Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Into the unknown

First off, let me just say that I am thankful that the only losses I have suffered due to the hurricane relate to my travel plans. My loved ones are safe, and my home is still standing.

I have been looking forward to the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar this weekend and also to hassle-free and on-time air travel, but it now appears that only one of those things is in my future.

Like everyone else in the world whose travel plans included New York City, my original flights have been cancelled. Since I live more than a day's drive away, the only feasible option that didn't involve melting into a puddle of self-pity was rebooking a flight for another hub on the eastern seaboard and hoping that Greyhound resumes service to New York tomorrow afternoon.

So this is what I have done. It may not be glamorous or fragrant,* but it will give me something to talk about during cocktail hour. If you are a fellow writer making the trip, I look forward to seeing you there. If you are an agent, witness my determination! I will go the extra mile! Or 200.

*Neither is air travel.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Happy trees

Happy birthday to the late Bob Ross. For anyone else who needs some happy clouds on this fine Monday (especially after the Penguin Random House news), take some encouragement from the man himself. Start out by believing here.

And then there were five

Random House and Penguin are officially joining forces. While this will make the new joint venture the largest book publisher in the world, it remains to be seen whether the combined company will commence construction of the Death Star. The joint venture is intended to give the two companies more clout with Amazon and other ebook publishers, and Penguin's John Makinson says that the combined resources will allow the new company to "take risks with new authors" and "publish the broadest range of books on the planet." We shall see.

And they have chosen the name "Penguin Random House," which is much less interesting than Penguin House, Random Penguin, or my favorite, House Penguin.

The New York Times reports that the consolidation could lead to similar deals among the other big four publishers. For now, I'm just going to hope this works out better than the whole Continental-United thing.

Friday, October 26, 2012

WTFriday: Guns, art, and fancy words

1. Any discussion of American violence and gun control in a foreign publication is bound to generate some heat. The Economist posted a story about the "castle doctrine," a recent Montana shooting, and Stephen Pinker's book on the decline of violence. One insightful commenter had this to say:
"This is why people should own stun guns, BB rifles or paintball guns instead of real guns. They do the same job, just not in lethal force."
Now, it's perfectly legit to have a discussion about the costs and benefits of gun control, and it's entirely relevant to mention that gun owners are more likely to suffer violence than they are to thwart it. But covering someone in blue paint to keep them from attacking is kind of like watching Home Alone in lieu of buying a security system.

2. The Guardian ran an article about an art gallery temporarily replacing art by male painters with art by female painters. In the words of one reader:
So....so very stupid.....how will this help anything other than putting the only militant femenist art gallery out of business......oh yes of coruse, that actually is quite clever. A decision that exemplifies the nihilistic nature of gender politics. Not sure it's art, but I know what i like.
I would not gripe if the commenter merely wanted to say that replacing art by well-known artists with art by lesser-known artists is more likely to reduce the number of visitors than it is to give people a wider appreciation of less-famous artists (although this seems too nuanced for the poster). What gets me is the hyperbole (the Seattle Art Museum is now "the only militant femenist [sic] art gallery," whatever that is). There is also... the issue... of the overuse of ellipsis. Perhaps it is meant... to keep the reader in suspense... or make the reader think... that you're pensive and deep... but it just makes me think that you don't know how to string a sentence (or a thought) together. 

Oh, and look, a dash of faux-intellectualism with a mention of what "exemplifies the nihilistic nature of gender politics." Because you can't talk about modern art without bringing in nihilism. I love fancy words and all, but they're big guns. Use them with skill and precision, and you're a force to be reckoned with. Sling them around with the recklessness of a seven-year-old, and you look like an even bigger idiot. Stick with the paintball guns. Of "coruse."

Weeping and gnashing of teeth

As if unpublished and under-published authors need another reason to worry about their prospects. The New York Times and other news sources are reporting talks of a merger between Random House and Penguin. The deal is still subject to negotiation and government approval, but if it goes through, what would this mean for authors?

For one, it's likely to mean lower advances. I doubt it will much affect the $3,000-7,000 range that many debut authors get,* but it's going to mean fewer bidders for the "good deals" and "major deals" that highly-anticipated books garner.

More distressingly, this also suggests that publishers will further concentrate on a smaller pool of bestselling authors at the expense of new writers and midlist authors. In other words, publishers are taking fewer risks on the rest of us.

*For those of you who really want to obsess over the unknowable, here's a Writer Beware post linking to a variety of other sources and surveys on first novel pay.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Having "the talk"

At certain points in your life, there are certain awkward conversations you must have (sex, self-publishing) with condescending strangers you would rather ignore (parents, literary agents) instead of listening to their prudish, old-fashioned, desire-killing advice.

Such conversations are frustrating because these people act like they are trying to do you a favor when it sounds like they are preparing you for a life of celibacy and gigabytes of unpublished novels. It is for your own good, they say.

And you think, why does this jaded old codger have to ruin it for me? Who spit in his sidecar that he wants me to remain a virgin/unpublished author for the rest of my life?

Dear reader, these advice-givers are not so much trying to snap you off at the root as they are trying to stem your boundless enthusiasm. They want your expectations to be realistic. They want you to be safe. And they want you to know that, no matter what it looks like in the movies, things will get messy.

Almost every agent who blogs, gives interviews, or speaks at conferences addresses self-publication at least 37 times a year. When they warn authors against it, they are not saying that all self-published authors are doomed to obscurity and marketing their books on internet message boards.* They are not even saying that self-pubbed authors are lousy, despicable people who deserve to see their dreams ground into dust. They are simply saying that self-publication doesn't work out like most people expect, and they are saying it loudly because many people are going to ignore them.

Agents and successful authors who talk about self-publishing the way the Amish might discuss Ferraris are combatting two big misconceptions:

  1. "Self-publishing will make me rich and famous, just like Amanda Hocking." For every Amanda Hocking, there are thousands of authors with 99-cent eBooks who have yet to sell to anyone outside their Monday-night writing group.
  2. "Traditional publishers and agents aren't picking up my book because they're greedy and ignorant. Also, I don't know the secret handshake." No, they are probably passing on your book because (a) it's not right for them, (b) you need to work on your query approach, or (c) your book isn't ready yet (c is the most likely). And if you self-publish your book before it's been edited to pieces and reassembled, you are more likely to have a half-baked book that nobody buys than a half-baked book that everybody buys.
And no, I am not trying to take a dump on self-publishing. Some authors build a mean little raft of a book and successfully navigate the Amazon without the publishing industry's lifelines. But the questions to ask are (a) "What do I expect from self-publishing?" and (b) "Does it seem easier to break into mainstream publishing or to sell 20,000 copies all by my lonesome?" Self-publishing can work, and some publishers and agents are making room for new business models, but it is still a very, very long shot.

*But most are. Then again, most traditionally-published books don't do that great, either.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Confessing willingly and enthusiastically

I got the impression that blogs are supposed to have a confessional component, but rather than tell you about who I pissed off in the fourth grade, I will tell you about the writing sins of which I have striven to cleanse myself. This seems more useful.

First and foremost among these is the adverb, that part of speech that cunningly, obnoxiously, brazenly weasels its way onto the page and subverts good prose. The adverb is like that guy who is always hanging around your desk at work, following you to Starbucks for 3 p.m. skinny vanilla lattes and suggesting ways for you two to "collaborate" and "synergize." You think he is your friend, or at least a productive coworker, until you realize that his idea of "collaboration" is garnishing your analysis of Russia's commodity exports with a few sentences about how furry Cossack hats are trending. And he's putting his name above yours because, you know, his name is Aaron Aaronson.*

The adverb is like that guy.

And I'll confess that I used to like the adverb. I was impressed by the adverb's Etro power ties, his definitely-not-Photoshopped vacation photos from Nepal, and his endless knowledge of 90s catchphrases. I thought the adverb was cool, smart, and funny, and I thought that hanging around with him would make me cooler, smarter, and funnier. So I invited him to all my parties, let him drink all my Grey Goose, and didn't complain when he puked in my bathtub.

But then I heard whispers of this adverb guy being a bad influence. When Stephen King famously said that J. K. Rowling "seems to have never met [an adverb] she didn't like," when Strunk and White admonished me against relying on these unstable companions, I took a closer look at the scum rings in my tub and realized they were right.

Adverbs cause two kinds of problems for the enterprising writer. First, they add redundancy. When I read paragraphs full of people slamming doors furiously, whispering conspiratorially, and gesticulating wildly, I get the same rush of annoyance that I feel when someone explains the obvious:
"FIRST you pour the milk, THEN you add the cereal, and THEN..."
"Just let me eat my Rasin Bran!"
Second, they let you get away with laziness. They keep you from writing stronger, more invigorating verbs because hey, adverbs are like Viagra for tired, flaccid verbs, right? You could skedaddle, but you settle for walking quickly. You could eviscerate your lunch, but instead you eat sloppily.

Asking myself whether I need an adverb reminds me of my favorite flowchart (thanks, Toothpaste for Dinner). So you think you need an adverb. Does it clarify the way an action occurred?
  1. No? Then you're pounding extra verbiage into the reader's head. Cut it.
  2. Yes? Is there a more specific, vivid verb that conveys the same thing? Cut the adverb and upgrade the verb.
No doubt you have realized that there is a third way. An adverbial way. What if the adverb really does tell you something that a new verb couldn't? What if it reveals something unexpected about the way things went down? If someone is...
  • loving savagely
  • wailing joyfully
  • killing me softly
...then maybe the adverb can stay. But hide the vodka in the top cupboard, just in case.

*I do not know anyone by this name, and if such a person exists, I'm sure he is actually a delightful individual.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Let's be clear

A writing coach at my university once said that clear thinking and clear writing go hand-in-hand. That advice popped into my head today when I saw Nathan Bransford's post referencing an article in The Atlantic about a floundering school trying to boost students' performance by teaching writing.

Not surprisingly, the school's administrators found that teaching students to write in a clear, analytical manner improved their scores across subjects. It seems that there's a relationship between learning information well and knowing how to communicate it to someone else in a logical, succinct fashion.

This brought me to two problems fiction writers often face when we try to translate the jumble of images and events in our minds into something that's interesting for other people to read.
  • We don't have a clear, concise idea of what our work is about. I dread the question, "What's your book about?" It brings a cold sweat to my palms and a spew of banalities to my lips. What should be a one- or two-sentence summary stretches into a post-apocalyptic wasteland of subplot, backstory, and nervous stammering as I realize that I've already gone on way too long. Nobody wants to hear this. Even I've lost track of what I'm saying.

    Have you ever heard the saying that you know your subject really well when you can explain it to a first-grader? It's kind of the same thing here. Summarizing a 90,000-word novel in 50 words is critical when it comes to querying, pitching, and marketing your work, and it's also a good litmus test for whether your novel contains a cohesive plot or a nebula of marginally-related events.

    Thinking clearly about my plot and characters helps me dodge plot holes and inconsistencies when I'm writing, and it guides me towards a stronger, more focused story when I'm revising. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much for stage fright.
  • We don't show readers why they should care. Someone somewhere said something famous about the best book being the one that's still in your head (hit up the comments if you remember the full quote). It's true, and not in the least because we know why our characters, setting, and plot are interesting. It gets tough when we have to convince someone else.

    A writer who's thinking clearly knows that there's nothing compelling about Mary Sue going through her morning routine. She also knows that a series of mysterious occurrences is boring unless it leads to the possibility of something horrible. Thinking clearly means seeing your work through the eyes of your readers, and that means raising the stakes enough to make them care.

    The best persuasive essays don't begin by explaining a problem (or its solution), but by clarifying why that problem is relevant. Thinking about my writing this way helps me structure the story and cut the fluff.

Monday, October 22, 2012

"You will be fierce. You will be a warrior."

Because Monday is a good day for things both uplifting and motivating, I will share one of my favorite videos.

Witness Ira Glass offering words of advice and encouragement to those of us embarking on creative work. You may have seen this before; it's a pretty well-discussed video, and rightfully so. I first saw it at an artists' social at my church about a year ago. Like lots of great advice, it presents a plain-language observation so true that, when you hear it, you're tempted to think you knew it already.

The gist of Mr. Glass's commentary is that people who do creative work get into it because they recognize and love other good creative work. Yet beginners get disappointed because they see that their own creative output isn't on par with the things they love and draw inspiration from.

Here's the bad and the good news. The only way you can close that gap between the things you love and the things you produce is to keep practicing. This means that you will produce a lot of work that is less-than-wonderful, and there's no shortcut around that. No amount of studying, lifehacking, or Tim Ferriss will take you from watching the races to running a six-minute mile without first sweating through ten- and eight-minute miles. Similarly, you will learn how to write really good stuff by first writing stuff that isn't really good. But the upside is that you will learn, and you will improve, if you keep at it.

This is why I love the part of the revision process where I catch a snippet of out-of-character dialogue or an overwritten paragraph of description and realize that I know how to improve it. Someone in a local writing group said that you improve not by writing, but by revising. If you want to get an idea of just how much you can improve from one draft to the next, turn on "tracked changes mode" and see how much red you have at the end of one round of edits. Then save your changes and do it again.

Last month, J. K. Rowling told the BBC that she wishes she could go back and revise portions of her Harry Potter novels. It's encouraging (or not, depending on how you look at it) that one of the best-selling modern novelists can look at some of her fabulously best-selling books and feel that same twinge that the rest of us get when we pull a two-year-old story out of the drawer.

These are the thoughts that get me through another draft when the courage (and the dewberry swizzle) runs out.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Because it's Friday, let's have some fun. I'm going to reprint a couple of the most ridiculous comments attached to articles in a respectable publication. And I'm only looking at comments that appear to have been made in earnestness.

Why? Because it's interesting to see how people respond. Because it's funny. Because, let's be honest, you probably enjoy finding this stuff when you're reading the news, too.

1. Nothing says "comment explosion" like a border dispute. And when said border dispute is between India and China, the two most populous countries on earth? 'Nuff said. Here's a reader's comment on a video The Economist did on some disputed territory:
"I come from UK,I don't like India which is our formal colony.I once visit India wint a friend who do business in India.India people is very poor though we see high GDP speed.People there ofen cheat foreigners,and I can't stand the rubbish there! I will never go to India again."
This made the list for being an unnecessary anecdote with no bearing on the issue. I gave it bonus points for (most likely) being an impersonation. The use of "rubbish" ("I'm a real Brit! I'm having afternoon tea as I type this!") to complete the farce just tickled me.

2. There's a New York Times Op-Ed by Roger Cohen about a key phrase on Shariah law in Egypt's draft Constitution. One reader had this to say:

"It's a waste of good ink. To write of Islam and democracy in the same sentence is an oxymoron."
Whaaat? It's one thing if you want to claim that the two have not yet found a way to successfully coexist. It's also a reasonable point for discussion if you want to analyze the ways in which the tenets of a particular religion do not lend themselves to liberal democracy, but I suspect you'd find this true of all religions if you're strict enough about your interpretations. But it's silly to say that the Islam + democracy conversation is so far-fetched as to be worthless.

But the really crazy thing about this comment? It got a "Times Pick" gold flag! Seriously? I'm all for supporting a diversity of opinions, but only when they're reasoned.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Query me this, query me that

Query letters: the author's most dreaded 250 words. You may rewrite your opening pages 43 times, you might read every line of dialogue aloud (and if you don't, you should!), and you have probably stared at the blinking cursor while the words in your turning point scene rearrange themselves into alphabet soup. But you probably don't obsess over any portion of your novel the way you obsess over your query letter.

And if you're wondering, "What's a query letter?" you need to back up 5 or 10 or 20 steps and do some research to get your bearings. Query letters are what authors send to literary agents and editors to convince these industry pros to read their manuscripts. Query letters are important because said agents and editors will generally base their decision to read/request manuscript pages on what they see in your query letter. They're hard because many writers have trouble describing their work in a way that's succinct, clear, and engaging.

There are lots of fantastic resources for authors trying to write and perfect query letters (Query Shark is a great source that shows how authors have turned messy queries into manuscript-request machines, and the now-retired Miss Snark has offered plenty of, um, snarky but helpful feedback on query letters and other topics that confound new writers). Lots of agents blog, and almost almost all of them have something to say about what makes for good (and bad) queries. If you're trying to get a handle on query letter basics, it's worth it to pull up several agent blogs and see what these folks are saying. Other helpful agent blogs include Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants (this is also a good chaser after heavy doses of snarkiness and sharkiness), BookEnds LLC's blog (no longer updated but a wealth of useful archives), and agent-turned-middle-grade-author Nathan Bransford's blog (another safe place for you fragile flowers who prefer a pat on the shoulder to a kick in the tush).

What makes a good query? Assume that the agent or editor you are querying is on a sleep deficit, under the influence of burnt coffee, and reading 50 other queries alongside yours (and this is probably all true). You want to write something that will pierce the haze of caffeine and run-on sentences and compel your reader to request more. So, briefly...

  • Be specific. Don't give away the ending (and don't meander into subplots and secondary characters), but tell your reader who the main players are and what the conflict is. Think about what excites you when you read book jacket summaries. This information should come first--if you can't entice your reader to care about what happens in your book, the rest of your query won't matter.
  • State your business. If an agent/editor loves your idea, s/he's praying that your book is finished and of a salable length. The only folks who query on proposal (read: unfinished projects) are nonfiction (non-memoir) writers, and the only folks who query Game of Thrones-length mega-tomes are George R. R. Martin. Most agents and editors expect debut authors to write 70,000-100,000-word manuscripts, give or take. Oh, and don't forget your genre. It should be fairly obvious based on your summary, but this is a good litmus test for you and your prospective agent/editor. A suspense novel about a woman uncovering her husband's dark secrets is going to read differently from a women's fiction novel about the same.
  • Personalize! Remember how you're reading agent blogs? They don't just tell you query letter basics. They also tell you what that agent loves/hates/wants more of. Part of convincing an agent to represent your work is convincing him/her that your writing is a good fit for his/her particular interests. You don't have to read five books from every agent's client list, but you should show that you know what they're looking for, even if it's a simple "Your agency's website/Writer's Market listing says that you like cozy mysteries/spy thrillers/urban fantasy...." And MOST importantly... query the agent by name! "Dear Agent/To Whom It May Concern" mass emails have a tendency to land in the trash bin.
If this were easy, we'd all have three-book deals.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


I love reading, and I'm proud to say that I enjoy a pretty broad swath of mainstream and genre fiction. Scott Spencer's A Ship Made of Paper commandeered five days of my last vacation. About the only thing I enjoyed more than Neal Stephenson's Reamde was Snow Crash, if only because it's nerdier and punchier. The brilliant world-building of writers like China MiĆ©ville and George R. R. Martin sets my geeky heart a-flutter. And I'm always game for intrigue, whether it involves the mysterious women of Rebecca, the monks of The Name of the Rose, or Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston's Agent Aloysius Pendergast.

And I'm particularly delighted when writers with a "literary" pedigree turn some of their talents to proving that genre fiction (especially speculative fiction) can be well-written, compelling, and respectable, too. Margaret Atwood, anyone? Michael Chabon?

That's not to say that dedicated genre writers aren't creating spectacular fiction, but crossover authors are challenging assumptions about what genre labels (particularly "science fiction") entail, especially for readers who avoid the stuff like the (zombie) plague. Hopefully this will lead to wider audiences across genres. Hopefully this will broaden the range of books considered worthy of critical attention and the "literary" tag.

But for now, we can enjoy the release of Justin Cronin's The Twelve, part two of a post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy from another literary-turned-genre writer. If you haven't read The Passage, start with that door-stopper. If you have trouble with heavy lifting, consider downloading it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

That ain't right

I've considered starting a blog for a while, and I read something last night that made me decide it was time.

There are moments when you have to say something.

The article I read (let's call it the "inciting event") was a New York Times piece about a "Christian" group that has encouraged parents to keep their children home from school on Mix It Up at Lunch Day. Mix It Up at Lunch Day was intended to encourage kids to have lunch with people they don't normally socialize with--maybe kids from different ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic groups, or cliques. What could be wrong with that?

According to the American Family Association, Mix It Up at Lunch Day is part of a sinister plot to promote acceptance of homosexuality among our impressionable young'uns.

Let me make a few things clear.

First, I'm a Christian.

Second, I've read my Bible, and I've come across several parts where this guy named Jesus goes around being nice to people who are typically treated as outcasts. Like the part where Jesus shares a drink with a Samaritan woman who's so despised that she doesn't go to the well until the hottest part of the day, when she won't run into anyone (John 4). Or the one where he dines with Zacchaeus, a tax collector so hated that people start whispering that Jesus is the kind of guy who hangs out with unsavory folk (Luke 19). Sound familiar?

Somehow, I missed the story where Jesus said, "Sit thee not with homosexuals, theater kids, and other undesirables, lest ye be tainted by association." I missed that part because it's NOT THERE.

Seventh grade is hard enough, people.

My point? I'm sick of people like the AFA administrators telling us that the most pernicious ill in our society is some homosexual conspiracy, not widespread poverty, genocide, bigotry, or a simple lack of compassion for our fellow human. I'm disgusted that any group describing itself as a "family organization" could put the ostracization of schoolchildren on its agenda. And I'm tired of these people claiming Christianity.

I only have one voice, but I'm making it count.