Late 2012, or Self (Publishing) Help: How to Be a Baller Client

Flowers from Susan Norris
Flowers from Susan Norris

Late in 2012, I had the honor of working with two excellent writers.

These authors are not excellent because they and I share a bit of commonality in terms of literary goals and aesthetics, they were excellent because they were wonderful to work with.

The authors were REKTOK ross, author of YA Inspirational Romance, and Susan Norris, author of YA Agenda Fiction.

REKTOK’s book, Prodigal, had already been through a number of substantial developmental edits when I saw it. I did the copy edit, and I had some significant notes. Of course, though the author was tired and finished, was still willing to stay the course and make some considerable changes that made the story tighter, more believable, and ultimately, more marketable.

Susan Norris’s book, Rescuing Hope, was a mission from God. That’s how she tells it. She spent a lot of time on her knees before her maker, begging for an easier path. But in the end, she wrote it. About human sex trafficking.  And Susan’s book is only a sliver of her work on that important issue. You can get more information and links from the post just below this one.

If you’re considering self-publishing, I encourage you to be as much like REKTOK and Susan as possible.

Here’s How:

1. I’ve said it before, but Engage Professional Editors.

2. Listen to your professional editors. We usually have years of experience tweaking stories and have read more stories than most people. Susan and REKTOK were both incredibly easy to work with–and I’m sure they both had to beat their inner diva off with a stick from time to time.  In REKTOK’s case, I think it helped that I added a lot of humor to my comments, REKTOK chuckled while reading them to me over the phone when we were talking through some things.  But still. It is never ever exactly pleasant (though after a time, it becomes exciting and revelatory) to read comments, no matter how delicately worded, that ostensibly say “up your game, fool.”

3. Be a class act.  Understand that professional editors are perfectly willing to negotiate their fees.  Both Susan and REKTOK chose from a number of editing packages that I offered, and neither of them got my proposal and then ran away, never to be heard from again, which is the thing that happens more often. I suspect, if they’d opted to use someone else’s services, they would’ve let me know.

4. Pay when you say you will. As a freelance editor and writer, I am paid on all kinds of wonky schedules. I am always willing to work with clients to figure out something that works for them, but it is always a complete joy when a client says, “The check’s in the mail,” and I get it three, not thirty, days later.

5. You are paying for your editor’s time, so if you need a phone call or an extra email, or some clarification on some comment or another, ask for it. This editor is only too happy to oblige.  And I would a million times prefer to clarify something than to have a client run off and weep or whine or, worse still, post nasty reviews or troll.

6. Thank your editor. I am talking about a polite phrase here, not gifts or flowers like the ones above for my birthday, which happened in the middle of the project with Susan. I appreciated those flowers. I never understood about getting flowers before because they always came from some kind of obligatory social convention–prom, valentine’s day, being in a show–but those flowers from Susan were wonderful. They represented a vote of confidence, a kindness, thoughtfulness.  But your editor is not expecting flowers. I would be as thrilled to have worked with Susan with or without them. Your editor is not the enemy. She is can be your biggest cheerleader and greatest ally.  She is probably a writer, too.  She understands what you’re going through.  This is not Us vs. Them.  This is team work, sometimes friendship, and always giving the world better art.

Editors, what would you add to this list? Writers, what do you want from your editor?

Open Letter to Vanity Publishing Crowd

From Flickr User Ian Wilson

Dear Book Writer,

What is your profession?  I’m dying to know.  I will show up there and take over your clients.  I will prescribe their pills or write their briefs or cobble their soles.  I can slice and stitch with the best of them; after all, I took Home Ec.

Or maybe I should show up at your workplace and insist that you show me what you have learned to do over years, what you have paid to learn, and how to do it, free of charge?  Or maybe I should laugh at you when you say that one must diagnose the disease before making the incision?

Here is how we writers become so: We spend years feeling tortured, true or not, and scribbling onto any scrap of paper that’s large enough for a word or two.  We have journals.  We have burned some of them.  We have saved others.  We have many half full, many overfull.  Then we pursued writing-related tasks with vigor, fading into the background in school and work to observe, store up material, notice how people talk and act and are. We have been called odd snobs, different, dangerous, powerful.  We have been taunted and less frequently heralded our “gifts” with the word. Our gift is obsession with the music of language, the ability to tune in.

We have read with quiet abandon.  We have studied the written word, intentionally, osmotically, we find no greater joy than in the annals of another writer’s imagination.  We have allowed others’ voices to inform, infuse our own.  We have studied, studied, and continue to study the story, how it works, when it’s working, when it’s not.  We have made our rookie mistakes in the privacy of our own rooms or in the semiprivacy of our educations, writing workshops, writers’ groups, families, friends, LiveJournals.

We do not insist that these mistakes be proffered publicly. We are not proud of them. We do not hear editors’ rejections or suggestions with scorn for gatekeepers.  We thrive in rejection, we allow it to make us better, we recognize that we may never have success.  We do not write for publication, we write for writing, for self, for art, for work, for pain, for pleasure, for sex.  If we are published, of course we are pleased, but we do not begin with that in mind.  We begin with the word in mind, the story, the sadness, the soul, the voices, the joy around us.

We do not begrudge you your desire to be heard.  But we wish you would stop blabbing so loudly about how unfair the world that does not welcome your scribbling is.  We wish you would remember how you toiled to learn your trade, the one that is not book writing.  We wish you would stop believing that because you can speak you can write.  We wish you would stop thinking of writing as a cash cow.

Please, write.  Please do.  There can never be enough writers.  But before you fire up CreateSpace and start selling your print-on-demand for $24, read.  And read again.  And read until your eyes are dry and shrunken.  Until you’ve read more books than anybody you know.  Then write.  And write long and hard.  Until you’ve logged millions of words, tens of thousands of pages. And once you’ve done these things, you may be surprised how many of those pretentious, self-aggrandizing, gate keeping, nay saying, parade raining editors are willing to reconsider your work.

Love,

A Writer

Self (Publishing) Help: Food in Fiction

Flickr user Vegan Feast Catering

I’m proofing a book right now that actually makes food awkward.

The book is set in a swank vacation spot, think resort Jamaica.  The food is so poorly imagined that I find it to be distracting.  Here’s an example: a three-course dinner at a 4-star restaurant is described as sausage soup, meat with Jamaica Style sauce over rice, then ice cream with syrup.  Hm.

Here’s the thing: that’d be a terrific three-course dinner at a diner, or a family style restaurant, Friendly’s, Eat ‘n’ Park, but it’s not even fancy enough for Ruby Tuesday.  At a resort?  Please, at least make the dessert Peach Melba.  More likely some fussy custard with a pear reduction glaze that is scented with cloves (yes, scented).    The rice would probably at least be saffron rice, and the sauce would probably have some wordy title far less vague than Jamaica Style (which would be called jerk.  Further, Jamaican Jerk is more often a spice rub or a marinade, and if it is a sauce, it is wrong).

I spent all of my 20s and half of my teens working at least part time in food or food-releated endeavors.  I am a respectable cook.  I love to eat. I read about food, and have tried all kinds of wacky recipes.

So I’m sure you can imagine the pure, soul-wounded helplessness I’m experiencing when a book milimeters from publication has such an uninspired relationship with food, even though so far at least five scenes have included it, either cooking, dining out, or ordering in.

So here are my Dos & Don’ts for Food in Fiction.

Do make the food appetizing. You awake your reader’s senses when you describe food.  It’s like you’re feeding her, so if you must do it, do it well.

Do research. If you want to know what a typical gourmet meal looks like, google gourmet restaurant menus.  It’s the future.  The world is in your computer.  Take advantage of it.

Do enjoy the pursuit. Writing about food can be exciting, you’ll probably learn things, maybe find recipes you can try.

Do consider your characters. For example, if your heroine is an athlete, she will eat differently than if she is a neurotic depressive.  Many folks eat with their principles, and fictional folks can do better than those of us situated staidly in the real world.

Do familiarize yourself with some cooking terms before you write people cooking.  Here are a few basic terms: saute, bake, blanch, boil, broil.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew: If you don’t know anything about food, don’t try to write a scene in which someone makes a souffle beautifully.  Those of us who have done so will know you’re faking it.  You lose credibility and possibly a reader.

Don’t feed your characters eggs. There are loads of other breakfast options: cereal, toast, bacon, sausage, diners, room service, Dunkin Donuts.  Feed your characters how you’d like to eat.  If it’s important that a character cook for someone and you don’t cook, ask for help.  Friends, neighbors, relatives, the internet–I don’t care.

Don’t have a vegetarian eating egg drop soup.  If you’re writing a vegan, know she will never eat cheese.  If one of your characters is on paleo, do enough research to find out that she won’t be eating white potatoes or green peppers.

Don’t give your characters 5-star room service at the Motel 6.  Don’t give them the option to order Japanese at 2 a.m. unless they’re in a major metro area.

Self (Publishing) Help: Tell the F*cking Truth!

by Flickr user Roque Mocan

Listen, today is independence day.  Independence is cool.  Independent publishing is cool.  But some people don’t find it to be liberating.  Some people are ashamed.

In my work as a journalist, I have encountered some self-published authors who are so defensive about being self-published that their websites are full of lies.

So in honor of freedom of speech, press, and publishing, I have the following things to say to ANYBODY who’s considering self-publishing.

1. If you’re embarrassed about self-publishing, DON’T DO IT.  Get traditionally published instead.  If you’ve sent your manuscript out and nobody wants it, it probably sucks.  Work on it some more and send it out again, okay?  Don’t give up.

2.  If you decide to self-publish, call yourself a self-published author, instead of a published author.  Don’t lie about it.  It’s not cool, and journalists and anybody who needs help being impressed will find out you’re lying.

3.  This is not to say that you can’t phrase your accomplishments and achievements to maximize their appeal.  Penelope advises people to do precisely that in her post about writing a resume.

4.  But if you write on your resume that you were a manager when you were a clerk, and a potential employer calls for a reference, you will not get the job.

5.  Ergo, if you write on your website that you’re a “published author” and it turns out that you’re self-published with no other publishing credits, well, that’s a problem.  Or if you write on your website that you’ve written a dozen books, but these books can’t be found anywhere because they are nowhere linked with your name, that’s also a problem.

So focus on what you have.

6.  Self-publishing is hard work, and if you’re honest about it, people are going to be a lot happier to help you achieve sales goals, and help you to publicize.  If you’ve done it, own it!  Shout it!  Be proud!  It’s an accomplishment!

6a. But if your writing sucks because you didn’t spend any money on improving it or listen to any editors before you went to print or epub, don’t expect it to be easy to find people to be as proud of you as you are.

7.  But remember that self-published authors who spend significant money on their books do much better than those who don’t. Here’s a great post from Catherine, Caffeinated about this very topic, so you don’t have to take my word for it.

7a.  And if you think I’m reliable and want to take my word for it, here are some other Self-publishing Help posts.  Here, Here, Here, and Here.

8.  Writing your web copy in the spirit of plausible deniability has a ripple effect.  I take my responsibility to the truth as a journalist really seriously.  I know a lot of journalists who do.  We won’t, in good conscience, propagate half-truths.  We will either not mention your invented credit, or explain it in language that is plainer than you would prefer it to be, plainer than you have explained it.

9. You lose 100% of your credibility if any look deeper than the surface of what you write on your website reveals half-truths or blatant lies, or things that can’t be fact-checked (which are always read as lies, even if they aren’t, so don’t tell them!).

10.  Local press (where you are) and tons of print and web magazines welcome writing from freelancers.  These publishing credits, when you get them, are often easily linked online (which is good for your web presence or online portfolio), and a totally transparent sample of your work. They also signal that you have the chutzpah to pursue work in writing, even if it isn’t what you believe you are cosmically destined to be doing, whether that’s writing fiction or poetry or lyric essays or memoir or whatever.

11. There are HUNDREDS of literary journals that accept work from unpublished people.  Subscribe to Writer’s Market online, or go get the book, and submit, submit, submit.

12.  None of this is sexy or easy, but nothing worth accomplishing, is sexy or easy.  Most writers who make their living writing what they want to write instead of what they are being paid to write spend years in the trenches of copy editing, news jockeying, and doing work that is far outside their ideal writing life before they get to do what feeds their souls. But they do the stuff that feeds their souls anyway.  They keep at it.  Even though it’s hard and unsexy.

13.  You should, too.

14.  And always tell the fucking truth, even if you perceive some kind of stigma on your truth, okay?  Lies are never worth it.

Self (Publishing) Help: What is a Book Doctor? Do I need one?

From Flickr User takomabibelot

If you’ve been reading here, or if you grabbed one of my free eBooks, you probably know that I am 100% pro editor.

But if you’re thinking about self-publishing, or wondering if you should pitch an agent, and have done even a small amount of web research, you’ve probably also seen the term “book doctor.”

Maybe you’re wondering what, precisely, is the difference?

Sometimes, people call themselves book doctors and they are really developmental editors (meaning they are equipped to help you develop the plot of your story, your characters, the big meaty bits: they will help you with the big revisions).  But be careful!  Because sometimes, these are folks who’ve self-pubbed, who haven’t used editors, and who don’t know their hand from their face.  Sorry.  I don’t like to be a crass hater, but it’s true.  You don’t really have to be qualified to hang a shingle on the internet.  You just have to be able to figure out WordPress or Blogger, and trust me, both are doable with any modicum of tech savvy.

Sometimes, book doctors are reasonably successful genre authors who can help you with the kinds of books they write.  In my experience, traditionally published genre authors are well-informed on the demands of their particular market.  They’ve read everybody like them and can probably tell you if you’ve got something sale-able on your hands.

But book doctors take the temperature of your manuscript or your ideas and asses their marketability, saleability, and they’ll be your book or proposal doula, too–they’ll be on hand to talk you through block, or help you slash darlings.  They can give you tips on leveraging social media, blogging, author plarform.  They can help you pick software for accounting.  Maybe some of them would even make you a sandwich.

Book doctors–good ones–are the first stop before trying to publish or self-publish.  Sometimes, before even developing a full draft.  But make sure that the book doctor you hire is legit, and has experience with what you want to do.  Ask for references or testimonials or both (if there aren’t any on their website, and even if there are).  Ask for a copy of their resume or CV.  Legit people won’t balk at the request or feed you a line about confidentiality agreements.  They will comply happily with they information they may provide while satisfying the demands of heir confidentiality agreements.

I’ve read a bit lately about the success (or lack thereof) of self-published novels, and across discussions, blog posts, infographics, the more money a self-published author spends pre-publication, the better the book does in terms of sales.  Here’s an interesting piece about Fifty Shades of Grey, and here’s something from Jamie Chavez, a happening (and experienced) independent editor.

Do You Need One?

But here’s a little quiz to check.  Answer Yes or No, and tally each answer.

1.  Do I have experience with writing book proposals?

2.  Do I have experience with writing books?

3.  Do I have experience with hiring editors?

4.  Do I have a complete manuscript that I have already pitched to several agents or editors?

5.  Have agents been interested?

6.  Do I have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the  field of writing or in the field about which I hope to write?

7.  Have I networked with any editors or agents?

9.  Am I writing the book for work or to serve a specific, narrowly definable population to which I have access?

10.  Have I started building my author’s platform?

Assessing Results:

7-10 Yes – You are probably okay without a book doctor, but if pitching at least 30 agents and editors doesn’t yield any results, perhaps consider a consultation with a book doctor.

4-6 Yes – You would probably benefit from a book doctor.  You could probably muscle through  without, but your job would be easier with one.

0-3 Yes – By all means, get on the horn this instant.  Maybe even reconsider your authorial aspirations before you’ve done a little more work or research in that direction.  Check out a conference in your field or a writing workshop or both.

Self (Publishing) Help: Birthing Originality and Truth

From Flickr User Swami Stream, Temple of Truth

I told a friend the other day that I honestly can’t remember the pain of child birth.  I can’t describe it specifically, the way I can describe the sting and itch of mosquito bite ages after it’s dried out and my flesh is white and smooth again.  My friend will soon become a mom, and she is worried and scared and she wants to avoid the pain.  I understand that.

There is no benefit to the pain.  Other than knowing that your mind can swallow anything it doesn’t want you to recall.

I think she asked me about it because she expected me to tell the truth.  She has read some of my blog.  I am a writer.  What are writers, after all, other than people who use lies, language, and literary devices to tell the truth?

What I did tell her was that whenever I try to write about it–in prose or poetry or essay–all I get is that the pain was like I imagine it must feel to have a cinder block slowly rotated inside your vagina: scraping and sharp and bloody.

The other week, I wrote about the Writer’s Digest webinar I attended, and Smoky wrote in the comments that she thinks that writing to a formula is wrong, and that she tells her students not to listen to Writer’s Digest’s advice about how stories work.

I think she is both right and wrong.  Doing it in a formula can be as helpful as it is unhelpful.  Every writer must find her own way.

But In reading Writing Down the Bones, which is one of the assigned readings for the residency, I found this chapter that really resonated with me, and that speaks to this very thing.

And I am even more convinced now that any writer at any stage of the game should own a copy of this book.  It is always relevant and inspiring and full of ideas.  But it is not prescriptive.  It does not say, “This is the way.”  It says, “There are many ways, here’s mine.  Let me help you look for yours.”

Trust Yourself

That’s the title of the chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s book that really speaks to me on this reading.

Here’s my favorite passage:

This is where the depth of the relationship with yourself is so important.  You should listen to what people say.  Take in what they say. (Don’t build a steel box around yourself.) Then make your own decision.  It’s your poem and your voice.  There are no clear-cut rules; it is a relationship with yourself.  What is it you wanted to say?  What do you want to expose about yourself?  Being naked in a piece is a loss of control.  This is good.  We’re not in control anyway.  People see you as you are.  Sometimes we expose ourselves before we understand what we have done.  That’s hard, but even more painful is to freeze up and expose nothing.  Plus freezing up makes for terrible writing.

And that’s what, I think, Smoky was saying when she said that Writer’s Digest will train the writer out of a person and make her into a factory fictioneer.  Following a formula that somebody else taught you means that you can stop trusting yourself.  “If I do it like this, then it will be right.”

That is wrong.  Right is, “If I do it like me, then it will be right.”

I and Smoky and Natalie Goldberg want you to trust your own sense of truth when you’re writing.  We don’t want you to ask Writer’s Digest how to make a story, or Donald Maass, or J.A. Konrath, or Mike Hyatt.

There are no new stories.  One of the oldest texts with popular readership is the Bible, and even in there it says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What it unique is you.  There’s no other writer in the whole wide world who has exactly the same life, experiences, expectations, ideas, values, thoughts, education as you.  So even if you’re telling a story that’s been told a zillion times before, it’s new because you are telling it.

Your truth is original because it’s yours.

So tell it.  And don’t be afraid.  And don’t limit yourself with too much thinking about structure or plot or tricks.  Just read and write and everything will come out okay.

After you do that, get an editor.  Or a book doctor. Or beta readers.  Or all three.  A post on book doctors is coming next week.

Funny Little Language Things

From Flickr, user Digital_Rampage. Used under CC Attribution license. Wiseguys.

Lately, I’ve been encountering a ton of spelling errors.  I don’t know if it’s that the people who learned how to spell before spellcheck have mostly retired, or if it’s something else, but I am generally more amused than annoyed about errors like these.  I have a pretty good memory and I’ve done a lot of reading in my life, plus, have an overfondness for the Dictionary, which is how I’m able to spot them, and certainly I am imperfect at this…

I love the thrill of learning new stuff about words, though.  I can’t wait until I learn how to access Wilkes’s subscription to the OED from home.  Oh, the perks of being a student.

Here are some of my favorite mixups from manuscripts (with pictures):

From Flickr user julia-koefender

Hairsbreadth:  Yes, the breadth of a hair.  One word according to Merriam Webster’s, and here’s a touch of etymology. Here’s how I’ve seen it: Hare’s breath, hairsbreath, hare’s breadth, etc.

The jig’s up:  A jig is a dance.  When the jig’s up, reality checks are imminent.  One of the

From Flickr user ibm4318

funniest spelling errors I see is “the gig’s up.”  According to M-W a gig is only a job for an entertainer in the fifth sense of the word as a noun, and that that a gig could also be a cylindrical spinning thing, a thing to do with sailing, or a grotesque or ugly person, among other definitions.  This is why I love English.

Wiseguy:  When a writer means mobster and writes wise guy, I think, this is kind of a contranym: when the same word can have opposite meanings.  It’s not exact here, because wiseguy is different from wise guy, but you catch my meaning.  A wiseguy is a mobster.  A wise guy is a funny person or jokester.  The word that gave me the concept of contranym is staggering:  The moon is a staggering distance from the sun.  I am lucky to live staggering distance to the bar.  Very big in the first use, very small in the second.

From Flickr user Tony.L.Wong

Tack vs. tact: A tack is a push-pin, but it’s also a method or course, especially one that’s drastically divergent from previous methods or courses.  Tact is a social nicety in which a person knows how to speak without offending others.  Here’s an example of a hilarious misuse, “He thought he’d try a new tact.”

Pour-over, pore over: Pour-over is a method for brewing coffee in which a porcelain (or

From Flickr user Redband-Coffee-Co

plastic) cone-shaped brew basket rests on a coffee cup, and it is brewed, one cup at a time.  When one pores over something, one studies it closely.

Canvass, canvas: Canvas is that stuff that shoes and sacks are made of.  Some artists paint on canvas.  Canvas is a noun.  When one is surveying an area in hopes of

From Flickr user Net_efekt

catching a criminal or electing a particular person, one goes canvassing, and uses a second s and a verb.

Farther, further: This one is the trickiest of all of these.  Farther connotes distance, as in, “if she could make it a touch farther, she’d be home free.”  Further connotes concept, so to encourage or increase the reach of an idea or philosophy.  For instance, “She hoped that if she saved the puppy, she’d further PETA’s cause.”

How about you, fellow editors?  A favorite or funny misuse?  Have you been seeing a lot of spelling errors in the world, too?

Self (Publishing) Help: The Artless of the Flashback, and How to Tell if It’s Okay.

from flickr user jumpinjimmyjava

Flashback scenes are tempting.  They can solve a ton of problems.  You’re writing along and you find you’ve written yourself into a corner, and your character has no reason to feel the way she does about the way her boyfriend/boss/sister is confronting her.  So instead of slowing down and reacquainting with the character, a writer will decide that this would be a terrific opportunity for a flashback.

The flashback will inevitably be something high drama  like being in the back of a car with a drunk college boy and getting raped or watching a mother get run over by a car something.  There, thinks the writer, brushing her hands together, I’ve done it.  I’ve explained everything.

This speaks to a thing I notice in a lot of the writing I read for money, and a thing that really has no place in published fiction: writers think their readers are stupid.

It’s best to think of your reader as the smartest, sneakiest fox there is:  Someone who will get it no matter what you’re doing;  the jerk who always knows what’s going to happen in the first scene of the movie.

You need to write on your A-game.

Writing on your A-game means writing a lot of stuff that doesn’t get into the book.  It means recognizing that it takes a villiage, and the village ain’t cheap.

It also means that there’s a lot of other stuff to consider in terms of your self-promotion gene, your chutzpah, and your commitment to all the stuff that comes along with the writing life, both before and after you have a draft.  (Comments here are as helpful as the post).

I find flashbacks to be particularly vexing when the author has carefully peppered the exposition and rising action with all the pertinent details that they then proceed to bludgeon me with in the flashback.

Okay, but what if a flashback is the only way?

I doubt that is the case, but if it is, there are some tips at the end of this post.

Here are some things to do if you find yourself in a situation where you want to flash back.

1.  Do a free write with the character in whose point of view the flashback would occur.  Write in first person, and answer the question that spurs the flashback in your prose.  If you are stuck and can’t figure out why, start answering the mundane questions like what your character does for work, how she feels about her parents, whether she’s ever had an eating disorder.  Flash back with your character, outside of the context of the story.  Your character may show you the way, if you let her.

2.  Really look at your plot.  Plots generally have an arc structure:  roughly rising action, climax, then denoument.  Maybe you’ve got a dip in the rising action and you need to up the ante.  Maybe what you thought was the climax is really the inciting incident.  You have to open your mind about your story.  You have to be ready to let your characters foil your plans, however well-laid they are.  You have to be ready for your characters to do something you find to be deplorable or abhorrent, and still love them.

3.  Talk it out.  Call your favorite writing buddy or critique partner, and give them a synopsis.  They probably will not need to say anything.  Hearing yourself tell it out loud will likely do the trick.  If not, maybe your buddy can help by asking you pointed questions about what else you need to show your reader to earn the thing that makes you think you need a flash back.

4.  Do the flashback.  Let it in the draft, then keep writing.  When you’re revising, figure out how to chunk that flashback up and give whispers of it throughout the exposition and rising action, letting out one crucial detail at a time.  Giving it all up too early will be like feeding your reader sleeping pills.  You have to give your characters dimension along the way.

How to Tell if You Can Keep Your Flashback

1.  Your flashback gives information (i.e. specific details about an event in a character’s past) that is crucial to the story, and that it’s nor appropriate to give in any other way (when you character was a child they had a particular experience that they’ve repressed or something).

2.  Your flashback propels the plot.

3.  The flashback gives a bit of the story that isn’t or can’t be mentioned in any other context of the story.

4.  The flashback contains its own narrative arc (exposition, rising action, inciting incident, climax, denoument) that is 100% necessary to the rest of the story.

For each of these, I would caution that you or people who love you or are related to you should probably not try to make the assessment.  Ask for help from an editor or professor or casual, writing acquaintence.  Get yourself some beta readers (they are generally inexpensive, can provide stunning insight, and are typically pleased with an extremely small stipend or a copy of the book once it’s published, if it is).

Have any great stories about overcoming the urge to flash back, or can you remember reading a story that made you feel like the reader thought you were stupid by telling you what she already showed you by throwing it all into a flashback, too?  Or in some other way?

If you wanna hang out and talk more about this kind of stuff, and do some writing, too, you should look into my workshops.

Self (Publishing) Help: Do You Need Beta Readers?

This is what it feels like to let someone else read work in progress. image courtesy http://www.publicdomainreview.org/images

 

A beta reader, as far as I can glean from the world wide web is a term that originated among fan fiction writers, on forums.

Fan fiction writers are people who write in the style of an author they admire, or continue story lines where the author left gaping chasms, or had the nerve to die.  These are typically fans of classics in a particular style (the victorians, for instance: George Eliot, The Brontës, et al) or contemporary commercial fiction (J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, so on).

My friend Robin Kaye, who is now a romance novelist (and not a shabby one, either), started out writing Jane Austen fan fiction.  Fan fiction writers are definitely a subculture, and one of which I am generally ignorant, so apologies in advance if I make any misrepresentations here.

My sense of things is that a beta reader is a developmental editor who works for free.  Another term for roughly the same thing: critique partner.

So the short answer is, yes.  You should get yourself a beta reader.  At least one.  More than one would be good.  And, as I mentioned before, you should not be related to or having sex with your beta readers.

Think of it this way: Getting the truth about your fiction (or any writing) from someone who loves you, or even strongly likes you, is as likely as an honest answer to, “Does this make me look fat?”

 Where would I get a beta reader?

If you’re already a part of a writing forum online, that’d be a great place to look.  Or a club or social organization that focuses on writing (like a poetry society or writers’ guild, these often exist by region or state), or a professional organization (like AWP or National Writers Union), or your Facebook page.

I will suggest Craigslist, but advise you to proceed with caution, and probably only if you live in a very large urban area.  Craigslist is mostly useless if you live in a small town unless you’re giving something away (like baby clothes or appliances).

On LinkedIn there are discussion forums for writers and editors.

The thing that has always bugged me about online forums is that the core group of people on a forum is often lonely and mean-spirited, and using the forum as a way to take out hatefulness on other people who they’ll probably never have to face.

OR, there’s such a long and massive history of in jokes and forum jargon and stories that it’s almost impossible to feel welcome. These lodge a stone of discomfort tight in my belly.  I have never found the forum model to be elevating.  But it works for some people.  And it’s out there.  So go do it.  Tell them I said hello.

There may also be writing courses or workshops in your community.  Check out your public or university library or any organizations and nonprofits devoted to writing, like Attic Institute in Portland, or  Mid Atlantic Arts on our fair East coast.

Please, please don’t be a dip and send these people email asking for a list of writers.  Go on their websites and look for opportunities to network with other writers, like taking a workshop or doing a residency.

There is a different way.

You could start a writers’ group.

Writers’ groups are awesome.  Not least because you can actually go to a coffee shop and look writerly with other people instead of by yourself (which is idiotic and pretentious).

The Pros

  • You actually get to look at other people. Watch other writers interact socially.  It can be revealing.  Writers are a cagey bunch.  We’re all full of self-deprecating jokes or wry comments.  And when we’re engaging on the topic of our work, unless we have piles and piles of practice at a workshop poker face, we’re defensive and possibly prickly.
  • It’s a give-and-take relationship.  It’s not some stranger giving you hours upon hours of their time for absolutely nothing.  You are as obliged as the other members of your group to provide thoughtful feedback.
  • And let’s be honest: it’s more likely that you’ll get quality critique if you’re working with a group of people who are serious enough about writing to be in a group.  On purpose, with meeting times and all the accompanying social anxieties.
  • A random beta reader that you scared up online is as likely to be a fan fiction troll as a person with something valuable to say about anything, least of all your pride, joy, and toil: your draft.

All you need is one other writer to begin, and as you meet and work together, you’ll accomplish some of the following: you’ll increase your network, you’ll open a gateway of potential for partnerships, you’ll get accountability, you’ll learn stuff about yourself and your writing, your writing and critique abilities will increase, your outlook will improve, you’ll have camaraderie, an outlet for writerly venting, or you’ll eat less cake.

Cake is like band-aids for boo-boos of the soul.

The Cons

I am of two minds on the value of beta readers and critique partners and writers’ groups.  My stronger mind on the topic feels like the value of the writers’ group–the social critique–far outweigh the potential downsides in terms of community building and potential growth.  But my devil’s advocate mind would like to make the following points:

  • It’s still better to pay a professional when it comes time to prepare the manuscript for submission to agents and publishers.  Professionals have a vested interest in your work, not in your friendship.
  • As with every social endeavor, on and off line, writing groups can turn ugly and cost you potentially copacetic relationships.
  • Groups require time and organization, and unless you’re lucky enough to know a bunch of obsessed, competent, organized humans, the brunt of the organization will fall on one person, every group needs that person, and she can be hard to find.
  • There’s always the possibility that the group will fizz out, after–of course–you’ve devoted considerable time and energy to getting started and offering critique.
  • The critique partner/writing group relationship is difficult to get right.  So resist the urge to become BFFs.  It will be strong, since when you show somebody the unedited draft, you’re inviting at least some bad news, and that is hard on the ego–and much easier to take from somebody you’d have a beer or a movie with.

For Writers and Wannabes and Bloggers, and a Serious Question.

This is a drawing by Harry Clarke for Edgar Allen Poe's story, "The Premature Burial." It is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

Yesterday I wrote that you have to read in order to be a great writer.

It’s true of blogging, too.  I decided about 2 months back that it was time to try to take this blog to the next level.

As I began to read about others’ ideas about blogging, things have more-or-less fallen into place.

Here are a few highlights of the things that have set the ball in motion for this blog, and for my future as a person who makes a living doing social media:

1. I finally focused.  Not hyperfocus or microfocus, but I figured out what I write about most often, watched my hits by varying post types, and paid attention to tweets & retweets & comments.

2.  I’ve got a schedule–sort of.  A loose one anyhow.  I (almost) always write for my blog first thing in the morning, and I post at least 5 days a week.  I don’t find this to be terribly difficult, but some folks would and do.  You do what works for you, okay?

3. I am a read like a crazy person–at least one blog post or resource a day.  It’s paying off.

Next?

1. Reorganize and purge my categories and labels.

2. Get some material in he hopper for weeks I have big projects.

3.  Post two reports for sale (hopefully by end of April): one on How to Start a writers’ group (post on the topic on Friday), and one on verb tenses.  Both inexpensive and well worth it.

4.  Figure out some kind of email subscription service (a la feedburner) and do a newsletter.

5.  Post a survey.  That’s next.   If you read here regularly, or if you’re in new blog love, please take eight seconds to click your answer or write one.  I don’t feel like I have to ask people to vote if they hate it, because haters like to hate.

Blogging Resources

279 Days to Overnight Success is an amazing resource.  And it’s free.  Read it.  That’s all.  Any type of blogger with any goals would benefit from the 12,000 words (which is not a huge time committment, either).

Stanford at Pushing Social writes a lot about how to use blogging to build your own business or brand.  I find some of his tips to be too sales-y for me, but he is not over-the-top.

Penelope’s advice about blogging which was the first place I went.  That was not–though I do love Penelope–100% all the best advice for me.  You really have to find what works for you, what’ll make you feel like doing your blog.  Now, I’d say about in the middle of my journey, I’m reaching a spot where I synthesize the voices I hear.  Pluck some advice from one, and other advice from another.

My Name Is Not Bob is Robert Lee Brewer’s blog.  RLB is an editor at Writer’s Digest which is a terrific publication.  He writes about other stuff, too, but his thoughts about social media for writers tend to be more about sharing than about bossing you around.  I dig that.

Copyblogger is more about the business of copywriting and web marketing. But they’ve got loads of free info on SEO and Keyword stuff that I’ve been meaning to get back to.

Brian A Klems is one of the bloggers and editors for Writer’s Digest.  Most of the time I dislike his posts, but this one is truly excellent, and a pretty solid distillation of all the best blogging advice.

Of course, Jane Friedman’s collection of voices and solid advice is an invaluable resource for any blogger, writer, social media afficionado, or 21st century human.

Resources for Writers, Novelists, Self-published, and Wannabes

A note here:  You can tell when these various folks have done their due diligence about blogging and are doing it well.  Reading at these sites–though they are not as universally well-blogged or well-designed as above, sometimes they didn’t have to because their readers came before their blogs–can be educational on the point of what looks most professional or badass.

Justine Musk writes about creativity and authorship and being a badass.  I really dig her.

My friend Jamie writes about being an editor.  She gives great tips about excellent stuff to read, writing pitfalls and grammar issues to avoid, and has a generally enjoyable voice & aesthetic.

These two gals are @duolit on twitter, and their website is all about self publishing.

Julianna Baggott’s blog is probably weighted heavily toward being more entertainment than advice, but she does have an advice to writers section that she updates whenever she posts on the topic.  Always, the posts are beautifully written.

The Rumpus is great.  I haven’t spent enough time there, but there’s a lot of entertaining, smart writing.  Entertaining, smart writing is good stuff to know about if you wanna be a writer.

Kristen Lamb’s blog is all about writing and authorship.  Her voice is also spunky and fun.  My favorite thing she’s doing right now is her series of posts called “Don’t Eat the Butt!”  It’s about bad–but prevalent–advice to writers and how to avoid being bogged down.

Cathy Day is a force of nature, and her blog is pretty great.  It’s more academic than anything I’ve listed above, but reading her blog is an experience that’s a little like taking her class or being engaged professionally by Cathy.  Cathy is one of the academic authors who “gets it” about social media.

I just love this one.  I found her yesterday, via 297 Days to Overnight Success, and she doesn’t offer writing or blogging advice specifically, but boy oh is her site a fun place to be.

Coming Attraction

Tomorrow is the Weeks to Geek post.  It’s going to be a little bit headier than you’re used to, but the whole component of the event that’s for librarians has gone–so far–unmentioned in the press & on this blog.  And well, I’ve always been a softy for the underdog.

Thanks, people, for making it real.