Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fall of the Roman Empire (and not the fun color changing kind)

Word of the day: aesthete - One having or affecting great sensitivity to beauty, as in art or nature

Blech. What a lame-o word.

So I'm in a book club, because I like books. And clubs. Our reading savoir faire this go round was How I Became A Famous Novelist by Steve Hely. Hilarious book, brings up a lot of funny points about the industry and how bestsellers become so popular, but that's not why we're here today, kiddies. But seriously, if you're interested in getting published read this book, because it will strike more than one chord. And bring some relief to the hysteria.

But I've brought you here today to discuss the FUTURE OF BOOKSTORES. I've seen more than one complaint about the FUTURE OF PUBLISHING posts that a lot of agents and editors write, but this is about the demise of the brick and mortar stores, so I should be totally exempt from such vitriol. Right? Anyway, over at The Rejectionist they're (he's? she's? the perils of anonymous blogging!) interviewing Kevin Sampsell, a regular guy who just happens to run a publishing company, the largest indie bookstore in the US, and write books himself. As you would expect, he discusses the struggles that indie stores face, the looming ebook business, and whether or not he thinks paper books will ever die. This is a pretty common set of themes rolling around the blogosphere, and I usually keep to myself because I am not Nostradamus and therefore not interested in making wildly vague but nonetheless foreboding prophecies about such things. I prefer sandwiches. But I did want to share a little anecdote about my own experiences with a bookstore to highlight some possible issues in a very nonconfrontational way (because I'm not getting in a FUTURE OF PUBLISHING throwdown. Sandwiches, people.).

So my book club is tonight, and this time yesterday I still didn't have the book. Not cool. I went to my friendly neighborhood B&N, and shockgasphorror, they didn't have it. Strike one. So I sent my partner in crime to do my dirty work at another B&N on the other side of town. They had it, but shockgasphorrorfootstamping, they wanted...wait for it...FULL COVER PRICE. I am, through and through, an Amazon girl. And before that, I was a Half Price Books kind of girl. Paying full jacket price was, in my mind, for suckers and lesser wimps. Hardcover prices made me laugh out loud like a cocky superhero, and the concept of paying even for a trade paperback was ludicrous. I held firmly to this belief even through my own publishing days, when the prices of books made a little (but not much more) sense. But I needed that book and Amazon couldn't deliver on my admittedly outrageous timeline without charging me extra. But both Amazon and B& had the book for half price. Half. The. Price. I'm even saving them the shipping and they want to charge me full price? What the-?

So I concocted a plan to take it back the next day after book club, and then buy it on Amazon if I wanted. But...then I felt guilty. Guilty of robbing the bookstore, struggling as it is, of a legitimate sale. Guilty of being a part of the reason why the industry is suffering so much as it is now. Guilty of having a huge spaghetti dinner without exercising first (that probably didn't have as much to do with the book, in all fairness, but it lent to the overall sense of guilt). And once I started reading the book, and enjoying it, I thought I would give the bookstores a break and keep my full price copy, like I was giving a bum some money or petting an ugly cat.

But will that change my buying behavior? Uh. No. I don't pay full price for anything if I can help it; bargain racks and clearance stores are my cup of (discount) tea. And therein lies the dilemma. In order to keep such stores alive, I have to be willing to pay a higher price for the EXACT SAME PRODUCT. I'm not getting added benefit by physically going there and checking out. There's no customer service to worry about in bookstores because I'm not one to ask for help or recommendations from bookstore employees. Plus, there's alway the concern that the book I want won't be there, especially if it's not a bestseller. That's the rub; online stores provide the same product at a lower price point, they give me access to a much wider variety of books, and they save me the gas money of going to my local bookstores (the number of which are dwindling).

That's a hard argument to fight for me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Note on Character Development; or, What would my MC do if an alien ship landed?

Word of the day: scuttlebutt - 1. A drinking fountain on a ship. 2. A cask on a ship that contains the day's supply of drinking water. 3. Informal. Gossip; rumor.

Awesome word. Somehow, someway, I'm going to work that into my WIP today.

Found a great new read in Maggie Stiefvater's blog, especially her post on being asked by acquaintances to be written into her books as a character. Rachelle Gardner also had a great post of writing tips that I mentioned awhile back about putting your MC (or ancillary characters, if you so wish) into strange situations to judge their reactions and thereby deepen your understanding and development of said character.

Character development is an interesting process, one I would guess a lot of writers don't pay enough attention to, myself included. I consider myself a storyteller, not a builder of characters or worlds. If what I'm doing isn't driving the story forward, I'm not interested. Which is probably a bad idea, and why I am still le amateur. To be fair, Stiefvater (anybody else think Darth Vater when they see that? No takers?) explains that character development is meant to drive the story forward - you create characters who are bigger than life, and far more one-dimensional than real people so that when they step out of character, it's for a big reason (like saving people's lives, yo!). I had never thought through it that much, but she's definitely right. For some bizarre reason, to make a character believable we have to boil them down to a few essential traits that define their role in the story. Such characature, even in our celebrities, makes stories somehow more digestible. Even complex characters are only hinted at, their inner depth suggested rather than outright stated. That's how we know they're deep, because we don't know what they're thinking.

So it's most important in character development to create those few essential traits - two or three, let's not get cocky - and build all plot and dialogue out of those traits. It makes writing more manageable, and it makes reading more manageable. That's not to say you shouldn't think about all aspects of your character, but that doesn't mean all aspects need to come out in any given story. Otherwise you get a confusing mishmash that even Tolstoy would shy away from.

Any writers out there working on character development issues right now? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The values of beta readers

Word of the day: fugacious - Lasting but a short time; fleeting

Huzzah for getting my word of the day email today, is fickle in the bestowing of favor, I guess.

Bad weekend. As in: family drama, no sleep, and doggie destruction. Ready for new weekend. Do over?

So there are many blog posts expounding the benefits of very good, very critical (constructively, we promise) beta readers when you are writing your Great American Novel. This is very true, and very important, and if nothing else helps inure you to the inevitable pain of an agent or editor ripping your baby apart and flinging it to the wolves. (What's that you say? Editors and agents aren't evil people whose only joy in life is to suck the joy out of yours? They're just trying to do their job and make money so they can feed their kids and maybe buy a pair of rollerblades? No. I refuse to believe).

But I've recently realized another benefit of an alpha beta reader (the first beta reader, yeah I know my greek alphabet, so what if I learned it from frat parties): keeping the ball rolling. My partner in crime has been acting as my alpha beta reader on the current WIP for several months now, and handing over my manuscript chapter by chapter to him has kept me on an unofficial deadline track of sorts. But even better than that, it's kept me interested in the project. When I get comments from him, positive or negative, it spurs me on to think even more about the story and the character development, and it's nice to see someone outside of the creative process give their take on a character or a plot line. I know I seem all full of confidence and self-assurance here (I do, don't I? Does this blog make me look fat?), but writing can easily and quickly become very self-defeating. You start to question every move you make, and when a story can go in a hundred (million billion) different directions, it's hard to know that you're following the right path. But with a good beta reader asking the right questions I stay focused on where the plot is supposed to be going. No Frostian detours for this blogger.

So if you're feeling down about a story, or lost, or tired, or a little hungry, hand your work over to a friendly beta reader to spark that interest again. If nothing else, you can boast a wide readership amongst family and friends on your query letter. I hear that goes really far with agents.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Everyone is dead

Word of the day: exculpate - to clear from a charge of guilt or fault; free from blame; vindicate.

I am only sporadically getting my word of the day emails now, and that makes me grouchier than usual, especially when I have to go look them up on the website. Like, what? Not cool,, not cool. Why don't you try exculpating yourself by telling me what the deuce is up with your email serv.

So Nathan Bransford, agent extraordinaire, is having an awesome content over on his blog: The 3rd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge! (I added the exclamation point in a moment of squee) You post your first paragraph of your best story and if you win awesome things happen to you. I've already posted the first paragraph of my WIP (which you can go see if you so desire), but I wanted to comment on something I noticed in all of the other 300+ entries so far.

There is a lot of dying going on in the first paragraph of people's stories. I mean, A LOT. Of the 200 or so that I've skimmed through so far, I'd say a good 150 have somebody dying, talking about dying, doing the dying, doing the killing of the dying person, reminiscing about someone dying, or getting prepared for some dying. The first few entries I read I thought maybe a murder mystery writers group got together and submitted their paragraphs all at once; fine. But when it kept happening, and it started crossing into all genres (dead babies in chick lit, dead wives in man lit, dead serial killer victims in suspense thrillers, dead siblings in sappy coming of age stories), I got a little worried.

People, what is this mass obsession with death? I mean, I've been to quite a few funerals in my day, but most of them were pretty much expected, and it certainly wasn't the cause of some grisly murder or a magic demon hunter from another dimension (almost pretty sure about that last one). It was such a common theme that I started to skip an entry as soon as I hit a dead person. The Lovely Bones these were not. I might have had a dead person story rolling around in my head somewhere (Lifetime movies-style, natch!), but I will definitely put the kibosh on that one. Yeesh.

Go check out the contest entries for yourself, and if you can stomach the blood and putrid flesh, there are some good ones in there. My personal fav (besides my own of course, shameless plug!) is the one about the black boy who returns to his hometown as a white man. I want to know what is up with that one, fo sho.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why Jon Stewart steals my heart

Because of this.

Things we should have learned in Kinder but clearly didn't

Word of the day: convivial - 1.Fond of feasting, drinking, and good company; sociable. 2.Merry; festive.

It would seem I'm a little cranky today. Maybe it's because I suffered through a caffeine withdrawal headache yesterday, or that I keep getting mysterious bug bites on my feet, or that I've read another critical blog article about the publishing industry YET AGAIN, but cranky am I. And in the spirit of that crankiness, I noticed a few things today that I'd like to address to the public as a whole (or at least the two people that I know read this blog, big wave to Ash and Dad).

I've been aware for quite some time that technology has allowed us to reach a new level of rudeness in our society (not just within the US, I think, but the global community), but all advancements have their drawbacks (ironically), and you accept the good with the bad. However, there are a few things I would like to address that I've had to deal with a lot lately:

1) THINK before you send an email. Read it out loud if you have to, or send it to someone to ask how it sounds. There is something about not having to say what you're going to say to someone's face that allows this passive-aggressive demon to raise its ugly head and say snarky, back-handed things through email. I'd like to doubly reiterate (re-reiterate?) this for work correspondence. If you sound like a petulant toddler throwing a hissy fit, and if it involves extra bolding or all caps at any point, hint: probably not professional.

2) Remember when we were in kindergarten and the teacher said we couldn't cut in the lunch or potty line, no matter how hungry/full of pee we were? Yeah, that rule still applies. Drivers in my city this morning: I'm looking at you. If there is a line of cars, don't try to race down the lane next to them and cut in at the last minute before you get to your turn. It's rude and it makes me want to explode your car with my brain. Which I can't do yet, but I'm working on. And a side note to the people who let them in: you're only validating their behavior and encouraging them to do it again. So please, don't. Or I'll use my government-grade brain power on you, too

3) Hey, people who put the buttons on my clothes? Please stop making them fall off. I know you're doing it on purpose, and no, I don't laugh. I need those things to keep my pants up. Not cool. (Okay, I recognize this one has nothing to do with the others, but seriously, how am I supposed to keep my pants up?!)

Siiiigh. That makes me feel better. That and the impending promise of the weekend. In general, I think we can all just focus on being a little more civil than we think we should in our daily interactions.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The evils of word count

Word of the day: titivate - To make decorative additions to; spruce.

That is not what I thought that word would mean when I opened my email today.

Bangs bothering face, the tribulations of girldom.

Back in my days of publishing, I always understood word count to be about 300 words to a book page. That meant, if we had a manuscript submission of 90,000 words, it equalled 300 pages. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. However, now that I have delved into the dark realms of book blogging, I have found this to be a highly contentious issue.

Take this blog from BookEnds, LLC for instance. The blog itself is actually about why the agent in question (Jessica Faust, if you're interested) rejects certain submissions, but one of her reasons is word count. She goes on to give very general guidelines on word count, definitely nothing specific, and then gives other reasons for why she doesn't request a partial or full manuscript from a query letter. What happens to the comments section? It EXPLODES with heated word count battles (well, actually it explodes with spam comments toward the end, but BEFORE that it explodes with word count battles). There are arguments back and forth, for and against, but the overriding theme was that everyone was way upset about word counts.

Now, maybe I'm just old-fashioned when I worry about things like plot and technical skills, but this doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me. You're given a framework in which to do your writing, every agent across the board acknowledges that they will give you a little leeway both ways, and you're off to the races. Fretting about a few hundred or thousand words here or there just doesn't seem that important. The commenters, especially those who are unpublished (like yours truly), should really only worry about storytelling and craft. Trust me, even Faulkner got edited, which means your first draft and your final draft might be distant cousins, but they won't be twins.

For all of you aspiring writers out there whose word counts are over 100K, let me just say something: WOAH. What the hell, unless it's a fantasy, can you have to say for that long? I can tell you right now, about 90% of you need to get to cutting, because that thing sucks. Don't tell me it's essential to the plot, don't point me to other debut authors whose books were a billion words long, don't sell me on it. I've read enough crappy manuscripts in my time to know that you 90% need to do some serious, hard core editing. And I'm being generous with that figure. If you don't have experience in the industry to know if your books are going to fly at that level, then don't try it. Walk before you hovercraft.

But for the rest of us, in general, the guidelines are just that: guidelines. They're not meant to shackle you down or box you in. Don't panic, don't set your story a hundred different ways with a hundred different fonts and hope you can fool an agent. Most agents are looking for a really good story, not just a mediocre piece that fits within their word count specs. The only time queries get thrown out because of word count is when they are outrageously in one direction or the other (30Kers and 100Kers, I'm looking at you guys). Be happy you have the feedback you do, set your goal posts, and then kick the ball through (I'm using football as an analogy for writing, sports and literature totally go together).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Don't quit your day job

I have always been a woman of pipe dreams. When I grew up, I wanted to be a writer, a doctor (a pipe dream if you know me and my academic tendencies), a musician, an actress, a bookstore/coffeeshop owner...the list goes on. Some of them seemed normal - doctor, nurse, lawyer - until I realized that I didn't want to go to school for them, I just wanted to do them. All the glory, none of the hard work. It's the American dream!

Turns out, hospitals won't just let you show up for surgery if you're not actually a doctor. And clients won't just hire you because you watched My Cousin Vinny and The Firm a few dozen times. I turned to the arts - music, acting, writing - in an effort to bypass all that "learnin" business. I figured I didn't actually have to be good at what I did to make money at it. What I learned from my few brief years as a "musician" here in Austin (read: coffee shops and Italian restaurants) is that just because someone isn't good doesn't mean they don't work their butts off. Sure, a kernel of talent would be nice, but even those at the top of their fields worked very hard to get there.

When I first got into publishing and started reading the industry blogs (you can visit any in my electronic hug department to know who I'm talking about), I got really annoyed. All the advice said you needed to write as much as possible, and most of that writing wouldn't see the light of day after it was said and done. And then, they had the nerve to say "don't expect to make much money from writing, especially in the beginning." Say wha?

I should mention something here. These pipe dreams of mine, they all brought me instant wealth and accolades and allowed me to retire at a very young age and live a life of luxury and laziness. As a writer, I had visions of myself lounging indolently on tropical beaches, sipping a Jamaican Smile and clicking away on my little netbook as the waves gently lapped my toes. Or curled up in a recliner next to the window of a ski chalet, bundled up in blankets and sipping Swiss hot chocolate as I watched the snow gently falling outside the big bay window, clicking away on my little netbook. Those are totally realistic fantasies, right?

Uh, turns out, not so much. Writing, just like any other profession, takes work and dedication. And it often means having to work your "day job" while you're writing and promotion your books on the side. AND most employers don't allow drinking on the job, so there goes the Jamaican Smile. Bootastic.

And yet, I keep writing. Perhaps there's real passion there, perhaps my focus has honed with age, or perhaps it's more entertaining than watching Til Death (seriously, how is that show still on?). Whatever the answer, I'm still writing, and while the dreams are still lurking in the back of my mind - okay, maybe not a tropical beach, but if I dump a bunch of sand next to a kiddie pool in my backyard - I'm more focused on growing my writing into a real career. It might be 20 years from now, and I recognize there's a real possibility it might be never be a reality, but this is one pipe dream I'm holding onto for a little while longer.

And if it doesn't work out, I've always got my rocket science pipe dream to fall back on, right?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Battle of the e-readers!

Word of the Day: adjuvant - 1. Serving to help or assist; auxiliary.2. Assisting in the prevention, amelioration, or cure of disease.

I'm going to be real with you, that is a word I will probably never use. I also feel like the two parts of the first definition are not actually the same thing, even though they are grouped together. Auxiliary means something that is additional or supplementary. Serving to help or assist doesn't mean that to me; for instance, a nurse can serve to help or assist, but their role is not additional to the doctor. In fact, they frequently handle things the doctor can't or won't do.

Okay, enough with my definition ranting, on to the meat on the bones. My partner in crime let it oh-so-subtly slip that he was thinking of getting me a Kindle for Christmas (after the fifth "would you rather have shiny new toy A or the Kindle?" I kind of sussed it out), and my immediate reaction was "yay....oh. Wait. Let me do some research." Why, you ask? With it's Whispernet access to Amazon's arguably largest collection of e-books and it's new and improved features, why wouldn't I be all over that like bachelor parties on strippers?

This article is why. I had been told things about the first generation of Kindle - you can't save your books to another location, it's not friendly to other file formats - but I figured they were fixed when Kindle 2 came out. The debacle of delete 1984 (yes, yes, we're all aware of the irony) off of thousands of Kindles in the middle of the night like some kind of book burglar was creepy, to say the least. I don't like the idea that I could wake up one morning and my books could all be gone, with a polite "Sorry, we didn't think you should have these anymore" resting on my e-reader screen.

That's not to say I don't want a Kindle. Just that I'll be more cautious about my choice now. And I figured, if I'm doing all this research why not share my findings? So I'll be doing some sporadic posting (because I'm lazy and can't be kept to schedules (unless you are an agent then I am totally awesome with all things time related!)) about my findings, and I'll let you know which reader I decide on (hint: it's probably gonna be a Sony).