Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Critique Group Update

Mary Ann, Ellen and I met last night for a critique meeting. Mary Ann still isn't writing, but Ellen had a wonderful scene from her current WIP, a romance set in the late 1800s. TOR requested 100 pages of another novel, which is definitely motivating her to continue producing.

As always, I loaded down my valiant critique partners with 25 pages to edit.

Prior to releasing Treasure Me on Amazon, I was working on a WIP set in Istanbul. The novel isn't a comedy like so many of my works. I like to think it's deeper, closer to literary fiction. But, for now, it's on hold as I continue polishing Second Chance Grill for release on Amazon in June.

I'll spend much of today on a tractor mowing pastures of my horse-farm-with-no-horses. The time won't be wasted. Time outside, enjoying nature, always helps with characterization, plotting, motivating a character for an upcoming scene. There's something about walking away from a WIP for a few hours that stirs the subconscious. I've written more great scenes while doing anything BUT writing--why the creative process works in such a mysterious way, I'll never know.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pluto is Not a Planet

My second youngest daughter, the high school senior, went AWOL last week.

She's completing a two-week mentorship at my brother's company, about thirty minutes away, and bunking at a friend's house. This appears to be a sort of pre-college test run, allowing her to deal with homesickness in small doses. The strategy is a good one, and she is enjoying herself. Come August, we'll do the race through Target for dorm gear then pack her off for life's next big adventure.

Three down and one to go. My youngest, a junior, is a little blue about the increasing silence in a house once filled with chaos. Of course, she now has run of the place and never has to share ... anything. A nice break for a youngest child.

The blur of hands-on parenting is coming to an end. I'm no longer the sun, with my children revolving around me like pretty planets. These days, I'm not even sure I rank with Pluto. Young adulthood offers so much excitement, the new love, new friends, the scary Math professor and the all-nighters in the college dorm. What parent could possibly compete? I'm not even sure I rate with some aimlessly spinning boulder in the asteroid belt.

On the up side, my time is now my own. All of those books I imagined writing are now being set down on paper and loaded onto Amazon. Without the responsibility of little ones, it's easier to keep a schedule. I no longer sit cross-eyed with exhaustion in the pediatrician's office, or at ballet recital or at the kitchen table explaining phonics to a third grader. After the slog of single parenthood, I'm now engaged to a man who's witty, wise and very silly. Yes, I miss the endearing conversations with my children, like the time my son informed me in a dreamy voice that angels and mothers never fart. Or reading books to kids pink-cheeked from a long bath and their eyes brimming with delight. But I don't miss being the center of their universe.

They have long lives to lead; I'm merely passing through. In the grand scheme I stand here but for a moment, heart filled with hope that they'll enjoy every minute of their long, lovely lives.

  With Barry

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Writing Guides

A young novelist posted on Book Blogs the other day asking for feedback on writing compelling dialogue.

Which got me thinking: What books did I find most helpful when learning the craft of storytelling?

Here are some of my favorites in no particular order:

Strunk and White's Elements of Style
Yes, some irritating English prof made you buy this in college. Dig it out of that dusty drawer and put it back on your desk.

Sol Stein's Stein on Writing
A seminal work that continues to offer up valuable insights as you pass from newbie writer to accomplished novelist.

Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel
Clearly written, amusing at times, this gem of a tutorial will help you understand the marketing considerations behind your next brainchild.

Jesse Lee Kercheval's Building Fiction
Myriad examples throughout provide a step-by-step approach to creating memorable fiction.

Stephen King's On Writing
A witty, wise and eminently useful memoir written by one of the kings of fiction.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Myth of the Consumed Artist

Perhaps my mothering antennae is a bit too fine-tuned, but it seems there's a lot of poor advice on writing blogs about succeeding as a novelist.

The advice goes something like this: If you want to succeed, write day and night to the exclusion of everything else in your life.

There's no question that art can become all-consuming. There are times when you need to put everything else aside and perfect your craft. But not every day. Not all the time, to the exclusion of your loved ones and your health.

If you're young and you're planning a career as a novelist, that's wonderful. Work hard, take good advice with grace, and ignore older writers who tell you that you can't make it in this game unless you're willing to work 24/7. Perhaps they made it into the big leagues by shutting out loved ones and the sheer joy of everyday living. For all you know, they harbor silent regret about the wedding missed, the sunlight never felt, and the children that grew to adulthood while the absent parent went on yet another book tour.

How will you write with depth and deep emotion if you're too bleary-eyed to form a coherent thought? How will you render the world in a compelling fashion if you never stroll in the park and simply think, or take the time to hear the heart-songs of the people you meet every day?

Don't burn yourself out, baby. Live your life and enjoy every moment. You'll have far more material for your next WIP than if you write until dawn fueled by caffeine.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Prom Week

Yep, it's Prom Week. Writing time? Nope. Helping my daughters get ready for the big day? Oh, yeah.

Actually, they're excited. They were just goofing off for the camera.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Publishing's Overlooked Sea Change

Recently the publishing industry experienced a sea change you probably missed.

In January, Amazon announced they're now selling 115 Kindle books for every 100 paperbacks sold.

If you’re shrugging your shoulders, consider: Traditional publishing houses release the vast majority of paperbacks. New releases are rigorously slotted into genres so bookstores know where to place them on the shelves. In your local bookstore, you won’t find the Harry Potter series shelved beside romantic suspense or Stephen King’s latest work.

Novelists understand this as “branding.” Most of us learn early on that if we’re to catch a literary agent’s eye then proceed to the big prize of a publishing contract, we must write stories with a specific audience in mind. This works well if, for example, you write straight romance or fiction that’s easily recognizable as Young Adult.

What if you don’t? Most people have heard of J.K. Rowling’s struggles to bring the Potter series to print. That critical first step—finding an agent to represent her masterpiece—was nearly impossible. Advances for so-called “children’s books” are usually small. Most agents prefer working in the adult market where the pay is better. Like the rest of us, they have to eat.

It was pure luck that an office manager at a literary agency in London fished Rowling’s manuscript out of the reject basket. Bryony Evens liked the smart black cover. Once she started reading, she couldn’t stop. Neither can 45 million readers worldwide.

That wasn’t the only miracle. A host of rejections followed—editors couldn’t “brand” the book. Was it meant for the children’s market? Middle-grade? Was it an adult fantasy novel? Once Bloomsbury Publishing finally took the gamble, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone received a tiny print run in the U.K. If it weren’t for Rowling’s dogged persistence in promoting her work after Scholastic brought the novel to the U.S., Harry Potter never would’ve become a household name.

You might ask, “What does this have to do with Kindle books outselling traditional paperbacks?”

It has everything to do with branding, baby.

Today there are thousands of novelists tirelessly writing books you’ll want to read. Sadly, their creativity doesn’t fit the confines of a publishing house’s profit and loss statement. Many have worked with a literary agent—or several agents. They’ve received compliments from editors on their skillful handling of plot and character. They’ve been told, time and again, that their books deserve a wide readership. But they never garner a publishing contract because no one knows, precisely, where to sit their books on the shelves.

I know. I was one of those novelists.

The questions posed by editors were difficult to answer. Were my books Romance? Women’s fiction? Was I writing women’s fiction bordering on literary? Bordering on mystery?

I’ve written five novels so far, with Treasure Me receiving the most attention. The manuscript did well in an international contest, receiving the kind of review that editors notice. Publisher’s Weekly said, “Birdie Kaminsky, a beautiful blond bombshell of a con artist, has met her match in Hugh Schaeffer, an investigative reporter in this zesty novel rife with witty dialogue and well-drawn characters. Their catty romance and zany interactions filled with witty double entendres are gems.”

It wasn’t enough to ink my name on a contract.

Ten years ago I might’ve thought, “Well, lots of books take time to reach the public.” I might’ve searched for yet another agent (my third). But in late 2010, I noticed something happening in the industry.

Something big.

The Internet sizzled with talk of writers who’d jumped ship from legacy publishing and gone digital. Established novelists were releasing their own e-books and following up with print-on-demand. Other writers, who’d never made it into New York’s hallowed halls, were joining in. If they wanted to combine romance with zombies, or produce experimental fiction, or write a 500-page novel, they were finding a home on Amazon and other outlets. Both groups—established and newbie alike—were using their hard-earned profits to build an ever-expanding readership without the help of a literary agent or a New York editor or a publicity department.

They were flying solo in a literary landscape forever changed.

Will traditional paperback and hardbound books disappear? Not on your life. There will always be readers who cherish the tactile delight of holding a physical book. Will digital publishing harm literature in some unforeseen way? Hell, no. Devices like the Kindle allow readers to sample different genres and a variety of authors’ works quickly and cheaply. On average, one hardbound book costs upwards to $26. For that money, you can download 8 or 9 e-books from some of the finest authors on the planet.

Needless to say, traditional publishers are nervous about so many talented writers cutting them out of the game. They can no longer decide what you’ll read. And they can no longer decide what authors will write. If you’re trying to break in as a debut novelist, you’re told repeatedly “less is more.” You’d better produce a book that doesn’t exceed 350 pages in length. If you can write your masterpiece in 300 pages or less, all the better. Over the years, thousands of superb novels never saw the light of day because they were simply too long—and rare was the editor who’d take the financial risk of bringing a debut, overlong novel to market.

Now you know why Rowling’s books got longer, richer and deeper as she skyrocketed to fame. Once the Potter series was a success, no editor would dare to dictate word length or subject matter. They left her alone. They left her alone to create.

Thanks to digital publishing, the rest of us now do the same. We post e-books in cyberspace, work to build a readership, and follow up with print-on-demand. Already the number of success stories is staggering. But wait: the next ten years will see a flowering of creativity like nothing that has come before.

Publishing houses may pooh-pooh e-books as a fad, or stuff better left in the reject basket. They may suggest that, without the vetting process of hard-nosed agents and experienced editors, the books brought to market will be less than stellar. Don’t you believe it. As they say, cream rises to the top.

How it does is another interesting development.

Book blogs are proliferating like daisies popping up in a springtime meadow. Regardless of your tastes, there’s a blogger in cyberspace talking about the stories you’ll want to read. They encourage you to join in the fun by posting comments and chatting directly with authors. They search for books, new and old, to read and review with the added fun of contests and publishing tidbits and some of the best commentary on literature you’ll find anywhere.

The only experts that matter now run the show: eager, insatiable readers.

The woman who drags her Kindle or a book with her everywhere? She’s the glorious soul who finally realizes that the best book reviewer is, well, an avid reader. Women (and men) who read often and well set up shop in cyberspace. Soon the world’s speed-of-light connectivity will give the best book blogs followers running into the thousands then tens of thousands. And higher. Readers in Chicago, London and Tokyo will log onto a favorite site daily, along with folks in Toronto and Buenos Aires.

Authors worth their mettle will find these blogs and, through them, a readership. The finest books will go global overnight. Works not ready for Prime Time will disappear for lack of review.

Watching all of this unfold, I’m filled with excitement. The digital frontier is fast expanding.  The art of storytelling will never be the same.