of this site is four times worse: to write a Book In A Week. Its motto is BIC HOK TAM: butt in chair, hands on keyboard, typing away madly. I can only imagine. The description says that while the group’s main purpose is to write, authors can also exchange writing-related information online. The other difference is that, while NaNoWriMo’s donations are voluntary, Book In A Week requires new members to pony up a three-dollar “donation” through PenPal.
So, if you’re looking to get motivated, shoot for 50k through NaNoWriMo. If you need more pressure to produce, check out Book In A Week. If you’re feeling especially manic, try their Mad 10,000 Challenge, a group aiming for 10,000 words in five hours.
Happy writing!


Monday, October 13, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

From Zero to Novel in One Month

Writers, start revving those keyboards now. November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, just a few weeks away. The month to write by the seat of your pants starting November 1 and not stop until the end of the day on November 30 (yes, it’s a Sunday, that’s beside the point). To participate, just set your brain to stream-of-consciousness mode, place your fingers on your keyboard (I sometimes like a paper first draft, but not this month) and write. Silence the inner critic and save the editing for later. The objective of this month is to get as much down in your first draft as possible, like a monthlong timed writing session. As the NaNoWriMo site cautions: “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing.”
Why is it a good thing? Because writing without over-planning can unlock some new story lines you might not have anticipated. Because in truth, all first drafts suck – the real story comes out in revision. So plan on using December to revise. After a short break, of course, to lend perspective. And to allow you time to recover from the post-NaNoWriMo party.
According to the NaNoWriMo site, 101,510 writers participated in 2007, with 15,333 “winners,” or writers who uploaded at least 50K to the site for verification.
But the goal is not to “win” (although they do send a certificate and Web badge). The writer’s goal is much more personal. At the end of the month, you’ll have enough words toward a good start of a novel, if not a full 50,000-word draft. (What publishers are looking for 50k novel, I wonder?) And even if you only end up with half that, it’s still a good start. It’s 25,000 words you didn’t have down before. When you break it down by day, it seems much less daunting. To reach 50,000, you need only write 1667 words a day for 30 days. Less than 2k a day! Hey, that’s not so scary.
In past years, I had many excuses not to participate – my kids were too needy, my job sucked between 40-60 hours a week from my life, I had no story ideas. This year, my kids are old enough to fend for themselves (in theory, at least), I count myself among the nation’s jobless, and my only remaining problem is: which story idea do I choose? So 2008 will be my first year.
Or, if you’d rather perfect the fine art of procrastination, check out Leigh Michaels’ article, The Top 11 Ways Not to Write Your Book.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Stephen King's publishing innovation

I am continually fascinated by the ongoing evolution of publishing. In the latest innovation, Stephen King's collection of short stories, "N" is available in "mobisodes" - mobile episodes of a story series available on iTunes and Borders. King describes it as a hybrid between an animated feature and a comic book. The 25 two-minute mobisodes are clustered with King's interview on the Borders site. To me, it seems like graphic lit narrated and packaged in an electronic format. But it's an interesting milestone in publishing, as it's never been done before. Just one of the many tangents into which the world of publishing has veered. Which direction next?


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The value of authenticating details

This morning, I received the final galleys for my “Rosette” story, Seventh Heaven. I’m still waiting to hear when The Wild Rose Press will release it.
As it is set in my hometown of Lambertville, New Jersey, and New Hope, Pennsylvania, proofing it brought back many memories.
Several story details originated with my family. My oldest brother Joe (aka Boo) is a Vietnam vet who told us the story about the young Vietnamese boy throwing a grenade into the back of a truck, so that, in fact, was the catalyst for this story. My sister Claudia used to wear a flag T-shirt. When I was a teenager, one of my favorite things to do was walk across the bridge linking the twin towns to New Hope with my good friends Nora, Winnie and Mary Louise, and browse through the many shops, especially the record store near the bridge. Like Lambertville, New Hope is famous for its cultural diversity, including the Bucks County Playhouse, where my sisters Claudia and Annette to this day usher at plays. Fran’s Pub was a favorite hangout of my husband Gary’s in the seventies and hence earns a special place in the story.
While growing up, I vividly recall hearing musicians perform at The Music Circus. My mother once brought me to see Robert Goulet, but I was a young teen at the time and sadly, unappreciative of her gesture, as I would much rather have seen The Young Rascals, or even Chicago – I remember hearing their brass section clearly through the woods. The Music Circus drew many famous musicians and performers. As in my story, Judy Collins was there in 1967. And no story about the Sixties would be complete without musical references – Dylan, Hendrix, Donovan and especially the Beatles were such a deep-rooted part of my youth, they provide the soundtrack to my adolescence.
I had done loads of research on the Sixties era for one of my novels, so this story was one of those that came together in my head fully formed. Among other things, a Time-Life book titled The Turbulent Years: The 60s provided specific details I could not have accurately remembered, having been born just before that decade began. I remembered the buttons, but would have probably spelled the Hippy Power button as hippie, the more popular spelling.
So, as you have gathered, authenticating details can bring a story alive, as Dave Koch writes in his article, Authenticating Details. Write with as much specificity as possible. Avoid generic terms – instead of “hat,” write “bowler” or “Stetson.” Add background music. Describe the scents in the scene. Bring your readers into the experience of the story, and hopefully, leave them wanting more.

Here again is the story blurb:
Lilah owns the New Hope Record and Crafts Shop with her friend, Val. Independent and free-spirited, they sell their handmade jewelry and pottery to tourists in their Delaware River town. Lilah’s only hangup is James, who bartends down the street. She’s crazy about him, but lately he’s been cold and distant. Turns out he has reason to be down--he’s had his ticket punched for Vietnam. Lilah makes him a lucky leather-string choker using a silver ankh--the Egyptian symbol of eternity. James is skeptical about its lucky charms, but warms to her again. For seven months, James is in Vietnam. He comes home changed, in more ways than one. Can Lilah show him that her love is all the luck he needs?


Friday, October 3, 2008

Beware the Scammers

In this season of all things scary, nothing is more frightening, to a writer, than a scammer. Oh, it’s so tempting, I know, to shell out a few bucks just to have a copy of your story in hand.
Don’t do it.
The best defense against scammers is, as in everything, knowledge. Do a little research. Find out if that offer that’s too good to be true is, yup, dammit, too good to be true.
Probably the best known site is Preditors and Editors, where writers share their bad experiences on agents, editors and publishers.
Contests can be a great way to catch the eye of an agent or editor. If, in fact, they are legitimate. While you never never never want to pay any money to an agent to represent you, contests charging fees aren’t necessarily scams. In order to run a contest, some funding is necessary. If the fee isn’t greater than about $20 (and that’s fairly high), it’s probably legit, but, as always, best to check first, such as on Poets and Writers’ list of legitimate contests.
On the Elite Skills site, use the links at left to find info on known scammers and report your own scam story.
Scammers also target freelance writers, as evidenced on Freelance Daily and Light Keeper. Light Keeper’s site includes Dave Barry’s typically ironic response to a query by the National Library of Poetry (aka the International Library of Poetry), known for its scams.
Also for poets, Wind Publications provides a list of the Worst Poetry Contests.
Science and Fantasy Writers of America’s comprehensive site covers agents, writers services, independent editors, contests, POD services/publishers, and don’t forget to check the Whom Not to Query heading for the “Thumbs Down” Agents and Publishers. includes up-to-date information.
If the agent or publisher isn’t on the Known List of Scammers, but gives you a sickly feeling in your gut, then Marcia Yudkin advises on how “You, Too, Can Sniff Out Scams!”, and she provides two more links. Thanks, Marcia. We writers need to stick together.
Lor Sjoberg provides more advice in Wired's article, How to Get Published and Avoid Alien Bloodsuckers. Seems appropriate for the season.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Banned Books Week’s 27th Anniversary

Just coming off a marathon 60K-word work in progress (WIP) that is now happily circulating in Critiqueland, I’m a little late coming to this subject of Banned Books Week . It’s astounding that in this new millennium, people (some of whom are, frighteningly enough! running for vice president here in the good old US of A) can presume to tell others what they should and should not read. That civilization could have made such progress in science and not in education completely floors me.
I can only hope that one day, my writing will be at the level to challenge people to question themselves, make them pause, shake up their world a little and perhaps even turn their thoughts to subjects they might not otherwise consider. In the meanwhile, I pay homage to the authors that made the Top 10 list in 2007:
1. Robert Cormier
2. Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
3. Mark Twain
4. Toni Morrison
5. Philip Pullman
6. Kevin Henkes
7. Lois Lowry
8. Chris Crutcher
9. Lauren Myracle
10. Joann Sfar

Of the more than 400 books challenged in 2007, The American Library Association noted that the 10 most challenged books were:
1. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell. Reasons: Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group
2. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier. Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Violence
3. Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes. Reasons: Sexually Explicit and Offensive Language
4. The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. Reasons: Religious Viewpoint
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Reasons: Racism
6. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language
7. TTYL, by Lauren Myracle. Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group
8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. Reasons: Sexually Explicit
9. It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris. Reasons: Sex Education, Sexually Explicit
10. The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

The most striking thread among this list is that, with the exception of two, all are children’s or YA books. Presumably, then, the challengers to these books are parents. If parents don’t allow their children the opportunity to expand their minds through reading, how do they expect their little darlings to take on the challenges of the world upon adulthood? Teach your kid to think on his/her feet. Think for himself. Empathize with those in difficult situations. And stand back and watch the world become a better place, one based on understanding and mutual respect rather than fear and bigotry. Do your kids a favor – instead of buying them violent video games, buy them books.
According to The Onion, parents should have much worse fears than books (and although it's written as ironical fiction, don't believe for a second that it is).
Of that list, the most ironic reason, to me, was religious viewpoint. Hmm. Isn't that why our ancestors came to America? To escape those who would force an unwanted religion upon them?
Thankfully, book stores and librarians comprise the first line of defense, and are superheroes in defending authors’ works. By making others aware of these challenges, they are challenging the challengers. Awareness is key to understanding. If only the closed-minded people who oppose these books would recognize that.
Support your right to read. While I certainly can’t say it’s a cause for celebration, it is vital to acknowledge Banned Books Week. So acknowledge this important week today, and every day, and open your mind to new experiences. Read.