The Bookish Community Is A Passionate Place And Other Lessons From The Twittersphere

This piece, by Kat Meyer, originally appeared on the Follow The Reader blog on 4/13/09. In it, Kat discusses what authors and publishers can learn from the #amazonfail debacle—specifically, how Amazon could have avoided the PR nightmare that ensued by actively engaging with authors, readers and publishers via social media .

Hello Dear Readers:

Happy belated chocolate bunny day. Hope you are all recovering nicely.

And with the pleasantries out of the way, I will now begin my lecture on the importance of understanding and participating in social media. This is a lesson that Amazon learned–or at least, we hope they learned–yesterday via the lovely bookish community on Twitter.

If you missed it, and in a nutshell (for details do a quick Twitter search on the term #AmazonFail and/or check out this post on Storm Grant’s blog or Leah Braemel’s timeline of the event):

  1. Many GBLT and erotic themed titles at Amazon.com recently mysteriously stopped displaying their sales rankings (which are a key factor customers consider in making their buying decisions).
  2. The Bookish Twitterverse POUNCED on this — even though the issue itself started a few months back – Sunday it snowballed — and …
  3. Amazon said NOTHING. Amazon was completely absent in droves.

I am not out to demonize or make a scapegoat of Amazon. Amazon may be completely innocent of causing this “glitch,” and there are plenty of theories (conspiracy/technical glitch-based/and otherwise) being bandied about regarding what actually caused the great de-ranking of Easter Sunday, but Amazon definitely is guilty of one thing:  Ignoring the collective online outrage of their customers and content providers during a critical time — which is just sad when you’re talking about a major player in web commerce.

“So, Kat” (you may be asking yourself — which is a funny thing to ask yourself unless your name is Kat — i so crack myself up): “Monday morning quarterback, much Missy?”

And to this I reply, “No. Absolutely not.” And here’s why: while Amazon was noticeably offline and seemingly unaware of this situation, a whole heckuvalot of their indie competitors were savvy enough to be right there on Twitter’s front lines and engaging with the publishers, authors, readers, and other players who were leading this conversation.

Those indies, and their supporters were helpfully (and quite cleverly) offering a suggestion to the angry and frustrated Amazon customers: “Not happy with Amazon? Try us instead!” (The American Booksellers Association even received a nice nod when their acronym was appropriated for the cause –ABA, “anywhere but Amazon.”

The lesson, my bookish buddies, is this — Amazon can’t afford to ignore social media (Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.) and neither can you.

Read the rest of the story at the Follow the Reader blog.

Kat Meyer is the founder of The Bookish Dilettante and a regular contributor on the Follow the Reader blog.

The Talent Killers: How Literary Agents Are Killing Literature, And What Publishers Can Do To Stop Them

This post, by Mary W. Walters, originally appeared on her The Militant Writer blog on 4/14/09 and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Dear Senior Editor, Any Major Publishing House, Anywhere:

I am a member of a growing company of writers of literary fiction whose works you have never seen and probably never will.

It’s not that we are lacking in the talent and credentials that might attract your interest: indeed, we have already published one or two or three books with respectable literary presses, attracting not only critical acclaim but even awards for writing excellence. Our work has been hailed as distinctive, thoughtful, darkly comic. As fresh. Even as important! Reviewers have compared us to Atwood, Boyle and Seth. To Tyler, Winton, Le Carre.

That you have never heard of us nor read a single paragraph we’ve written is not—as you might think—a side effect of the cutbacks, mergers and downsizings that have devastated the book-publishing industry in recent months. Nor is it yet more evidence of the impact of electronic media on the printed word.

No.

The substantial and nearly unassailable wall that separates you from us has been under construction for decades. You can find the names of its architects and gatekeepers on your telephone-callers list, and in your email in-box. They are the literary agents—that league of intellectual-property purveyors who bring you every new manuscript you ever see, those men and women who are so anxious to gain access to the caverns of treasure they believe you sit upon like some great golden goose that they would likely hack one another’s heads off were they not united by one self-serving mission: to ensure that quality fiction never hits your desk.

*

I am sure that this news comes as a surprise to you, Dear Editor. I am certain that you were drawn to your career—and by “career” I mean “vocation,” including the spectrum of responsibilities that ranges from new-book acquisition to the kind of excellent substantive editing that makes great novels outstanding—because of your love of literature. You probably started with an education in the literary classics which you have since enriched by reading the very best writing being published in the world today. In your few spare moments, you may wonder why it is that aside from an occasional new voice that may become great in another twenty years, the only authors of literary value have been around for decades.

I can answer that question for you. I can tell you why your desk is piling up with flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit but is now shuffled in with other women’s writing in order to give it heft—although as far as you can see, neither the quality nor the subject matter has improved—which you are required to somehow turn into publishable books. It is because the vast majority of literary agents do not, in fact, have any interest in literature. They are only interested in jackpots.

*

As you know—better than anyone, perhaps, since you are the one who needs to negotiate with them—agents’ incomes come off the top of royalties that publishers pay their writers. The agent’s cut is generally 10 percent of the writer’s portion, which is in turn about 10 percent of the book’s cover price. Ten percent of 10 percent is not a lot. In order to create a decent cash flow, literary agents can only afford to represent writers who are going to sell truckloads of books (or millions of megabytes in the case of e-books) and therefore merit significant advances. The bigger the better: a substantial advance is money in the bank.

As you also know, publishing is a business, which means that publishing houses can only afford to offer advances they are likely to recoup—which means that advances only go to established writers with massive followings, and to particularly brilliant (or particularly sleazy) first-time novelists. They are generally reserved for what’s known as “commercial” fiction. (Of course, an advance is no guarantee that a book will sell. But that doesn’t matter to the agents. By the time the book’s not selling, they already have their cuts. They simply abandon writers whose books did not hit their projected sales numbers and move on to the newest shiny thing—indifferent to the fact that they’ve turned those abandoned authors into the pariahs of the slush pile.)

Clearly it is not in the best interests of literary agents to represent writers whose book sales are likely to build only gradually—perhaps after a well-thought, positive review appears in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail or on a high-quality books blog, inspiring a few people to buy the book, read it, and then recommend it to other readers who will also recommend it. It can be years before a literary agent can start sucking a living out of a writer with a book like that. Frankly, who has time?

*

There is no room for gourmet tastes or discerning palates in this system. Agents’ websites may trumpet their dedication to literary fiction, but what they really want is books that sell. These purveyors of literary costume jewelry seek out the kind of quirky but unsubstantial mental junk food that is as similar as possible to last season’s bestsellers—fiction that will sell quickly and widely by association with the almost-identical books that have preceded it. See last week’s best-seller list for an eloquent guide to this fad-based publishing system.

Since they know what they are looking for, literary agents are able to post tips and pointers on their websites and blog posts for the benefit of would-be clients: they want books that are going to get their immediate attention, impress them within the first five pages—books that are going to sell.

(If you click through the links I have provided here, Dear Editor, you will become aware of a certain tone of disdain toward the target audience. This tone is very common among literary agents, who are doing their best to undermine the confidence of writers as a group. Please also note the fawning tone of the comments by the authors responding to these blogs. We have lost our self respect, I am afraid. We have learned to see ourselves as unworthy, stupid, and probably unclean. We’ve forgotten we’re the talent.)

Having set out what they do and do not want from writers, the agents then demand that we, their would-be clients, condense our novels into 300-word “pitches” that will convince them of the marketability of our books. (One might think that this would be the agent’s job—to develop pitches for the manuscripts by the writers they represent which they will then present to publishers. But no. That is not the way this system works.)

Next the agents engage “interns”—usually selected from among the wannabe writers enrolled in one of the creative-writing courses that proliferate at our universities and colleges—to read the queries that we, the writers, have written about our books. The interns measure our pitches against the criteria the agents have devised, find the disconnects, then write us our rejection letters. These interns don’t get paid, of course: they get credit for “work experience.”

The upshot is that fine fiction writers who are crappy copy-writers attempt to write fast-paced pitches about their own serious novels that will make those novels sound as much as possible like commercial drivel. Most of us aren’t very good at that (how do you describe The Road in 300 words and make it sound like a piquant coming-of-age story? Or A Confederacy of Dunces a sweet novel of redemption?) but we have no choice but to try. We submit our pitches in good faith by email or snail mail (depending on the dictates of the individual agent-god. They tell us how they want us to submit right on their websites!) where they are read by interns with little experience of literature or life, and are rejected.

Some of us have had our query letters rejected more than 50 times.

No one has asked to see our manuscripts.

Read any good Kafka lately?

Read the rest of the article on The Militant Writer blog.

Mary W. Walters is a writer and editor whose fourth book will be published in the fall of 2009.

The Ten Mistakes

This piece, by Pat Holt, originally appeared on the Holt Uncensored blog.

Ten mistakes writers don’t see (but can easily fix when they do).

Publetariat editor’s note: Publetariat’s position is that an author’s unique "voice" is defined by which "rules" he chooses to break and how, and a manuscript that never strays from the rules tends to lack spark and personality.  However, before an author can effectively break the rules, that author must understand the rules well enough to know the risks involved in breaking them. In that spirit, we present this article.   

Like many editorial consultants, I’ve been concerned about the amount of time I’ve been spending on easy fixes that the author shouldn’t have to pay for.

Sometimes the question of where to put a comma, how to use a verb or why not to repeat a word can be important, even strategic. But most of the time the author either missed that day’s grammar lesson in elementary school or is too close to the manuscript to make corrections before I see it.

So the following is a list I’ll be referring to people *before* they submit anything in writing to anybody (me, agent, publisher, your mom, your boss). From email messages and front-page news in the New York Times to published books and magazine articles, the 10 ouchies listed here crop up everywhere. They’re so pernicious that even respected Internet columnists are not immune.

The list also could be called, “10 COMMON PROBLEMS THAT DISMISS YOU AS AN AMATEUR,” because these mistakes are obvious to literary agents and editors, who may start wording their decline letter by page 5. What a tragedy that would be.

So here we go:

  1. REPEATS
    Just about every writer unconsciously leans on a “crutch” word. Hillary
    Clinton’s repeated word is “eager” (can you believe it? the committee
    that wrote Living History should be ashamed). Cosmopolitan magazine editor Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die For. Jack Kerouac’s crutch word in On the Road is “sad,” sometimes doubly so – “sad, sad.” Ann Packer’s in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier is “weird.”

     

    Crutch words are usually unremarkable. That’s why they slip under
    editorial radar – they’re not even worth repeating, but there you have
    it, pop, pop, pop, up they come. Readers, however, notice them, get
    irked by them and are eventually distracted by them, and down goes your book, never to be opened again.

    But even if the word is unusual, and even if you use it differently when
    you repeat it, don’t: Set a higher standard for yourself even if readers
    won’t notice. In Jennifer Egan’s Look at me, the core word – a good
    word, but because it’s good, you get *one* per book – is “abraded.”
    Here’s the problem:

    “Victoria’s blue gaze abraded me with the texture of ground glass.” page 202
    “…(metal trucks abrading the concrete)…” page 217
    “…he relished the abrasion of her skepticism…” page 256
    “…since his abrasion with Z …” page 272

    The same goes for repeats of several words together – a phrase or
    sentence that may seem fresh at first, but, restated many times, draws attention from the author’s strengths. Sheldon Siegel nearly bludgeons us in his otherwise witty and articulate courtroom thriller, Final Verdict, with a sentence construction that’s repeated throughout the book:

    “His tone oozes self-righteousness when he says…” page 188
    “His voice is barely audible when he says…” page 193
    “His tone is unapologetic when he says…” page 199
    “Rosie keeps her tone even when she says…” page 200
    “His tone is even when he says…” page 205
    “I switch to my lawyer voice when I say …” page 211
    “He sounds like Grace when he says…” page 211

    What a tragedy. I’m not saying all forms of this sentence should be
    lopped off. Lawyers find their rhythm in the courtroom by phrasing
    questions in the same or similar way. It’s just that you can’t do it too
    often on the page. After the third or fourth or 16th time, readers
    exclaim silently, “Where was the editor who shoulda caught this?” or
    “What was the author thinking?

    So if you are the author, don’t wait for the agent or house or even editorial consultant to catch this stuff *for* you. Attune your eye now. Vow to yourself, NO REPEATS.

    And by the way, even deliberate repeats should always be questioned: “Here are the documents.” says one character. “If these are the documents, I’ll oppose you,” says another. A repeat like that just keeps us on the surface. Figure out a different word; or rewrite the exchange. Repeats rarely allow you to probe deeper.

  2. FLAT WRITING
    “He wanted to know but couldn’t understand what she had to say, so he waited until she was ready to tell him before asking what she meant.”

     

    Something is conveyed in this sentence, but who cares? The writing is so flat, it just dies on the page. You can’t fix it with a few replacement words – you have to give it depth, texture, character. Here’s another:

    “Bob looked at the clock and wondered if he would have time to stop for gas before driving to school to pick up his son after band practice.” True, this could be important – his wife might have hired a private investigator to document Bob’s inability to pick up his son on time – and it could be that making the sentence bland invests it with more tension. (This is the editorial consultant giving you the benefit of the doubt.) Most of the time, though, a sentence like this acts as filler. It gets us from A to B, all right, but not if we go to the kitchen to make a sandwich and find something else to read when we sit down.

    Flat writing is a sign that you’ve lost interest or are intimidated by your own narrative. It shows that you’re veering toward mediocrity, that your brain is fatigued, that you’ve lost your inspiration. So use it as a lesson. When you see flat writing on the page, it’s time to rethink, refuel and rewrite.

  3. EMPTY ADVERBS

    Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally – these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.

    I defer to People Magazine for larding its articles with empty adverbs. A recent issue refers to an “incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom.” That’s tough to say even when your lips aren’t moving.

    In Still Life with Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field: “It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” Here are two attempts at emphasis (”in fact,” “actually”), but they just junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the burden of the sentence with efficiency and precision.

    (When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.)

    In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic, but that’s because they’ve crept into American conversation in a trendy way. If you’re not watchful, they’ll make your characters sound wordy, infantile and dated.

    In Julia Glass’s Three Junes, a character named Stavros is a forthright and matter-of-fact guy who talks to his lover without pretense or affectation. But when he mentions an offbeat tourist souvenir, he says, “It’s absolutely wild. I love it.” Now he sounds fey, spoiled, superficial. (Granted, “wild” nearly does him in; but “absolutely” is the killer.)

    The word “actually” seems to emerge most frequently, I find. Ann Packer’s narrator recalls running in the rain with her boyfriend, “his hand clasping mine as if he could actually make me go fast.” Delete “actually” and the sentence is more powerful without it.

    The same holds true when the protagonist named Miles hears some information in Empire Falls by Richard Russo. “Actually, Miles had no doubt of it,” we’re told. Well, if he had no doubt, remove “actually” – it’s cleaner, clearer that way. “Actually” mushes up sentence after sentence; it gets in the way every time. I now think it should *never* be used.

    Another problem with empty adverbs: You can’t just stick them at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a general idea or wishful thinking, as in “Hopefully, the clock will run out.” Adverbs have to modify a verb or other adverb, and in this sentence, “run out” ain’t it.

    Look at this hilarious clunker from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.”

    Ack, “almost inconceivably” – that’s like being a little bit infertile! Hopefully, that “enormous albino” will ironically go back to actually flogging himself while incredibly saying his prayers continually.

  4. PHONY DIALOGUE

    Be careful of using dialogue to advance the plot. Readers can tell when characters talk about things they already know, or when the speakers appear to be having a conversation for our benefit. You never want one character to imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Bruce: What are we doing next?”

    Avoid words that are fashionable in conversation. Ann Packer’s characters are so trendy the reader recoils. ” ‘What’s up with that?’ I said. ‘Is this a thing [love affair]?’ ” “We both smiled. ” ‘What is it with him?’ I said. ‘I mean, really.’ ” Her book is only a few years old, and already it’s dated.

    Dialogue offers glimpses into character the author can’t provide through description. Hidden wit, thoughtful observations, a shy revelation, a charming aside all come out in dialogue, so the characters *show* us what the author can’t *tell* us. But if dialogue helps the author distinguish each character, it also nails the culprit who’s promoting a hidden agenda by speaking out of character.

    An unfortunate pattern within the dialogue in Three Junes, by the way, is that all the male characters begin to sound like the author’s version of Noel Coward – fey, acerbic, witty, superior, puckish, diffident. Pretty soon the credibility of the entire novel is shot. You owe it to each character’s unique nature to make every one of them an original.

    Now don’t tell me that because Julia Glass won the National Book Award, you can get away with lack of credibility in dialogue. Setting your own high standards and sticking to them – being proud of *having* them – is the mark of a pro. Be one, write like one, and don’t cheat.

  5. NO-GOOD SUFFIXES

    Don’t take a perfectly good word and give it a new backside so it functions as something else. The New York Times does this all the time. Instead of saying, “as a director, she is meticulous,” the reviewer will write, “as a director, she is known for her meticulousness.” Until she is known for her obtuseness.

    The “ness” words cause the eye to stumble, come back, reread: Mindlessness, characterlessness, courageousness, statuesqueness, preciousness – you get the idea. You might as well pour marbles into your readers’ mouths. Not all “ness” words are bad – goodness, no – but they are all suspect.

    The “ize” words are no better – finalize, conceptualize, fantasize, categorize. The “ize” hooks itself onto words as a short-cut but stays there like a parasite. Cops now say to each other about witnesses they’ve interrogated, “Did you statementize him?” Some shortcut. Not all “ize” words are bad, either, but they do have the ring of the vulgate to them – “he was brutalized by his father,” “she finalized her report.” Just try to use them rarely.

    Adding “ly” to “ing” words has a little history to it. Remember the old Tom Swifties? “I hate that incision,” the surgeon said cuttingly. “I got first prize!” the boy said winningly. But the point to a good Tom Swiftie is to make a punchline out of the last adverb. If you do that in your book, the reader is unnecessarily distracted. Serious writing suffers from such antics.

    Some “ingly” words do have their place. I can accept “swimmingly,” “annoyingly,” “surprisingly” as descriptive if overlong “ingly” words. But not “startlingly,” “harrowingly” or “angeringly,” “careeningly” – all hell to pronounce, even in silence, like the “groundbreakingly” used by People magazine above. Try to use all “ingly” words (can’t help it) sparingly.

Read about mistakes 6 – 10 on the Holt Uncensored blog.

Pat Holt is an editor, author, and the founder of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association. 

The Psychology of Writing, Pt. 3 – The Religion of Writing and Getting Published

Publetariat’s series on the psychology of writing continues with a deconstruction of The Rules.

Many aspiring authors believe there’s a collection of both written and unwritten rules to follow in writing and trying to get published, a sort of catechism for success. 

From: The Top Ten Myths About Writing And Why They’re Mostly Wrong – John Erianne

I’ve been in the writing game for most of my life and one of the things that never ceases to summon an “Oh, Please . . .” reaction are those incessant misperceptions and myths about writing that I encounter from time-to-time. We’ve all heard them and some of us buy into them. There’s a whole self-help industry built around many of these myths. Others are put out there as road blocks to discourage aspiring writers from realizing their goals. Among the ones I see most often are:

6. Writing can’t be taught

People who say this seem to think that writers spring fully formed like Athena from the head of almighty Zeus. All writers learn to be writers. Whether a writer is self-taught or goes through some writing program somewhere, there is a process of learning going on and therefore a process of being taught. Whether you are being taught with a lot of trial and error and a library card or being workshopped to death in a word factory, writing is being taught to you in one form or another. What you choose to do with that knowledge is another matter.

7. You have to have talent to write

Well . . . having talent doesn’t hurt, but honestly, let’s not overestimate it’s importance. You’ve got a writer who’s the most talented genius since Willie Shakespeare penned Hamlet, but he can’t be bothered to get out of bed in the morning and dress himself much less share any of that talent with the world. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a guy who’s not very talented, but competent, dependable and workmanlike who writes and submits constantly. Writer #2 has dozens of publication credits as a result while Writer #1 still hasn’t gotten out of bed. Listen. A really talented writer who works really, really hard is probably going to go farther than a no-talent hack who works equally as hard, but the no-talent hack will still go farther than a lazy genius.

8. You have to go to a writing school to be a writer

Okay, sure, I’ve been to college and I know a lot of writers who’ve been to college, gone through writing programs and now teach in writing programs, but let’s be real here: If becoming a writer depended on getting accepted to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop or the like, there would be relatively few writers out there, now wouldn’t there? College writing programs typically don’t accept that many candidates each semester and even fewer people actually make it through the really tough programs. Some of the best-known writers throughout history didn’t have a degree in writing or much of formal education whatsoever. That’s not to say you can be a functional illiterate and write well, if at all, but you get my point, don’t you?

9. You have to have a literary agent

While it’s probably true that if you are a novelist or screenwriter you are not likely to break into a major market without an agent, you don’t absolutely need one. If you write non-fiction, an interesting, well-written book proposal is often enough and even with fiction, independant publishers often (and sometimes especially) don’t require agency representation.

10. Writers have to pay people to publish their work

That’s a big, “Hell, no!” Sure, there are publishers and agents (so-called) who will demand the payment of fees, but understand this: no legitimate royalty-paying publisher or literary agency ever requires a writer to pay a fee for the service. There are legitimate printing services that offer to print books for self-publishers, however this is different from vanity presses that masquerade as a traditional royalty publisher that charge fees upfront to publish your work. 

Read myths #1 – 5, which pertain to common misconceptions about writers and writing, on the Diary of a Mad Editor blog.

From: There’s No Such Thing As A Cliche – J. Robert Lennon 

The entire concept of the cliché…is a matter of how experience is framed–there is no human reality, however culturally overexposed, that can’t be made into a successful work of art. Shakespeare was an early adopter of this way of thinking; Andy Warhol a more recent one. A good artist can take the wilted castoffs of a culture and make them into something great.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about teachers who try to outlaw things–things they think are hackneyed and deflated. One writing prof we know once issued an anti-mermaid edict, and one student, a friend of ours, responded by handing in a mermaid story. A good one, apparently. The edict was rescinded.

One possible definition of a cliché is: something that’s important to people, and which they can’t stop talking about (like, you know, um…mermaids). We’re sick of it for the latter reason; but we can’t ignore it because of the former. A good writer can crack open the nut of a cliché and fork out the meat, leaving the old familiar shell behind. Indeed, that’s a writer’s job description–forking out the meat. A writer who ignores cliché has failed, a writer who succumbs to it has also failed. Success is framing the cliché as revalation.

Read the rest of this post on the Ward Six blog.

From: An Interesting Thought On Rules – Jessica Faust

A lot of comments lately have blasted agents and editors for all of our rules. We stifle authors, we cause nothing but problems, and we’re rude to boot. I debated a discussion on rules because I have a feeling I’m going to get blasted for it, but a client of mine pointed out that what makes my blog work are my honest answers and the honest comments I get from my readers. So here goes . . .

There are seemingly a lot of rules in publishing, but if you’ve ever heard me speak or read enough of my blog posts I think you’ll know that I’ve repeated again and again that those rules are not rules and should not be seen as such, but should be looked upon as guidelines. One of the most frustrating things for me about being blasted for all of our rules is that so many of them are created because authors ask for them, and so many more are not rules I’ve put out but rules authors impose themselves.

I am constantly asked for more clarification, for more rules. Authors want to know a secret to getting in the door. How do you write the perfect query letter, how do you write the perfect synopsis, and how do you write the perfect book? I cannot tell you that. I can give you hints, clues, examples, and critiques. I can do my best to help you along the way, but there are absolutely no rules. You’ve said it yourself, agents impose rules but then sell books that break them.

When asked how to write a query letter or a pitch I can give you tips on what I’ve seen that’s worked for me. Does that mean it will work in the same way for another agent? Not necessarily, because it’s all subjective. This is the same for resumes and resume cover letters. You can read a resume book and see hundreds of examples. They might all work for you or they might not. Ultimately, when reading the advice of agents you need to pick and choose what resonates with you. 

Reading our blogs should be done in the same manner you read revision letters from critique partners, agents, or your own editor. You need to see what worked and didn’t work for other people and see how it resonates with you. Then you need to make your own decisions. Making smart, professional, and personal decisions are in the end what the only rule should be. 

Read the rest of this piece on the BookEnds, LLC blog.

Advantages of Analyzing Stories

This essay, by Charles Atan, originally appeared on his blog on 3/25/09.

A friend had a recent blog entry on how irrelevant critiques are to a writer’s craft. On one hand, he’s right. You don’t need to develop a critical framework to write stories. You don’t need to be able to analyze stories and pick them apart in order to be a good writer. My perspective on things however is that I’m not a genius. I’m not that talented writer whose first draft is prize-winning and ready for publication. I have to work at stories and continually strive to become better. And one of the ways I accomplish that is by analyzing stories.

Before I go on, I’d like to clarify what I mean by critiquing and analyzing stories. If you’re in a book club, the questions you’ll probably be asking is what are the themes and motifs of the story and applying Formalist/Marxist/Feminist/Post-Modern readings.

As a writer, I’m not interested in that line of inquiry as much as the technique. I won’t be asking whether I liked this or that character but rather what makes the character compelling. It’s not about whether I agree with the author’s agenda but rather how the agenda is delivered and whether it’s subtle or heavy handed. Everything’s still subjective of course and there is no objective answer to these questions given a particular story, but that’s the kind of analysis that I pursue, as opposed to the scholarly approach to criticism.

If you’re just a casual reader, you don’t need to develop this skill set. In fact, such critical thinking can hamper your enjoyment of certain stories as your awareness develops. It’s akin to a member of the audience learning the tricks of a magician. When it’s performed in front of you, because you’re familiar with the sleight of hand and the position of the mirrors, it might appear dull and formulaic. That’s not to say this is without its own advantages.

When you do come across a remarkable story, the reward is that much greater as you’re conscious of the intricacies of producing such a text. Even better is the narrative that’s so effective that it causes you to momentarily forget all that you’ve learned and simply appreciate the story for what it is.

Likewise, if you’re a "writer," this isn’t a requisite. You can simply write your manuscript and submit them to wherever you feel appropriate. The editor certainly doesn’t have a checklist asking whether you’re capable of analyzing and critiquing stories. All they care about is your final output–the text–and whether it’s up to par with their standards or not.

So if analyzing stories is "non-essential," why bother? For me, it’s about improving. This is actually a two-step process. First is the analysis. Why is it important for you to be able to analyze stories and observe what works and what doesn’t? So that we can improve. Why is it that one of the most common writing advices out there is to read a lot, whether those in your field or those outside of it? It’s the polite way of saying "read this and learn!"

Simply reading a book or story however is how your mind learns unconsciously. Analyzing stories brings it to the fore, so that you’re aware of your own processes: Maybe this story is great because of the dialogue. Why is that? How can we replicate it in our own stories? What are the pros and cons of such a technique? That’s not to say you can’t learn the same things through simply reading it.

One of the habits I unintentionally picked up from reading Tom Swift novels was the inclusion of adverbs such as "he quickly ran" or "she defiantly shouted." I had to unlearn them in college and trained myself to settle for more appropriate nouns. Which just goes to show that you can learn the bad along with the good.

Theoretically you can attend a class or get a mentor to teach you these things formally. Well, aside from the cash flow problem, you need to look for such a teacher and the problem with some teachers is that they won’t always have identical aesthetics as yourself.

Maybe you both agree that establishing good characterization is the key to an effective short story but your teacher might not appreciate the fact that you plan on writing genre literature. Or maybe he or she thinks that one of your favorite authors is trashy and not worthy of respect. Face it, each writer has his or her own set of values and you’ll have to discover yours on your own, either consciously or subconsciously. When you encounter the question who your writing influences are, you’re facing this dilemma head on.
 

Read the rest of the essay on Charles Atan’s blog.

The Authors Guild And Big Publishers Are Working Hard To Reduce Your Readership

This column is sparked by an article on Teleread, in which The Center For Accessible Publishing argues in favor of the Author’s Guild and publishers who are trying to force Amazon to remove the default Text To Speech (TTS) capability on the Kindle 2. TTS is a technology that allows the print-disabled to hear their Kindle books read to them by the device. 

The AG and publishers argue that individual authors and publishers should have the right to decide on a case-by-case basis which books will have TTS enabled.  You might think that since indie authors aren’t beholden to big publishers and aren’t members of the AG this is a non-issue for us, but if the AG and publishers win this battle authors everywhere—indie and mainstream alike—will see their readership reduced. 

As an author with multiple Kindle books ‘in print’, I can tell you that I am not in favor of disabling TTS. As an avid listener of audiobooks, I can also tell you that not every book made available in print is also made available in audiobook form.

If publishers and the AG only wanted to get TTS disabled on books they are already planning to release in audiobook form that would be fine, but whether they realize it or not they’re working toward having TTS disabled on ALL ebook content, on ALL devices.

Which Is More Likely: Controlled TTS, Or No TTS?

Publishers’ and the AG’s claim that all they want is the right to disable TTS on a book-by-book basis is specious, because it’s a lot cheaper and easier for hardware and software developers to disable TTS entirely than it would be to invest the time and money in developing and administering a tracking mechanism to distinguish TTS-disabled books from TTS-enabled books. Simply disabling TTS altogether carries the added benefit of pre-empting any future legal battles over the issue as well. In this economy, I could hardly blame tech companies for taking the less costly route.

Does TTS Cannibalize Audiobook Sales, As They Claim?

The argument that TTS cannibalizes book sales is also specious, for two reasons.

First, who do they think would buy both an ebook edition and an audiobook edition of the same book? If you want to hear it (and it’s available) you buy the audiobook, if you want to read it you buy the print edition. In order to get the "free" TTS reading on a Kindle 2, print-disabled customers have to buy the Kindle book.

Secondly, as anyone who regularly listens to audiobooks knows, flat narration can ruin the listening experience. If you doubt it, check out some of the (many) reviews at Audible in which an audiobook was panned not for the content of the book, but the quality of the narration.

I have little doubt that given the choice, the print-disabled would much prefer to buy the professionally-produced audiobook that’s being performed by a professional actor. But if the book in question isn’t offered in audiobook format, TTS is a better alternative to refusing to sell them a ‘readable’ book at all, isn’t it?

Author and publisher objections based on TTS voice quality are ridiculous as well. If your book is offered in an audiobook edition, the print-impaired who want the book will buy that edition. And if your book isn’t offered in audiobook edition, it’s impossible for TTS to cannibalize your audiobook sales anyway. Nobody who opts to listen to a book via TTS expects a full audiobook experience, they know it’s a stopgap, but it’s better than nothing. None of my books have been released in audiobook format, and I’m glad TTS is there to make my work accessible to the print-impaired.

This Isn’t Really About TTS, It’s About DRM

All this brouhaha over audio rights is really just a curtain being drawn shut in front of what publishers and the AG are really driving at, and that’s Digital Rights Management (DRM). Their TTS demands are conveniently bundled up in a package that also includes DRM demands. As a group, they’re (needlessly) worried about the theft of digital copies, whether in audio or print form. It’s a pity the needs of the print-disabled are being sacrificed on the altar of bulletproof DRM, especially since bulletproof DRM will never exist so long as there’s one guy in the world with a lot of time, sharp hacking skills, and a desire to get free content.

Studies have shown that the illegal peer-to-peer music file sharing that was rampant a few years ago actually drove more sales of the legal files. Consumers are willing to pay for digital content, so long as it’s easy to do so and the digital content doesn’t place excessive demands or restrictions on them.

Authors, Not Publishers Or The AG, Will Be Left Holding The Bag

The AG and publishers don’t seem to realize it but they’re working very hard at cutting off their noses to spite ALL our faces—publishers, authors and readers alike—, the end result of which will surely be reduced sales and reader alienation. And despite the fact that the Guild and big publishers are driving these demands, when their demands are finally met, individual authors—indie and mainstream—will end up paying the price, and not just in terms of lost sales.

When consumers feel their rights to free use of content they’ve legitimately purchased are being denied, or severely limited, their attention naturally turns to the public face of that content: the author. When publishers and the Guild have succeeded in imposing Draconian DRM measures on digital books, they are not the ones who will end up looking greedy and insensitive to readers: authors will take that hit. The Reading Rights coalition addresses its ‘open letter’ of protest to authors, not publishers or the AG.

As an indie author, I strongly object to publishers and the AG taking a position that will almost certainly force developers to abandon TTS, because now they’re infringing on MY right as an free agent to make my work available to whomever I want in whatever form I want.

Part of my motivation for choosing the indie path was freeing myself from outside control over my work, but it seems that the gatekeepers of publishing are bound and determined to drag all authors everywhere down with them. With TTS disabled the potential audience for my books will instantly go down, and while I’d very much like to make audio versions available, I lack the time and skills to produce my own audiobooks or podcasts at present.

Way to go, AG and publishers. With mainstream publishing in crisis, I’d expect you to be focusing your energies on identifying ways to attract readers rather than piss them off. 

Check out the Reading Rights website to learn more about the TTS debate, to find out how you can join in the protest, and to sign a digital petition asking publishers and the AG to drop their fight against TTS. This Tuesday, April 7, Reading Rights will be picketing the Authors Guild office in New York from noon to 2pm. The group is also planning to protest at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA the weekend of April 25 – 26.

Most authors, indie authors in particular, aren’t well-informed about what the AG and publishers are up to in this battle, and haven’t thought about the negative impact on authors everywhere if publishers and the AG win. Please share this article far and wide, wherever authors are likely to see it: link to it, Digg it, tweet it, fave it, tag it…just get the word out however you can. Don’t let the AG and mainstream publishers—groups with which indies aren’t even affiliated—get away with claiming to speak on behalf of authors everywhere.

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April L. Hamilton is the author of The IndieAuthor Guide and the founder of Publetariat. Her latest book is From Concept to Community.

Easy Upgrade from 6.9 to 6.10 For People Who Don't Know PHP/Linux, Can't Use Shell Commands or Don't Have A Development Sandbox

Note: while this article may seem very long, it’s only because I’m making every effort to clearly detail every step of my process for people who, like me, don’t have the Linux or php skills to easily understand what the heck everyone is talking about in the 6.10 upgrade articles and posts on drupal.org. In actuality, the upgrade itself will probably require less time than it takes to read this article. But DO read it, all the way through to the end, BEFORE you begin your upgrade.

Also note, you must be able to login to your site with full admin privileges for these steps to work; the user account”1” is the first user account created in a drupal installation, and it’s usually the admin account.

Do I REALLY Have To Upgrade? So Soon?

I set up my Drupal site on 1/23/09, so when I started getting dire warnings about an urgent security upgrade a month later I was both annoyed and concerned. Annoyed at having to do what seemed like a total re-install when I’d just gotten my new site customized the way I wanted it, and concerned about the potential to totally screw up my site in the upgrade process. However, since the upgrade includes a critical security fix, I knew the upgrade was not optional.

But I Don’t Know Anything About Linux or php, And I Don’t Have A ‘Development Sandbox’, Whatever That Is!

Most of the info I found on drupal.org on simplifying the upgrade process requires the site admin to write scripts or run them, and this won’t work for me since I don’t know anything about Linux commands and don’t have easy access to run scripts against my server anyway. Well, I found a way we Linux-illiterate people can complete the 6.9 – 6.10 upgrade with minimal site impact and no need to do the complete uninstall/re-install described in the upgrade.txt instruction file.

If You Haven’t Followed Drupal Best Practices, I Can’t Help You

First things first: While my Drupal install has been customized with contributed modules, autoresponders, custom logo, etc., I have followed Drupal best practices from day one by not making any modifications to the core software and keeping my customizations in the ‘sites/all’ folder of my installation. If you haven’t done likewise, the process I followed won’t work for you.

All Sites Are Unique: Your Upgrade Won’t Be Exactly The Same As Mine

While the steps I’m about to describe worked perfectly for me, every install and every server setup is different, so your mileage may vary. Finally, while the process I came up with was very easy and safe, it was also a little tedious. For me, tedious was far preferable to risky, and completely uninstalling and re-installing my site software seemed like VERY risky overkill.

Do You Really Have To Uninstall 6.9 Completely, Then Do A Full 6.10 Install?

In a word, no. From all I’d read on drupal.org I knew the 6.10 upgrade would only affect certain files and folders, and I also knew all my site’s content is stored in my site database, NOT the files and folders to be upgraded. I decided to limit my upgrade to identifying changed files and folders, backing up my current versions of those files/folders, and copying the 6.10 versions to my live server while leaving everything else alone. Here we go.

ONE TO TWO WEEKS PRIOR TO UPGRADE

Schedule your upgrade for the day and hour when site traffic is lowest (just check your site stats to decide), and post a notice on the front page of your site alerting your site visitors that the site will be taken offline for maintenance on the appointed day and time at least one week before you plan to do the upgrade.

You can optionally send out a blanket email to all your registered members too, but you should still post a notice on the site to notify both registered members and anonymous site visitors. This is especially important for new sites, since you’re still trying to build traffic and don’t want any of your site ‘regulars’ to find the site unexpectedly down and assume you’re no longer in operation.

A FEW DAYS PRIOR TO SCHEDULED UPGRADE

1) Download the 6.10 install package to your local machine; the download link is available on the front page of www.drupal.org when you login.

2) Unpack the 6.10 install package on your local machine in a location completely apart from your site setup and leave the window with the files in it open.

In my case, while I don’t have a Linux development sandbox or development server installed locally, I still have a local directory for my site which I use for purposes of developing and storing custom HTML pages and uploading files to my live drupal site. I unpacked the 6.10 install package entirely outside that directory on my PC, to avoid any confusion between the 6.10 files and the 6.9 files.

3) Open the file manager for your live, drupal 6.9 site in a separate window, in whatever way you usually do. I can do this via my locally-installed FTP program or via /cpanel >File Manager on my host server (my site is hosted by HostGator).

4) With the two windows open side-by-side, compare the date and time stamps on every file in your main installation directory (the one with the following folders: includes, misc, modules, openx, profiles, scripts, sites and themes) and each subdirectory to identify which files have changed in 6.10—and which ones haven’t.

Any file in the 6.10 window that has a date and timestamp older than the 6.9 version of the file you’re already running has not changed in 6.10. Conversely, any 6.10 file that has a more recent date or timestamp than your corresponding 6.9 file HAS changed.

Sorting the 6.10 files in reverse order of date/timestamp will bring all the changed files to the top of the list. I also found that printing out screenshots of the two windows helped a lot with this. When I identified a file that needed to be upgraded, I marked it with a highlighter on my printed screenshots for future reference when doing the actual upgrade. Alternatively, you can make a written list of changed files. Just make sure that you have some kind of written or printed file list to work with during the upgrade.

In my comparison I found the following file/folder differences between 6.9 and 6.10, but again, since your install isn’t exactly the same as mine, don’t just rely on my findings here. To be absolutely sure you’re catching every file needed for YOUR upgrade, you must go through the comparison process on YOUR files.

/www
The only files that changed in the main, /www directory were CHANGELOG.txt and install.php

/includes
actions.inc, bootstrap.inc, common.inc, database.inc, form.inc., install.inc, language.inc, menu.inc, module.inc, theme.inc

/misc
No changes to files in this folder

/modules
All modules except locale, openid, throttle and translation.

Within the module folders it was typically just the .info file that had changed, but I decided I would plan to go ahead and replace all my 6.9 /module folders with 6.10 folders rather than go to all the trouble of replacing individual 6.9 files in each /module folder with the changed, 6.10 versions. This was a safe thing for me to do because I have not made any changes or customizations in the /modules directory.

/openx
No changes to files in this folder

/profiles
No changes to files in this folder

/scripts
No changes to files in this folder

/sites
No changes to files in this folder

/themes
No changes to files in this folder

As you can see, the majority of 6.9 files are unaffected by the upgrade. When I saw this I felt more strongly than ever that I didn’t want to risk a complete uninstall/re-install of my site software.

AN HOUR OR MORE BEFORE SCHEDULED UPGRADE

1) Use your usual file manager or FTP client to download backup copies of all the 6.9 files you’ll be replacing with 6.10 files; store the backup copies in a new folder on your local hard drive, separate from your local 6.9 site directory (if you maintain a local 6.9 directory).

2) Familiarize yourself with the /admin/settings/site-maintenance page on your live 6.9 site. This is the page where you will take your site offline for the upgrade. You can go ahead and customize the ‘site offline’ message visitors will see during the upgrade now if you like, but DO NOT take the site offline yet.

UPGRADE TIME

1) Go back to /admin/settings/site-maintenance on your live site. If you haven’t already done so, customize the maintenance message site visitors will see while the site’s off-line. Take a deep breath and click the radio button that will change your site’s status from online to off-line, and save your changes.

2) Verify that your site is offline and your maintenance message is displaying to users. You can either open a window in a different browser program, in which you’re an anonymous site visitor, or you can logoff your live site and then re-load the home page of your site.

I have both Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers installed. I always login as site admin in one browser program, but remain an anonymous site visitor in the other. This saves me the trouble of logging out and back in every time I need to verify what anonymous site users will see. Besides, however unlikely it is, I can’t shake a nagging fear that once my site is off-line and I’m logged out as site admin, I may not be able to get back into the site’s admin account.

You may find, as I did, that the maintenance message only displays briefly before your site banner/logo loads on top of the message, making it unreadable. I elected not to bother with trying to fix this since I knew I’d scheduled my upgrade for the time when site traffic is lowest, and I didn’t plan to keep the site offline for long. I figured that fixing the problem probably would’ve taken longer than the entire upgrade.

3) Back up your site’s database, again, in a location separate from any local 6.9 install you may have. You may have to download a copy of the database via FTP, or your hosting company may provide backup tools. In the case of my host, HostGator, I can access backup tools via /cpanel and I’m given the option of backing up the entire site or just individual files, folders or databases.

Notice that unlike the 6.10 upgrade.txt instructions, I am not advising you to disable custom modules before proceeding. Since you’re not doing a full uninstall of 6.9 followed by a full install of 6.10, you’re keeping the site offline, and you’re leaving your browser window closed during the upgrade, it’s not necessary.

4) Close all other programs and windows on your local machine to free up system resources, including the browser window where you’re logged in to your site as admin, if it’s still open. Using your usual FTP client, upload the 6.10 folders and files you’ve previously identified as changed to your live, 6.9 installation, checking each one off your written list or screen shots as you go. If prompted to replace pre-existing files or folders on the server, answer “yes” to all.

IMPORTANT!! Don’t try to do this as a batch job: upload one folder or one file at a time! If the upload fails before everything is copied over, you will have a major chore to figure out which new files were copied over and which weren’t. You may find your site is irreparably broken and you’ll have to go through the full 6.9 uninstall followed by a full 6.10 install.

When you’re done, double-check the files and folders on your server to ensure you’ve uploaded all the files you previously identified as changed in 6.10.

5) Return to your live site and run update.php. You do this by entering the URL, http://www.yoursite.com/update.php, in which you’ve replaced “yoursite.com” with the name of your site.

6) You will be warned that it’s important for you to have backups of your site files and database before proceeding. If you’ve followed these directions, you have those backups and can safely proceed.

7) The update job doesn’t take long to run. When it’s finished, you’ll see status messages indicating updates have been applied.

8) If you don’t see any error messages following the update, your upgrade is complete and was successful. You can return to /admin/settings/site-maintenance to put your site back online and remove the maintenance announcement on the front page of your site. Finally, check the site as an anonymous user to verify everything is working as it should.

9) If you DO see error messages, I’m afraid I can’t help you debug them. However, I can tell you how to get your site back to where it was before the upgrade, and it’s easy.

Just copy your 6.9 backup files, folders and database back to your live server and run update.php again. Afterward, return to /admin/settings/site-maintenance to put your site back online, remove your maintenance announcement from the front page of your site, and check the site as an anonymous user as in step #8 above.

From there, your best bet is probably to schedule a new upgrade date and time, and follow the upgrade.txt instructions provided with the 6.10 package to the letter when you do that upgrade.

In my case, it only took about half an hour from the time I took the site offline to the time I was finished spot-checking the upgraded site.

Click here to read a related discussion thread on drupal.org.

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April L. Hamilton is the founder of Publetariat and the author of From Concept To Community: How I Built An Online Community And Took It Viral In 25 Days With Little Money And No SEO. The book is available in trade paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in various other ebook formats on Smashwords.

Writing First Person POV

This post, by Joshua Palmatier, originally appeared on his blog on 3/13/09.

This was the last panel I was on at Boskone, and it’s one of the typical panels you see at lots of cons. I was also the moderator, so I took more notes on this one than the others. That still doesn’t mean I have good notes, just more (unreadable) scribbles than the others. *grin*

So, the idea was to discuss writing the first person POV in books. In particular, I wanted to discuss why you would want to use first person in the first place, or why you shouldn’t use it, and what advantages and disadvantages it has.

Pretty much all of that is tied together. I also wanted to discuss on the panel why some people have such a strong opinion about reading first person POVs. I’ve run into this quite a bit: a strong aversion to first person POV.

So, the mechanics first, I guess. First person POV, where you’re inside the head of one of the characters and ONLY in that person’s head for the duration of the book (or those scenes in the book), is a great way to pull the reader into the story, because the reader in essence "becomes" that first person character. They see everything through that person’s eyes, they get that person’s innermost thoughts, and it gives the reader a sense of immediacy, a sense of actually LIVING the novel. If it’s done right of course.

As you read, you feel like you are THERE, doing what the character is doing, feeling what the character feels, hating and crying and loving and laughing right along with that character. I think emotions are more raw in first person. Pain hurts more, grief is more shattering, love is more intense. Overall, EVERYTHING is more intense.

That’s why I chose to use first person for my books. I wanted the reader to be there, in the scene, experiencing everything first hand. Also, the magic that my main character uses is more personal than in most fantasy novels. There aren’t any streaks of lightning or fireballs in the first novel. Such things exist and some of the magic is visible in my world, but most of the REAL magic is happening on a different level, one that can’t be seen and is hard to describe UNLESS I use the first person.

I think the emotional impact of first person is the real reason I chose to use it thought, because the magic COULD have been done in third (it would have been harder but possible), but I wanted people to live Varis’ life along with her. Because the story really is about Varis, about HER, not the world. It’s a very character driven story, and character driven stories about a single character are often better done as first person.

So, some reasons to use first person: immediacy of action and emotion; pulls the reader deeper into the story; magic of the world (or some other part of the plot) dictates first person; a single character is the driving force behind the story; it’s a character-driven story.

That list isn’t complete of course, just some of the things that came up during the panel. And of course, it only works if the first person is done well.

When shouldn’t you use first person? Well, the general response is when the story involves more than one POV. If parts of the plot or action must be told when the main character (the potential first person POV character) isn’t around or isn’t involved, then the novel probably shouldn’t be told in first person.

Yes, you can get away with having other characters tell the first person POV character what happened second hand, and you can even manipulate the book enough to have that first person character "accidentally" overhear an important conversation that reveals incredibly important information . . . but you can only do that so many times in a novel before such techniques become trite and obvious and just plain stupid. (My general working theory is that you can only do such things ONCE in a novel and get away with it; the second time you do that, you’ve blown it . . . unless, of course, you have a magical throne that allows the main character to ransack a person’s memories. *grin*)

So, if the main characters isn’t there for a significant portion of the main action . . . first person is probably not going to work. Because with first person, you MUST restrict yourself to that one person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. You have to get across everyone else’s thoughts, actions, and feeling by using what that one character sees and hears and notices. And this is hard.

Another reason to NOT use first person is voice. If you’re going to use first person, that characters must have a very strong voice, and that voice must in some way be relatable. The reader has to be in sync with the character and has to understand that character and their motivations, and the reader has to be able to put themselves in that character’s place.

If they can’t get into that character’s head in a believable way, then the book isn’t going to work for them. They’ll be constantly kicked out of the story because they just can’t relate to what the main character is doing. So the character’s voice has to be strong, because it has to "overwhelm" the reader’s own character to some extent, so that the reader can set themselves aside and become this new person, so that they can live this new person’s life.

And again, this can only work if the first person is done well.

So how can first person be done horribly? Oh, there are so many ways. The first is just at a grammatical level. One of the biggest traps (I found) with first person is sentence structure. The tendency is to write things using the "I" all of the time. You end up saying things like: "I felt a pain in my back as I lifted the crate full of lead ingots."Or: "I saw the man cross the street and enter the darkness of the alley."

One of the biggest things I learned while writing that first first person book was that there’s no need for the additional I’s. In fact, I tried to eliminate as many I’s as possible while writing first person. We’re supposed to be inside this person’s head, so we don’t need them. The reader knows who’s speaking, who’s thinking, who’s feeling, who’s seeing, etc, so you can leave all of that "I" crap to the side as much as possible. Just say what’s happening! "A pain exploded in my back as I lifted the crate full of lead ingots." "The man slid across the street and entered the darkened alley." Much more immediate and much more succinct and engaging. So eliminate as many of the I’s as possible when writing first person.
 

Read the rest of the post on Joshua Palmatier’s blog, and also check out his follow-up post on the same subject.

Adverbidly Yours

This post, by Janice Hardy, originally appeared on her The Other Side of the Story blog on 3/24/09.

Adverbs.

Writers the world over just shuddered when I said that. The experts tell us to never use adverbs. Adverbs are bad, adverbs are evil, adverbs will sneak into your room late at night and strangle you in your bed.

Well, not really.

Poor use of adverbs is bad, but adverbs are a perfectly good tool in any writer’s toolbox. Many have equated them to a heavy spice, like cayenne pepper. A dash spices things up, but too much makes the dish inedible. Some writers, especially those just starting out, think they must kill all adverbs and never ever use them or their work will be rejected.

Again, not really.

Agents aren’t counting your adverbs and if you go over a secret number they reject you. What they are doing, is reading your story to see if it makes them want to keep reading it. If they find reasons not to, they’ll stop. One of those reasons is bad writing, and bad adverb usage is high on the list of what’s considered bad writing.

Adverbs are acceptable if used well. The trick is to know when you’re being lazy and when you’re using the right word to say what you mean.

Adverbs are often misused in dialog. We’ve all seen (and probably written):

"I hate you," she said angrily.

In this instance, there are plenty of great ways a writer can dramatize anger. The she in question can bang her fist on a table, spit in his face, pull out a Sig Sauer nine mil and blow his brains out. All of those would be more exciting than angrily, which can mean something different to everyone who reads it. By using an ambiguous adverb, not only are you falling into lazy writing, you’re missing a great opportunity for characterization. The gal who would bang her fist on a table is not the same gal who’d break out that Sig.

Now, look at a line like:

"I hate you," she said softly.

Many people would swap out softly for whisper in this instance, but whisper isn’t the same as speaking softly. I can speak softly and not whisper. Softly is an adverb that conveys something specific depending on the context in which it’s used. What you pair with this adverb will make or break it.
 

Read the rest of the post on The Other Side of the Story.

read this b4 u publish :-)

This article, by Max Leone, originally appeared on the Publisher’s Weekly site on 11/10/08.

A 13-year-old boy tells the industry what teens want.

I am of that population segment that is constantly derided as “not reading anymore,” and is therefore treated by publishing companies as a vast, mysterious demographic that’s seemingly impossible to please. Kind of like the way teenage boys think of girls.

The reason we read so little in our free time is partially because of the literary choices available to teenagers these days. The selection of teen literature is even more barren now that the two great dynasties, Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, have released their final installments. Those two massive successes blended great characters, humor and action in a way that few other books manage. When they went for laughs, they were genuinely funny, and their dramatic scenes were still heart-poundingly tense, even after I’d read them dozens of times. 

And so, after weeks of brainstorming and careful consideration (three months of procrastinating and two hours of furious typing), I will now attempt to end this dark age of adolescent prose. I will start by stating the main problem with books aimed at teenage boys. Then I will give some examples of what teenage boys actually want to read.

The first problem with many books for teens is archaic language. Seriously. It is the kiss of death for teenage boy literature. Any book infested by it is destined to become an eternal object of derision around the cafeteria lunch table. It is a problem that applies not only to the “classics” (yes, I will use quotations whenever I use that word. Live with it.), but also modern teenage literature. “Methinks”? “Doth”? Really? So we are constantly ridiculed for “lol,” while these offenses go unnoticed? To all writers of books aimed at teenage boys, I beg you: please use only modern language, no matter what time period or universe your book takes place in.

Another giant, oily blemish on the face of teenage literature (that was entirely intentional) is whatever urge compels writers to clumsily smash morals about fairness or honor or other cornball crap onto otherwise fine stories. Do you not think we get enough of that in our parents’ and teachers’ constant attempts to shove the importance of justice and integrity down our throats? We get it. I assure you, it makes no difference in our behavior at all. And we will not become ax murderers because volume 120 of Otherworld: The Generica Chronicles didn’t smother us in morals that would make a Care Bear cringe.

And then there are the vampires and other supernatural creature that appear in many contemporary teen novels. Vampires, simply put, are awesome. However, today’s vampire stories are 100 pages of florid descriptions of romance and 100 pages of various people being emo. However much I mock the literature of yesteryear, it definitely had it right when it came to vampires. The vampire was always depicted as a menacing badass. That is the kind of book teenage boys want to read. Also good: books with videogame-style plots involving zombie attacks, alien attacks, robot attacks or any excuse to shoot something.

Finally, here is what I consider the cardinal rule of writing for young adults: Do Not Underestimate Your Audience. They actually know a lot about what’s going on in politics. They will get most of the jokes you expect them not to. They have a much higher tolerance for horror and action than most adults. Most of the books I read actually don’t fall under the “young adult” category. I can understand the humor in Jon Stewart’s or Stephen Colbert’s books as well as any adult.

Publishers can stop panicking and worrying that the teenage boy market is impossible to crack, that teenagers hardly ever read anymore, and that they have only a few years before books become obsolete and are replaced by holograms or information beamed straight into people’s minds. Okay, they probably do have to worry about that last one. But if they follow the simple rules I outlined above, they’ll be able to cash in on the four or five minutes each day that teenagers aren’t already spending on school, homework, videogames, eating, band practice and sports.

P.S. I have very good lawyers, so don’t bother trying to sue me if none of these suggestions work and your company goes out of business.

Author Information: Max Leone attends eighth grade in New Jersey.

The Future of Publishing, As Seen From The Future of Publishing

This piece originally appeared on The Bookish Dilettante on 2/23/09.

Today – the Bookish Dilettante happily yields the floor to a new voice – Mr. Aaron Hierholzer. Aaron, a young gun in the publishing world, attended this year’s TOC conference, and has graciously offered up his observations. With no futher ado, Mr. Aaron Hierholzer…

Last November, former Collins publisher Steve Ross said, “It’d be absolutely terrifying to be starting out now, to be young and to not have the benefit of years, if not decades, of perspective . . . I would have seriously considered leaving book publishing." Days later, literary agent Esther Newburg said, “I would hate to be starting out in the [book] business.”

What’s a person with a passion for bringing books to readers to do when the old guard implies that running for the hills might be best? What’s one to do when you find out that neither MGMT, Diplo, nor a good chunk of your acquaintances even read books? What’s one to do when one could compile a lengthy volume of humorless “end of publishing” articles from the past four months, alone?

Attending "O’Reilly’s Tools of Change" conference isn’t a bad place to start. I got to go earlier this month, and the enthusiasm for the future of books both p- and e- was truly infectious, and helped dispel some of the gloominess I was feeling about Bookland.

Overall, TOC’s gloom-dispelling ability was directly proportional to its specificity: anyone who’s been paying attention knows that reading is increasingly a social act, that one can instantly access almost any fact on a mobile phone, and that Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century. These harped-upon broad strokes grew tiresome, and when news that HarperCollins terminated its Collins division spread through the conference on Tuesday, it seemed there were more pressing questions to address. Questions like, "where’s the money going to come from when most of the knowledge of mankind can be found for free via Google?" Questions like, "should I run for the hills after all?"

Thankfully, many presenters did get to the nitty-gritty and the applicable, talking about things like how we’re going to get readers to value (and therefore be willing to pay for) digital content. I wish the “Success Stories and Failures in Digital Publishing” panel could have lasted all day—the skipped slides by rushed presenters were heartbreaking. Hachette’s Stephanie van Duin, Macmillan’s Sara Lloyd, and Lexcycle’s Neelan Choksi all talked knowledgably about the pricing and profitability of digital content, and about the fearlessness it will take to find a workable solution.

In nerve-wracking times such as these, staying focused on why we publish books in the first place is a good alternative to worrying about the end times of reading. And the point that kept striking me over and over was simple: readers come first. Publishers have got to treat the reader, the end user, with utmost respect. That can take any number of forms—not publishing absolute dreck; not treating the purchaser like a potential thief by imposing draconian DRM; not making digital offerings confusing, and frustrating, and messy, and overly expensive.

Read the rest of the article on The Bookish Dilettante.

Understanding Writer's Block

This article, by Christopher Edwards, originally appeared on the Stillpoint Coaching website.  It’s primarily aimed at people who write scientific and academic pieces for journal publication, but the ideas presented here about the roots of writer’s block are equally applicable to any author.

You’re stuck, damn it. You can’t even imagine starting to write your grant or article without a twinge of terror or resentment. Even if you can manage to drag yourself to the computer, the words just don’t flow. At one time or another, most everyone who needs to write suffers from writer’s block. It’s a devastatingly painful experience, and it can kill a career.

I have known research professors who left academia for industry to avoid writing, professors denied tenure because they could not publish, and Ph.D. candidates who bailed out of graduate school because they could not write their dissertations.

However, both the scholarly literature and my own client work convince me that most scientists with basic language competence can overcome writer’s block. This article will identify some major sources of writer’s block, particularly the most harmful attitudes toward writing, and will suggest a few solutions. In a follow-up article, I will describe some detailed strategies one can apply to break or avoid writer’s block. I will also suggest instances in which writing coaches or even psychotherapists can be helpful.

Anxiety and boredom are two major emotional sources of writer’s block. As with other productivity problems, overcoming writer’s block requires that scientists work within the zone of emotional arousal where they are neither bored nor overly anxious, setting realistic goals they can accomplish with concentrated effort. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a productivity specialist at the University of Chicago, defines this zone as the dimension where people experience pleasure, productivity, and flow in their work.  As with laboratory work, success with writing depends upon having enough challenge to stretch one’s abilities, but not so much that one lives in fear of failing.

If you struggle with the task of writing, take a close look at unrealistic, crippling attitudes you may hold. Psychologist A.C. Jones concludes that writer’s block occurs when grandiose but fluctuating expectations of success combine with a vaguely planned project. Perfectionism may be the greatest of all attitudinal blocks. I have seen scientists labor over every single word of the first draft, crawling toward the end of each paragraph by constantly switching between writing and correcting.

If you lower your expectations about earlier drafts and stop editing while you write, you can raise your productivity. Outline the main ideas and use the first draft to test what you will include in the submitted work. A writer invites paralysis by expecting anything close to a finished product in early drafts. With scientific writing, as with other writing, there is never a perfect text. To paraphrase poet Paul Valery, an article is never finished, only abandoned.

Writer’s block can be a reaction to boredom as much as perfectionistic fear. Boredom can occur when scientists view writing as merely a mechanical transmission of their truly creative work. If one feels this way, the challenge is to create enough novelty and interest to finish the writing task. As writer Dorothy Parker quipped: The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. 

Writing up research can be an interesting way of refining as well as communicating one’s science; if you can treat it as a challenge, it can sharpen your thinking. For example, I have watched scientists develop a better sense of the larger significance of their work through their writing, since composing and editing force one to confront what may be important for others, not simply oneself.

Task inflation can be another source of writer’s block. It occurs when one makes a project seem more daunting than it really is. Two types of task inflation can plague scientists when they write: overvaluing the importance of getting a current article published, and overestimating the role of one’s prose in the work’s acceptance for publication. No matter how important an article may be, it is only a limited communication of a portion of one’s lifetime scientific achievement.

Many excellent papers are published in Nature, Science, and Cell, only to be added to the list of hundreds of good scientific papers published each year. When one does publish in top journals, the writing is far less important than the science about which one writes. In reality, good journals accept even very poorly written scientific papers, if the science is novel and significant. One can conquer task inflation by learning to focus on the work one is reporting, instead of on imagined reactions to the paper.

When the above-mentioned attitudinal problems are combined with major misleading myths about writing, writing becomes a painful, frustrating bore of a chore. Three of the most debilitating myths, well described by Jerrold Mundis, are: writing should be fun and easy; one can only write when one is inspired or otherwise feeling enthusiastic about a manuscript, and writing requires some type of special genius. 

Scientists who write as a part of their jobs can learn something about the fun and easy myth from full-time writers. Many of the best professional writers dread writing. It is never easy. For many, the real pleasure of writing only comes with submission of the text – there is a sigh, a moment of relief from the tension of composing and revising that has been mounting for weeks, months, or years. Writing is lonely, hard work with few intermediate rewards. It can become more enjoyable over time, but only if one is willing to sit in front of the blank screen and plug away at a draft in the midst of fear or boredom.

Interestingly, the act of writing is rarely, on its own, the source of agony. Avoidance of the task, along with the cycles of fear and guilt that follow, is often the greatest cause of frustration.

Read the rest of the article at Stillpoint Coaching.

www.sustainyourspirit.com

I am Jabez L. Van Cleef, a poet and human rights advocate in Madison, New Jersey.  All of my work can be accessed at: 

www.SustainYourSpirit.com

This site gathers foundational spiritual texts from all over the world and interprets them in the common language of poetry. We currently offer 37 titles and have several more in process.  The purpose of this site is to provide you with the spiritual resources that you will need to cope with a distorted, depleted and alienated world. We have brought together texts in six categories, as listed below. All titles are available in the following formats: 1)FREE spoken word podcast on Gcast, Garageband, or iTunes; 2) E-Book (Kindle book); 3) CD; and 4) publish on demand  book. The podcasts are free. The books can be purchased from Createspace (an Amazon subsidiary linked to our site), or from amazon.com. We hope you will take time to listen and immerse yourself in the spiritual power of the human voice. And, we would like to hear from you, so send us an email:

mailto:  jabez.vancleef@verizon.net

31 Ways To Find Inspiration For Your Writing

This article, by Leo Babauta, originally appeared on Write To Done on 3/3/08.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London

No matter how much you love writing, there will always be days when you need inspiration from one muse or another.

In fact, I would argue that inspiration is not just a desirable thing, it’s an integral part of the writing process.

Every writer needs inspiration to produce inspired writing. And sometimes, it can come from the unlikeliest sources.

I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite ways of finding inspiration — some of them obvious, some of them less so. But it’s always good to have reminders, and if you haven’t used a few of these sources of inspiration in awhile (or ever), give them a go.

1. Blogs. This is one of my favorites, of course. Aside from this blog, there are dozens of great blogs on writing and every topic under the sun. I like to read about what works for others — it inspires me to action!

2. Books. Maybe my favorite overall. I read writers I love (read about my current loves) and then I steal from them, analyze their writing, get inspired by their greatness. Fiction is my favorite, but I’ll devour anything. If you normally read just a couple of your favorite authors, try branching out into something different. You just might find new inspiration.

3. Overheard dialog. If I’m anywhere public, whether it be at a park or a mall or my workplace, sometimes I’ll eavesdrop on people. Not in a gross way or anything, but I’ll just keep quiet, and listen. I love hearing other people have conversations. Sometimes it doesn’t happen on purpose — you can’t help but overhear people sometimes. If you happen to overhear a snippet of interesting dialog, jot it down in your writing journal as soon as possible. It can serve as a model or inspiration for later writing.

4. Magazines. Good magazines aren’t always filled with great writing, but you can usually find one good piece of either fiction or non-fiction. Good for its writing style, its voice, its rhythm and ability to pull you along to the end. These pieces inspire me. And bad magazines, while perhaps not the best models for writing, can still be inspirations for ideas for good blog posts. These magazines, as they don’t draw readers with great writing, find interesting story angles to attract an audience.

5. Movies. Sometimes, while watching a movie, a character will say something so interesting that I’ll say, “That would make a great blog post!” or “I have to write that in my writing journal!” Sometimes screenwriters can write beautiful dialog. Other times I get inspired by the incredible camera work, the way that a face is framed by the camera, the beauty of the landscape captured on film.

6. Forums. When people write on forums, they rarely do so for style or beauty (there are exceptions, of course, but they’re rare). Forumers are writing to convey information and ideas. Still, those ideas can be beautiful and inspiring in and of themselves. They can inspire more ideas in you. I’m not saying you have to read a wide array of forums every day, but if you’re looking for information, trawling some good forums isn’t a bad idea.

7. Art. For the writer aspiring to greater heights, there is no better inspiration that great art, in my experience. While it doesn’t compare to the experience of seeing the art in person, I like to find inspiring works of art and put it on my computer desktop for contemplation (Michelangelo’s Pieta is there right now). It doesn’t have to be classical works, though — I’ve found inspiration in Japanese anime, in stuff I’ve found on deviantart.com, in local artists in my area.

8. Music. Along the same lines, it can be inspiring to download and play great music, from Mozart to Beethoven to the Beatles to Radiohead. Play it in the background as you write, and allow it to lift you up and move you.

9. Friends. Conversations with my friends, in real life, on the phone or via IM, have inspired some of my best posts. They stir up my ideas, contribute ideas of their own, and they fuse into something even more brilliant than either of us could have created.

10. Writing groups. Whether online or in your community, writing groups are great ways to get energy and motivation for your writing. My best short stories were done in a writing group in my local college (a great place to look for such groups, btw), as we read out our work to the group, critiqued them and made suggestions. The work of the other writers inspired me to do better.

11. The Pocket Muse. A book full of writing inspirations. Can’t beat that!

12. Quotes. I don’t know why it’s so, but great quotes help inspire me. I like to go to various quote sites to find ideas to spark my writing, turns of phrase that show what can be done with the language, motivation for self-improvement. Try these for a start: Writing Quotes and Quotes for Writers.

13. Nature. Stuck for ideas? Go for a walk or a jog. Get away from sidewalks and into grass and trees and fields and hills. Appreciate the beauty around you, and let the inspiration flow through you. Sunsets and sunrises, of course, are two of my favorite uplifting scenes of nature, and anything involving water is also awesome (oceans, rivers, lakes, rain, rivulets, even puddles).

14. History. It can be unexpected, but great people in history can inspire you to greatness. My favorites include Benjamin Franklin, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Leonardo da Vinci, and other greats.

15. Travel. Whether it be halfway around the world, or a day trip to the next town or national park, getting out of your usual area and discovering new places and people and customs can be one of the best inspirations for writing. Use these new places to open up new ways of seeing.

Read the rest of the article at Write To Done for 16 more terrific ideas, and feel free to share your own via the comment form below..

Putting The Fun Back Into Writing

This piece, by Jesse Hines, originally appeared on his Robust Writing blog on 1/29/09.

Be honest: do you still have fun when you write?

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of you don’t derive much pure, raw enjoyment from writing anymore, given so much of the writing advice we constantly read in the blogosphere.

You know: post after post on how to improve your writing skills, how to write in a way that attracts more blog subscribers, how to write such that you provoke powerful calls to action, how to write to increase your sales, how to write posts on Twitter to gain more followers, how to write with flawless grammar and punctuation so that people respect you, how to write for the way people actually read on the Web, etc.

I’ve done a few posts like that myself…

But it’s all so much work, isn’t it? We know that all work and no play makes us dull bloggers.

Absolutely, there are plenty of reasons to learn how to write “better”; who wants to read bad, stale writing? And if you’re making money (or trying to) from your writing, it’s wise to improve your writing skills whenever possible.

I’m Bringin’ Fun Back

I majored in English, and I got to read fascinating stories by fascinating authors. Chaucer. Milton. Shakespeare. William Carlos Williams. Flaubert. Dostoevsky. To name but a few. That was fun. And writing papers analyzing those authors and their stories was also fun.

The power, creativity, and enjoyment of story-telling came barreling back to me this past weekend as I watched the new (and superb) film, The Wrestler. I’m not a wrestling fan, but the movie’s themes of haunting loneliness and fleeting redemption powerfully affected me. It was sad but inspirational, evoking real emotion. And Marisa Tomei…what can I say?

The Wrestler is a powerful story that displays the consequences of a life lived in almost exclusionary devotion to one’s passion, while neglecting the important people in one’s life. Sometimes, it really is too late to change–both who we are and the results we’ve brought on ourselves. That’s real life, and a good story conveys that.

My point is, writing, for any true writer, at its core, is fun, and an opportunity to be creatively unique, expressing happy or sad or humorous or grandiose ideas. As I alluded to earlier, writing effective sales copy (or learning how to) is important if you’re trying to sale something. But, sometimes, writers just want to have fun–it’s why we started writing in the first place, right?

Try this Fun and Creative Writing Exercise. Hemingway Did

In that spirit, I’ll be introducing you to some cool writing exercises over the next few posts–fun and creative ways to both express yourself and improve your ability to write concisely and effectively. It’s about putting the fun and creativity back into writing.

Read the rest of this article, which includes Jesse’s first suggested exercise, Six Word Stories, on his Robust Writing blog.  And check back in over there from time to time for more exercises to put the fun back in your writing.