Monday, August 18, 2014

Writing Your First Novel: Five Fundamentals for Your Path to the Pulitzer

by Become a fan
Author, 'A Novel Approach: (To Writing Your First Book, or Your Best One)'

Autumn is the season when word processors develop twitches in keyboards. Writers emerge from summers abroad, agents hunger for a new voice, publishers finally release the hidden gems that will save their industry. Book reviews burst with new titles and bestseller lists change faster than television cable lineup

So, where's your book? We're waiting, all of us, readers, publishers, fellow writers who have patiently stood by while you grew up, went to school, married, had kids, and found a job to keep you afloat while the book inside you burbled about until you got around to writing it. So, enough! You know how to type; sit down at your laptop and get on with it. But ... where to start? 

Here are my five fundamentals to get you going. 

Number One: What is your story? This sounds like an easy one because you have the story in your mind, but -- what is it? Try to write your story in no more than three sentences and you soon will see that what your story involves is a much different thing than what your story is. For example, was the story of Gone with the Wind Scarlett O'Hara chasing Ashley Wilkes or was it Scarlett chasing something else that was long gone, the fairy tale Old South? Was The Lord of the Rings about Frodo finding Mordor so he could throw the ring into the fire or was it about Frodo finding Frodo?
Well, then, what were all those pages about Tara and Rhett Butler and Gollum? Those were story-telling, the waypoints that the authors used to support the stories but were not stories in their own right. What's the fundamental here? It is 'write your story but don't hide it beneath vignettes and your brilliant way with words.' No matter how great it looks on the page, if it doesn't move the story, leave it out. 

Number Two: Learn the conventions of fiction writing - voice, conflict, dialogue, point of view, and setting. Practice writing not only in the first person but also in the second person as a narrator and in the omniscient voice, like a fly on the wall that happens to see everything and knows what everyone is thinking. Learn to write clearly by trying when you write settings and descriptions that your story will be read to a blind person who has never seen what you're describing. Give a great deal of thought to when your conflict will explode, how your hero will resolve it, and what happens next (Hint: 'solution' is usually followed by 'disaster.' See Scarlett, above, and think 'Melanie,' and 'Civil War.') And never, ever write in the passive voice. Trust me.

Number Three: Make your readers a part of the story by creating expectations that invest them in the outcome, no matter how impossible it might be. For example, Alexandre Dumas engineered the Count of Monte Cristo's escape from the Chateau d'If with details of the thickness of rock walls, habits of guards, and height above pounding waves so that readers believed the internal truth of the novel, that escape not only was possible but actually happened. By commencing A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian with a phone call in which widowed Dad informs grown Daughter that he is about to remarry, to a nice girl from Kiev whom he just met (and who has 'superior breasts'), Martina Lewyka hooked every reader's personal fears for their own parents' loony golden years. Write not only what you know, but what your readers know. 

Number Four: Read books written by really good authors. This sounds like a platitude, but isn't. Ideally you would study creative writing at Oxford or Harvard. Failing that, by reading authors you enjoy you will see on careful study that they have a way of writing a sentence that becomes a paragraph, then a chapter, and that there is a cadence in the structure that weaves for you, the reader, something appealing. Prop open one of their books, find a passage you like, then turn on your word processor and try to compose a sentence in the same cadence that your favorite author has done. Try to write a couple of lines of dialogue that evoke the word patterns that appeal to you -- not the words, but the patterns. (Alert: don't plagiarize, just learn). Write a paragraph, then another. Stay with it until your mind thinks, however briefly, in those patterns. By staying with this process and applying it to your story, you'll begin to develop your own unique style.

Number Five: Be serious about your writing. Write every day. Compose a thousand words on your novel, memoir, poem, or short story. Tomorrow, edit those thousand words, revise them, and improve them. Recast the fuzzy sentences into the active voice. Make the subjects and verbs agree in number and tense and eliminate the pronouns that might refer to more than one person, place, or thing so that a reader is able to understand what you intended to say. Repeat. Malcolm Gladwell dedicated a chapter of Outliers: The Story of Success to the Beatles, Bill Gates, and your seventh grade violin teacher. The Beatles, Gates and just about every other successful genius put in ten thousand hours of work, seriously, before anyone recognized their talents. Your music teacher? I don't know about your personal seventh grade music teacher, of course, but such people as a group tend to exemplify the difference between someone who may have had talent, a great deal of talent, but didn't put in ten thousand hours and, regrettably, didn't make it to Carnegie Hall. Punch Line: put in the time. And, just so you know, Facebook, e-mails, Twitter, and the like do not count toward your daily thousand words. All this sounds like work, and it is, but you can do it. Now, get started. We're waiting for your book.

Jack Woodville London is the author of A Novel Approach: (To Writing Your First Book, or Your Best One), Vire Press, 2014.


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Monday, August 11, 2014

Indie Authors Talk Editors

By Jennifer McCartney
We talked to eight successful indie authors who shared their editing experiences and offered some tips and advice as well.
Indie authors all agree: hiring an editor to work on your manuscript is one of the best and most necessary investments an author can make. Editing takes both time and money and can encompass anything from a substantiative (i.e. structural or content) edit—where the editor makes suggestions on character and plot development, chapter organization, and big-picture issues—to copyediting and proofreading. We talked to eight successful indie authors who shared their editing experiences and offered some tips and advice as well.
Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey is one of self-publishing’s biggest success stories—and one of its greatest champions. The author of the bestselling Wool series is a Kindle Top 100 author and a #1 bestseller in Amazon’s science fiction category. His series was also optioned by Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian for a feature film. Howey hires an editor, David Gatewood, for all of his books, and sees the process as one that benefits not just his own writing but the creative industry as a whole.
“The most satisfying part of becoming a successful artist has been the chance to support other freelancers,” he says. “My editor started out as a beta reader, working with me for free,” Howey relates. Howey insisted on paying him for his work and began recommending him to other authors—and Gatewood now works as an editor full-time. “And my former editor at Simon & Schuster is now doing freelance work,” he adds.
“The market is really changing and allowing individuals to work together cooperatively and in a way that benefits both parties more than the old system did,” he says. “It’s a wonderful time not just to be a writer, but to be one of the many creatives out there who help books come to life.”
Lisa Renee Jones
Lisa Renee Jones, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, has written more than 40 books, including the Inside Out series, which was optioned for television—and she uses not just one editor but four.
“I have found that no matter how expensive one editor is, they don’t catch everything,” says Jones. “Each catches something different.” Two of her editors are skilled at line editing, she says, whereas the others might catch logistical issues like a character’s eye color that changes mid-novel.Jones says she doesn’t employ a content editor, but advises it might be helpful for new authors. “The joy of having worked many years in the industry before self-publishing is I worked with New York editors at almost every house and wrote over 30 stories. I had time to learn my craft. Someone who didn’t have that experience might need help in content,” she says.
Jones notes, “I’ve tried editors at all price ranges and I find they are all human. They miss things.” Her solution is to hire a cost-effective service for a primary edit, followed by a “backup proofer.” She uses one main service that employs two editors for $1.50 a page. A second service charges 60¢ a page for one person. And she keeps a fourth proofer on deck if needed. “This gets me more eyes, and I find each person has a strength.”
Penny Reid 

Penny Reid is the author of the Knitting in the City series, a Chicago-based romance series about a group of young women who are all members of the same knitting group. After uploading her first book, Neanderthal Seeks Human, to Amazon—and offering it for free—it was downloaded 8,000 times in four days.

The book was initially meant for a select group of friends, but when it took off she noticed some reviews made mention of typos and punctuation problems. “I think it is inappropriate for me to expect people to purchase my books if I know the books contain copious typos,” says Reid. It was at that point she enlisted the editing services of CreateSpace so she could upload a corrected edition. “I [didn’t] want my book to suffer lower reviews because of something so easily fixable,” she says. 

Reid chose CreateSpace because it seemed like the safest bet, and she had no contacts in the publishing world to advise her—the company charged 0.016¢ per word, which meant $1,800 for the edit. The drawback was that the service didn’t allow contact between the author and editor—so she never knew who was editing her book. She eventually connected with IndieGo Publishing, which charges the same rate as CreateSpace.

After her first book, Reid figured out a system to ensure her manuscript was properly edited. She first sends the manuscript to five beta readers who she enlists through Goodreads or Amazon, and they provide a content edit. “They review the first draft for consistency, characterization, flow, pacing, overall impressions, etc., and provide feedback via a template form that I’ve created.” She rewards these beta readers with $10 Amazon gift cards or a signed paperback. Once she’s incorporated their suggestions, she sends that draft to IndieGo Publishing for a second look.

“Know the difference between a content edit, copy/line edit, and proofreading,” Reid says. She advises that while beta readers can save an author money by taking the place of a content editor, it’s more labor intensive for the author. “A professional content editor is extremely expensive.”

James Minter

A U.K. humor writer with five titles under his belt, and winner of the bronze award in the adult fiction category of the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards for his title The Hole Opportunity, James Minter says that no author can do without an editor.

“From day one I was aware of the need to respect my readers and do justice to myself and my storytelling,” he says. With his first book, his wife recommended an editor who was affordable and who also lived nearby. “Not knowing any better,” he says, “I submitted my 90,000 word manuscript to her. It came back several weeks later with an invoice for £400.” While his editor had marked punctuation and grammar corrections, she hadn’t addressed many larger issues like POV shifts, verb tense slips, and general overwriting. “It was my first book. In my heart of hearts I knew I could do better, but I was keen to get it up on Amazon, and I accepted what she’d done since she was, after all, the professional.”

For his second book, he had a better understanding of the difference between a copyedit and a structural/content edit. He contacted the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and researched its database until he found a senior editor with experience editing humorous fiction. “Several weeks and £1,200 lighter I had a heavily red-penned manuscript, but with little regard for structural corrections,” he says. “She had been thorough, but there was no conversation, no interaction between us.” Minter felt disappointed with the experience. He’d also reached out to an editor online who had agreed to do a sample edit for him—and she replied with extensive annotations and addressed various content issues. “She was the first to show me the power of the edit,” he says.

He finally connected with a prize-winning literary fiction writer who also excels at editing. “Submit your work to her and she produces a detailed report including why something is not working, or points out where a POV is breached, and any of the other myriad things you as a writer can fall foul of.”

“Remember, a structural editor is an essential part of your writing toolkit, so choose wisely,” Minter says. “Appreciate the difference between a copy edit and a structural edit—and understand the edit process is as important as the writing process, and can take months.”

A.G. Riddle 

The author of three science fiction novels that have sold more than half a million copies through Amazon alone, A.G. Riddle uses both a content editor and a copy editor.

Riddle is one of Hugh Howey’s beneficiaries, finding his content editor, David Gatewood, through Howey’s recommendation. Gatewood offered suggestions about plot changes, character arcs, shortening and removing chapters, and chapter transitions, as well as flagging logic and continuity issues and offering word choice suggestions—for a total cost of $2,700. “I believe that David’s edit added a ton of value,” says Riddle. “I learned a lot during the process, and he improved the novel a great deal.”

He advises authors to find an editor who has worked on books in their genre (ideally, books the author has read and liked)—and then to be patient. “Be willing to wait if the editor’s calendar is crowded,” says Riddle. “Releasing a higher-quality novel later is better than releasing a grammatically correct draft now.”

T.L. Haddix

T.L Haddix, who lives in Indiana, writes romance and romance suspense and is the author of the popular Firefly Hollow series. “The more eyes you can get on a book prior to publication, the better,” she says.

When she published her first book in 2010, she acknowledges there was a stigma attached to self-publishing. “Common knowledge then was that writers who wanted to be taken seriously in the business were edited,” she says. “I knew that in order to provide readers with the best possible book, I had to have more than just my eyes on a book.” To do this she uses beta readers, copy and line editors, and a proofreader.

She confides that content edits can be tough, but they’re worth it. “I had a lot of suggestions to move scenes or chapters around. The most painful thing I heard was ‘this isn’t important to the story and it needs to go.’” Once she learned from that experience, she says her writing became tighter. “After a while, the focus became less on moving large chunks around than on cleaning up clunky sentence structure and the like.”

She’s also learned “not everyone who hangs out a shingle as an editor is worthy of the title.” She mentions editors who introduced errors or tried to alter her writing voice. “There’s nothing more frustrating than paying good money for an edit only to find yourself in worse shape than you were before.” She says authors should look at the reviews for books with a particular editor. “A huge red flag is if several of the authors an editor works with have tons of reviews that focus more on the errors in the books instead of the stories themselves...multiple authors using the same editor who have those errors is not just a coincidence.”

Finally, she encourages writers to hone their craft. “Do whatever it takes to learn writing English so you know if your editor is good or not. The only thing worse than having to ‘fix’ bad edits is not knowing they’re bad in the first place.”

Kristen Proby

The New York Times and USA Today bestselling indie author of the With Me in Seattle series and the Love Under the Big Sky series, Kristen Proby is a firm believer in the value of a good editor. “It will mean the difference between being mediocre and being a professional to be taken seriously,” she says.

Proby admits that because of her own inexperience, her first novels weren’t professionally edited—something she says she regretted as her career progressed. In 2013, she hired an editing service called the Formatting Fairies to copyedit all of her previously published novels. “I know without a doubt that it increased the value of my earlier books, taking them from acceptable to polished, and it makes me feel more confident in the product I’m releasing to the reader.”

While she says editing for content is important, she finds the line editing and copyediting part of the editorial process the most important. “Line and copy edits are where I find I need the most help, to find typos and to correct my grammar.”

She recommends authors send a sample of their work consisting of a few pages to several editors and ask for a complimentary sample edit before committing to an editor. “It’s important that you and your editor work well together, and that the person you’ve hired understands your vision and your goal.”

J.M. Madden

A former deputy sheriff in Central Ohio, J.M. Madden began her writing career when she decided to join the Kentucky Romance Writers group—and today she is a USA Today bestselling indie author of 16 romances. The necessity of a good edit is something Madden says she believes strongly in.

After initially placing a few pieces with a small e-book publisher, Madden decided to switch to self-publishing in order to take control of her royalties, cover art, and the editing process. While she admits she learned a lot from the various editors at her e-book publisher, she realized that in order to publish independently, she’d need to hire an editor to enable her to publish a professional product. “I realized as I went through all the levels of editing there that I didn’t know as much about writing as I thought I did.”

One of the first groups she employed was Author’s Red Room, now called NovelNeeds. “They only charged a couple hundred dollars to edit a novella, and they were unique in that the manuscript went through two editors,” Madden says. “They made content suggestions as well as punctuation and mechanics suggestions, and the manuscript was definitely better off from the attention.” She later went through several personal editors. “Some were okay and some made me cringe at what they sent back,” she remembers. “The advantage to being an indie author is that you can take the edits that you want, and you aren’t obligated to take everything.”

She finally settled with her current editor, Mary Yakovets, who re-edited a book of Madden’s that had already been released in order to prove her worth. “She sent me three pages of developmental edits, time shift issues, and punctuation issues we had missed. I hired her on the spot. And at 0.006¢ per word, she is very affordable.”

She advises other indie authors to talk to their friends and other authors to see which editors they use: “Word of mouth is fabulous in the indie community.” Most of all, she advises every author to go through the editing process—it’s an opportunity to learn.
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Monday, August 4, 2014

Values and Message: Integrating Themes Into Your Nonfiction

The following is a guest post from the grand prize winner of our 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. For more information about the upcoming 22nd Self-Pub Awards, click here.

Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge is author of the first charter school law in the nation and the award-winning book, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story

As President of Ember Communications, Inc., she is a national speaker and consultant on Breaking Barriers and Redesigning Your Future, for leaders in business, nonprofit, and government sectors.
In this post, she reflects on just a little bit of her time as a state senator and how this unique career helped her as a writer, particularly in integrating key values and strong messages in her nonfiction.

*     *     *     *     *

It was 1994. As a Minnesota state senator, I was looking forward to meeting with advocates passionate about the prevention of domestic violence. They wanted me to sponsor proposals to improve our laws on an issue I championed for years.

They enthusiastically shared their proposals, requiring significant funding for a new “per diem” formula for battered women’s shelters, mandatory supervision of children in certain family law cases, and community protocols for doctors, police and others to prevent family violence. They handed me a list of 29 outcomes they wanted to accomplish with their legislation, most of which I didn’t understand.

Frankly, my eyes glazed over. If I, as their champion, didn’t connect with the cause, how would we ever convince the public and my senate colleagues to commit more funding to this important issue?
I agreed to sponsor the legislation on one condition: that we create a message that connected with ordinary people. How could we bring people to our cause, and not lose them in the details? This is a cause nearly everyone supports. No one should suffer violence at the hands of another.

We gathered a group of 20 people with a range of perspectives and knowledge around the issue. We started with the 30-second elevator speech. Try this: you meet a legislator in the capitol elevator. He sees you are with the Domestic Violence Coalition and asks why you are at the capitol. You have thirty seconds to respond before he arrives at his floor. What do you tell him?

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was hard work. This was a passionate group of people not used to talking in lay language or sound bites. The process took nearly three hours. But at the end of our work, we emerged with a consensus umbrella message that could steer listeners to any one of those 29 outcomes they wanted to accomplish.

Think of a message triangle. In the center, start with “We aren’t doing enough.” The three legs of the triangle go further:

We Aren’t Doing Enough:

  • To Insure Safety and Security for Women
  • To Hold Perpetrators Accountable
  • To Hold Each Other Accountable

Here’s the key: we translated our outcomes into “values” language that resonates with ordinary people. Values like Safety, Security, Accountability and Hope.  The next day we told legislators that we weren’t doing enough to insure safety and security for women, and that is why we needed to change the per diem formula for battered women’s shelters. We weren’t doing enough to hold perpetrators accountable, and that’s why we needed our family court judges to impose supervised visitation. And we weren’t doing enough as citizens to hold each other accountable and that is why we needed community training protocols.

Did the new values message work? For the first time in a decade, the legislature passed significant funding to protect women and children from domestic violence. Values messaging was the connector. Values messaging conveys passion, mission, and urgency. Values messaging answers the listener’s question, “what’s in it for me?” Values messaging resonates with the times.

Writing nonfiction is no different. Whether you are writing a short opinion piece, a magazine article, or a full-length nonfiction book, values language is essential to connect your readers to your message. Too often we get mired in the 29 details or examples we are anxious to share with the reader, and never take time to connect the reader to our cause in the first place.

Some like to visualize this approach with a picture of a values tree. Before and during your writing, think about the values within your message. Key values might be opportunity, equality, leadership, compassion, community, abundance, inclusivity, integrity, or excellence. These values are the roots of your tree. Your (29!) talking points, or examples, are the branches on the tree. But unless you connect the branches to the roots, the branches will die.

The trunk of the tree is the Values Connection. It is the hardest part to write and the easiest to overlook.

Let’s take another example. Everyone supports education. But discussion around increasing funding formulas, teacher evaluations, and testing protocols can be downright boring.

Try this messaging:

If we value our future, we must value our kids.

  • Kids can’t wait.  We must unleash the potential of every child!  (opportunity, hope)
  • Educate today for a prosperous tomorrow (community, prosperity)
  • It’s the proven return on investment (accountability).
Does this connect with you?  Likely one message connects more than another. If you are with the chamber of commerce, you’ll likely respond to the accountability value. If you are a parent, you’ll like the opportunity message. If you are a city leader, the community message may resonate with you. The advantage of the values approach is that messages can be adjusted to specific audiences by shifting to a different value focus, and yet still remain a part of the overall, consistent, umbrella message.

All well and good, you say. But how do I apply that to my nonfiction?

As you write, reflect periodically on the stories and examples in your writing. What are the values you are portraying? Identify the themes or patterns. Allow these themes to bubble up, just as the room full of advocates helped them bubble up. Have others read your writing and ask them what values they see. The values are usually there, though often not pulled out for the reader to see.

You don’t want to make the reader work hard for this. As you edit your writing, find ways to feature your values statements (the trunks of the trees) early in your story and your paragraphs. Set out the Values Connections early, then link them to your stories or examples. Repeat your Values Connections often in different ways throughout the piece.

In writing Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story, I first wrote the story as I remembered it from my own experience and files. As I wrote, several themes emerged over and over. This was not just a history about the origins of public school choice and public charter schools. This was a story of ordinary people taking an extraordinary stand for change. It was a story about removing and overcoming barriers (yes, people gave chartering “zero chance of passage.”) It was a story about bringing together people to create long-term, bipartisan, and sustainable change from the middle of the political spectrum. These themes resonate with a wide range of people, whether or not they have interest in education or specific “branches” on the education tree.

The root values are pretty clear. Choice. Opportunity. Empowerment. Innovation. Partnership. Collaboration.  Persistence. Independence. The tree trunks (Values Connections) encompass the themes above, including taking a stand for change, rising above obstacles, and compromising for common ground. Nearly every chapter of the book falls under one of those themes. Even some chapter titles reflect the themes: “The Unions: Breaking Up is Hard to Do” and “Chartered Schools—The Bleeding Edge of Change,” are examples.

The beauty of values messaging is that it is easy to incorporate into nonfiction writing because we are immersed in values messaging every day. Listen closely to commercial advertising around you.  Identify the values. What resonates with you?  Do the same for your writing.  Your story will become even more powerful and persuasive and create the pathways you seek to inspire your readers and transform their lives.

*     *     *     *     *

Like Ember, you too could win $3,000 in cash, a paid trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference, and the attention of prospective editors and publishers. The Grand Prize Winner of our 22nd Annual Self-Published Book Awards will also receive promotion in Writer’s Digest (March/April 2015 issue), and much more! Check out details on all the prizes, as well as the prize packages for each of our nine first-place winners.

Enter your self-published book (must be printed and bound) into one of our nine categories (mainstream/literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, inspirational [spiritual, new age], life stories [biographies, autobiographies, family histories, memoirs], children’s picture books, middle-grade/young adult books, reference books [directories, encyclopedias, guide books], and poetry) online or via an entry form, today!

Hurry! Early bird entries must be postmarked by April 1, while all regular entries must be postmarked by May 1. All winners will be notified by October 17, 2014. All commentaries will be sent to entrants by December 1, 2014.


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Monday, July 28, 2014

Are There 5 Reasons to Stick With Major Publishers? No, There Are Zero Reasons

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why We Still Need Publishers

I wrote a post over at Insatiable Booksluts recently that drew some attention from unexpected places. The post was a satirical dramatization of the publishing vs. Amazon situation; I’m not an Amazon superfan, but I do like to make decisions based on correct information (see also, “Amazon Is Not a Monopoly or a Monopsony”), so I’m often writing about this topic–not because I don’t like publishers, but because I know that I can like publishers and also believe that they could rethink their business model.

Some who found my IB post commented that they thought it was only a matter of time before publishers went out of business, that self-publishing would take over and be The Way to publish books going forward. Amazon gives authors better terms and publishing is becoming an obsolete middleman, or something to that effect.

I was surprised to get this response, because I’ve always been vocal about the fact that, yes, we need publishers. I want to clear up the idea that I’m egging people onto the anti-publishing bandwagon.
A major anti-publisher argument seems to be that authors provide most of the work and publishers just scoop up their product, package it, and make money on it because they are “known” and authors are not. Publishers do so much more than that, though.  Publishers perform a necessary and not-easily-replaced service to the book industry as a whole.

The role of the publisher isn’t to take a book that’s pretty much finished and turn it out to the public. Editors help shape books in significant ways. A good editor doesn’t just tell you that you have made typos or that your sentences are grammatically incorrect; a good editor looks at every part of a book, from character development to plotting to theme, and tells you what doesn’t work, what works really well, what needs to be cut, what needs to be built up. A good editor reconstructs a story from the raw materials and makes it as good as it can possibly be.

Case in point: The Great Gatsby went through heavy editing to become the well-beloved novel it is today. Fitzgerald’s editor gave him loads of constructive notes–it didn’t fall out of F. Scott as a fully-formed entity. Books often need revision, even if they’re written by super-famous authors.

A good editor has experience editing a lot of different novels and brings knowledge to the table from years of publishing experience. They know what works, what doesn’t work, what is now a cliche, what sells, what flops. They know if there are five other novels just like yours, but better, that are slated to come out later this year. They know if you’re truly talented or writing out of your ass.

Publishers know books. They know the industry upside down and inside out. They don’t just provide a printing and design service for authors; publishers provide expertise. And authors, you need expertise. We readers don’t have that expertise, no matter how many books we’ve read; it’s a whole different ballgame on the business end.

Working with a publisher is forming a partnership. Part of finding the right partner is finding someone who will offer you a fair deal. You don’t have to take the first offer, or any offer, if you don’t like their terms. But don’t knock what publishers bring to the table, because it’s irreplaceable to many of us as readers and customers.

Frankly, for me, a reading world without publishers would be terrible. I would probably stop reading new books full stop. What would you do if publishing vanished altogether?

About Susie Rodarme

Susie writes, edits, and web designs over at her site Insatiable Booksluts. She's obsessed with small press literary fiction. Follow her on Twitter @thebooksluts.


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Monday, July 14, 2014

7 Ways to Beat Writer's Block

By Andrew Lewis Conn

Andrew Lewis Conn's O, Africa! is an ingenious, clever adventure novel about the first film to be shot entirely in Africa, set in the early days of filmmaking. Conn shares some ways to beat the most notorious writers' affliction.

1. Watch Movies About Writer's Block. With very few exceptions (Capote, My Brilliant Career, Deconstructing Harry), movies are a notoriously bad medium for showing the work that goes into being a writer (which, for the most part consists, let’s face it, of a person sitting in solitude for strange and intolerable numbers of hours). It’s nearly impossible for films to visualize so internal a process, so you get instead lots of furrowed brows, lovers thrashing about, and balled-up manuscript pages sailing across rooms. What movies can do really well, however, is show people going batshit crazy! So watch some classic movies about writer's block and resign yourself not to be Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place! Don’t be Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys (well, maybe, sometimes)! Don’t be CGI Nicholas Cage twins in Adaptation! Do not strive for that special Barton Fink feeling! And, for God’s sake, do not check yourself into the Overlook Hotel!

2. Play Writer's Block “Mad Libs.” Replace the names of other professions (garbage collector, litigation attorney, algebra teacher, etc.) in the phrase “writer’s block” and play out those scenarios to see what an absurd self-diagnosis it is we’re talking about here. To wit, imagine you break your arm in an automobile accident. It’s a bad fracture and you’re rushed to the emergency room. There you are, lying on the table, bone jutting out, with a tourniquet corded around your arm, and in comes a brooding, Byronic-looking doctor who informs you that he’d love to set your arm but he can’t today, just can’t, because he’s suffering from “physician's block.” Everyone’s working life is hard: do your job.

3. Get a corporate writing gig. The greatest upshot of doing some kind of writing work for a living is that it forces you to show up. By logging those hours you learn how to write through your worst day. You develop muscle memory that allows you to write professionally and well independent of your mood. You develop craft that will save you and pull you though your least inspired assignment, your worst hangover, your lowest insomnia, your crappiest day. (Conversely, the dangers of writing for a living are these: most business and corporate writing is about positioning things in very clear and concretized ways, whereas fiction is all about ambiguity and longing and questioning—the art of the “if/but.” It’s also easy to get into bad, cheap habits: speed, glibness, settling for thumbnail portraiture. For all that, I’d argue that the benefits—which include a paycheck and, er, benefits!—significantly outweigh the demerits.)

4. Place your trust in craft, not inspiration. Leave chasing vampires, looking for the Loch Ness Monster, and making friends with the Easter Bunny to others. Because writer's block, similar those other figments, does not exist. There’s writing and there’s not writing (and, within those two large camps, factions of good writing, poor writing, and mediocre writing). Like anything else, there are going to be good days and bad days. But let’s not get all exalted about it! Demystifying the process for oneself—treating it as craft, as labor, as back work; and approaching the process like a bricklayer—can relieve an enormous amount of self-imposed psychological pressure. There’s going to school and there’s playing hooky. There’s reporting for work and there’s calling in sick. A big part of being a pro is about showing up, not making excuses, and getting on with it. Be a professional.

5. Get your hands dirty. The world is bursting with things that are begging for description. So leave the lonely room or crowded coffee shop and do something intensely physical or visual. Return to lonely room or crowded coffee shop. Describe what you’ve just seen or done. Now describe what you have seen or done from the perspective of others. Describe what you have seen or done from the POV of an infant or an alien newly arrived on Earth or your future, 80-year-old self. Repeat.

6. Get your ass in a chair. Comfy? Good! Now promise yourself that you will not rise from said sedentary bucket until you’ve committed to the page or computer screen one sentence, paragraph, or page with which you are moderately satisfied. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

7. Write out of love. One of the simplest and most profound explanations of why we write that I ever heard came from Bruce Springsteen during a Charlie Rose interview. (And anyone who doubts that Springsteen is one of America’s supreme story writers, equipped with an actor’s ability to inhabit the skins of wildly different characters, has never listened to Nebraska.) Asked about his creative process, the Boss said something to the effect of: “You write about what you love and you write about things you’re trying to make sense of.” Have heroes. Read their stuff. Listen to their music. Watch their movies. Be open to inspiration and allow yourself to learn from their example. Then double-down on your commitment to doing the work—good work that takes the form of an expression of love—in the hopes that you might carry that torch a few inches forward.


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Monday, July 7, 2014

Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejections from the Eyeshot Outbox

By Jamie Allen

A long, long time ago, before Twitter or Facebook or even the Y2K Bug, a literary website called Eyeshot came into the world. The year was 1999. The editor of the site, 20-something writer Lee Klein, lived in Brooklyn.

To get things going, Klein wrote the site’s first few stories under pseudonyms. But within a few years, guided by Klein’s particular tastes, the site regularly featured the likes of Zadie Smith, Daniel Alarcon, Tao Lin and Randa Jarrar. Most established literary outlets had little presence online at the dawn of Internet lit, but upstarts like Eyeshot, Pindeldyboz,and others offered fiction, humor and nonfiction. Writers visited these sites daily to see who got published, as they worked on their own stories for consideration. 

I found Eyeshot while living in suburban Atlanta in 2002. I submitted something, and not only did Klein email back right away, he accepted the piece. Even better, his enthusiastic response to the submission filled me with helium.

So I submitted more. Then something else happened: Rejection. 

I didn’t just get the cold, two-line, de rigueur dismissal of the literary industry. No form letter here. From Eyeshot, you received a (very) personal email from Klein, just an hour or two after submission of the piece. The email often started off by asking what the hell you were thinking.

Once your vision cleared and you took in the rest of the email, you found that Klein had actually read every sentence in your rejected story. He offered feedback on where things went wrong for him. He’d tack on something about his activities there in Brooklyn. And then he would sign off with a polite thanks, an apology and a request for more submissions.

If you want to be a published writer, and especially if you live in suburbia, you need someone to tell you the Truth about your work. Klein offered this, free of charge. His brusque honesty hooked me. I didn’t know what he looked like, but I pictured a shorter, wider version of Joey Ramone sitting on the other side of the computer screen, a punk encircled by books and empty coffee cups, cigarette dangling from his lips, voice husky with the weight of his smoky critiques. (Note: He doesn’t look like a hefty Joey Ramone.)

I had no idea at the time if Klein sent bespoke rejections to everyone or just the “lucky” ones. The answer became obvious when Klein started posting collections of his rejections on Eyeshot. These tiny, tight bursts of writing hummed with energy that hopscotched among comical, cruel, warm, demented, high level and nitpicky. Send him a piece of your soul on Microsoft Word, Klein seemed to believe, and you deserved a piece of his soul right back. An amazing little act of generosity, considering the number of terrible pieces of writing out there. (Klein estimates that he has tapped out more than a thousand original rejections.) 

A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Klein will publish a novel later this summer, The Shimmering Go-Between (Atticus Books). As a precursor, Barrelhouse Books presents Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, a 214-page collection of Klein’s best blow-offs, turndowns and tender slaps. A quick read—one email per page—it’ll make the reader cringe, LOL and furrow eyebrows. It contains handsome writing, as well as goofy email prose. And the central character—Klein himself—plays a delightfully erratic, blustery, supportive and hysterical critic to the army of wannabe writers filling up email boxes everywhere. 

“Learn to spell FELLATIO!” he implores in one rejection. “I’m not going to post this because it’s not funny at all.”

“You brought blood to my brain,” he confronts in another. “Meet me at 9 pm for a duel of chicken bones and hot sauce, somewhere near the L train—at the KFC at 14th and 3rd. I will show you rude and crude. I will teach you the meaning of removed. I will show you what happens when eager talent is misdirected.”

Klein intones to another eager writer, “Excuse me for sounding like that senator debating Dan Quayle, but I know Joyce very well, and you are no James Joyce.”

At first blush, this concept—publishing rejections that broke the hearts of (anonymous) writers—might seem cruel. Maybe. But we all know that writing is difficult. Writers need candid feedback. If an editor possesses little time or energy to respond properly to poor writing, fine. But let us celebrate the editors who speak up. 

In this game of writing, no one returns a service like Klein. Like a good sport, he also compliments a splendid shot.

“I like the way you write,” he says.

“I admire and support highly detailed writing,” he says.

“Your story’s first paragraph is good, and so is your language, the rhythm, and aerodynamics,” he says.

He also uses “maybe” a lot and Ye Olde Trick of placing a question mark at the end of a frank statement to lightly mute his howl. Sometimes he merely asks questions.

“How do you want them to respond to your stuff?” he poses to one writer. “How do you want to move and manipulate them, make their minds go mmm?”

The reader will find solid counsel in the pages. Bonus entertainment value springs from Klein’s description of his hangovers, his penchant for autoerotic discourse, his flirtations with certain submitters and his hopeless battle to stop writers from submitting stories involving dentists. He often seems at his wit’s end. 

“I’d like what you sent a little more if it were rapped,” he tells one writer.

“The aura of this one is sort of a freckly yellow,” he explains to another, “which reminds me of bananas, which doesn’t make me want to post it.”

“There were no alligators in it,” he offers yet another. “Maybe if you exchanged the hail for alligators and the CEO for a baseball bat, we’d have something, but as it is, with neither alligator nor baseball bat, we cannot offer acceptance.”

Sometimes, Klein rants randomly, with the occasional typo.

“Suicide’s a downer, isn’t? It used to be, is it still? Do you know why everyone’s sending stuff on suicide? What the hell? People must be trying to kill other people off?”

When he leaves behind the business of rejections and opens a window into his life, Klein the editor transforms into what he longs to find—a talented writer with a warped sensibility. 

“I just moved to Iowa City,” he writes in one rejection. “Cats have been hunting down the bunnies the last few days. The thing we’ve learned is that bunnies make noises, a crazy distress signal, like five high ‘ehnt-ehnt-ehnt-ehnt-ehnt’ blasts and then are silent and all nose sniffing. Who knew? Turns out rabbits aren’t on those circular animal noise maker things kids have for good reason! Cow goes moo moo, lamb goes bah bah, bird goes tweet tweet, bunny goes crazy fucking murderous high-alert alarm freakout.”

In another email, we breathe a whiff of Brooklyn and its fleeting wonders—before Klein lowers the boom on the submitting writer.

“Late last night I was boundless energy personified, relentless thirst, desire, awareness, alive in an endless city of funny smart pretty eagle-winged adolescents in their late twenties I somehow didn’t hate, but now the world seems reduced to you and me. Listen, if someone accepts any of these, do not trust that source. You’ve got some work to do.”

Back in the early aughts, Klein held a few readings in New York that asked us to reconsider the practice. At an Eyeshot/Klein “reading,” you brought your own book, sat down with others and read silently for one hour. In an era of writer performances every night, in every Brooklyn bar and coffee shop, Klein wanted attendees to appreciate the principal, sacred connection between writer and reader. 

In Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, cynics might presume that Klein cares little for his fellow writers if he’s so willing to shred egos. But his aim aligns with those readings and his respect for the writer-reader relationship. He simply wants others to show the same. 

“Readerly love is unlike motherly love,” he tells a writer in the collection. “It’s absolutely conditional. Don’t expect readers protected behind computer screens won’t sneer, roll eyes, get bored.”

Let’s hope some of the rejected took Klein’s advice. Eyeshot, a sprawling and chaotic site, still churns 15 years later. Klein, now a married dad living in Philadelphia, publishes regularly. And he shares what he knows—even, at the least, how to handle rejection. 

“Do you hate me now?” he writes. “You shouldn’t. I don’t hate you because I didn’t want to post your story. The story exists outside of you. You are not your story. You can take what I say and think about it, or cry, or tell me to piss off. All are acceptable. Or ignore me. Whatever.”

By the end of the collection, readers understand that when Klein says “whatever,” he might not mean it at all. Jamie Allen is an Atlanta-based writer.


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