It’s That Time of Year

Whether you say Merry Christmas, Happy Yule, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Chanukah, or some other derivation, back at ya!

What with shopping, baking, wrapping presents, decorating, more shopping, and more baking, writing sometimes takes a back seat to holiday preparations. I have done my usual writing, but my editing/revising of my work has been non-existent for the past two weeks. And reading? Ferggitaboudit!

It is rather worth it, though, when you get to watch two four-year-olds and a two-year-old open their presents and hear a four-year-old say, “I’ve always wanted that!”

From the people who follow or read this blog, you’ve given me the gift of your attention all year long, and for a writer who still occasionally doubts she has something worthwhile to say, your attention to my work is something I appreciate beyond words to express.

The writing experts always say, “Write for yourself,” but if that’s your only audience you aren’t going to get far. Every writer longs for readers, and you’ve all given me that. At the same time, you’ve given me encouragement, tacit and implied. You’ve critiqued when I needed it, and you praised when I needed that, too. I write for myself, but I write for you, too, because without you, I would be a mere scribbler, not a writer.

Many of you are writers yourselves, and that makes the gift of your attention even more meaningful. We’re peers, but as writers yourselves, you get me, and vice versa. You get the rants and raves, the publishing disappointments, all the expected and unexpected things along the path to publication. We’re all on that same path, and we make each other’s journey easier.

So, best wishes for you, your families, and your writing for this holiday season. May you wake to the joy of children’s voices when they see what’s beneath the tree, or however you celebrate this time of year. And let’s do it again next year!

Happy holidays–and writing!

Feet of Clay

A writer friend lamented over the weekend she had been devastated by something a writer she admired had said on a conference panel. The writer she’d gone to see is a well-known sci-fi/fantasy author of a popular series. (And it’s not George R. R. Martin; I omit the name because I’m not interested in being sued by someone with a gazillion dollars.)

Someone in the audience asked the panel if any of them had ever had the experience where a character took a story in a different direction from what the writer had planned. This well-known and beloved author apparently sneered and said words to the effect that characters in his books are fiction, and the idea that fictional characters “talk” to writers means the writer is nuts.

My writer friend was dismayed at the answer. It actually put her on quite the downer, then she added that she still liked his books and would continue to buy them.

My question is why? Why continue to support someone who is so contemptuous of his audience?

I suppose you can separate a person’s body of work from their personality. I mean, my favorite author is Harlan Ellison, for whom the appellation “curmudgeon” is an understatement. However, Ellison has never dissed his audience. In fact, nearly forty years ago, Ellison picked me from a crowd of fan-boys and -girls to give me some personal writing advice. He was charming and encouraging, and, though his over-sized ego was definitely present, he never once disdained any of my stupid questions. That was twenty minutes of my life I’ll never forget.

When Tom Clancy gave an interview many years ago where he proclaimed that anyone making under $100,000 a year simply couldn’t relate to him or he to them, I was astounded and dismayed. That was the key demographic who bought his books, who made him a rich man, who enabled his first wife to buy him a freaking tank for his birthday. This, from the former insurance salesman who let fame and fortune go far enough to his head that he appeared on Fox as a “terrorism expert.” I stopped buying his books.

The reality is, yes, characters in a novel are fiction, but they are real enough that you hear their voices in your head. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t exist. That isn’t crazy; it’s creativity. And, yes, characters sometimes insist that the story go in an unplanned direction. That isn’t crazy; it’s creativity.

The other reality is successful writers are human beings with personality quirks, and sometimes some of them reach a point where they don’t feel they need to cater to their audience anymore. They don’t have to be nice and indulge a perfectly reasonable question from a fan.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t look up to writers. As writers ourselves, successful writers are whom we aspire to be. Just accept that those successful and popular writers are human beings, too. Admire them, emulate them, but don’t idolize them. Spotting their feet of clay can be so earth-shattering.

How about you? Has a writer you’ve admired said or done something that has made you boycott their books?

What Do You Mean It’s October?

How can it be October? It was just January, wasn’t it?

It’s hard to believe two-thirds of this writing year is behind us, and that NaNoWriMo and the holidays are ahead. I don’t know about you, but writing between Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year has been almost non-existent for me in past years. Well, except for the Uncle Sam years where I had to write even when my mind was on Christmas carols and snow flakes.

This holiday season, then, will be a test of the writing work schedule I put in place for this year and to which I’ve done a good job of sticking. Holiday shopping, traveling, and all the  seasonal drama, however, can overwhelm even the strictest schedule.

But writing, for me, has always been an escape. Difficult childhood? Write stories about horses and winning the Grand National Steeplechase–no, it was derivative, not plagiarism. Horrid high school experience? Write stories about revolution. Love college? Write a story that wins a prize and gets published in the college literary magazine. Sucky first job? Write an unpublished novel (and that’s a good thing) about a space-faring female explorer who’s in charge of her life. Have a life-changing relationship for twenty-plus years? Write him into a great main character then write a semi-biographical novel about what broke you up.

I think, no, I’m certain, that if I didn’t have that ability to arrange words in an interesting manner on a page, I’d probably have a rap sheet as long as I-95 because I would have put my fist in someone’s face–several someones and repeatedly. It was that kind of life, in other words, a fairly typical one. Reading books carried me through a lot and still does, but there’s nothing like sitting down before the computer and stepping into a world you’ve created or are in the process of creating. The real world falls away, and many times that’s good.

Of course, the shock upon re-entry to reality can be staggering but fodder for future fiction as well. That’s the writer’s burden, curse, and raison d’être. And we love it.

What’s your holiday writing plan? Will you back away until the new year, or will those family get-togethers provide fertile ground for story-telling?

 

The Year of Conferencing Writerly

At the beginning of 2012, I vowed to make regular attendance at writers conferences and workshops part of my writing life for the new year. So far, I’m on a roll.

March was AWP in Chicago, IL. Very intimate. Just me and 10,000 other writers. But it was an energizing experience, and I got to hear Margaret Atwood speak–one of my inspirations. I went to amazing panels and heard amazing writers read from their works. I came away thrilled that I was a minor character in such a life-affirming play.

March also brought the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA. It’s a bit disingenuous to call this a local conference because, though it highlights Virginia writers, the reach goes beyond the Commonwealth. The panels here are not entirely craft-focused, but they are practical. Where else would I have learned how to use Pinterest to market books?

In June there was Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop in Roanoke, VA. I blogged a great deal about that week, so I won’t belabor any points previously made. I’ll just say I’m still aloft on that cloud of euphoria. And I’ll be back for more next year and not just for the strength of the workshops and the quality of the instructors but also for the friends I made there.

Upcoming is the Virginia Writers Club’s “Navigating the Writing Life” on August 4 in Charlottesville, VA. This is a one-day conference packed with useful workshops, and if you’re within a few states of Virginia, I encourage you to make the trip.

Also in August on the 18th, is a one-day “Gathering of Writers” sponsored by Press 53 and held in Winston-Salem, NC. I’m making a weekend of it and am looking forward to a packed day of craft workshops and meeting great writers.

And last, thus far, and certainly not least is the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA. Last year I only went for the day and missed out on a lot. This year because the conference has grown in attendance, it’s moving to the Richmond Civic Center. Friday will be two intensive workshops, then Saturday and Sunday craft panels and readings by Virginia writers. I haven’t yet worked up the nerve for First Pages or the five-minute agent pitches. There’s always next year.

Has it been worth it? Oh, yes. There’s always something more to learn about writing, about yourself as a writer, and the writing life. And writers network, too. There’s nothing like shared experiences to bond people, and it’s always great to know you’re not the only one being rejected by publications.

The only problem is, once you starting going to writing conferences, you keep going back! In this case, that’s a good thing.

 

Rarely Well Behaved, Adieu

Little did I know when I casually entered a writing contest in early 2000 that by the end of the year, I’d have a book published. The winner of the contest got the trip to New York to meet an agent, and the rest of us slobs who were runners-up got the opportunity to claim a $99 printing contract with a relatively new print-on-demand publisher named iUniverse. The “claim it” window had a fairly short fuse, and if you claimed it, you had to get a manuscript submitted also in a fairly short amount of time. To “qualify” the manuscript had to be longer than 110 pages.

The $99 contract (which is now unheard of at iUniverse, with the minimum contract now close to $1,000) was bare bones–no editorial review and you had to correct the proof, but if your corrections numbered more than 200, you got charged for author’s alterations.

I decided I would give it a try. Yes, it was self-publishing, but I could justify doing this by the fact my story was good enough to be a runner up and get the consolation prize. The problem was, I didn’t have enough short stories lying around to constitute 110 printed pages. I started writing and/or finished a few pieces that I’d started and never concluded. I spent most of a night proofreading the manuscript and made the deadline for submission. I figured I could fix any typos or obvious editorial gaffes when I got the proofs.

The proofs arrived, and it didn’t take long for my corrections, i.e., edits, to approach the magic number of 200, and I had to go back and decide which were the most important–typos, obviously, and as many edits as I could get in under the magic number. The proofs went back, and a few days later came the cover for my approval. It was one of those seminal moments when you wish every loved one who had passed on was there to see such a beautiful thing. I had given a very vague suggestion for the cover–a house, a woman in old fashioned clothing, and a fence, which was based on one of the stories. The cover was perfect. I’ll let you judge for yourself:

I approved the cover, and about a week later came the proof copy of the book. That was another seminal moment, and I couldn’t help but be sad that my father, who was always amazed by what he called my “way with words,” wasn’t there to see it.

After the proof approval, here came my box of complimentary books, ten of them, and I had the pleasure of going on Amazon.com and seeing my book for sale. iUniverse at that time had an agreement of sorts with Barnes and Nobles book stores, and I used a couple of the free copies to hand off to events managers at the stores near me. That resulted in my books being on the shelves of a book store, several book signings and readings over the next year, and a guest speaking engagement on the benefits and pitfalls of self-publishing.

The biggest pitfall for me was the fact I had to do my own marketing while working a full-time job. I managed to score a couple of radio interviews, but this was in the days before the current social media. If I wanted press releases to go out, I had to create them, stuff the envelopes, and mail them. iUniverse gave you free marketing materials, i.e., graphic files of bookmarks, postcards, and small posters, but I can to print them and distribute them.

But that’s no different from what many authors published by small presses experience. I was lucky that I had media and professional contacts I could use. In fact, the organizer of a large aviation conference gave me time at the conference book table even though the stories (except for one, peripherally) had nothing to do with aviation. I sold thirty-six books in two hours.

In the twelve years since its publication Rarely Well Behaved enjoyed very modest success, but to me any sale was a success. A couple of years the royalties were less than $10, but the sales were consistent.

Yes, it was a self-published book, but I was damned proud of it. Still am. I’m a much better writer now than I was twelve years ago, but the stories still resonated. When I moved to my new hometown, I ended up being able to put copies in a local bookstore and a museum shop. At a book event in 2010 I sold eleven copies of it, more than any of the other authors there. I got e-mails and Facebook posts from people who told me what the stories meant to them.

My book may not have met the criterion for a New York Times bestseller, but it was my own bestseller.

When the time came to consider making Rarely Well Behaved an e-book, I gave it considerable thought and decided now was the time to improve those stories. I gave each of them an overhaul, but I vowed the central plot and characters of each wouldn’t change. I did combine two into a single, long story, almost the length of a novella, but each story is crisper, better honed, and contains fewer -ly adverbs.

Since I was doing that, I decided to break the one print book into two e-books, so that the  espionage stories could be in a volume to themselves. Fences and Blood Vengeance were published in April, a few days before my birthday, and that was the best present. (You can see the e-books in the sidebar to the right. Just one click, and you can own them. No, the marketing never stops.) Then, I made the decision to take Rarely Well Behaved out of print. Mostly, I didn’t want people to buy all three books–and some did–only to discover the, well, similarities.

On May 26, Rarely Well Behaved went out of print, and I was a little sad; but I was also very grateful for the opportunity to hold in my hands a real book with my name on the spine.

Story Cubes Challenge – Week 6

For week six of Jennie Coughlin’s Story Cubes Challenge, I thought I’d intro the story I wrote with a little information about the two characters I’ve been using in these challenge stories.

Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin are covert operatives for a fictional intelligence organization within the United Nations. I’ve written back story and, oh, four or five novels about them for the past fifteen to twenty years. (If you click on the “Works in Progress” tab above you can see descriptions of those novels in progress.)

I thought the Story Cubes Challenge would be a good vehicle for exploring things about the characters that don’t show up in the novels and back story. It’s been a lot of fun because I’ve written some things I never thought much about. I mean, back story simply said Alexei had defected from the Soviet Union, but I’d never written about how or when that happened, so I did in “Desert Nights and Weeping Flowers.”

The stories are vignettes, glimpses of the characters, and I’m learning a lot more about the two people and the world I created. Much fun.

So, here’s today’s story cubes:

Here’s what I saw in the cubes: (l to r) alien; padlock/locked; fight/fighting; earth/world; clothes on the line/hung out to dry; sadness; counting money; reading; and arrow.

This week’s story is called “Boredom and Terror.” (If you don’t see the link, hover your cursor over the Story Cubes Challenge tab above and select it from the drop-down menu.) And I live for your constructive comments. 😉

If you’d like to give it a try, use the photo of the cubes to the left and write a story of any length using what you see in the cubes, then go to Jennie Coughlin’s Welcome to Exeter blog and post a link to your story.

A Rush to Publish?

The literary world was abuzz this weekend over a New York Times article by Julie Bosman entitled, “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year is Slacking.” (I’ve included a link, but I’m not sure if this article is part of the NYT’s rare free content.) The gist: Publishing a print book takes time, but publishing something for an e-reader doesn’t. Traditional publishers watch how well their writers’ e-book sales go, then demand more output. If a writer doesn’t have a novel ready, a story between novels will do to keep the name out there and “meet demand.”

The premise, I suppose, is that e-book readers are more fickle than print book readers. E-books do fulfill our need for instant gratification. No more waiting lists at libraries for the next installment for an author you like, just “Buy with 1-click” and off you go.

I know when I find an author I like, I want to read more of his or her work, but I, perhaps, have a better understanding of the publishing process than the average reader. For me, waiting a year or two or five heightens the interest in the next book. Yes, I may go read other authors, but I’ll always go back to a favorite one. Publishers, it seems, are afraid that we’ll abandon an author if we don’t have a constant stream of new work.

I ask you, even though she has said “no more Harry Potter books,” will fans of J. K. Rowling drop her? No, they’ll pre-order her new non-Potter book by the millions, even at an e-book price just two dollars less than the print book price.

And up comes the quality versus quantity debate.

As someone who has worked on a trilogy for fifteen years (yes, you read correctly–fifteen), I’ve resisted “instant publishing gratification” because I’ve agonized over making them good books, as in a good plot, good characters, and good writing, something I’ve seen lacking in rushed Indie publications. I can’t imagine getting pressure from a publisher to publish more than one book a year. I know the quality would suffer because I’m meticulous about research. If I had to throw together a quick book to satisfy my publisher, I wouldn’t be happy with the product.

As a reader, I can usually tell when a favorite writer has “phoned it in,” especially those who write series. The last few Sookie Stackhouse novels, for example, have had little plot, even less characterization, and end abruptly. I understand Charlaine Harris is wrapping the series up, much as Rowling did, but Rowling’s final two or three novels were more well-formed than Harris’ last three offerings.

I understand there are readers who don’t care about the overall quality–they want more Edward and Bella and don’t much care that the writing and plotting are substandard. That’s obvious from the prodigious amount of fan fiction written about popular characters from books, movies, and television (some very good, most really bad). That’s also obvious when I go look at reviews on Amazon and see four and five stars on a book I’ve just reviewed and found wanting.

For one, I prefer to read a good book, good in all aspects, and I don’t mind waiting for quality.

What about you? Agree? Disagree? Why?

Oh, To Be in Paris Now that April’s Here

I’m a little behind in my movie-watching, but tonight I watched “Midnight in Paris.” I can take Woody Allen’s movies or leave them. Some have been brilliant, and some are just the same story retold. “Midnight in Paris,” however, is like porn for writers–it gets your writerly blood moving to all the right places. Seriously.

In the movie, an aspiring novelist on vacation in Paris with his fiancée is somehow transported each night to the Paris of the 1920’s. There, he meets every famous author and artist from that period. Gertrude Stein helps him polish his manuscript, and despite a tempting offer to stay in the past from a mistress of both Picasso and Hemingway, he goes back to his present and, ultimately, his future as a writer in Paris.

I started wondering how I would react to meeting the writers I studied in high school and college or the ones I’ve read and admired over the years, other than being speechless with shock. I’ve never been a Hemingway fan, with the exception of the short story, “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and the novel The Old Man and the Sea. So, he and I would probably have little to discuss. He would be a great drinking companion, however.

Fitzgerald, though, would be someone I could talk to all night. He and I could compare notes about how he dealt with Zelda the nutcase and how my father did the same with my mother. And Gertrude Stein–wow, that would be an amazing conversation. We could discuss lost generations–hers and ours in the 1980’s.

Several years ago, for a trip to New York City, I had the opportunity to stay at the Algonquin Hotel–the Dorothy Parker room, no less. I ate dinner there and could almost hear the voices of Parker, Sherwood, Ferber, et. al., at their famous Round Table. (The first editor I worked for as publication assistant was a “adjunct member” of the Round Table, and I loved her stories about those famous lunches.) I felt pretty cool, sitting at table in the Algonquin Hotel dining room, having a delightful dinner and wonderful wine, while jotting story ideas in my Moleskine. Yes, I thought that was an authentic touch.

Do writers imbue places with their essence to inspire future writers? Who knows, but maybe the inspiration comes from walking the same streets or sitting the same room. Maybe the inspiration is ours, and a shared history brings it to the surface.

If you were the 21st Century author in “Midnight in Paris,” which writers would you want to go back in time and meet? Believe it or not, I’d want to meet Thomas Hardy. Why? I’ll write about that some other time.

Spring – Time for the Virginia Festival of the Book!

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox (aka Spring) begins at 0114 Tuesday, March 20. My Celtic ancestors called it Ostara (in truth, the Christians may have “borrowed” that name and turned it into Easter) and celebrated the fact it was time to plant, that the earth was being reborn. Anyone who has watched the daffodils and crocuses pop up lately, it indeed seems like a rebirth.

For writers, it can mean emerging from our dark, wintery writing caves into a world of light and inspiration. Yeah, that may be pushing it. As I was weeding my flower bed yesterday, I wasn’t inspired at all.

There is a spring event–and I’m sure this was planned–that will kick-start your winter-dulled writing senses, and that’s the Virginia Festival of the Book (VFTB). From March 21 – 25, not just Virginia writers will come to Charlottesville, VA, to celebrate “The Book.” I can’t think of a better way to start off the Spring. And, with the exception of several lunches with speakers, it’s free.

Once again, much like the multiple panel choices at AWP three weeks ago, I have a busy schedule of indulging my love of books and writing for four days.

VFTB offers something for everyone–from the fledgling scribbler to the established author, for poetry fanatics, lovers of historical fiction, writers of creative non-fiction and history. The list approaches being endless. If you click on the link above, you can scroll through the schedule for each day and see I’m not exaggerating. I’ll have to pack snacks and water, because I haven’t left myself much time for lunch.

These panels are not particularly craft-focused, as in a “how to” workshop, though hearing the publishing stories of panel members and how they approach writing is certainly instructive–and inspiring.

Then, there’s the book fair. Truthfully, I can’t add many more books to my shelves until I winnow and donate to the local library, but that never stops me. Where the AWP Book Fair seemed to focus on small press publishers and literary magazines, the VFTB Book Fair is wonderfully eclectic–there’s something for everyone. Just expect to exceed your book-purchasing budget for the year.

I like the fact that something that celebrates books–and by association, their writers–is free. VFTB is produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, a non-profit organization, which provides grants and funding for educational and cultural activities around the Commonwealth. I’m not affiliated with either organization, other than as a citizen of the Commonwealth who benefits from their work, but I’ll still make a pitch for donations. I want the VFTB to be around for my book-loving grandchildren to enjoy.

I’m sure most every state has something similar to VFTB, but as a true Virginian (i.e., born here) I have to brag on this one. Try it. You’ll love it.

Re-Reading

One of the first books I received as a gift was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I was six or seven, already in love with horses thanks to my Dad, and I think I read it in one sitting, which probably went well into the night under the covers with a flashlight. I re-read that book so often, the front cover fell off. Literally, and it was a hardback. I still have the book, though I haven’t re-read it in a couple of decades or so. Hmm, maybe I’ll remedy that soon.

Over the years, there have been works of fiction I’ve read and re-read, from Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre to The Left Hand of Darkness and Slaughterhouse Five and many others in between. Re-reading something I love is like comfort food–you know it’s going to taste good, and you know you’re going to eat all of it, but each time is a different experience.

This month for a book club I belong to, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. As I re-read, I realized when I first read it in 1985, it was as a woman’s rights activist. Her dystopian tale of a theocracy in America reinforced the feelings and fears I had then. Sadly, we’ve come back around full circle to the things that make a society, as described in A Handmaid’s Tale, possible, even probable, but that’s not the topic for today.

I realized, as I re-read this book, I was regarding it more with a writer’s eye, which makes sense. In the past two plus years I’ve been focusing more on the craft of writing than anything else. So, I noticed how Atwood opened the story with it already tightly wound, i.e., she starts “in the present” and unfolds the story with hints and flashbacks. In the beginning her descriptions are sparse, but as the story moves forward, the people, the settings, the threads of the story all become richer and fuller. The book’s “ending” is up for grabs–it could end happily or it could be a disaster; it’s up to the reader.

At least, that’s what I came away with the first time I read it. The book actually concludes with “A Historical Note,” which I apparently ignored the first time around, likely because I thought I was in the midst of the history in 1985. The historical note is a continuation of the story, and it’s a bit more optimistic than what you think the real ending is. In the historical note you discover what you’ve just read is a diary or memoir of sorts discovered almost as if it were a relic in an archeological dig. I realized what some criticized as the “herky-jerky” pace of the novel was incredible story-telling. The protagonist was on the run, putting down facts and events as she remembered them. This was an instance where linear story-telling would have made the novel a bore.

In that re-reading, then, for a political book club, I learned a valuable writing lesson. I remembered as well why that book resonated with me twenty-seven years ago and grasped why, this time, it left me a little depressed because, well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Which books do you re-read? What is it about a particular book that makes you go back again and again–character, plot, setting?