Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Unexpected Angels

by A.G. Howard

I'm running a little short on time this week because of last minute edits on Splintered. So I’ve decided to share an angel reading I had about four years ago (posted previously on my Live Journal blog).

Let me start off by stating two things:

  1. I normally am not into this sort of thing. Not that I don’t believe in angels, just that I usually think of them as “on another plane”.
  2. It turned out to be more of an “aura” reading than anything else. I heard very little about my angels, probably due to the fact that the lady performing the read had me and four other gals to tend to.

First off, why did I do it? Well, it was kind of a group research thing. A man that used to be in my critique group was friends with an angel reader and she was willing to do a free reading for one of our crit sessions.

Well, seeing as at least three of us in the group were working on books or were going to be working on projects in the future that had angels in them, we decided why not? All in the name of research, right?

So, first we met the lady over pizza. Were you to see her on the street, you’d never have an inkling what she did for a living. She looked like any other attractive woman in her forties. She was a wife, mother, and grandmother. If I had to give a description of her scent, I’d say she smelled like rain. She liked to enter bread recipes in the fair and had won some first place ribbons. That evening, she wore her long, wavy blondish hair down and had on a gorgeous wrap-around skirt in a wispy, shimmery fabric—maybe Dupioni silk?—that she sewed herself. Bohemian chic.

When she started with her “program”, there was no weird voo-doo stuff … no passing of crystals or clacking beads over our heads … no lighting of incense or speaking in otherworldly tongues. She just sat across the table and sketched on a tablet as she looked at each of us for a minute. Then she’d tell us our “aura” color and give a run-down of our health and emotional state.

When she came to me, I was skeptical. She took one look at my neck and said, “Okay, Kumquat…”

(I’d like to take this moment to point out that I’m the only one she used pet names for that night … not sure what it signifies, but just wanted to share that tidbit…)

“I can tell from the shadowing around your lymph nodes,” she continued, “that you’ve had mono in the past.” Holy schmolie. Shadowing?? There’s no shadowing on my neck. But how the heck did she know that? I was nine years old when I got mono (and NO, I didn’t get it from kissing, obviously). But still, that was well over ... well ... several years ago. Ahem. And hmmm.

I inched forward in my chair just a bit, reluctantly intrigued. Next she told me I owed my grandma an apology. I've lost my grandma recently, so this means even more to me now, because although I was visiting her once every summer (she lived eight hours away in a nursing home), I had been negligent sending her cards. I convinced myself that was what the angel reader referred to and actually said it aloud.

The lady proceeded to compound my shame by telling me how much my grandma looked forward to those cards. Ouch. I already knew that. So, she could see into my guilty conscience, too? Again with the hmmm.

Next, angel reader told me that I was anemic. Dumbfounded, I nodded. I had struggled with anemia since my second baby.

“Sugar bear,” she said, “if you would eat more vegetables and take iron supplements, you could control that. Veggies are your friend."

I simply smiled. Surprised once again.

Then she brought out the big guns: “You’re using your cell phone too much when you drive. You’re not concentrating on the road.”

Okay, at this point, I was feeling smug. I'd finally caught her. Back then, I NEVER texted on my cell phone. As a matter of fact, I rarely used my cell phone at all. I was notorious for letting its battery die and forgetting it was even in my purse. So, elbows planted on the table’s edge, I called her on it.

“But you’re distracted by something,” she said. “You end up from point A to B sometimes without even remembering the drive there.”

This is when one of my crit buds chimed in, “She’s thinking of her stories.”

I wrinkled my nose and admitted to Angel Lady that it was true. I often plotted scenes or spun dialogue in my mind—even when I was driving. And there had been times I was so intent on what was going on in my head, I ended up on auto pilot. Not smart.

She leaned across the table. BE CAREFUL. That’s all she said. But whoa. Talk about a wake up call.

She finished my reading by telling me that my aura was pink.

"Pink, aye? So what’s that mean?" I asked.

“It means, little Kumquat, that you’re romantic, compassionate, and love to observe life.”

Ah. I sat back in my seat again, hands in my lap, pleased. After all, isn’t that the perfect description for a writer? Grin.

So, that was my reading.

Am I believer now?

Well, I can’t deny the woman knew at least one thing that blew my mind (the mono bombshell). How could she have known something like that? A lucky guess? I don’t think so. She didn’t make that “guess” on any of the other ladies.

Let me just say that I believe that lady had a gift. Maybe she could see “energies” or “auras”, but as to seeing inside my soul? Nah.

Just like a fortune teller or palm reader, I believe she balanced open-ended observations formed by her client’s appearance and then fleshed them out by letting her client’s expressions and reactions lead her. So if nothing else, she was gifted in observing human nature.

Maybe I had circles under my eyes that night and looked tired, thus she assumed I was anemic.

No doubt she took one look at my blonde hair and bubbly smile, and assumed I’m a chatterer on the cell phone.

The grandma issue? Everyone has family issues. Had my grandma already been gone at the time, and had I told her that, she might've said that we’d had unfinished business. At which point my own imaginings would have supplied something from our past that could fall into that slot.

I’m not trying to make her sound manipulative. On the contrary, I feel enriched for having had that experience. What she did for me that night could actually be considered a service. She caused me to look into myself and address some personal issues … to better myself.

Because of that session, I started paying more attention to my driving, eating more veggies, and mailing my grandmother a card more often. Now that my grandma's gone, I appreciate that last one most of all.

Come to think of it, in my case, maybe the lady wasn’t so much an angel reader, as simply an angel.

Anyone else out there ever had a reading of any kind? Did it make a believer out of you? Did it inspire changes in your life?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Those words!"

Ah, yes. It was bound to happen. Again. A researcher at Brigham Young University, Sarah Coyne, did a study on profanity in YA books. She checked the top 40 children’s books (ages 9 and up) on the NY Times bestseller list  (for the week 6/22-7/6 2008) and—gasp––found 1,500 instances of profanity (which included sexual words, excretory words, strong and mild curse words). All but five of the top-selling books had at least one instance of profanity.

So what does Ms. Coyne want to do with this information? Create a rating system for books, of course. As if this won’t turn out to be a form of censorship. As if this does not get into First Amendment issues. As if this has worked for the film industry.

The latest example of “fail” in terms of ratings is the documentary “Bully” (which follows 5 students that have been bullied). The movie was originally given an R rating (you must be at least 17 to see this on your own) because there were two uses of the f word. Really? One is okay, two is not. This means that most of the target audience for this movie, ages 13-17 would not be able to see it unless they went with a parent.

Watch the trailer for Bully. Do you honestly believe that students 13-16 should be banned from seeing this?

After numerous meetings, and student petitions, the MPAA ratings board would not budge. So the Weinstein company “bleeped” the word to get the PG-13 rating. Guess what? Everyone knows what the bully was saying anyway because you can read his lips. What did this end up accomplishing? Nothing!

Yes, I am concerned. The readership for almost every book that ADR3NALIN3 authors write is for that same YA age range. Many of us strive to write authentic books for teens –which may mean use of profanity.

We authors do not use those words, or any word, lightly. We are not trying to shock for shock’s sake with our language but to write the world as teens live it. 

Death, mayhem, horror, violence, creepy paranormal, stalkers-––those are the dark YA books we write. According to Ms. Coyne, all of that is all right as long as an author doesn’t type a dreaded curse word. As if any teen who lives in this country, and probably all countries of the world, haven’t heard or used profanity at some point in their lives. It is a rite of passage–-and it means nothing.

I say that again. Using a curse word, in and of itself, means nothing. It is a way of blowing off steam, trying to sound cool, showing frustration. The real importance is intent. If a character calls someone the B word, it can hurt. But one character can hurt another character just as deeply, if not more, without using that specific word. If you censor an author from using a word—and that word is meant to wound, well, our characters will find another way to wound. Just as deep. Just like with the movie, nothing is accomplished.

It’s a slippery slope. Who will make the rules? Are libraries or book stores going to “card” readers in the Teen section? Will one word be okay, like in movies, but not two? And why are so many adults upset by profanity? Profanity is not a gateway drug—if you read “those” words in a book, it doesn’t mean your entire vocabulary will consist of curse words for the rest of your life.

Both the upcoming Circle of Silence and dancergirl have characters that occasionally use profanity. It is not gratuitous, and it’s always in a situation that, if it happened to you or your friends, there is a great likelihood you would say exactly what my characters say.

If a book has too many swear words for a reader, or if the content is too upsetting, a reader will put the book down. This is a known fact. So… let the writers write, Ms. Coyne. Let the readers speak, by choosing what they want to read. Not you, their parents, an anonymous ratings board or the government. Let the First Amendment work the way it has worked for over two hundred years!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Enjoying the Ride

If you've been out of town or off-grid for the last few days, then you probably missed hearing about Neil Gaiman's commencement address to graduates of the University of the Arts.  Even if you've heard about and/or listened, it's a speech well worth listening to again.  So, go ahead; I'll wait.

Now, there's a lot in this particular speech worth focusing on, especially the stuff about making your own rules. On the other hand, I'll be honest: I did that way back. Figured out which rules I could break and the ones I had to stick to, and then acted accordingly. Would I have gotten further faster if I'd stuck to the rules back then? Again, being honest? The answer is no. I did stuff you weren't supposed to, but I'd gone by the rules for a while, gotten nowhere, and decided I couldn't be doing any worse , so . . . why not? Of course, it also might have been that what I'd actually written before wasn't what it needed to be to break in. But I don't necessarily believe that either because I'd been playing by the rules with stuff that kept being routinely rejected--but which got accepted, pretty much right away, once I decided to break the rules.

But that's not actually what I'm writing about today. Nor do I agree with every single one of Gaiman's points because, honestly, you really DO need to a) be a pro, b) be on time and c) be turning in good stuff. I don't know anyone at this stage of the game who can be an absolute schmuck and yet be so totally brilliant that everyone just puts up with it . . . but then again, I don't move in the same circles as Gaiman and King and anyone else who's a mega-bestseller.

No, the part of Gaiman's address that I breezed right past--but which was, for me, the most important part--and something I still need to focus on is that whole enjoyment thing. It's really fascinating that while I heard it, I didn't "hear" it and it took a friend to point out to me what I'd missed. That's because he knows me, very well, and I'd just been stressing about everything I needed to get done in x-amount of time. He knew what he was hearing and how to rein me in.

Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll tell you: I'm a glass half-empty girl. Nothing's ever quite good enough nor do I believe that anything good--except my husband--lasts (and there are days when I wonder how much longer he'll put up with me). Call it a Freudian thing, or a result of being a kid whose dad was in a coupla different concentration camps, but I just don't trust that good things won't evaporate. I guess you could say that I'm not a look-on-the-bright-side kind of gal.

I tend to stress. I tend to do exactly what Gaiman talks about. I am ALWAYS thinking ahead to the next day, the next book, the next project, when I just MUST get a new book out there . . . all that stuff. Any enjoyment--even the accomplishment of FINISHING A BOOK (which is HUGE, guys, HUGE)--only lasts for a small span before I get restless, need to move on, have to edit. That kind of thing.

Now this type of restlessness is very good for, say, a medical student. An intern. A doctor, who's always leapfrogging ahead, thinking down the road, trying to figure out what might help someone in distress. In psychiatry, you're always in multiple times at once: in the moment with your patient; in their past, trying to tie what you're hearing to what's come up before; and in the patient's future, thinking about you might do or suggest that will help down the road. But in terms of actually ENJOYING the moment--the fact that I'm holding a book I wrote in my hand?

Well, I do . . . and I don't.

I remember when all I wanted was to publish a short story. Then, it was I'd like to keep on publishing short stories. Then, it was holding a book I'd written in my hand. Then, breaking out of work for hire and into seeing my own stuff in print. Then . . . You get the picture. It's very Roseanne Rosanneadanna: always something.

I also think that I breezed past that part of Gaiman's address because I must have some fantasy of what making it to that point entails. Unlike Gaiman, I don't have long signing lines and all that; I'm not a tenth of the way to where he was when Stephen King gave him that advice. Putting aside the fact that if Stephen King liked ANYTHING I'd written and told me so and then gave me advice, TOO, I'd probably have a heart attack . . . I think that Gaiman's inability to take the advice points up a fundamental insecurity we writers have--and, maybe, always should.

A friend of mine makes distinctions between an author and a writer. Authors live in Author-Land, a lovely alternative universe where they rest on accolades, hob-nob with influential people, are quite fun at parties, tell super stories--but don't write a darn thing, or--if they do--not a lot or very good anymore. They live on what they've done. Think . . . Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner . . . or any writer who's effectively stopped writing but still has THE NAME.

Then, there are writers: people who grind it out, like golfers, every day. They do the work. They produce. They're in the trenches. The thing is, I think Gaiman was being a writer: someone who had to look ahead to the next book, the next paycheck, the next series . . . whatever. I think that, if he's honest, Stephen King was and might still be that kind of writer, too: a man who could live on Author Island but has both the drive and the inability to stop writing. Both are successful precisely because they never could NOT look ahead to the next project. Oh, and yeah, they write well.

But you understand what I'm saying. Most of us will always be only as good as the next book, which means that being in the moment and enjoying the ride take as much work as . . . well . . . the work. For me, there's the flip-side, too: when the writing is going well, I BLOODY LOVE IT. There is NOTHING in the universe I'd rather do--and then I am enjoying the ride. So, maybe, enjoying the ride is about enjoying the process of writing: the craft, the discovery, the desire to push oneself just a little harder, try something just a little different. Failing sucks, no question. But when you succeed--when you KNOW you nailed it--there's nothing finer.  What's even better is when you get to share this with other people; when you entertain them with the world you've created. Enjoying THAT ride is just as important.

I think the take-home here is figuring out what "the ride" is and means to you, and understanding that the ride may change over time as you mature as a writer and go further along in your career. Recognize that enjoying the ride may mean something as profound as holding a bestseller YOU WROTE in your hand or allowing your SO to drag you to a movie because you've put in a hard day, sweating over that keyboard.

So, be flexible. Enjoy. And, remember: it's never a bad day when there's cake.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Three Things that Surprised Me About Self-Publishing

By Jordan Dane

(Only three, you say?) I’ve taken a step into the self-publishing arena by releasing a short story anthology – Sex, Death and Moist Towelettes – and have a single story released separately as a sampler – Dark Kiss.

SexDeathMoistTowelettes_500x700 DARK KISS - Short Story Cover (2) 120429 One Authors Aha Moments - Jordan Dane - Final (3)_opt SMALLER FILE
I’ve also released my first non-fiction book “One Author’s Aha Moments – Writing Revelations with a Focuson the Young Adult Market.” This non-fiction book is geared toward aspiring authors. My advice comes from my personal experiences on writing fiction for adult and teen markets and what has worked for me. Topics include: Young Adult fiction themes, voice, and characteristics; how to create characters editors look for & give them a unique voice; plot structure that even a non-plotter can love; how to hook your book; the writer’s life, goal setting, editing, book promotion and more. I hope my book will kindle a fire in aspiring authors to write—a passion worth pursuing.
Today I wanted to share some things that surprised me about self-publishing and to share my early journey.

1.) Bundled versus Ala Carte Service Providers – I thought this would be an easy decision to use a service provider who does it all: formatting, editing, cover design, etc. I’d rather spend my time writing than figuring out formatting. But after getting experience with bundled services versus ala carte service providers, I found it may pay to work separately with a few key players (a formatter, cover designer, and copy editor) that I trust. That type of relationship takes time to build upon. Editors are one facet of the business where an indie author should consider developing a close working relationship on all sizes of projects. I love my editor at Harlequin Teen and needed to find someone that challenges me as much as my HQTeen editor does. When you self-publish, you get a say in how that goes, even if it takes time to find that one right person. The same goes for cover design. For certain projects, I can choose to do my own cover and keep the idea simple. But for bigger projects, I have some “go to” folks that I trust.

2.) Distribution Takes Time & Decisions Need to be Made – I can’t believe I 'm saying this, but on certain projects, I may decide to set up a production schedule in the future. For my non-fiction print book – One Author’s Aha Moments – I didn’t realize that it would take 6 weeks for CreateSpace to distribute my print book to the various retailers. Launching my book had to be done in e-book first. Once I get my POD print books, I’ll consider doing more contests. But I still like being able to make those decisions and with the virtual shelf life, I’m in it for the long haul and not just the first few months. This time it didn‘t hurt me, but it’s definitely something to consider.

3.) Indie Authors Have a Different Focus for their Online Presence – I spent time setting up profiles on places that I’ve never considered because my house handled this, sites like OverDrive that gets my book into libraries. If an author has 10 titles or more, they can be set up at OverDrive as a publisher. I updated my profile at LibraryThing, Shelfari, Goodreads, and Amazon Central (where I can update my own reviews & endorsements). These are all free and authors should take advantage of this promo op. Having profiles in multiple spots is a way of extending your brand and your name, plus it creates more hits on the Internet. This gives the perception that you as an author are “all over the place.”

Right now I’m working angles on getting reviews, setting up guest spots with bloggers, and conducting contests. Some blogs don’t do e-books, but I’ve made notes of sites that do. It takes time to work these kinks out. I hope to post more on my self-publishing adventures as I discover new things. I hope you’ll follow ADR3NALIN3 in the weeks ahead.

In the mean time, I have a contest on my Fringe Dweller YA blog or hit the link on the ADR3NALIN3 side bar. Click on my cover “One Author’s Aha Moments” to see how to enter. I’ve giving away FIVE e-books and the contest ends June 30th. Good luck to everyone who enters!

What I’d like to know today is: Where do you find your books? Online? Bookstore? Library? And do you have an e-reader?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Plundering Graves in Savannah

by Katie Crouch

I'm in Savannah, Georgia today, doing some research for the last installment of the Magnolia League and doing a couple of book events. My co-writer, Grady Hendricks, and I loaded up my Mom's ancient SUV yesterday with books and snacks and hit Highway 17 South from Charleston around four. Grady and I have known each other since we were nine, and since he lives in New York and I live in San Francisco, we had a lot to catch up on. Gossip, our reaction to the Hunger Games movie, how weird our parents are. Same stuff, basically, we used to talk about in high school, even though we're 38.

Savannah is an amazing town. Green, lush, quiet, and, of course, terrifically spooky. When we got up at 4:30 to do a morning show (aaaack), the mist clung to the ground, waist high and thick as soup. Naturally, we've been hanging out in Savannah's graveyards this morning, looking for more cool details to put into the Magnolia saga.

Goofer dust figures heavily into our plot, so we looked around for the best graves for Madison to plunder in book three. Never heard of goofer dust? Well, newbie! It's actually the dirt from graves, and depending on who's under there, a vial of it around your neck can greatly affect your fate. According to Hoodoo magic, if you're poor, the goofer from a dead rich person will turn your finances around, while the goofer from the grave of a criminal can be used to put a deathly blue root on someone you'd like to curse. Of course, you're not supposed to just TAKE the goofer. It's very important to leave a dime on the grave in payment, otherwise that spirit might follow you home.

On the way home after the event, we'll stop at Bonventure, Savannah's largest and most famous cemetery. It'll be dark by then, so hopefully we'll ferret out a spirit or two.

For more information on Hoodoo and the Southern spirits we drew upon to write the trilogy, please visit:

Until next time!


Katie Crouch

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's a Bird! Or Maybe It's a Plane. Or is it Superman?

by Jennifer Archer

So . . .  I'm reading through my current novel-in-progress (which I plan to self-publish as an ebook, by the way -- see Jordan Dane's post here) and I notice that birds play a huge part in the story. I mention birds A LOT. One of the characters even has the nickname "Chick." Plus, there are many gardening references. And the thing is...I didn't do this intentionally. Obviously some hidden themes are struggling to emerge in this book. What is the deal with the birds and the gardening? Are those birds really birds? Or do they symbolize something else? Freedom, perhaps? Loyalty -- because although birds migrate, they always return? Honesty and truth? Maybe.

A Bible verse in Ecclesiastes says: "Curse not the king, no, not in thy thoughts; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber; a little bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter."

Hmmm...I wonder. Who is Chick, really? As for the gardening, do those flowers and vegetables sprouting up in scene after scene signify growth in my protagonist, Maggie? Are all those weeds she's suddenly desperate to pull really the clutter in her life she is finally ready to uproot and toss aside?

Or is this all a bunch of baloney? Maybe I've just been craving Popeye's fried chicken while working on this book and that's why I'm mentioning birds so often. And it could be that I've been subconsciously obsessing about gardening because my thumb is far from green, but I've been trying to beautify my backyard with flowers to celebrate spring.

Either way, I'll find out soon enough as the book comes together and begins to reveal its secrets -- what it's really all about. That's what I love about revising: Having the first draft -- that huge lump of clay I've been mixing -- complete. When it's ready, I can really begin experimenting with it, carving away what doesn't work and revealing the hidden surprises. Molding and smoothing until I find the true shape. That's when the story and people in it become completely real.

How about you? As you write, do you ever notice a theme or a symbol emerging in your story that you hadn't planned or expected? Do elements of your story reveal themselves to you gradually as you write? Or are you the sort of writer that has to have everything worked out before you put your pen to the page or your fingers on the keyboard?

On another subject -- My very first published novel BODY AND SOUL, a romantic comedy, was re-released in ebook format by Samhain Retro Romance on Monday. Check out the fabulous new cover on my blog and read all about it!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Trailers as Queries? Sounds good to me!

Trailers. You see them everywhere. Books, movies, even some commercials are built like a   teaser trailer, designed to get you hooked on something and go out and buy or watch it. Movie studios hire people to do nothing but create trailers for their movies. Those people get paid to pull the best pieces out of movies and put them all together with cool graphics and dramatic voice overs to entice the public to run out and buy a ticket.

Authors have jumped on that bandwagon over the last few years, realizing that creating a trailer for their book would appeal to those who don't really read (yeah, there are non-readers out there). By pulling the best parts of their book and mushing them all together with cool graphics and dramatic voice overs, they've done something really cool: they've turned their query into a movie.

Think about current movie trailers you see on TV. They take tiny snippets from the movie - whether it be a sound clip or a spooky face or whatever - that they know will have viewers saying "hmmm, that sounds interesting" or "I wonder what this is all about", while simultaneously introducing us to the main characters and the basic problem he or she faces. Isn't that what a query is supposed to do? Introduce the main character(s), show what major problem he/she faces, and hook an agent? Sounds like the same premise to me.

So my question is, what about us writing "hopefuls" taking our queries and turning them into book/movie trailers? Maybe agents could make the shift to watching queries instead of reading them...I'm sure they'd be much more interesting! What do you guys think?

Oh, and in case you may be interested, here's the trailer for my debut YA novel, BLOOD BORN.

Note: For some reason the embed didn't work, so here's the link to the trailer on YouTube:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Should I Plot or Pants? Yes!

The debate between plotting and pantsing your manuscript is one for the ages. People on both sides swear by their preferred method. The thing is, what works for one person could be the worst thing ever for another. I'm going to say right up front that I don't think one way is better than the other. You might prefer to work one way, but there are aspects of both that can be really helpful.

First up, Plotting. (or Plodding to those who don't enjoy it.)

Just like those awful reports you used to have to do in high school, having an outline can definitely help. It gives you a clear path to follow, which can be really nice. To oversimplify things, once you've finished plotting, the actually writing is like finishing a dot to dot versus drawing something from scratch.

I can't wait to see what it's going to be!

Another nice thing about plotting is you can catch inconsistencies and logical issues before you write yourself into a corner. Again, having a clear path to follow when you write can ease or negate later headaches. 

Next up, Pantsing. (or What The Crap Are You Doing? That's Not How You Write a Book! to its detractors.)

Writing fiction is a creative, artistic endeavor, and for the most part, artists don't like being told what to do.

Or what not to do.

With pantsing, you can add fun and exciting (or horrible and awful) things to your story as you write, often coming up with things that you might never have thought of if you were sticking to a rigid outline.

Pantsing can also be fun and exciting for the writer because you're able to let the story take you on a trip. It can be easier to stick with a project because you're excited to see where it's going to go next.

Of course, with these positives come some negatives. That's why I really don't think you should stick with just one method. When you start, it's probably best to have at least a rough outline of things that are going to happen. Otherwise you could get well into your story and realize you're lost in happy fantasy land without a good way out.

...can I go home now?

But at the same time, you can spend so much time plotting and creating a beautiful snowflake for your story that you lose all interest, and the project dies before it even starts. I think it's best to find a happy medium. A little bit of both works for me, and it might for you. Have at least a rough outline, with clearly defined points you want to make. Then you're not wasting too much time meandering. But allow yourself some freedom to meander as you write. Characters and events and fantastic things are there to be discovered.

I agree with Robert McKee when he said, “We rarely know where we are going; writing is a discovery.” But I also think it's good to take a map.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Theme of Life

by Amanda Stevens

I have a deep, dark, dirty secret that I wish to share with you all this morning.  I used to be an Ally McBeal fan.  Fan is maybe too strong a word, but I did enjoy the show.  It was fluff and angst with ridiculously short skirts and a freaky dancing baby.  But one episode has always stuck with me—“Theme of Life”—which featured Tracey Ullman as a kooky therapist.  Her advice to the hopelessly neurotic Ally was to get herself a theme song, a tune that would make her feel empowered, special and happy every time she heard it.

I took this advice to heart because, let’s be real, we writers are more than a little neurotic from time to time and who doesn’t need to feel empowered, particularly in the face of deadlines, reviews and rejections?   

So your assignment today, should you choose to accept, is to get yourself a theme song.  Not to be confused with the soundtrack of your book, mind you.  This is your own personal anthem, a ditty you can play in your head whenever your muse needs a little kick in the pants.

I’ve had the same theme song for nearly fifteen years and it never fails to motivate.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Muse is Gizmo, Rambo Style.

by A.G. Howard

Some time back, I stumbled upon a traveling blog question:

How would you personify your muse?

I knew immediately where to go with that question. The movies. If you've never seen the fabulous and fun 1980's flick, The Gremlins, here's a sneak peak:

Why am I showing you this?

Because my muse is sometimes fluffy, sweet, and cooperative ...

Other times, an ugly, cantakerous, slimy beast.

What better personification than a gremlin? So, from this day forward, I dub my muse Gizmo.

Gizmo shares the same three rules for proper care and maintance as his cinematic counterparts:

1. Keep it away from bright lights.

Gizmo can be shy. He doesn't always want to come out to play. I've found he's most responsive in a dim room with only the computer's glow for company.

2. Don't get it wet.

Getting Gizmo wet (as in too many glasses of wine) causes his ideas to multiply too quickly, to wit my characters meander around aimlessly for chapters on end.

3. And don't feed it after midnight

If I make the mistake of going to bed with WIP on my brain, Gizmo responds with a nasty bout of insomnia. He doesn't care that I have a house to run and children to tote about which requires a full seven hours sleep before my seven a.m. wake up call.

But when Gizmo and I are on the same page, we get along splendidly. I guess I would even say he's my hero.

So, to you Gizmo, I dedicate this song:

And to all of you, how do you personify your muse?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lose yourself…in a novel.

I just read about a most interesting study by researchers at Ohio State University. They were studying the way fictional characters affect readers.  (The complete study will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

We all know how wonderful it is when you lose yourself in a book. Being fully transported to another time and place, “experiencing” another life so deeply that you don’t want the story to end. It’s what the twitter-universe has taken to calling #unputdownable. These are the books you tell your relatives they absolutely must read, the books you talk about at lunch with your friends. The novels you just can’t wait to read again.

What struck me about the article, though, is that the researchers were studying how and when “losing yourself” in a book translates into actually changing your behavior and thoughts to match that of the character you are reading about.

It’s a process they call “experience-taking” as opposed to “perspective-taking.”  Perspective-taking, as the researchers define it, is when the reader tries to understand what someone else is going through without losing sight of their own identity. Learning about others by becoming more emphatic, if you will. It is a worthy goal and one that is the most-often cited reason for the existence of literature over the last oh-so-many-centuries. The first book that I clearly remember “perspective-taking” was To Kill A Mockingbird.

As a New York kid, the experience of reading about the South, and the book’s take on both racism and true courage, definitely showed me a different perspective.

Experience-taking is a term I’ve never heard before.  Lisa Libby, assistant professor of psychology at the university and co-author of the study, describes it as “much more immersive––you’ve replaced yourself with the other.”

Wow! Read a book and get so into it, you become the author’s character! But hold on, writers, before you get too excited, it turns out that it’s not so simple. Libby states that you can’t plan for it. Experience-taking happens spontaneously.  For the most part, readers don’t even realize it’s happening—which is why it’s so powerful.

During the experiment, if subjects were given something to read in a mirrored room, they couldn’t get out of themselves enough to “experience-take.” That means that some of the losing of oneself in a book has to do with the actual experience of reading, which obviously an author cannot control. I imagine that the mirror could be replaced by emails, Facebook, tweets, or any of the myriad multi-tasking activities one does in-between page-turning. Just like love, there may a better chance at truly immersing yourself in a book when you give into it totally.

I grew up in a family of four rambunctious kids. It was a loud house, to say the least. From the time I was eight, I learned to shut out the noise around me whenever I picked up a book. To this day, if I am reading or writing, I do not hear anything else. The TV could be on, I have no idea what’s happening on that screen. My own children can—and have—yelled, “Mom!” and I don’t respond. It’s why I don’t play music when I write; I’ll only tune it out.  It never occurred to me that what I’ve been doing is trying to create my own “experience-taking” situation. An echo-chamber in which the only echo is that of characters speaking and living fictional lives.

There were other interesting points the study made, but there was one that related specifically to me as a writer. When I first started writing dancergirl, I wrote in third person: Ali said, she thought. After several chapters, writing the novel that way felt very removed. I changed it to first person: I said. I thought.

About halfway through the book, I still wasn’t happy. The immediacy that I was hoping for still wasn’t there. I rewrote chapters, I cut scenes. Nothing worked. One morning. I woke up and thought: present tense. Although I’d been writing in first person, it was still past tense.

I went through and changed everything to I say, I thought.  Eureka! The tension grew exponentially because it felt like the action was happening right here, right now. Since my upcoming book, Circle of Silence, is also a thriller, I began writing in first person, present tense––and never changed.

It turns out that what I’d discovered by trial and error has a basis in the science of reading. To quote Libby again: “When you share a group membership with a character from a story told in first-person voice, you’re much more likely to feel like you’re experiencing his or her life events. And when you undergo this experience-taking, it can affect your behavior for days afterwards.”

Writing in first person, of course, is not the only way to get readers to reach experience-taking nirvana. It would be a boring world if every book was written the same way. Readers will soon tune out.  But for the kind of contemporary YA thrillers that I write, first person, present tense is the easiest way for a reader to truly feel the story.

There is also literature that does not want you to experience-take in any way. Stories that need distance. The most famous example I can think of is the work of Bertold Brecht, who wanted his plays to “alienate” the viewers. Here is a clip of Meryl Streep in Brecht’s play, Mother Courage and her Children. 

So, keeping perspective, alienation, or experience-taking. Is one really more powerful than the other? Regardless of the answer, it’s a fascinating way of viewing, and understanding, literature! If you have examples of books, or plays, that gave you any of these experiences, I’d love to know.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

When my husband wants to drive me crazy, he reminds me that computers don't live in our world.  Instead, we live in theirs.  I balk at that, but then I remember the irony of that last scene in The Social Network where Zuckerberg's sitting at that computer, obsessively refreshing the screen every few seconds.  Here, the invention of this social network has both made him rich and profoundly isolated him, costing him his only friend.  The best he manage now is to hope that a girl he's never met will accept his invitation to "friend" him.

Which is pretty sad, when you stop to think about it.

I was reminded of all this when I ran across an article in the May issue of The Atlantic all about social networking and Facebook and the web of interconnectivity in which we all seem to be snared either by choice or design.  The upshot of the article, though, was intriguing: all the research would suggest that, despite our being so very electronically connected, we're actually lonelier and more self-involved than ever.  

This is fascinating--and yet makes perfect sense.  Think about the number of times you've seen people in restaurants or on the train or in an airport or a waiting room and what are they doing?  Everyone's playing on their devices: answering email, surfing the Web . . . you know the drill.  Sure, some people are reading and, yes, this is a solitary activity but one which I believe is profoundly different than clicking and surfing, bopping around, hoping to find something "interesting."  Particularly weird are the couples sitting right across the table from one another and not speaking much at all but playing with their devices.  When they do manage a conversation, it's fitful at best and broken by cell phone calls and email checks.  (Why people feel the need to answer a cell when they're at the table to begin with is lost on me.  This is why there's voice mail.  But the sense that you just MUST answer the phone call is profoundly narcissistic, if you ask me.  NO ONE is really that important; barring life or death, nothing is so earth-shattering that it can't wait for a half hour.  You just are not THAT important.)

But I don't want this post to degenerate into a diatribe against social networking or interconnectivity.  I mean, I AM blogging, for God's sake; I'm on Twitter and Facebook.  But I wasn't initially there by choice, and here's why.

I am profoundly shy.  Really.  I know.  This always surprises people who meet and/or know me in person.  But I really am.  (Hey, we shrinks don't go into shrinkdom simply to do good in the world; we frequently want to understand ourselves.)  In my mind, you guys are always much better looking, better spoken, more at ease than I can ever be.  My husband knows that when I absolutely MUST go to some social event that revolves around his work, we follow this fairly predictable pattern.  He tells me about the event; I ask if I really have to go; he says yes; I ask why; we have anything from a minor scuffle to a modest brawl; I give in and say, fine, okay, I'll do it, FINE.  Then I flounce around for awhile and, on the way into the event, I always turn to him and suggest that he do all the talking while I listen and . . . oh, by the way, when are we leaving?  Is it time to leave yet?

So, yes.  Shy.  I'm not going to go into all the gory detail or anything about adolescence or medical school or dating--(although if you recall your Joseph Conrad, it really was a bit of the horror, the horror)--but suffice to say that, as with Sherlock Holmes, if there's a wall or suitable piece of drapery, I'm likely to be wearing clothing most likely to double as suitable camouflage.  

Now, after years of practice--forcing myself into forensics and drama and all that, where I HAD to go out there and be in front of other people and say SOMETHING (even if scripted)-- I'm much better; I function fine in social situations; no one would ever know that I was the very definition of a wallflower.  The downside of being shy, of course, is that you also tend to be somewhat lonely and envious all at the same time.  You stand there and watch everyone else having a good time at the dance or party or whatever, and it's just . . . depressing.

This all ran through my mind as I read this article because I started thinking about what social networking has been like for me, both personally and as an writer.  When I started out, I didn't do any of these social media things; I didn't have a blog.  I was pretty much told by my editors that I MUST have a web presence; MUST be on Twitter; MUST be on Facebook.  For a shy person, this was a very tall order; just because I couldn't see you didn't mean that I wasn't tongue-tied.  What could I possibly have to share or say that would interest anyone if it wasn't connected to a story (or, better yet, the story itself)?

As a writer, I've been kind of surprised.  The problem for a lot of writers is that even if our minds are full, our work is very solitary. (As Annie Dillard once put it, writers don't write books so much as sit up with them, a tad like holding the hand of a dying friend and hoping that, somehow, it will all get better eventually.)  But it is a solitude I embrace; I like hanging out in my head.  Most of the time, I really don't mind being alone; it's the life I've chosen.  

Yet while maintaining a regular Web presence has taken some getting used to, there have been a lot of upsides to being connected.  I'll give you one example.  I was in the middle of touring last year and I missed a connection or something . . . I forget the exact circumstances.  But I'm stranded in the airport and stressing, so I tweeted about it.  I'm not even sure why I did that.  But within about five minutes, someone had tweeted back, expressed their sympathy, said some nice things . . . and then spent, maybe, ten minutes or so going back and forth with me on Twitter, just keeping me company, offering encouragement . . . stuff like that.  In that instance, I was grateful to have someone to talk to for a few minutes, just to get my frustrations off my chest and have someone feel a little sorry for me (because I was feeling plenty sorry for myself).  For that brief period of time, I wasn't . . . well . . . alone or lonely.

So, for me, that's an instance where social networking was a nice thing to have.  The connection wasn't DEEP or anything; it was a lovely example of another human being reaching out to assure me that I wasn't alone and everything would be okay.  I've since discovered that it's kind of nice to drop in, chat a bit, drop out again . . .

And yet, I'm also bothered by this because I can see where some people might mistake this kind of fleeting contact as a true connection, which I'm not sure that it really is.  Don't get me wrong; I'm grateful there are people out there with whom I've grown kind of chummy via email and Twitter and what-have-you.  A couple have reached out to see if we can actually meet--which would be fun--and I LOVE how social media have allowed me to connect with other writers and, most especially, my readers.  I LOVE hearing from folks who've enjoyed my work; I love chatting with kids and adults about writing; and I know of at least one kid who pursued something she normally wouldn't have if not for Facebook, which allowed us to toss around a few ideas.

Yet I've also succumbed to the Zuckerberg-refresh phenomenon, too: tweeting or Facebooking about something only to then obsessively return again and again to see if anyone--ANYONE--cares.  (It's a little bit like that tree-falling-in-the-forest kind of thing.)  

And here's what I've found: THAT'S when I feel loneliest, when I keep (re)discovering that there's no one out there.  In those instances, I let the social media dictate how I act and, subsequently, feel.  It's not the loneliness of writing that leads me to do this; it's the reinforcement of what we all dread: that we're really only important to a very few people--or, even worse--not important to anyone, at all. 

What I've also discovered about myself is that I tend to do this when I'm having a horrible time maneuvering around some annoying plot point or the story's not cooperating or I can't seem to move the chess pieces in the right way or order and the work's not going well.  THAT'S when I tend to start tossing out bon mots and obsessively checking and rechecking email and Facebook and Twitter, hoping for a response, a bit like throwing out chum to lure sharks.  Of course, everyone else is going on with their lives; it's not like I've picked up the phone and asked a friend to meet me for coffee or something; and so the non-response can make me feel even worse.  In those moments, I do feel as if I've crossed into the machine's world instead of remaining firmly fixed in mine and empowered to act rather than depend on random bits of electrons.  I've gone searching for a fleeting and ephemeral connection which is no connection at all, and nothing compared to the satisfaction of simply going out and being in the world.

I'd be interested in what other folks--readers and writers--think about this.  Have you guys noticed that your use of social media goes up when you're frustrated, feeling blue?  Do things like Facebook and Twitter help?  Hurt?  Make you feel better or worse?  Or are they ways of tricking yourself into thinking that what you're doing is REALLY important when all you're really doing is avoiding something else, like work?  And are we lonelier than before?  More narcissistic and dissatisfied?  Because, really, having thirteen trillion followers . . . that doesn't make us any less lonely or alone.

Does it?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ten Reasons Why I am Self-Publishing

By Jordan Dane

I’m targeting the month of June to release my first ever self-published efforts. ONE AUTHOR’S AHA MOMENTS will be a non-fiction craft book that will focus on writing for the Young Adult market. I’ll also have my first anthology of adult short stories with a teaser short offered from that as a standalone. Covers and links to come. For this post, I wanted to focus on my reasons to self-publish. It’s an exciting time for authors, whether you are traditionally published or not. So here are TEN REASONS that I’m self-publishing (in random order):

1.)    Creative Control – Publishing is an industry of “hurry up and wait.” As an author, you can submit a proposal and still wait 2-3 months to hear feedback while your agent works at peddling your new effort or you wait to hear about your option book (the one by contract you are obligated to show your current house in a specific genre). But when you publish on your own, no waiting. What you want to write is yours to create. It’s critical that you write a good book, get a professional editor to enhance it, and bundle the package with a nice cover, but all this is under your control—good or bad. If Snookie can do it, anyone can. (I’m depressed now.)

2.)    Pricing Control – You have control over the price you set for your book AND you can offer a discount for any time period you elect. By having this control and better knowledge of your immediate sales, you can “try” certain pricing to capture momentum without going through a committee. An author also doesn’t have to recoup monies for expensive office space or high overhead for personnel. I write from home and sit on a wooden crate. Desk optional.

3.)    Cash Flow – If you’re lucky enough to be offered an advance for a book, that money is an advance against future royalties. It’s yours to keep, but to earn royalties beyond that dollar amount, you must earn out. A publisher also retains a certain dollar amount against returns. All of these accounting transactions will appear on your royalty statement, which is issued every six months (with a 2 months lag for reporting). This means that you may or may not see any more money beyond your advance until you see it on your statement once or twice a year. When you self-publish, the digital method to account for sales is faster to attain and cash is paid to the author monthly or quarterly, depending on the retailer the author chooses. This could turn into your margarita slush fund, a shoe budget, or a big screen TV. Let the kids earn their own college tuition.

4.)    Book Release Control – From when the book is finished by the author, it can be released in 1-2 months, depending on the availability of an editor, formatter, and cover artist (presuming the author doesn’t format or create his or her own cover). If an author seeks advance reviews, this time will be longer by several months. An author doesn’t have to worry about other books being released that are vying for limited shelf space at brick and mortar stores like publishers do. Self-publishing authors can post their books when they’re ready. In the grand scheme of things, the “virtual shelf life” of a book is much longer and momentum can build as word of mouth grows. And if you get a wild hair to write a book on Big Foot, you can hammer it out while wearing your tin foil hat, without having to get approval from normal people. Other Big Foot hunters would appreciate that.

5.)    Time Management Between Contracts – Crafting and creating proposals, submittals, approvals, committee reviews, contract negotiations—all of this takes time. What does an author do while they wait? If you self-publish, you write and create and issue a book or two. Sure an author must take time to send that solo book through service providers and promote it, but the production schedule is much shorter and YOU have control over how the project moves forward. Knowing you can be productive while you are waiting might save your manicure too.

6.)    Control of Your Book RightsSubsidiary Rights, Foreign Rights, and Reversion Rights.  Retaining control of your digital rights (for e-books) and not have them tied up for years after your book is released is a HUGE benefit. The current contract language for e-books is lumped in with print book definitions. It makes no sense that digital books would have ANYTHING to do with print books, but most publishing contracts have these definitions lumped together in one clause or another (ie. “out of print” definitions and rights reversion language). Some of you may not know this or realize the impact until you try and get your backlist rights back, only to realize your house can keep rolling their rights to your work for years. This can be a nightmare. This is a HUGE reason for an author to self-publish, or at the very least, push to define e-books separately and not link the contractual terms to that of print book definitions. Why can’t e-book rights be limited to 2-3 years and stop? Why must an author ask for permission for rights that should automatically revert back to them and undergo a lengthy process over another 12-18 months where their digital rights are tied to royalty statements and definitions of books in print? Foreign rights can be lucrative too if your agent works this angle and shops them aggressively. Who knows? Maybe you both can shop those foreign rights on your next trip to France. Road trip!

7.)    More Attainable Sales Figures – Digital sales are faster to get and reporting is more immediate. This was mentioned in the cash flow section, but because you have management decisions to make on pricing and other strategies, it can’t hurt to get sales figures faster. Does “the Donald” have to wait…for anything? I think not.

8.)    Books Always Available Online – There is no limit to “shelf space” online and no inventory costs. Printed books are made “on demand” and don’t have to sit around in warehouses for them to be shipped, distributed and then sent back when they can’t sell in 1-2 months. I know that I’m over-simplifying this process, but not by much.

9.)    Manageable Production Cost on Book –You can format the book, do your own cover, and control your cost as you see fit. I personally want to spend the money to have my books professionally edited. Building a relationship with a good editor takes time, but I think I’ve found someone. (Be still my heart.) I don’t have to rely on my house to assign my book to someone. I can work with an editor of my choosing from project to project. For some books, I may choose to do a simple cover design by buying images off iStock for a front cover (on a digital only book, for example). Covers can range from $150-400+ on digital only books, or can go up from there for a Print-on-Demand (POD) book that requires spine and back cover design, for example.

10.)  Promotion Budget Control – I’m new to this process of publishing my own books, but I do know that any money I spend to promote my books is completely under my control. If I want to “try” advertising, I can do it without a committee. I can also see the effects of that money more immediately in my website hits or digital sales. And if I want a new pair of shoes—OOPS! There goes the ad money.

For the aspiring author, self-publishing can be an interesting way to get noticed if your book develops a readership. Publishers (and agents) pay attention to who is selling in this new digital world. Your efforts can showcase your writing while it earns you money. Even a moderately successful book will have sales associated with it that can be shown to a publisher so they don’t feel they're sticking their neck out on a new author with no track record or readership. Writing a good book can be parlayed into a more lucrative deal in the future for you AND your agent.

The cost that I would normally spend on promo (from travel, bookmarks, mailings, and book signings) might be reallocated toward book cost production instead. The cost of a book might run $500-2000, depending upon how much you spend on editing, cover art, and formatting. But when you compare this cost to traveling to one conference, for example, you see that your ability to reach new readers is better achieved through a new book that stays available online. The gift that keeps on giving.
There are pros and cons for any direction you may take in this new digital arena, but isn’t it nice to have options?