Tag Archives: writing

“What Do You Write?”, or The Genre Prison

I just recently read one of those articles about how the “new wave” of self-publishers “must” act, and it left me rolling my eyes. It said, instead of just writing, editing, and publishing something, and then working on a social media platform/blog, you should do it the other way around: blog first, become popular (literally, that was the whole step–oh, ok!), hope you still have time for the book you originally wanted to write.

I’ve seen that advice before, but today it just made me eyeroll particularly hard (because of course it’s as easy as “get popular.” Gag me). The advice was further to pick what you were going to write about–presumably the same thing that is your future book topic–and then write extensively on that narrow subject.

Now, don’t get me wrong, that totally works for some people. I met a woman at a conference who started her blog about kids’ photography, and it led to a book deal and stuff. Great. But guess what? She didn’t start the blog so she could eventually write a book; she started the blog because she wanted to be a blogger.

Anyway, back to the “write about one topic a lot” thing: most broadly, that means writing about a specific genre. But I think that’s locking yourself into a prison for no good reason: so your first book ends up being a steampunk romance, great, but what if you want to do a sci-fi horror for the second one? Do you have to spin off a totally different blog? Start all over again? Insanity!

Besides, sometimes the genre is stupidly hard to define. That’s one of the biggest problems with Undead Rising. What genre is it? It’s got zombies, so that’s sometimes horror, even though it’s maybe PG-13 level scary. Zombies are also supernatural, so it kinda fits in that arena. But it’s also funny, so does that make it humor? Except it turns out, weirdly, that most humor books are nonfiction, so that isn’t exactly a good fit. It’s a gamebook, which is awesome, except it’s a genre completely dominated by children’s books from the 1970s and that’s not exactly a section most people are familiar with… so what, exactly, would my one-genre blog be about?

I guarantee you if I had to talk exclusively about zombies, this blog would have died a long time ago.

The conventional publishing wisdom is contradictory here, too. Officially, you pick a genre and you just write in that genre until your hands fall off. It used to be if you wanted to write in a different genre, your publisher would frown on that and your new stuff wouldn’t be published; you were only “known” in one arena. Except… if you got famous, then it was back to whatever you wanted, apparently. All my favorite authors right now may be best known for a certain thing, but they cross genres at will, following whatever they are interested in: Neil Gaiman (comics, children’s books, YA, adult novels); Brad Meltzer (historical fiction, superhero comics, children’s picture books); Margaret Atwood (dystopian fiction that she likes to call literary fiction, short stories, fantasy); and Jim Butcher (urban fantasy, role playing games, comic books, steampunk).

So I say….write what you want. Following your passion is far more interesting and more likely to keep you motivated. Who cares what the box is supposed to be? Just go for it. Make the box fit you, not the other way around.

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Truth Behind the Writing Life

The writing life is really hard to get a sense of: it’s way more opaque than most careers, with a lot more glamour associated with it that makes the reality way more confusing. But this article is great, giving a peek behind the writing room curtain. Here are some of my favorites.

Lisa Gardner: What surprises me is that it doesn’t get easier. With thirty books written, you would think I’d feel proficient, but each book is painful in its own way. I’m always just feeling my way to that other side–the completed novel. I feel I’m forever gnashing my teeth and banging my head against a blank computer screen.

Dennis Lehane: What surprises me is that it’s as cool as I had hoped it would be. Even twenty years down the line, it still seems surreal. I mean, there was a time when I was a complete nobody, and in my fantasy life thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody actually wanted me to sign one of my books?’ I still live in that place–where it all seems like a fantasy.

Clive Cussler: I would have to say, the only real surprise has been the success. That’s really been quite unexpected. I get up in the morning, get to the office and write until about six o’clock in the evening. Then I share a bottle of wine with my wife. Everything else is the same.

David Morrell: What surprises me most of all is how things have changed in the writing world. When I started, there were no book signings. Novelists didn’t go on tour or do publicity. None of the chain bookstores existed. There was a time when ten or fifteen book warehouses existed in each state; they serviced mom-and-pop grocery stores and stationery stores. Those warehouses disappeared. The chain bookstores appeared, and now, most of them are gone. And of course, we now have the e-book revolution. I’ve seen a great deal that’s changed in the writing world.

 

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Wil Wheaton and Working For Free

Wil Wheaton is awesome

This guy knows what’s up.HuffPost has gone and stepped in it, big time: they asked Hollywood star and geek icon Wil Wheaton if they could repost a blog he wrote, with the total payment being zilch, nothing, nada.

And he got mad. And he got mad to his 3 million Twitter followers, plus a bunch of folks who’ve now seen it second-hand. (Here’s the full post.) And now HuffPost has its pants around its ankles.

Here’s some of what Wil said:

“…it’s the principle of the thing. Huffington Post is valued at well over fifty million dollars, and the company can absolutely afford to pay contributors. The fact that it doesn’t, and can get away with it, is distressing to me.”

What’s pathetic is not just that HuffPost thought “extend your reach” was going to sound remotely appealing to someone like Wil Wheaton, which is just laughable, but that the company, as a policy, does not EVER pay its contributors. You know, the people without whom there would be no HuffingtonPost.

This isn’t the first time, by far, artists have been asked to work for free. I bet you could find a request in your city right now on Craigslist to submit work gratis for some “worthy” project or another. And it’s sad; it deeply undervalues creators of all kinds. I tell high school and college students to never do unpaid internships for the same reason: if you’re not being paid, you’re not being appreciated, and you’re not being treated as an equal. It’s just not worth it, most of the time.

That said, there are times when it makes some sense to work for free, or at least to offer free submissions. My article on APracticalWedding (reposted to Refinery29) was something I wrote on my own and submitted as a free article. But I knew from the outset that APracticalWedding.com did not pay for articles (which means Refinery29 did get a bargain, but I was grateful for the boost). I knew that post was free work, but it was something I really wanted to talk about, because I had a genuine interest in helping other people who may be in a similar situation, and because I read APracticalWedding so often that I felt, in a way, that I needed to give back somehow. So I’m completely at peace with that decision.

But the situation with Huffington Post is different. What do you think? Would you write for them for free?

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“I’ve Got This Great Idea for a Book…”

I’ve written about this before, but with National Novel Writing Month breathing down our necks, now seems like a good refresher. Plus I’m annoyed.

Don't Let Your Dreams Be Dreams Shia LeBeouf

This time, Shia is right.

The title of this post is “I’ve got this great idea for a book…” because that phrase inevitably comes from someone who may indeed have a good idea but who has exactly zero motivation to actually sit down and write a book.

Writing a book is hard. There are a lot of things to distract you. You may sit down with good intentions, only to see the internet and get completely sidetracked; it’s easy to lose hours surfing, stalking ex-boyfriends, or watching videos. Or you sit down and feel like your ideas have evaporated. Or you sit down and write but then you hate it. I tend to sit down and immediately notice how messy my house is and get an overwhelming urge to clean.

I get it. Writing a book is hard and time-consuming.

But it’s also easy. I mean, writing a book is mostly consistency. It’s showing up and committing to put words down on paper (digital or physical) and doing that over and over and over again.

So if you have a “great idea,” there aren’t that many initial steps to turning that great idea into a book.

Great idea + consistency x time = book

Heck, recent successes show the writing doesn’t even have to be that stupendous!

I met someone awhile back who had a killer idea for a nonfiction book. I mean, it was exciting. She’d done the initial research and was clearly passionate about it. She had a thorough outline. She asked my advice as an editor and I told her the direction looked fantastic.

And then… well, that was 9 months ago, and she hasn’t gotten around to actually writing a single word. She got sidetracked with making a marketing plan–and it was a good marketing plan, even if it completely ignored the fact that you can’t sell an unwritten book–and never actually sat down to do the work. So that great idea? Totally worthless.

It’s frustrating. But that’s why I like events like NaNoWriMo. It’s no excuses time. It’s “don’t let your dreams be dreams” time. It’s sit down, shut up, and produce time.

Take you great idea and wrestle it into reality. As Nike says, Just Do It.

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5 Secrets About Literary Agents

One of the best things about attending a writers’ conference is it is a great way to meet literary agents…and demystify them a bit. Here are the top 5 secrets I learned about them:

1. They tend to work odd hours. The number one takeaway I got from the conference was to write a query letter as if the reader is half-asleep…because they very well may be. The agents I met were workaholics, ad several admitted to reading queries late into the night, before bed. That makes it a little trickier to grab their attention, so keep it simple!

2. There are bad times to solicit them. Of course, this doesn’t just mean when they’re in the bathroom (but don’t do that!). Certain times of year tend to be trickier to get their attention: in the summer months, they’re taking vacations (along with everyone else!) and many are also out of the office in December. Don’t send your manuscript on January 1! Wait until mid-month, when the flow of queries from authors who didn’t get this advice will have tapered off.

3. Some really like self-publishing. We sometimes imagine that self-publishing and getting a literary agent are entirely opposing ideas, but the agents at the conference really didn’t think so! While not all of them would accept a self-published author, they all admitted that there are some genres, stories, and situations where self-publishing is a better route, and many said they would take on self-published clients.

4. They work really hard. These folks…wow. They are a devoted bunch. They all really seemed to genuinely want to see more books published (and not just because it means a revenue stream for them, too). They are people who like books, at heart. (One woman I met was a member of three different book clubs!) Which is good, because they have to read a lot of books, and queries, and manuscripts to do their jobs right. Sometimes (angry) authors can push the idea that agents are evil, book-hating gatekeepers who just want to keep an author down, but that definitely didn’t seem true.

5. They are all different. Shocking, I know, but there isn’t exactly a literary agent hive mind. There are similarities, because they are all doing the same job, but what appeals to Agent A just may not resonate with agents B, C, and D, and vice versa. That can make our job as writers seeking to court them tricky, but it also means that all those rejections may not at all be personal. So keep trying.

What “secrets” have you learned about literary agents? 

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Charlaine Harris on Success

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The keynote speaker at this year’s DFW Writers’ Convention was Charlaine Harris, the New York Times bestselling author most known for her Sookie Stackhouse novels (which subsequently became the True Blood TV phenomenon).

She just absolutely adorable.
Ms. Harris seems like everything I’d like in the sweet neighbor next door: a grandma who bakes cookies on the regular but also is more than willing to slip you a bottle of booze after a hard day. She was sharp and funny and seemed so lovely; I wish I’d gotten to speak to her personally. At the very least, I’ve bought the first novel in her series as a tribute!
Ms. Harris gave a short speech about her life’s work before opening the floor to questions. She talked about how difficult it was to write as a parent (“I wanted to have kids, but I just had to write. You make it work.”), about where her ideas come from (“I don’t know. They’re just there!”), and on the tenacity it takes to be a writer.
But the part that stuck with me most were her comments on her success. She said, “I still haven’t read On Writing or any other writing book, because I’m too afraid I’ll find out I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.”
Wow.
This woman has published a passel of books, literally just laughed when asked if an agent ever said she couldn’t do something, and yet still has that crippling fear of “doing it wrong.” It’s comforting to know that insecurity doesn’t have to be a barrier; it’s just something you work with and through.
She also said there’s an award she’d like to win…but fully expects never to be able to. She’s so accomplished in many ways—she’s the writer dream achieved!—but she still has goals she feels are unattainable.
And finally, she talked about failure, about how you just have to take it and barrel on anyway. She said she’s been dropped by publishers before…but you just can’t let that stop you. Having kids while writing was hard…but you can’t let that stop you. Your book may not sell…but you can’t let that stop you.
It was very powerful to me to “meet” this unassuming, very inspiring, dogged determined, funny lady who happens to be a literary powerhouse. I hope to have her tenacity and humor.
 
Which authors inspire you? How do you get through the insecurity and the bad days?

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The Nine Elements of Worldbuilding

This awesome fictional map of "Clichea," created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

This awesome fictional map of “Clichea,” created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

I attended a really interesting lecture by prolific fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson on the fundamentals of worldbuilding. I don’t want to crib too much from his lecture—and the pending book on the same topic (keep an eye out for it; he can explain a lot better than he can!)—but I figure it’s still fair for y’all to benefit from my conference-attending.

The nine elements of creating a realistic, or at least believable, fictional world are: geography; climate; politics; economics; society; religion; intellectual/scientific; arts; and history.

When considering the setting and general plot for your totally rad fiction work, ask yourself some questions (and maybe more, as you put the pieces together):

  • Geography—could this landmass exist in the real world? Should it?
    • Make sure the actual structure of the land a) makes sense and b) fits with your plot. You’re unlikely to have a successful pirate story in a landlocked nation.
  • Climate—what’s the weather like?
    • Temperatures will inform clothing, and may affect culture. Would Jurassic Park or The Left Hand of Darkness be the same without their respective climates?
  • Politics—how does your society run?
    • A monarchy is going to look pretty different from a tribal theocracy.
  • Economics—what do people do for a living?
    • Anderson wrote a few Dune novels; of course, those books would not exist without the fictional “spice” upon which intergalactic travel relied.
  • Society—how are people treated? Are they generally happy?
    • There are a lot of components to consider here. Keep asking questions until it feels realistic.
  • Religion—what god/gods are worshiped? Are the benevolent…or scary? Incarnate…or imagined?
    • It seemed to me that religion could have a great deal of overlap with the “society” and “politics” questions.
  • Intellectual/Scientific—How do people feel about science?
    • Are they “burning the witches”?
  • Arts—What is the look and feel of your society? Do they have freedom of expression?
    • This is going to inform a lot of the descriptions! Everything from textiles up to architecture might be related to the arts.
  • History—what came before: constant upheaval? Centuries of peace?
    • A peaceful nation may react dramatically differently from a violent one.

I love those little maps in the front of books, but I’ve never endeavored to make on. Anderson’s class made me feel like I ought to try…or at least doodle some.

Bonus: Check out these cool “real” maps of fictional places!

Do you create elaborate fictional worlds? How do you put them together?

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Top 10 Things I Learned From DFWCon

DFW writers' convention

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending DFW Writers Convention, one of the bigger writers conventions, and after two days of shaking hands and smiling at other writers/editors/agents, early mornings and late nights, and many workshops, I feel obligated to try to sum up the experience. For those of you who have yet to attend a similar convention, I say get out there and find one: it’ll step up your game. In the meantime, read on:

10. Everyone is wary of Amazon. Agents practically felt they had to whisper it in case the shopping ma

gnate somehow overheard, but Amazon is currently the enemy you keep close. They all unanimously said it was essential, but are decidedly concerned about that growing monopoly. Remember: Amazon is useful, but Amazon isn’t your friend…it’s a business.

9. Those who excel at social media are people who already are very open and energetic. Though I did learn some about manipulating Facebook’s algorithm for your favor, my biggest takeaway from the social media conversation was that you have to be willing to tell the world just about everything about yourself…except nothing negative, at all. Remember, you’re selling yourself, and no one wants to hear the bad parts. It was very telling that the agents, who insist everyone must be represented on Twitter/social media, were also th

e first to say their Twitter persona is not the same as their real lives. Hmm…

8. No one has any idea what will sell. Not really. As is probably always true at these kinds of conferences, talk swirled around what was in demand. And depending on who you talked to, it was just about anything. This year sci-fi was the predominant winner, but none of the agents seemed particularly keen on it. (Two years ago it was all romance and some New Adult. This year, New Adult was practically dead.) One agent said something ridiculously specific was on her wishlist. It was all over the place.

7. Agents are not a hive mind. Along the same lines, just because one agent feels strongly about

something doesn’t mean they all will. At more than one panel the agents (politely) disagreed with each other, particularly at the all-important Query Gong Show (a game to suss out when an agent would stop reading a query). It really is about hitting the right mark.

6. It is less important to have an agent than it is to have the right agent. Following in the same train of thought, one lecture from an author who’d made the NYTimes Editor’s Choice list made this point really clear. He’d had a very well-known agent for years…who was completely unable to sell his material. But after he switched, it found a home. As painful as the agent-finding process is (and it is), sometimes having an agent may be worse than not.

5. Agents are really busy people. Keep this in mind while you’re fretting over your email inbox,

wringing your hands while you wait for a response: they have to respond to you and a helluva lot of other people. I’ve mentioned my negative agent experience—I waited nearly a year for a response on a requested manuscript!—so I know the waiting is terrible, but be realistic. One agent had had 10,000 queries the year prior, and had accepted … 6. Agents have a caseload of about 35 books they’re selling at any one time. Plus they’re going to conferences all over the country. That’s plenty for one person.

4. Keep your query letter short. Because agents are so busy, they may be reading your query at 11:30 at night, just before bed. They don’t have time for a long monologue. This was the number one reason letters were rejected at the gong show. Keep your query short—shorter than you think it should be!—and the

agent will open your manuscript if interested. Corollary: start with the genre and the word count to avoid surprises.

3. There is such a thing as “hybrid” publishing, and it may be the most successful option. I heard mixed reviews on this but I’m choosing to accept the positive: agents feel that there is definitely a place for a combination of self- and traditional publishing. Some even said that building an audience with a first, self-published book was a good way to eventually attract an agent. Authors also said that some things a

re not not suitable for the traditional route, making self-publishing some pieces a good idea. So there’s no n

eed to be “all in” one way or the other.

2. “Successful” authors seriously struggle. What seems like the end may just be the beginning of a new phase. I’m perhaps most grateful for the lecture by Dallas author Will Clarke, who had the markers of success—two traditionally published books, coverage in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, the book tour, the works. But his story was shocking: he’s never bought out his advance; the publisher dropped him; his book was optioned for Paramount studios but will never see the light of day; and the continual book tour burned him out creatively, emotionally, and physically. Success has its downsides.

1. Even the most experienced and successful authors are plagued by insecurity about their writing. Superstar author Charlaine Harris was this year’s keynote speaker, and despite being unequivocally a renowned and esteemed author, she admitted that she’s afraid to read Stephen King’s On Writing  or any other “how to write” book for fear of discovering she’s been doing it wrong for more than 30 years. If even someone as relentlessly successful has those fears, it’s ok for us newbies to admit to them, too.

Have you attended a conference? What wisdom can you share?

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Feel Like Writing

I recently got back from a dream vacation to Ireland. I’ve always wanted to go. For me, Ireland represented heritage, mystery, beauty, and fantasy.

And it pretty well lived up to my expectations. It was like heaven; everywhere I looked, there was great beauty.

It was at one such stunning vista that my friend traveling with my husband and I said, “Doesn’t it just make you want to write?”

And it did–it was the kind of place that made me seriously consider never returning home. 

But her words troubled me. Sure, Ireland’s gorgeous rolling green hills and crashing ocean waves inspired a poetic heart, but you shouldn’t need that in order to want to write. You ought to want to write just because it’s Tuesday, or because you had an idea in the checkout line at the grocery store, or just because that is what you do.
I’m not as wedded to the idea of a writing schedule as some people (or perhaps as much as I ought to be), but I do feel strongly that if you just sit around and wait to be inspired you won’t accomplish much at all.

“To write” is a verb–it’s something you have to do. It can’t be just something that happens. You have to seize that time and throw yourself into it.

  

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These Words Deserve a Comeback

As I said, I’m loving America In So Many Words. It’s great for getting acquainted with American history and some awesome random trivia. But it also has led me to discover a bunch of words that really ought to make a comeback.

  • kinnikinnick– a mixture of leaves for smoking (1729)
  • netop– a friend (1643)
  • punk– overcooked corn; slow-burning sticks; and, of course, a small-time hoodlum (originally 1618)
  • squaw winter– an early cold spell (contrasting with an indian summer) (1777)
    • Note: Though the settlers imbued the term “squaw” with a derogatory connotation, it originally meant a leader who was a woman. Maybe we should get squaw back to its roots!
  • pumpkin head– a New England colonist hairstyle, created by placing a pumpkin shell on someone’s head and cutting around it! (1654)
    • I imagine this is much like the ’90s fad of the “bowl cut”
  • backlog– the large log placed in the back of a fire, along with “top-stick,” “fore-stick,” and “and-irons”(1684)
    • nowadays, it’s an accumulation
  • prairie schooner- a covered wagon (1841)
  • loggerhead– a slow-witted person (ok, this one is Shakespeare)
  • johnny cake or jonakin– cornbread (1739)
  • breechclout– a clout of piece of cloth to cover one’s breech (buttocks) (1757)
  • bust my buttons– to strain or laugh (1921)
  • busticated- broken (1916)
  • bustified – pot-bellied (1939)
  • bee– a social, busy gathering (1768); also frolic
    • we’ve kept “spelling bee,” but they also had wood chopping bees, painting bees, and even kissing bees!
  • drugstore cowboy- someone who puts on airs of being tough or sophisticated (1779)
  • bug- an enthusiast, now a fan (1785); ex. baseball bug
  • keno-essentially, the modern lottery; a game where players mark of numbers printed on a ticket- the keno caller draws numbers on keno balls from a keno goose to determine the winner (1814)
  • bunkum- nonsense OR (a competing definition from the same time) excellent and outstanding (1819)
  • blizzard- a knock-down blow or punch (1825)
  • sockdolager- a decisive blow; something or someone big (1827)
    • interestingly, one of the last words President Abraham Lincoln ever heard!
  • callithumpian- a noisy parade (early 19th century)
  • slumgullion- something disgusting (early 19th century)
  • slangwhanger- a partisan speechmaker (early 19th century)
  • rawheel/tenderfoot- a beginner or newcomer (1849)
  • high muckamuck- plenty of food or someone who assumes an air of importance (1856); we’re left now with “muckety mucks”
  • hulloo- a predecessor to “hello” (1885)
  • jellybean– a derogatory term for someone weak or timid (1905)

I don’t know about you, but these are basically the cool kinds of words that I’ve always wanted out of a word-a-day calendar.

Whattya say? Can we give these all-American words a new life? Do you have any favorite obscure words?

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