Keep some secrets for yourself

François_Moreau_La_jeune_cuisinière

I’ve put everything but the kitchen sink in here.

I took some time this past week to look up one of my early novels. Partly to see how far I’ve come and partly to get a smile out of the totally-enthusiastic-but-deprived-of-anything-mature writing style.

It was set in England in the 1600s. I remember trying so hard to not include dragons in it, because it was supposed to be a historical novel, not a fantasy one. But then there were dragons. And then there were spies. And then there were secret passages, underground tunnels, cults, electronic technology, and a biohazard threatening to wipe out Earth’s population.

Yeah.

It was my first serious novel (I refuse to count the first two that shall not be named or ever let out of their obisdian prisons in the netherworld) and I was determined that it was going to be published someday. What I never really considered is that it wouldn’t be my only novel. So I tried to write about everything I ever wanted to write about in one book.

Smirking at my younger self, I remembered how small a view I had of the publishing world back then. I thought that a writer was someone who wrote one book, got it published easily, then sat back on their laurels raking in money as people absorbed their work and created fandoms about it. I definitely suffered from a case of trying to fabricate epicness in my work.

Today, of course, I know that the publishing world is very different from what I first imagined. And I’ve learned something about world-building for a novel: keep most of it hidden. Not everything has to make it into the book. There can be other novels that include the things you want to write about.

There was also a novel (one of the ones that shall not be named) in which I had no clue what was happening. I didn’t know where the antagonist was for three chapters and basically had him standing in a room for three months not doing anything. The flip side of the idea that the reader doesn’t need to know everything is that you, as a writer, do.

This is starting to border on writing advice, so I’ll pull back. Just let me leave you with this one bit of encouragement: You, as a writer, have every excuse to indulge your world-building tendencies and create a rich and wonderful realm with all the details your heart desires. So go to it! (Just make sure you keep that iceberg well-hidden and only show off what you need to in your novel.)

Good Cop, Bad Cop of Query Writing

By James Campbell (1828 - 1893), via Wikimedia Commons

By James Campbell (1828 – 1893), via Wikimedia Commons

Queries are really hard. Good queries are even harder.
Writing a query is the stage of the writing process that requires you to hack your beautifully honed story down into three paragraphs and sell your soul. Or is it hacking your soul into three pieces and selling your story? I’m not sure. Could be either.
If you are having a bad query writing day, I have two things for you. One will make you feel like you can do no wrong and the other will make you feel like you can do nothing right but it will actually help you improve things.

Here are my go-to blogs for when I need a boost to my query writing process.

Good Cop
For those of us in a sensitive mood who need a boost to our ego, check out Slush Pile Hell. Every time I read the queries on there, I am both horrified that such things exist and pleased that mine sounds nothing like them. I mean, sure, these query letters are all for non-fiction, and I write fiction, so it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges. But still. If you want to see some truly atrocious writing, go there. But try not to spend more than ten minutes on it, otherwise you start to fear for the future of books and the cynicism kicks in.

Bad Cop
For anyone with really thick skin, (and I mean it. You need skin as thick as an alligator), take a gander at Janet Reid’s blog: The Query Shark. She has posted query after query with critiques, and most of them are ripped to shreds. Harsh but truthful. If you know you need a good shot of honesty, or if you don’t care about your feelings and you just want some direction in how to make your query better, then definitely read Query Shark.
Reid insists that anyone who wants to submit their query to her for critique read through the entire archives of her blog. And that’s 269 queries to date. I’ve started on it. I have to say, I wish I would have done this sooner. I can tell it’s going to take a few months before everything she teaches about query writing finally sinks in. (Pun not originally intended, but then recognized and left in anyway.)

So if you feel rather unmotivated to write a query letter, maybe playing good cop, bad cop on yourself will help. Go read some slush pile, then go get bitten by a shark, and then sit down to write. The world needs your story because you are the only one who can tell it. Please don’t let a little thing like a query deprive us of your voice.

The Hidden Blog Every Writer Should Know About

I call it hidden because it is no longer being updated, and thus, you probably won’t be able to stumble upon it easily. If you do, you probably won’t know what you have found. If you’re anything like me, finding another writing blog but then seeing that the last post was in 2011 and is called “Hiatus” would make me close that browser tab as quickly as I unfollow people who post political debates on Facebook.

But it’s jam packed full of writerly goodness. Pimp My Novel was written by a guy, Eric, on the inside of the publishing business. He gives the dirty (& clean) details of what happens after a book is acquired.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 9.07.44 AM

An oldie but a goodie

I kept seeing Eric appear in the comments of Nathan Bransford’s blog, who was an agent at the time, and thought “wow. He knows a lot. I wish I could get his perspective.” Then Eric started PMN and Nathan proudly announced it on his own blog. The two were an unstoppable team that felt like a college course in how to get published. I wish, I WISH there was a PMN equivalent that was still live, and I WISH Nathan was still an agent. (Though Nathan’s blog still has many posts worth checking out. He still keeps his eye on the industry.)

If you read nothing else over at PMN, read the Profit & Loss 4-part series. Want to know about the spreadsheet publishers use to determine sales projections and whether or not they should offer you a book contract? You can read about it there.

PMN may be outdated in some of its posts (like the analysis of genre sales and which trends are happening in publishing), but I prefer to think of it more as a time capsule.

It was written when eBooks were newer and we weren’t sure how they were going to affect the publishing industry. (Well, ok, we’re still not sure but we’re a lot less worried about it….I think.) His blog posts didn’t even have pictures! That wasn’t part of blogger 101 back then. Pictures were optional and he didn’t need them because his content is so meaty.

Also? The community that the blog created is still a treasure trove. The comments on some of the posts are as informative as the posts themselves. The guest posts are written by great people who have gone on to shape the publishing industry in their own ways. And it makes a great story. I kind of want PMN to be put into children’s book form so that someday I can read it to my children/budding writers: the story of publishing.

It will help you understand the publishing world’s recent history. Knowing where it came from can help you when you feel lost and don’t know where it’s going.

Hope that helps a bit! You probably could have stumbled across PMN by trolling the archives of Nathan Bransford’s blog (which you do, right? ‘Cause you need to), but I figured it couldn’t hurt to point it out.

Writing Space Inspiration

By Matt @ PEK from Taipei, Taiwan via Wikimedia Commons

By Matt @ PEK from Taipei, Taiwan, via Wikimedia Commons

This has been on my mind a lot lately so I might as well write a post and get it out. And not just because we recently moved and all my stuff is … not where it usually is. My desk isn’t even set up yet. This makes me kind of sad, but what better time to think about how to reinvent my writing space?

The practical part of me wants to say “Bogarts! You don’t need a dedicated writing space! That’s what a portable, laptop computer is for. You can write anywhere!”

And then there’s the creative sensitive genius inside of me that sighs. Because it believes that somewhere out there is the perfect desk, the perfect chair, the perfect Warehouse 13-like artifact that could turn my writing sessions into moments of magical perfection. It wonders if lighting does play a roll. Or if it really does matter whether I can see out a window or not. Or if I actually do need a tiny plant named Alfred sitting next to my computer. (This is how I’ve always imagined I would be as a professional writer: shiny laptop, shabby chic desk, and an Alfred plant. No idea why.)

So I turned to the internet and looked up famous writer’s writerly abodes. As should have been expected, that was not conclusive. Jane Austen wrote at a tiny cafe-like desk with no drawers. E.B. White wrote out of a corner in a sparse wooden building on a hard wooden bench. Others surrounded themselves with books and clutter while some kept everything meticulously clean and boring. Then there’s the question of light or no light, seclusion or in the midst of others, comfortable or uncomfortable.

Laptops have changed how a lot of people write by making the writing space no longer about a physical container to hold the tools of the trade. Now, it’s all about how the writer feels, both in their head space and in their physical comfort. I suddenly realized this past week that how I feel when I write my best does not coincide with feeling my best. Sometimes I need discomfort to keep me alert or focused.

Maybe take a look at your writing space today and ask yourself some honest questions. Do you write better when you are uncomfortable? Is your mind focused more when you have other people’s creative juices sloshing around, or do you need a sterile space that is kind of boring?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then just enjoy perusing the internet for pictures of famous writer’s desks. It’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon and it may help you realize that there is no right or wrong way to arrange your space. Just make sure you are carving out both the time, space, and effort in your life that you need to in order to get that creative work done.

This blog post from Avoiding Apathy not only helped me to think about where I write, but I think it’s also a great example of voice. Wish I could write blog posts like that.

Anyways, go check it out and you can probably find some good inspiration over there. (And yes, I hope to find space in my living room for a Norden because of that post.)

Other links to try for good writing space ideas:

Writerly Life talks briefly about the Writer’s Room of Boston.

Apartment Therapy has a post about spaces people created specifically for writing.

The Write Life has some wonderful pictures of famous writer’s spaces.

Come here for writerly things

I’ve debated with myself about what I want this blog to be for a long time now. I’m sure you’ve noticed the waffling back and forth between geeky posts, personal posts, writing posts, and totally random subjects that almost pulled the entire blog into the realm of “not a niche blog”.

But it recently dawned on me: I want to write about writing.

I used to think that was a bad idea. It was too meta, too cliche. I didn’t want to be one of those people that writes about writing and makes money off it, but doesn’t actually ever write anything else. So I’ve tried to keep a cap on it and shush my inner writing-geek.

During the last 6 years I’ve consumed tons of blog posts and scoured forums for any information about writing. I just love to hear others talk about writing because it bolsters my writer’s soul. There are many times when I’ll start listening to a podcast and within minutes I’ve abandoned it because I suddenly feel compelled to write.

Yes, it’s meta. Yes, it can end up sounding self-indulgent. But at the end of the day, there are writers out there who need to hear about writing stuff. Conversations with others about writing have been some of the most fulfilling interactions I’ve ever had.

So I hope to make this blog a space where writers can come and be inspired. I don’t want it to be a writing advice blog. When writers are feeling the weight of writer’s block, or know they should get to it instead of going on Facebook, I want to provide a blog where they can come and just start reading about their craft. This is a place to come when you are feeling lazy and your brain doesn’t want to work but you still want to feel like you made some kind of progress in developing your craft.

I am not published. I used to hate writing blogs that were written by people who had never been published because I thought they were just trying to build their platform and be a good little social media junkie. (And there are some out there who scrape the bottom of the barrel to eek out blog posts about subject matter they don’t know a whole lot about, but there are also good ones out there.)

That is why I don’t want this to be an advice blog. I may point you in the direction of other blogs who have good advice. I might suggest things to look into. But I don’t want to ever say “Write your query this way” unless I’ve actually submitted a query that’s gotten me a publishing contract.

Too long didn’t read: Basically, it’s time I got geeky about writing. Enthusiasm shared here for your inspiration.

Posting over at HerStoryArc.com

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, A Game of Piquet

Hey all,

My first post just went up over at www.herstoryarc.com, a website that celebrates girls and women in media and entertainment. I decided to write about what it’s like to attend a Magic: The Gathering tournament for the first time, especially as a woman. Hope you find it interesting! Check out the rest of the site too, as some of my friends are on there and are writing awesome articles.

I’ll still be posting here from time to time on stuff other than what I write for Her Story Arc, so don’t worry: the same inconsistent and tremulous writing you’ve come to know and love isn’t going away. But I am making more of an effort to post regularly at HSA.

Actually, I take that back. I hope that when I do post on this blog, that it will not be the same voice you’ve read in previous posts. I should be getting better at finding my writing voice with all the extra blog posts at HSA, so theoretically, if you check back here in a couple months, there will be something more orotund and polished.

Have a good week!

Discussing Books

A Group of Artists By Jules-Alexandre Grün (1868 - 1934) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Group of Artists By Jules-Alexandre Grün (1868 – 1934) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I finally got to a book club. It only took me 30 years. With only half the assigned book read, I debated even going. Memories of college classes with teachers struggling to make us pull valuable conversations out of thin air about a book we didn’t actually read and most of us never even bought made me debate about going even more. But I had already invested several hours into reading the book and I wasn’t going to let that go to waste. I’m glad I went.

5 things I learned:

1. Not having read the entire book is a lame excuse for not coming.

There were many people who didn’t show up because they had not finished the book on time. Of those who did show up, only one had read the entire book. We still had an interesting discussion.

2. Unlike college, book club people are there because they want to be, and because they want to read that specific book. So discussions are more vibrant.

I’ll admit, I expected the leader of the group to read discussion questions from a can, followed by a determination of us all to listen to crickets chirping in awkwardness. Instead, the people there were genuinely interested in discussing the book. Or at least in discussing something. There were no crickets.

3. It’s very easy for the conversation to get de-railed.

We started out discussing the book, and ended up discussing our interests. And that was ok. I came to the book club to enjoy bookish people’s company, not to rigidly stick to a list of discussion questions. But I can see how this might bug me if we had been reading a book I was absolutely thrilled and confused about and had things I needed to ask the group. So, yay for making new friends. But I can see I’ll have to be more determined to stay on task next time.

4. It helps to come with questions ahead of time, and I don’t mean “discussion questions”. What do you legitimately want to know from others about this book?

My instinct is to answer this question by saying “I don’t need to know anything from others about this book. I read it. I’m an expert by now.” But finding out that someone else feels differently about the book than I do is valuable. For instance, when I read the first chapter of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman, I thought it was really sad. But when I heard him read it live, it was funny. Obviously, there are many different ways to see a book.

My top tip for coming up with questions that don’t sound like boring discussion questions: Use specifics. Instead of asking “How did you feel about the beginning of the book?” try to make the question specific to the book so that it couldn’t possibly be asked about any other book. Example: “What was your first thought about the Dursley’s when you read the first line about how proud they are to be normal?”

5. Don’t be afraid to disagree.

It’s the differences in how people experienced the book that are more valuable to me. If someone thinks the ending was awesome and so do I, we may be able to squee about it for a minute or two, but then we move on. Whereas, if someone else didn’t like the ending, I get to ask why. Getting to ask why is one of my favorite things to do and probably the most magical word in the English language.

Finally, I can’t end a post about reading without reminding you how good reading is in general. Because reading is amazing, essential, thrilling, and good for both your brain and your soul.

Get to it!

Largest Book in the World, Photo By Frank H. Nowell , via Wikimedia Commons

Largest Book in the World, Photo By Frank H. Nowell , via Wikimedia Commons

How long does it take to write a book?

I was asked this question by a non-writer this week, and it took me one very long email to answer it. It’s a complicated question!

By Rich Keele, Horus Sundials (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Rich Keele, Horus Sundials (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

First, what do we mean by writing a book? Are we wanting to know how long it takes to write the first draft? Or how long it takes from imagination to published book? There’s a lot of research involved, and a lot of thinking time where the writer isn’t doing anything but sitting and thinking, too.

Then there’s the variant between writers: some type fast, some slow. Some are full-time and can spend 8 hours a day, others only get an hour a week to spend on their craft. Some can crank out a book in 4 weeks, while others take decades.

For a published author, if they produce one book every year, they are considered prolific. I know there are a lot of fabulous authors out there who take longer or shorter, but let’s use this as a base line, since we have to sstart somewhere.

Assuming that a professional writer does not have another job and relies solely on writing, they are probably spending 40 hours a week on their craft. With 52 weeks in the year, that’s about 2,080 hours. But then you have to subtract holidays, sick days, and vacation days. If we assume it’s like any regular 9-5 job with paid time off, that’s probably around 2 weeks of vacation, 10 holidays, and 10 sick days (because if I were self-employed, I’d be tempted to take the maximum number of holidays and sick days off…we can call them writer’s block days if we want). That brings the total number of hours in a year down to 1,840.

There are a lot of other things to consider, though. For instance, novels written on a typewriter or by hand take longer. Those written on a computer are faster. Someone who can type faster might be able to finish quicker. Also, depending on what kind of software the writer uses, it could be a cumbersome experience or a slick and easy one.

But….there’s also the time it takes to revise a novel. Just writing it is not the end. There are second, third, and sometimes fourth drafts that have to be written. (In my case, sixth drafts. *headdesk*) And they all have to be edited, proofread, and edited again. Then there’s the time it takes the publisher to make a cover for it, typeset it, build a promotional program for it, negotiate with booksellers to display it in their stores, and finally, print and distribute it. From the time an author signs a contract with a publishing company to the time their book is first available in bookstores, six months to a year and a half could have passed.

So, let’s say that those 1,840 hours are not all spent on just writing the first draft. Let’s take a stab in the dark and estimate about half of them are spent writing, the other half are spent editing, proofreading, rewriting, researching, and submitting to publishers. That leaves us with roughly 920 hours of writing time.

Some writers hire personal assistants to do menial work for them, like the editing, proofreading, and submitting to publishers, so that they can have more time to write. Which does make it take significantly less time.

Also, someone who is writing a book for the first time is going to be much slower at it than someone who has ten bestsellers under their belt. So, the first novel might take 3 years of working full time at it, but the second might take only half that time, and the third, a half of that.

The person who asked me this question said he read an article that it takes 450 hours to write a book. To which I say, good for that writer! But that’s hardly every writer.

As you gear up for NaNoWriMo this year, keep these things in mind. You already know you’re going to try and write one draft in a month. How much time do you think it will take you to research and outline before then (assuming outlines work for you)? How much time will you need afterward to edit your magnificent but sprawling beast of a manuscript?

If you are consistently spending x hours per week on writing, put a number to how many hours you think it will take each step in the writing process. (And if you’re able to do this, can I just say good for you, because you are regularly writing? Congratulations!)

Then do the math to figure out how long it will take you to finish your book at your current rate. It’s a fun little exercise, especially when you don’t want to write and need a distraction. Perhaps you will see that you need to put in more time per week to finish what you started. Or maybe it will motivate you to make more use of the writing time you do have.

The important thing is that it puts your writing in perspective. It changes your thinking from “someday I’ll reach the end, or maybe it will go on forever” to “I know approximately when I will be done if I keep at it, and every time  I don’t put off writing, I’m rewarding myself by bringing that finish line one day closer”.

3 Reasons to Read Everyday

We all know we “should” read, that there’s some ambiguous benefit to come from it. But not knowing what that benefit is makes it easy to put off. To rationalize away.

By Laura Muntz Lyall (1860-1930) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Interesting Story By Laura Muntz Lyall (1860-1930) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I used to not read very much until one day I decided I was going to put that unread monkey on my back to rest for good. I rummaged around to find the books on my long list of “should reads” and started going through them. I realized that there are lots of benefits to reading. (I also realized that if a book is on your list because you “should” read it, maybe it shouldn’t be there.)
Assuming that if you’re still reading this, you are not as big a reader as you’d like to be, I’ll try to keep this concise so there’s not as much to read (and so you’ll have a few more minutes to go grab the nearest book and dig in).
  1. There are BENEFITS to reading:
    1. Improved memory
    2. Improved creative problem solving
    3. Improved tranquility
    4. More knowledge
    5. Bigger vocabulary
    6. Stress reduction
    7. Free or very inexpensive entertainment
    8. Improved imagination
    9. And the big one for writers: Provides a must-have grasp of the craft of writing. (You’re a writer, aren’t you? Don’t you want to study your craft like every other profession does, by looking at what other people do? Honestly, if you call yourself a writer and you don’t read at least two good books a year, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life.)
  2. Reading is NOT HARD:
    1. Hear me out. It might seem like a big, boring task that’s going to take a lot of time. The truth is, it’s not that hard, or long, or boring. You choose to read as much or as long as you like. Neither do you have to finish a book if you don’t like it. Try this: Get a book and set a timer for 5 minutes, then read. That’s doable, right? Congratulations! You just read something. Now repeat until you finish a book.
  3. Reading RESTORES your belief in writing.
    1. For a long time I languished as a writer and felt like I just didn’t have enough gas to write what my stories needed. I had begun to get cynical and started asking myself why anyone would ever read my writing when they’re so busy all the time. I also started asking why anyone needed to read my story. Aren’t there enough books out there that people can pick up? Does the world really need my story?
    2. I had gotten out of touch with what it feels like to be a reader. When I picked up reading in seriousness, I remembered what it was like to get lost in a book, what a reader feels when they just have to turn the page, stay up late to finish an exciting story, or strain against spoiling the ending for their friends. Once I remembered what that was like, I remembered there are millions upon millions of people in this world who LOVE to read, who are clamoring for stories. And that yes, the world does need my story. (More on this in my next post.) Reading restored my belief that my writing can make a difference.

 

 

Feel free to share what you’re reading in comments. If you need extra motivation or want to connect with a community of readers, check out the site www.goodreads.com. It’s like Facebook for readers.

You have to actually write

Color By NumberAfter my last post about my writing methods, and hoping it would be helpful for some writer out there, I read Patricia Wrede’s post about advance planning. You can read it here. Go on. I’ll wait.

She has a very good point. All outlining and preparatory systems have a weakness: they don’t help with the actual writing. After doing all the right steps, I might know that the next scene has to involve a visit to an insane asylum, but the outline won’t tell me the angle of attack.

Unless I use the phase drafting method. At the end of her post, Wrede gives an example of what kind of outline would have been useful if she had known ahead of time what was going to end up in the book. And it looks very similar to the description of a phase. It all depends on how micro-managed you want your outline to be. When I got to the point of writing about the insane asylum in one of my older novels, the phase “A young William walks through the door of an insane asylum. Memories of the past. Loathing of the place. Memories of visiting his grandfather and being bored.” helped with my plan of attack. I had already decided the best way to write this scene was from William’s point of view and to focus on his feelings.

But I still like what Wrede said about most outlining methods. They don’t write the book for you. You still have to get your butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard, and type.You still have to make decisions about whether to describe the asylum as creepy, or to go for disgusting instead. These are the types of decisions an outline will not help you make no matter how fine-tuned it is (because at some point, it stops being an outline and is the actual story itself).

A few thoughts inspired Wrede’s post that I think are important:

  • Sometimes beautiful books are written with no advance planning at all. I’d say experiment before starting a big outlining project and just write. It probably won’t grow into a stellar full-length novel, in which case, all you’ve done is create more material to put into your phase draft. But it definitely won’t hurt and you may find that something beautiful is flowing out of you without even trying.
  • The initial decisions the rest of the book is built on are often arbitrary. You can change them at will, which is nice. But better to do that before writing the whole thing so you have less to change. This is the whole point of the snowflake: if the story is broken and needs to be fixed, at least you’ve only put a few weeks into it and not months. Outlining, for me, is all about spotting problems early.
  • Don’t assume that an outline’s job is to make the writing process easier. It’s supposed to make it better (though sometimes it does make it easier). I work just as hard at writing when I have an outline as I do without one. It just means the difference between pouring my heart and soul into choosing better words or using energy to keep a meandering plot from getting out of hand.
  • The main purpose of an outline is to tell me what absolutely has to happen in a scene. Like a checklist to make sure I hit all the important things that move the plot along. If used that way, it doesn’t get in the way of my freedom to experiment with different angles of attack.

Hope that all made sense. Now go on. Get out of here and write. The world needs your story!