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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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Win a Free Copy of Undead Rising–Courtesy of Rachel Caine!

My husband is awesome. He honored our first anniversary this weekend with a very modern “paper” gift: he reached out to Rachel Caine, one of my very favorite and most inspirational authors, to ask her for a letter to me, to help me get over the first-book jitters.

And she’s proven she’s my idol for a reason: she way over-delivered!

First, she sent me a very beautiful reminder to just keep trying. Here’s part of it:

 There’s no “right” way to publish. We are all blind people in a dark room, bumping into things, making mistakes, learning, moving on… I’ve written under 3 other names in my career, and had to change and reinvent myself because my books weren’t selling, until they were. It’s a hard road, with lots of twists and turns, and it can seem like it *should* be easy, but it’s only easy from the outside.

(I’m keeping the rest, just for me!)

Then, she tweeted about my book (and anniversary!) to all her fans! As a bonus, she’s giving away 5 copies of Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny.

Undead Rising Rafflecopter giveaway

Enter to win!

And my many, many thanks to Ms. Caine and my dear sweet husband. This is the best anniversary gift I could have ever asked for!

If you aren’t already reading Caine’s books, I can’t recommend them enough. I particularly love her Weather Wardens series, though she’s most famous for her Morganville Vampires series. She’s got another book coming out soon, too!

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How NOT to Deal With a Bad Review

Being an author comes with a lot of challenges, but one of the hardest may be managing our own egos. Namely, having the restraint to accept that bad reviews will happen, and the wherewithal to keep yourself from trying to argue.

Because every once in awhile an author comes along, and does that, and serves as a horrific example of what can happen.

It’s like watching a train wreck sliding into the Titanic at the instant it impacts an iceberg. It’s painful to watch but you are so struck that it still is happening that you can’t look away.

His first response to the negative review (which, remember, on Goodreads means “didn’t like it,” not “literally the worst”):

“This review is not good for my business, so unless your desire is to ruin my dreams, it would mean a great deal if you could remove this review from my work and forget about it. But if it’s your desire to hurt me financially and ruin my business, then it’s understandable why you would post such a harmful review.”

In addition to responding to the review at all, this guy really screws up when he implies that this person’s review was posted out of “desire to hurt [him] financially.” What? One bad review certainly won’t be your ruin. But he’s not done. The reviewer politely responded (more politely than I would have) and explained she would not be removing her review, as is her right, and went so far as to compliment aspects of his book. But he came back again:

“Leaving a 1 star review on a book says much more about what kind of person does such a thing, and then attacks it for being “pretentious,” which is an erroneous statement that is defamation at best.”

And then it goes steeply downhill from there. Let’s be clear: a review is about the content, not the author. I mean, no one is leaving a review to just be hurtful to some stranger they’ve never met. I review every book I read; all that says about me as a person is that I read a lot, and that I like to give reviews about it. There’s no moral judgement. Also this guy has no idea what “defamation” is (hint: 100% totally not that).

This schmuck just can’t stop digging a hole, though. He goes on, for another 11 posts, with his rants getting more and more loopy. Worse, he seems to make a bit of a habit of doing this. And may have scared of this (and who knows how many other) readers from ever trying out a new, indie author. That’s just unfortunate.

Now, I commiserate with the author a smidge; I had one one-star review show up on Goodreads. It didn’t even have a review for me to nit-pick and pout over, but it had been created at the same time as like 37 other reviews. I ranted to my husband for 20 minutes, then I closed the page and went to bed and didn’t think about it anymore. And you know what? The next morning, I had two 5-star reviews.

The winds of popularity can change that fast, which is why it’s important to keep perspective. A negative review isn’t the end of the world. And even if it was disastrous for your book, remember, even failure has its values.

But there isn’t anything to be gained from acting out. In fact, it looks like this particular author’s rant lowered his Goodreads rating from a solid 4 stars to a dismal 2 (and falling) in less than two days.

This is one of those lessons it’s good to learn from watching someone else go through it.

Don’t make this guy’s mistake; have some dignity and leave reviews—especially bad ones—alone.

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Inclusion as Rebellion: Adding Diversity in Fiction

Tales from Earthsea poster

It shouldn’t be surprising that Hollywood made the cast white when they made a movie version. But apparently it’s also just a really bad film.

I didn’t happen to think much of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, but I did absolutely love the author’s afterward. In it, she talks about writing A Wizard of Earthsea in 1967, and how she ever-so-quietly tried to subvert convention. Her rebellion? The main character, Sparrowhawk, and the vast majority of the “good guy” supporting cast, are all non-white people. The people who are pale are seen as the dangerous outsiders.

She writes: “I was bucking the racist tradition, ‘making a statement’—but I made it quietly, and it went almost unnoticed.”

But LeGuin writes about how she was, is, somewhat disappointed. It seems her rebellion was a little too subtle, and didn’t attract the notice it deserved, most notably because cover artists tended to put a white person in the artwork, and apparently many readers didn’t pick up on the many small hints of the characters’ skin color. (My copy was released in 2012, and features a hawk, no people.)

She goes on to discuss the philosophical roots of her book, how the main action turns aside from battle and war, favoring instead to be a rather quiet hero’s journey of the self (which…ok. But I found it a little too detached). But I’m fixated on that concept of trying to push cultural boundaries with fiction.

The most notable and painfully glaring example is Rue from The Hunger Games. Despite many clear mentions of Rue and her companions as black characters, some movie-goers were rabidly furious when they showed up to the film and saw the (incredible, wonderful!) acting done by Amandla Stenberg. Not only were these people poor contextual readers, apparently (seeing as they missed this fact), they felt they actually had a right to be angry about a black actor being cast for a black character. It was stomach-churning.

It’s not the only example, either. Neil Gaiman makes a point of writing in non-white characters (my favorites show up in Anansi Boys) but even so, a challenge was famously issued to stop reading books by white men which prominently featured his (multicultural) book American Gods. When some readers/fans cried foul (either because they liked Mr. Gaiman or realized that the book’s character was himself nonwhite), Gaiman stepped in to say, “no, absolutely, go read those other books. Have at it.”

And if that’s not enough for you, this year’s Hugo Awards were hijacked by a group calling themselves “Sick Puppies” who felt, for whatever reason, that books featuring straight, white, men were being somehow maligned by authors who wrote other things or who themselves came from different backgrounds. They effectively rigged the awards and caused a lot of controversy. All because science fiction authors did what they are supposed to do: push cultural boundaries.

One good thing may have come from these incidents, at least: people are talking about the power of fiction in culture, the power to change culture, and the importance of inclusion. We need more stories, from more people; different stories, interesting stories. I know for my book I worked hard to create a diverse cast of background characters from different nationalities, while also working to ensure that the main character (the reader) remained gender-neutral and accessible to just about anyone who decided to pick up the book.

Do you attempt any cultural rebellions in your books or in the books you read? Do you see value in including a variety of characters of different skin colors? Or of breaking other boundaries? Let’s talk about it.

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Should Books Come With Trigger Warnings?

Neil Gaiman’s most recent book was a collection of short stories under the title Trigger Warning. He opened the book with a short discussion of “trigger warnings” (an internet phrase that is used to indicate that there may be objectionable or deeply troubling content to follow, to allow readers to “opt out” if they feel unprepared for it). Gaiman comes out neither for or against trigger warnings—he basically says if someone will be greatly upset by something, they do have a right to avoid it, but that sometimes it is good to introduce ourselves to troubling things, in order to grow as people—and I didn’t think too much about it beyond “hm.”
Then I read Ship of Destiny. Not to spoil too much, but there is a sudden and unexpected rape scene in the story. Much like a real rape, it occurred practically without warning. It was not a particularly graphic scene, violence-wise, but the word choices and the trauma of the victim that played out over the next several chapters deeply troubled me.
I think I would have liked to have had a trigger warning that there would be a rape in the book. I think I would have still read it—it was very well executed, sensitive to the victim, and made it clear that the villain was a deeply conflicted, messed-up person—but I would have liked some warning, so I could have emotionally prepared myself.
I struggle with rape scenes in all genres. I was interested in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo until I heard there was a graphic rape scene, and I know myself well enough to know I just can’t handle that. I had to stop watching a movie (I think it was The Missing?) because it looked like the main female character was going to be raped–I ran out of the room crying and couldn’t bear to finish.
Someone I know has told me she wishes TV shows and movies came with trigger warning-esque labels: she has a crippling anxiety about people being shot in the head after someone close to her died that way. I can’t blame her for that.
But of course, content creators may not want their work to be labeled in this way. (Publishers probably wouldn’t!) It might put off potential book-buyers. People might protest something that, if they just read it in context, would be fine. There’s a danger inherent to telling people your work might be challenging to them.
I don’t know that I feel that all books should carry a trigger warning. After all, I found Kushiel’s Dart …troubling… but it was still a great book and I’m glad to have read it. (The difference between that and Ship of Destiny? Kushiel’s Dart had lots of clear warnings about what I was getting into!)
I agree with Gaiman that sometimes we have to push our boundaries a little, and that may mean reading something we find unnerving. But I also think people do have a right to protect themselves, particularly that very delicate emotional scared place we all have.
What do you think? Would you want your book to have a trigger warning?

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