Category Archives: Articles

In Defense of Reading

 

IMG_1923Dear Writer,

I’m breaking up with you.

I apologize…it’s not you. It’s me.

I know you stay up late, typing your fingers raw, crafting your rich characters and your clever tales. But you’re smothering me. There were 1,000,000 new books published just last year.

And yes, I must confess: there’s someone else. His name is [Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Twitter, insert-media-of-choice].

Sincerely,

Your Reader

 

Where did all the readers go?

Back before I had kids, the soul-sucking corporate job and the internet handily attached to the end of my right arm, I’d sometimes read book a day. These days, I’m lucky to finish one in a month.

And while I complain that I’m busy, when those open gaps of time come, what do I do? Lately it’s devour episodes of Treme off Netflix like fine chocolate with a cup of Thirty-thirty. And before Treme, it was Black Mirror and True Detective and Breaking Bad. And I don’t have to tell you mid-century Mad Men what I’m up to on Sunday nights.

What the heck. I apologize, dear writer. Here you are staying up nights, polishing your prose, and I’m too strung out on Tivo to charge my Kindle.

Readers before writers

Serial television has enjoyed a renaissance of late. But ultimately, its franchise food, assembled by the entertainment industry. While it might not be charbroiled pink slime, it’s still processed food when our minds crave more raw and leafy things to digest. We grow lazy on easy entertainment.

Books are built with words, the fundamental blocks of stories, but they require our imagination to digest them. Books aren’t prepackaged fare—well generally not. They demand an active ingredient: the reader.

A resolution to read

stack of books

By ParentingPatch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And so, with this post, I do hereby solemnly swear, from this day forward to cast aside my Netflix marathons and return to you, esteemed writer. I beseech you to thrill me. But first you must tell me how to find you.

Because with 1,000,000 new offerings just in the past year, I daresay it’s hard to find you.

There are wonderful amazing life-changing works being published. But how to find them? Everything, everything, everything has a  4-star review on Amazon. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad? Four stars, 250 reviews. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer? Four stars, 6789 reviews. What to read, what to read?

It’s all so overwhelming, and when the pursuit so often ends in disappointment, the temptation is to drift into the den, hook up my Netflix IV drip and worry about it later.

So tell me: What do I read?

Seriously, dear writer. this is me, your devoted reader, appealing to you:

What shall I read? What has stirred you? What have you read lately that reached into your soul? What stayed with you, long after the book was gathering dust on the shelf?

I want a book so vivid that when I put it down, the world is black and white. I want lines that haunt me for decades, characters that feel like dear friends forever-missed, a story so compelling I want to call all my buddies and say: do you know about this one?

So tell me, my writerly friends, what shall I read?

In the comments below, tell me the best book you’ve read this year and why it touched you. Doesn’t matter if it’s indie or traditionally published, longstanding classic or unsung masterpiece. No judgment here, no bias to genre.

Tell me, tell the world: what to read.

Oh, and cancel that Netflix membership and join me in the Readolution.

It’s The End of the World As We Know It

Writers, are you sitting down?

Okay, here’s the bad news:

Amazon has discontinued their Breakthrough Novel Contest. So if you’ve spent the last eighteen months polishing your novel in anticipation of competing along with 9,999 others for that $50,000 prize, well—it ain’t happening.

More bad news? They are replacing it with the Kindle Scout program. Okay, maybe it’s not bad news, I guess that all depends on what you want to write. And what you want to read.

What is Kindle Scout?

You can learn all about it here, but to sum-up, writers are invited to submit their unpublished novels for nomination for review by a Kindle Scout Team. If the Kindle Scout Team selects your book, you win an Amazon publishing contract. Authors will know within 45 days whether or not they’ve been selected, and winners receive a $1,500 advance.

By submitting, writers agree to Amazon’s contract terms which offer 50% royalties (yay!) and the option to back out of the deal if the book hasn’t sold $25,000 in 5 years. Even after a careful reading of the publishing terms, I’m not clear if one can ever escape Amazon’s clutches if the title proves popular (boo).  Amazon captures all rights to the book, with the exception of print, which stay with the author.

Books need to pass muster with their gatekeeper, and they strongly suggest professional editing and cover design. I don’t know if you’ve priced either of these things, but done right, it will easily eat up that advance.

Still, it may be hard to resist the opportunity to earn -.27 cents an hour. On the plus-side, copy editors, cover designers, and of course Amazon, will profit.

Jane Austen, you can go home now

Writers of historical literary YA fiction need not apply. Neither should Faulkner, Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, JK Rowling or even Stephen King. Because as of now, Kindle Scout seeks only submissions in the following categories: Mystery/Thriller, Romance or Sci Fi/Fantasy.

It’s no coincidence that those categories constitute their greatest share of ebook sales.

Why did Amazon do this?

What Amazon has accomplished is to recruit their customer to filter the slush pile. And there is a lot of logic to that—who better to tell you what the customer wants than the customer themselves?

But will it work? Amazon selects candidates based upon customer nominations. So if you are a social media darling or promotional guru, you have a chance of getting elevated to a Kindle Scout Reviewer without anyone reading a single word of your work.

I can’t help but wonder if this came up because they found that books that garnered the best editorial reviews didn’t necessarily sell. Publishers Weekly reviews factored heavily in later rounds of the last ABNC.

Instead, Amazon is quite frankly asking the customer: what will you buy? And, when you’re in business to make money, I guess that is the most important question.

Perfect Pitch

As promised, here is a piece on crafting that query (or blurb) to get agents, editors, reviewers and (most importantly!) book buyers excited about your book.

Writing the Badass Query

stack of papers

By Niklas Bildhauer (who also is User gerolsteiner91. (originally posted to Flickr as folder) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Congratulations.

Your book is done. You’ve written it, rewritten it, had it critiqued and maybe even edited professionally.

You’ve printed it out and read the whole thing aloud: to your mother, your cat, and your toughest crit buddies–not to mention the Philodendron. You’re at the point where you’re just pushing commas around.

You know what that means?

You’re ready.

The Hook

hook

By Parrot of Doom (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you remember the last book you bought at the bookstore? I’m not talking about the one you thought you wanted to buy.  I’m talking the one you had to buy. You wanted something fresh. You were sauntering along the aisle, picking up books one by one, studying the covers, running your finger along the spines. And then you turned one over to read: the book jacket.

How long did it take you to decide?

It started with a sentence, a handful of words. Maybe it was enough to make you catch your breath. It was at least enough to make you read the next line. And the next, and the next, until before you know it, you were standing at the checkout holding out your debit card.

Now that, my friends, is a proper hook.

Pitch Perfect

As writers, we all know you’ve got to show and not tell. But a pitch is different, right? After all, you’ve only got a page. If there was ever a case for telling, now is the time, right? Wrong.

Now is when you absolutely must show. Don’t tell them your protagonist struggles with loneliness and can’t find the right guy. Show her in the checkout line, juggling four pints of Ben & Jerry’s while eyeing the douchebag with the $200 haircut. Meanwhile the cinnamon-sweet cashier can’t catch her eye.

That’s all there is to it. Build a collage: a sketch of character, a shadow of scene. Arrange a few powerful verbs around one glistening metaphor. Sculpt the shape of your story like that—the first third of it at least—and leave the reader with a breath of hint of what’s to come.

Now, finally. Make it sound like you and make it match the tone of the book. Funny book? Funny pitch. Scary book? Scary pitch. You’d be surprised how many people miss this.

All right, got all that? Great. Now do it in 300 words. Easy-peasy, right?

The Shameless(?) Self-Promotion

If you’re doing a query letter as opposed to crafting a pitch for Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Contest, you’ll also need to talk about you, the writer. The same rules apply—don’t tell them about your immense talent, your sparkling prose or that your characters are thoughtfully crafted. You should have shown them that in the preceding 300 words or so.

Awards and writing credits, if you have them, are a fair brag. But don’t tell them your story is impossible to put down; make your query impossible to put down.

The Final Dos and Don’ts

Did you ever wonder why literary agents hate rhetorical questions? Don’t.

Do you think your novel is so ground-breaking it merits a two-page query? Don’t.

The Dos?

Proofread your query 1,001 times. Once you’re convinced it’s perfect, have it proofread by someone else. Lots of someone elses.

You only get one chance. One single chance. C’mon, you busted your behind to write that book, it deserves the best pitch you can give it. Write one so good it blows their hair back.

I’m counting on you.

I’m a Dog’s Ass and Other Things my Phone Thinks

My phone hates me. Or maybe it’s not hate so much as sneering disrespect.

IMG_1476Case in point: I manage my calendar on my phone. That’s the wonderful thing with smartphones: everyone trots around with their own personal assistant at the ready. Start my coffee! Turn up the heat! Add four boxes Barefoot wine to the grocery list!

It’s really astounding if you think about it. So there I was, putting my week together  and on Tuesdays I take my dog to agility class. So I said: “Emma dog class”

I’m a dog’s ass

Seriously? I repeat it three times. Each time, my phone smirks back at me: I’m a dog’s ass.

Do I argue with that?

I walk a lot. Gets the wheels turning when I’m writing and part of the appeal of my particular phone was the thought that I could march along and dictate all my profound musings as they occurred to me. Because God forbid I have a deep thought that isn’t saved for posterity.

But my phone is a churlish, inattentive, gum-chewing idiot.

Consider this mystifying entry from my notes:

Voted up for good measure. And it stays that way.

Or this:

Feel the shiver's ink to the base of yours. Bye.

Or this:

Sleep frayed at both ends.

Well I actually sort of like that last one.

But it’s 2015. Haven’t we perfected this technology by now? Maybe it’s me. Maybe after all these years I haven’t mastered the English language. And there are those that read my blog that might argue such. Or maybe my phone thinks I sound like I have a dog’s ass squished against my face. Who knows. But the whole thing is a daily source of frustration.

Play music: the Handsome Family.

Which member of your family do you want to call?

OH MY GOD. It’s moments like this I feel like such a dog’s ass.

What does your phone think of you?

Behold, the Dog

Seems like every year you can find a new crop of amazing gadgets to choose from: devices to entertain, to aid in our quest for fitness, gadgets that watch over our homes and those that just generally weird us out. And, as the age of Robot Butler grows ever closer, it’s easy to believe this technology solves all our problems and makes the world a better place. It doesn’t.

There is an affordable technology within reach of nearly every household. Technology 30,000 years in the making. Behold, the dog.

Emma, Queen of Kind. She has never had a mean thought about anyone. Well, except the mailman. And that plumber. But her instincts may very well be right.

Emma, Queen of Kind. She has never had a mean thought about anyone. Well, except the mailman. And that plumber. But her instincts are probobaly right.

The dog is alarm clock, home security device, therapist and health coach.

Forget Fitbit. Counting your steps and monitoring your heartbeat is for sissys. The dog is personal trainer–motivating you to get out in the fresh air daily to walk or run. Dogs will lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, while elevating levels of serotonin and dopamine. There’s even evidence dogs can detect cancer and children raised in a household with dogs are less likely to have allergies over their lifetimes.

Dogs can provide 24-hour a day surveillance and protection of your property. Homes with dogs are less likely to be burglarized.

shamed dog

The dog that ruined Christmas

Look, I know I complained when mine ate the Christmas ornaments two years ago and then followed up with the shit/chew combo on my son’s mattress. But she never deleted 4,000 music tracks off my mp3 player for no reason. So forget the devices, the gadgets, the latest trending brand and get a dog. You don’t need no pedigree.

Still not convinced? Look, Time magazine put out a list of top ten gadgets for 2014. So let’s compare some of your options this holiday season:

  1. Ring Video Doorbell: When someone rings your bell, you can see who it is on your phone. Look, dogs have been providing full service home security since 28,000 BC. Doorbell. Pfft. Give me a break. Dogs will alert you when a creepy guy walks slow past your house. Can the Ring Video Doorbell do that? I didn’t think so.
  1. iPad Air: Did I mention my dog never ate 4,000 MP3s? Nuff said.
  1. Jawbone UP3: Fancy fitness wristband. But can it lower your blood pressure? Asked and answered.
  1. Mophie Space Pack: adds 64 GB data to your iPhone 5. Okay, yes, I just bought it. Shut up. Move along.
  1. HERO4 GoPro: video camera for ideal for an active lifestyle. Actually I’m not going to touch this one either, it’d be a great accessory for you and your DOG. Put it on your dog!
  1. iPhone 6 Plus: No. Just no.
  1. Oculus Rift Development Kit 2: Virtual reality simulator. Real reality is better—when you have a DOG.
  1. DJI Phantom Vision+: a remote-control helicopter spy cam. C’mon. Instead of spying on your hot neighbor, save yourself $1,100 and get a dog. Playing Frisbee at the park with your dog has been attracting the opposite sex for as long as there have been Frisbees. Hell, dogs were bringing people together long before Frisbees. Get thee a leash and directions to a park. You’ll see.
  1. SmartThings starter kit: The age of the Jetsons has arrived. It will have hot coffee waiting in the morning, turn on your crockpot and lock the doors. And while it can tell you when your kids get home, can it play with them? Not even.
  1. Apple Watch: The dream of the wrist computer realized. But do you really need to spend more of your life hunched in front of a computer screen? The dog offers smiles, fresh air, home security and unconditional love. Top that, Apple.

img_5409So, if you have 5-15 years of space and time in your life, make this holiday better for you and a shelter mutt. Available in sizes, shapes and colors to suit any fashion sense. Visit your local shelter today.

The Working Parents’ Guide to Winning NaNoWriMo

It’s November 26th, do you know what your word count is? If you’re competing in NaNoWriMo you undoubtedly know what it is now, what it was yesterday and what you are aiming for tomorrow.

NOTE: if you’ve already won NaNoWriMo, congratulations! This post won’t be of any interest to you. January is just around the corner so you’ll want to get busy polishing that manuscript for Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel contest in 2015.

Okay, great. Now that the overachievers are gone, let’s talk.

Writing is hard. Work is hard and so is that overtime job turning runny-nosed static-urchins into productive citizens. But we love a challenge (obviously) and so here we are: X days left of NaNoWriMo and XX,XXX words to go.

So, in the spirit helping frustrated and exhausted writers everywhere survive the 50,000 words in November challenge, I’ve pulled together this concise list of handy tips:

  1. Unplug. Completely. Unplug your internet connection, your phone, your cable. In fact, go outside with some hedge clippers and cut the cord completely. Avoid Twitter, Facebook, all forms of social media and blogs. In fact, what are you doing here right now? Seriously, don’t even answer your door. Trust me, you’ll be glad for this later.
  1. Set aside a quiet time every day to write. Note that this might be at 3:00 am. You should try to be awake for it. Do not rule out the use of ear plugs and duct tape.
  1. Clean laundry is overrated. Look, kids don’t care. My daughter would wear the same pair of dirty pajamas for the entirety of summer break if I let her. And as far as you go—by the time your coworkers catch on that you’ve been wearing the same pair of black pants since Veterans Day, this thing will be all over.
  1. Clean anything is overrated.  Housework will wait. How many people have actually died from a cat-hair embedded sofa? I suppose maybe someone…but those people just need to steer clear. Remember, you’re not answering the door (see item #1). Handy, eh?
  1. Ignore your kids completely. C’mon, it’s only a month. Of course I’m not talking anything that would merit a trip to the ER. But that spelling review? The book report on Divergent? Reading them Llama Llama for the 4,987th time? All that can wait until December.  After all, what’s more important? Well actually, it’s your kids. But still, what are they gonna do about it? You’re the parent—you’re in charge.
  1. One word: Depends. As in the undergarment. I know right now you’re probably thinking gross, but really, it’s better than some of the medical interventions I contemplated. This is also where not answering the door comes in handy. Just think of all the time you waste on any given day. Bahaha! Ah well, I guess it all Depends on how bad you want to win. (The puns practically write themselves! Ahem, as opposed to my manuscript.)
  1. Yes, you can all survive on carryout. Leftover pizza keeps indefinitely and consists of all the major food groups. Breakfast, lunch and dinner–all solved! Theoretically, I suppose someone could call the authorities on you for feeding your kids pizza for ninety consecutive meals. But you’re not answering the door, remember? Those people can’t get in. I told you you’d be glad you weren’t answering that door.

There you have it, that’s not so hard, right? And if all else fails, remember: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. After all, it worked for Jack Torrance.

The Forehead-Smacking Moment I Figured Out NaNoWriMo

There are two kinds of writers in the world: those that do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and rise to the challenge of producing 50,000 words in November, and writers that spend the month coming up with excuses why this is not sensible, practical, rational or useful.

I’ve always been in the latter camp.

I mean sure, I could write 50,000 words in a month. But who wants to read a book composed of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” repeated 5,555 times?

Then, the Beast showed up. “Best Friends for Never,” he said in a phlegmy whisper.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll write it. Someday. Like when it’s warmer. When the bills are caught up. I’ll take some vacation time—next year maybe. When I’m caught up on my sleep. And laundry. Better yet, when my youngest is out of elementary school and I don’t have to haul my oldest to band practice at 6:30 am. Or when I’m retired.

“Write it now,” he said. He let out a stale stream of cigarette smoke and flicked some ashes on the rug.

“I don’t even know what happens. I mean it’s just an idea.”

“Write.”

Fine.

I was late out of the gate, starting on November 5th. For a few days, I juggled 400 words at a pop and questioned the point. And then: BOOM.

I got it. I got what NaNoWriMo is really about. And no, it’s not a contest. And no, it’s not about discipline and it’s most certainly not about perfection. It’s about opening the door wide. And in the process of opening that door, you need to slam your inner critic hard against the other wall. (Mine left a long lipstick streak down the door jamb before she fell unconscious.)

And when that door is open, well that is when the story happens.

As of today, I’ve got 20,000 words. And while it it’s pretty unlikely I’ll win NaNoWriMo this year, I have to say I’ve already won. I’ve got a story that’s making me breathless and I can’t wait to finish it. And the fact I won’t get done by November 30th isn’t because it’s not there—it’s because there’s not just enough time. So when November goes and December comes, I expect to be still happily click-clacking away on Best Friends for Never.

Congratulations to all of those who have completed NaNoWriMo and to any and all that have taken the challenge. Best of luck in taking your novel to the next step. And to those writers who always put entering NaNoWriMo right up there with pushing a shopping cart to the top of Mount Everest, consider this: what have you got to lose?

The evolution of a writer

i am a writet
i am a writer
I am a writer.
am a writer.
I am a writer.
I am a Writer.
I, am a Writer.
I, am a Writer..
I; a ma Writer;
I Am A WRirier?
Iaw;ma a rwiter
8 qj & %#$@*&

 

all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

Nine Things I Love About Shawshank

Seems like on any given weekend, I can flip through the channels and come across The Shawshank Redemption, and more often than not, I will pause to watch it, if only for a few minutes.

There’s so much right in that story–both the screenplay and the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.

I got to thinking, what is was that I liked so much about it? So I started a list:

  1. Few things are more satisfying in fiction than when a villain is foiled by his own treachery.
  2. Shows you can swim through a river of sh!t and come out clean on the other side.
  3. Tim Robbins is sweetly adorable. (Okay, okay, unrelated to the screenplay or the novella, but still.)
  4. Persistence pays off.
  5. The moments of pure angst followed by the palate-cleansing redemptive moments (for example Brooks’ suicide followed by Andy’s opera takeover).
  6. I have no idea what those two Italian ladies were singing about either, but I concur with Red.
  7. Demonstrates and says: Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
  8. Get busy living or get busy dying.
  9. Zihuatanejo. I just like the way it sounds… Zihuatanejo.

Are you a fan of Shawshank? What do you feel are the strengths of the story? And if you’re not a fan, where does it fall short?

Plotting the Plot

No, I haven’t been kidnapped by the Nefarious Google Beast. I’ve been on vacation—a writer’s vacation, of sorts. I spent the last seven days attending the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

The past five days I participated in Plotting the Plot with instructor Kelly Dwyer. During the week I learned many things, like the fact that the rooms in Shaeffer Hall were numbered by a lunatic and that the building’s air conditioning system was installed by sadists. I also learned that I really ought to finish Infinite Jest and that I need to watch Magnolia.

plot outlineBut about plot—and plotting it—what I got from the workshop was a toolkit of strategies to take away and the pleasure of partaking in the creative process with a talented group of writers.

Instructor Kelly Dwyer got us rolling up our sleeves right away. In a past life, Kelly must have been an army general leading a disparate band of soldiers to victory. She kept us on-time and on-task, kept morale high and maximized the potential of our time both together and apart. She gave us exercises that challenged us and pushed everyone to the next step, regardless of where we were at in the process.

Workshopping was the best: hearing everyone’s feedback and watching as each person’s concept got stronger, how the stories took shape. It was a veritable potluck of plot twists and thought-provoking ideas. Everyone had an opportunity to present their stories and as the week passed, present their revisions and an expanded plot outline.

I think everyone left with feedback to ponder and a more cohesive plot. However, I feel like I hit the jackpot. I left with a compelling concept that I’m totally smitten with. I have an iffy last paragraph, a tentative first page and a synopsis-ready plot outline which has been vetted by some gifted writers who were generous enough to share their wisdom and keen insight with me. My new-found friends saved me countless missteps and offered tantalizing possibilities to enrich my story.

So, will my fellow plotters and I banish self-doubt, slay inertia, and build our novels upon the holy grail of the well-constructed plot outline? Just keep turning the pages I guess.

What about you, have you ever workshopped a plot idea? What kind of strategies have you found useful and creating a solid plot that satisfies? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below.