Monday, January 30, 2017

Striving for Imperfection

I read a lot of books in 2016 (at least compared to my usual level of reading), and something started to become clear: Current fiction has a lot of ‘perfect’ characters. Most of the time the perfection is represented in appearance—piercing green or blue eyes, framed by a perfectly shaped face, topped with a mop of soft locks that are always perfectly tousled. The male protagonist has abs that could be used as a washboard, completed with that enviable ‘V’ just above the belt, and is over six feet tall. The female is dainty with kissable pouty lips, and she fits perfectly into the nook of her lead male’s arms. And she’s made even more ‘perfect’ through her obliviousness to the fact that every man wants her.

“But wait. These ‘perfects’ are humanized by their character flaws. Right?”

Umm, maybe. The thing is, many times their flaws are also pretty perfect—at least for the sake of the story. They are often assigned to the character for the sole reason of supporting the plot. There needs to be conflict, so our perfect male is too arrogant. There needs to be tension, so our perfect female is too trusting. It reminds me of that ridiculous question during job interviews. You know the one I’m talking about:

“What’s your biggest weakness?”

Of course you’re going to respond with a perfect flaw. The one that doesn’t actually make you look bad. “I’m very dedicated to my work and have difficulty shutting it off at the end of the day.” Or, “I can sometimes be a perfectionist.” I feel like that’s what we’re often getting these days with characters. It’s like we readers asked this same question and were given the sugar-coated perfect answer in return.

As a reader, I’m sort of becoming exhausted by all the perfection. Why? Well, mainly it’s predictable. One of the things I love about reading is getting lost in the story and having it take me somewhere unexpected. It’s as though the writing community has assumed the majority of readers can only care about one certain type of character so that’s what we get. My other fear is that it’s a result of writers who are so focused on churning out book after book as quick as possible they don’t take the time to let new characters develop. They just recycle the old ones—give them a new name and new hair color and no one will notice, right?

I’ve started to avoid certain books where I know there is a high probability of excessive perfection. And to be clear, Im not just talking about romance novels where good-looking characters are practically a prerequisite. Perfection popped its pretty little head up across all the genres I read last year (and in both traditional and indie published). I did stumble on the occasional book where perfection was presented in some form but not dwelled upon. For example, the ‘perfect’ features weren’t mentioned every time the two primary characters saw or thought of each other. It saved the book for me a bit because it gave me the freedom to forget and picture the characters as average as I liked.

As a writer, it has me thinking. I’m not immune to wanting to write about dreamy characters. Marcus from both Kingston’s Project and Kingston’s Promise is my version of hot, hot, HOT. Although, I did try to avoid talking about it every moment his name appeared on the page (thanks to my beta readers for helping to keep me in check on this!). His primary flaw is his vulnerability to his father’s disinterest. My female protagonist from those same books, Sarah, is good looking but isn’t a knock-out. Her primary character flaw is that she holds on to guilt like it’s a life raft. I know these flaws aren’t unique, and I’ll admit they do benefit my plot to an extent. But I wasn’t thinking about the annoyance of perfection and the attractiveness of imperfection back then like I am now. And, yes, I do understand that many times it’s the flaws that actually drive the plot. I’m not saying flaw assignments should neglect the plot completely. I guess I’d just like to see more depth.

My recent frustrations have pushed me to want to do better in creating imperfect characters. I view it as a challenge in many ways. It’s sometimes easy to become invested in characters who are attractive or have predictable flaws, but I like the thrill of trying to make the reader root for the love interest who doesn’t look like he just stepped off the center pages of an underwear advertisement. I also like the challenge of representing a more diverse set of characters in my books. Humans are complex by nature. Many of our flaws are similar and predictable, but many more are unique and subtle. Some of the books I’ve enjoyed the most this past year had characters who were very average or very complex and unique.

Last week in my critique group we spent a little time talking about villains. Someone commented that the most realistic villains tend to have one redeeming quality. It was a serendipitous conversation given my recent thoughts on perfection. A perfectly evil villain can be just as annoying as a perfectly perfect hero. I don’t exactly have a villain in my current WIP, but Grandpa is pretty darn close. When I drafted out his character profile, I did give him an opposite viewpoint (I won’t call it redeeming because I’m not sure yet if he will earn redemption). My plan was to slowly reveal that side of his character later in the story but not give it away entirely. I still don’t plan to give it all away, but after last night’s discussion I realize it might be better to start introducing it sooner in the story. If I don’t, I may end up stripping him of his shot at redemption without intention because readers may not see him as realistic.

So that’s my writing challenge for this year—creating imperfect characters my readers will love better than any perfect character I could give them.

Who’s with me?


Thursday, January 26, 2017

BACK JACKET HACK-JOB #16: Arthur the Author

A Post By Jonathan

My last Hack-Job, Tony Robbins: Off The Deep End, was super fancy, with a fake book jacket and everything. Unfortunately, I accidentally backed over my laptop with my Jeep Grand Cherokee (long story, but my fellow rearers of two-year-olds might actually understand how such a thing could happen...) and am writing this on my wife's iPad, which does not seem to have the same kind of graphic functionality.

Anyway, I've been daydreaming a lot about writing lately without actually having the opportunity to do any, so here's a fake back jacket about a fake story inspired by a fake writer...

Arthur the Author

There once was a man named Arthur, and there was nothing in this world Arthur wanted more than to become an author. He read books constantly, and he often had the same thoughts many people who read books but have never actually tried to write them have: "This book is crap... I could have written this!" But ahh, could he? As it turns out, he couldn't. 

He had tried writing every story imaginable; mysteries, historical fiction, thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, manga, fairy tale retellings, comic strips, flash fiction, erotica. But it never failed, once the story began, it would meander and end up in places he never intended, until he would eventually get frustrated and have to throw the MS away (that's manuscript for all you posers out there). 

But still, all he did day and night was fantasize about becoming a famous writer who did interviews and photo shoots and had his books made into movies. It eventually got to the point where he couldn't sleep, he was so obsessed with the idea. After one particularly restless night, Arthur came downstairs to fetch a cup of tea. Earl Grey in hand, he went to his bookshelf like he so often did. Then, as he was scanning through the tomes, he noticed something that gave him quite a fright. So much so that he dropped his tea entirely, and it went crashing to the floor.

Ignoring the mess for once, Arthur reached out for the peculiar thing he'd just seen. A book that was written by someone with his name, spelled the exact same way, middle initial and all. Opening the front cover, he received an even bigger surprise. There was a picture on the inside, a picture of him. And the author description was a description of his life. How could this have happened? 

Unable to help himself, Arthur began to read the book. And it was... amazing! He read through morning, until around 9am there came a knock on his front door. It was a reporter. Not just one. He was still in his bathrobe, but they were taking pictures anyway. They were asking him all sorts of questions about a book. His book. The book he had found last night on the shelf. He barely had a chance to say uhhh, before they switched to a different question. They left in even more of a hurry than when they arrived, and Arthur was left standing there contemplating what in the world just happened. 

The next days and weeks were even crazier. People all over the world seemed to know about his book. He got a publicist. He had articles written about him. He did the morning show circuit, the late show circuit, and even the late late show circuit. But all the while something felt hallow, and wrong, even as he sat on the set of his new movie (it was going to be in 3D). He didn't actually write the book, did he? If he did, he didn't remember it. Reading it was like reading it for the first time for him too.

Finally, Arthur decided to stop lying and start telling people that he didn't write it. They laughed at first, but then they started to believe him. And soon his name was smeared in all the papers and his face was all over the tabloids (and not in the good way). He got sued by all sorts of people for false pretenses and eventually lost his house and had to live on the streets. Books were no longer pleasure things, but fuel for the fire (the actual fire, not the figurative one). 

The ordeal was so horrible and life changing that Arthur decided he finally had a decent story and that he would finally be able to write his book.

Monday, January 23, 2017

What Are Metrics?

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!
A few years ago Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill starred in a movie called "Moneyball" based on a nonfiction book of the same name.  It was the story of Billy Beane, the head coach of the Oakland A's, who in 2002 became one of the first people in sports to embrace the concept of sabermetrics.

I'm not a big sports fan and I'm by no means an expert in sabermetrics, but my dumb-dumb layman explanation is that if you analyze enough statistics you can stack the deck of even something as complicated as competitive sports in your favor.  So if you know which player statistically will get on base the most often against a certain pitcher, or you know which team is statistically the worst fielding in a certain weather type, you can plan a mathematical strategy rather than just relying on gut instincts and superstitions.

The movie made a point of comparing the old method of scouting - where old men dipping chewing tobacco would make decisions based on how ugly a player's girlfriend was, say, to determine whether he had confidence - with something like how often the player gets on first base.  Because ultimately, you can never score a run unless you get on base.  

So what does this have to do with writing?  Well, they may never make a movie about it - God, what a boring fucking movie that would be - but statistical analyses are causing a similar revolution in publishing today as they did in baseball a decade and a half ago.  A lot fewer decisions are getting made in smoky boardrooms by guts than are getting made based on spreadsheets and number-crunching.

So what are the metrics that you should be aware of as a writer?  Let's break them down.

1.)  Readers

I know a full-time writer who has between 75,000-100,000 readers.  Every book he releases sells that many copies like clockwork.  That's a known quantity.  That means he's able to base his income on that, and his publishers are able to base what they'll pay him on that.  

I don't want to jinx it but I think I have around 50 readers.  That's just a guess.  But I think there are about 50 people who, every time I have a release, buy my book because it has that big long K-name stamped on the front.  I'm not ready to retire from my day job yet.  But that's also a known quantity.

My goal is to get closer to my friend's number.  I've heard it reasonably argued that a person with 10,000 loyal readers can make a full-time living as an author.  Bullshit math tells me if your titles go for $5.99 that's $59,900 per title, so if you get 50% royalties, discounting Amazon's 30% cut, that means you'd bank about  $20,965 gross per title.  (For brevity's sake, from here on out I'm just going to refer to "Amazon" as meaning all distributors, and if you like you can replace every instance of it in your mind with "Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, etc.")  So if you release a book a quarter (which is, admittedly, a pretty intense schedule) less taxes, you're probably making a comfortable $60,000-$70,000 a year.

Yeah.  So we're all reaching for that 10K number, or probably higher in all likelihood so we don't burn out.  How can you tell how many readers you have?  You can't, really, except by gauging your royalty statements.

2.)  Sales

A slightly less arcane metric than your readership is your sales.  One presumes, for instance, that there's a major difference between Dan Brown's readership in general and his sales for mega-hit THE DA VINCI CODE.  So how do you measure sales?

Well, the easiest way is by checking your royalty statement.  Your publisher should break it down for you, or if you're self-published then Amazon should be breaking it down for you.  You should crunch the numbers yourself to determine those "Moneyball"-type statistics you're interested in: how many copies of which books you sell per month or year, which titles sell more consistently, how discounts affect sales, etc. etc.  And from that you'll start to gauge your readership as discussed above.

But what about comparing yourself to other authors, that most important of all things that we're never supposed to do?  Well, there's a quick and dirty method for that as well.  The only gauge that's going to be available to you (unless you go dumpster diving outside Simon & Schuster headquarters or something) is Amazon bestseller rank.  You can use a Kindle Best Seller calculator like this one to make an educated guess about how many copies your peers and/or competitors are selling. But Amazon's ranking algorithm is proprietary and they're not sharing exactly how it works, so take any such calculator with a grain of salt. 

Aside from using a janky internet calculator the rule of thumb is that a Kindle e-book with a rank of 100,000 (remember, you want to be #1, just like in the Olympics) has had one sale today. And books with better sales in the past tend to retain a higher ranking. So if you come across a book that's been out for four years and is ranking 9000 overall in the Kindle Store, this is a book that has had lots of sales. If you come across a book that's been out for two weeks and is languishing at a million, well, that probably sold one copy to Mom once.

3.)  Reviews

Reviews are indicative of sales but you need to beat it into your head that reviews are a separate metric from sales.  About 1% of people who buy a book will review it.  So, naturally, a Stephen King book that sells 5 million copies will have an organic baseline of 50,000 reviews.  One of my books that sells 500 copies will probably have an organic baseline of 5.

Now notice I say organic.  Reviews are one of the few metrics you can have any effect on.  You can't really control sales, but with a little elbow grease, you can drive up your review numbers.  It's unseemly and unethical to pay for reviews, but you can solicit honest reviews from book bloggers and reviewers online.  Expect to exchange a courtesy copy of your book (it's up to you whether you want to shell out for physical copies or just stick to e-books and audiobooks) in exchange for an honest review.  And that review may never come.  And if it does come and it happens to be negative, guess what?  You still improved your metrics.

Now, I've written entire blogposts about reviews, and I could probably write an entire book about them, too, so I'm not going to cover all of that ground here.  Just suffice it to say, toss out your concept of negative and positive.  Fuck your ego, to put it succinctly.  Don't worry about getting bad reviews; worry about getting no reviews.

Accepting (or ignoring) criticism with quiet grace is a necessity for public figures.  Could you imagine how ridiculous and pathetic a public figure would look if they whined and complained and fought back every time someone expressed a mildly negative opinion of them?  That person would look like a complete and utter ass, and ultimately undermine their own authority.  You're a public figure now, so shut the hell up about those one-stars, and in time, learn to love them.

4.)  Platform

How many Twitter followers do you have?  How about on Facebook?  Instagram?  Do you own a website?  Write for a blog?  Write for a group blog?  How many subscribers are on your mailing list?

Your social media platform can feed your sales - which can feed your organic reviews - but, again, it's a separate series of metrics.  It's good to have a million Twitter followers.  But it's likely only about 1% of those will buy your book.  So, yeah, that's 10,000 sales, which is amazeballs, but there's also 990,000 people who saw your tweet and ignored it.

For good or for ill, you will now be judged (at least in part) on your platform.  Yes, if you write a brilliant book it will sell, regardless of platform.  But the reverse does not necessarily hold true.  Not to pick on them, but the Kardashians have been known to sell a book or two.  So having a platform does not mean you necessarily have to have written a brilliant book.

Now, despite my going on about the importance of statistics, I do not have any concrete data regarding to what degree agents and publishers worry about platform.  I do know that they all admit to considering it, which means it is probably far more widespread than the better angels of my nature might hope.  I also have an anecdote.  I was once told by someone in the industry that he loved my writing and was ready to take on my manuscript, just as soon as I doubled my Twitter followers.

Well, there's a difference between knowing an unseemly thing takes place and being told an unseemly thing just happened to you.  I did not respond.  I did, however, double my Twitter followers.  Then I doubled it five more times.  Not for him.  He'll never get one of my manuscripts, I can guaran-goddamn-tee you that.  I increased my Twitter followers for myself.  I don't intend to be rejected again because I don't have enough of a platform.

5.)  Intangibles

And finally, perhaps in the wrong order, but I'd rather close with this than open with it, we get to the "who gives a shit" portion of this post.

My friend with the established fan base thinks it's funny that I keep track of all of this sort of thing.  Because to him, it just doesn't matter.  He can keep a roof over his head, so what difference does it make how many reviews he got on thus-and-such?

On the other side of the coin, you may not give a shit about making a dime in this industry.  You may write simply for pleasure, and publish because it's an easy option these days.  I know someone who wrote and published a book to have a nice favor for her daughter's birthday party guests.  

There are things worth caring about and there are things that aren't.  No amount of books I've sold or reviews I've gotten mean quite as much to me as the lunch I had with Jack Ketchum or the kiss Brian Keene planted on my head.  I hope someday to win much acclaim and many awards, but I don't know if any of it will touch me as deeply as as Sheilah Randall declaring herself my first fangirl or Dave Sharp calling me the next Bradbury.

So my real advice, as much as this has been a primer to give you an idea of what sorts of things you could keep track to only keep track of the things you want to.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Easy Way Out

                                                                                                                     By Cheryl Oreglia 

Taking the easy way out always fails in the long run. It doesn't matter if you're raising a family, developing your mind, nurturing a relationship, writing a blog, or cooking a meal. The end product reflects your effort. Skimping on your potential, your legacy, your future is foolish. Like most things, I had to learn this the hard way. It might be less complicated to avoid the hard conversations, the complex issues, the difficult relationships, the person in need, but the truth is I'm only short changing myself. Most successful long-term relationships are the result of hard work and personal integrity. This includes the relationship we have with our readers. I've come to believe it's all about relationship, life is prolific, and good fruit is the result of a tenderly nurtured field and a dash of good humor.

I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, "Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying." Ain't that the truth. When I find myself entangled in a toxic relationship, I usually trust my instincts, which scream at an impressive volume, "Run like you're being stalked by Annie Wilkes." I've always labeled (I know this is not PC) toxic people as infectious, deranged, self-righteous creeps bent on destroying my carefully cultured crop, but maybe my conclusions are rash?

Anil Dash gently reminds me, "Almost all of the time, people are awesome when you give them the chance to be their best selves. But it can be hard to remember that."[especially when I binge on sensationalism] In today's polarized political climate genuine, humane, and empathetic conversations are desperately needed. Being open to someone else's point of view, especially one you adamantly oppose, takes enormous personal probity. I know when I make a conscious effort to listen, consider, and comprehend the intentions of the human being standing beside me, it's cathartic for both parties (clearly applicable to marriage). Moving through the awkwardness and resistance until you come "out beyond ideas of wrong doing and rightdoing," to a place where our souls are able to rest in the company of each other.
Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about
. Rumi
Speaking of being too full, I've come to believe, cooking a meal is an act of love. Yes, I totally jumped topic, stay with me, I'll eventually bring it around. Cooking takes effort, creativity, and due diligence. There's the menu to come up with, the food shopping to manage, preparations to be made, setting an attractive table (subjective), serving, communing, and the dreaded clean-up. Not to mention the issue of finding a night that fits into everyone's schedule. It does not happen on it's own. It is an intentional choice to nurture family relationships. In the long run you'll have children who know each other, depend on each other, and trust each other (applies to friendships as well). Close families don't just happen, they are modeled by dedicated parents, who have the foresight to prioritize people over things. Kids left eating alone in bedrooms or in front of the television never experience table communion, which makes it difficult to understand spiritual communion, and maybe even the concept of agape, meaningful love. It starts at the family table and the long term benefits are unimaginable. Consider the appeal of Blue Bloods staring Tom Select which depicts a family dinner on every show. 

In addition to family, I believe friends have the weighty responsibility of courting the best in each other. I've written a lot about friendship. [Behold, I call you friend] It is one of the most important components to a fulfilling life. They say a contributing factor to depression is loneliness, isolation, feeling unanchored in a sea of humanity. Friendship is an act of hope in a culture of immediacy, because time is the ultimate currency, and friendships take time. Believe it or not, there are people who love me in spite of myself, they are rare as hen's teeth, but worth the hunt. The ultimate dividend is having someone who will pull my head out of the sand when I get buried in the rubble of life. Trust me, shit happens, find someone who is strong. 

I believe writing requires the same integrity and effort as relationships because we are courting our readers. Before I write, I turn to a secret list I've created on twitter, called "inspire me." [clever, I know] I've linked people like Krista Tippett, Seth Godin, Maria Popova, Courtney Martin, Parker Palmer, the Pope, Brene Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, and many more (if you want access send me a PM) This stream of inspiration is fragrant, like coffee, which drags me by my nose to the kitchen each morning. When I open the computer to start a new blog it is usually after I've listened, read, or watched something inspirational (on occasion it is simply a cold shower). Maria Popova says, "We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we've collected by being alive, and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely curated catalog of those." If we curate our lives by the things that grab our attention, be selective, take the long way home, or deal with the Misery. (Get it?)

I don't know if we ever fully realize how we save each other with simple acts of kindness, offers of support, and timely encouragement. But we do and I believe this is simply the nature of us, made in the image of God, designed for good.

More and less by Seth Godin

More creating

Less consuming

More leading

Less following

More contributing

Less taking

More patience

Less intolerance

More connecting

Less isolating

More writing

Less watching 

More optimism 
Less false realism

Check out these inspirational thinkers:

Krista Tippett from On Being

Maria Popova from Brain Pickings

Seth Godin of Typepad

I'm Living in the Gap, drop by anytime.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Rumpus Room Reads #2 - Evergreen

Ok, folks, here we are in a new year, finally addressing the book whose ridiculous cover was the first to pop into my head when I first imagined the rumpus room reads reviews - Belva Plain’s 1978 best-seller “Evergreen.”  It’s the multigenerational sweeping tale of Anna, a poor Jewish orphan girl who flees her pogrom-plagued shtetl in Poland to come to America.  

Anna starts off in a turn-of-the-century Lower East Side sweatshop, moves up to being the maid of a rich Jewish family that’s been in New York for a few generations, then falls in illicit love with Paul, the son of the family, only to have him marry someone else.  So she marries Joseph, the blah pious nice Jewish boy she’s been unenthusiastically dating, and has a family with him while he makes them plenty rich from starting a post-WWII construction company that craps out tract housing in the suburbs.  But the whole time a secret ember burns in her sinful heart for that jerky old money rich dude Paul (“oh Anna, you’re so beautiful” is like basically the crux of their magical love, even though she’s super classy and cultured and stuff), and there’s a paternity secret from this one time she had to get a loan from him to start her husband’s company, and she’s super guilty about it and then like literally every horrible thing you can imagine happening to a Jewish immigrant family between the beginning of the 1900’s and the 1970’s happens to them.  That’s right, they were briefly denied a country club membership.  But in the end, Joseph and Anna’s shared belief that family is the most important thing in the world dominates all and becomes the moral of the story.

Just look at the cover of this novel.  That’s feisty red-headed Anna in the middle there, sporting a pair of eyes last seen floating bodiless at the end of an ‘80s music video.  Feisty red-headed heroines were sort of Belva Plain’s thing.  We sort of love Belva Plain’s pen name, don’t we?  Surprisingly, Belva was a real and actual Belva, and only the “Plain” was false (changed from Offenberg, which reads like a mouthful of gefilte fish jelly).  There’s nothing “plain” about that font, though.  Can’t you just hear the theme music crescendo as this overwrought “Evergreen” emblazons the screen at the opening credits of the miniseries?  “Evergreen” actually was a miniseries in 1985, starring Lesley Ann Warren, best known as Ms. Scarlett in the “Clue” movie that same year, as Anna, and coarsely handsome “John Gotti” actor Armand Assante as her boring husband.  I also discovered while researching this review that “Evergreen” is just the first in a series of five books about the Werner family, Werner being Paul’s last name of course.  Back to the cover.  Who are those guys on either side of Anna?  Hats Magee over there on the left looks too shifty to be Joseph but too working class and unhandsome to be Paul.  Mister Mustachio is enraged that they let riff raff like you into his favorite fancy old timey gentleman’s health club.  The caliber of this establishment drops rapidly with each passing democratic administration, fumes Mustachio.  The house in the middle is undoubtedly Anna’s unwieldy country dream home Joseph hates but purchases to make Anna happy, because he’s that kind of guy.  

I finished reading this book over half a year ago.  I strongly associate it with a short but lovely trip I took to Panama City, Florida last May.  If you’ve never been to any of the beaches of the Florida panhandle, aka the Emerald Coast, then you have no idea what you’re missing.  You probably hear “redneck riviera” and think gross muddy water, but the sand is like powdered sugar and the water is more turquoise Caribbean fantasy perfect than in any other part of Florida I’ve ever been to, and I lived in the Sunshine State for three years.  And Panama City itself, with its spring break notoriety, was surprisingly mid-century charming.  I spent a good chunk of the four day getaway sitting on the beach behind our funky little hotel turning the musty pages of “Evergreen” and allowing myself to be carried away to the richly-drawn world of Jewish New York in the first half of the twentieth century.  

Belva does a great job painting the historical scenery of this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially for its transportive effects.  Her writing and characters can be a little stiff, though.  My people (the Jews, of course) are a colorful and emotional people.  She writes about Anna’s tsuris but we don’t really FEEL her tsuris.  It’s all very contained and polite, even the adulterous passion.  In fact, even though I know my mom read this book, I feel like the Jews depicted in this book are more my mannered grandma’s kind of people.  They’re not going to make a scene.  Right now, I am two thirds of the way finished reading a rumpus room-tastic eighties novel about another Jewish family that feels like the child of “Evergreen.”  It’s a splashy trashy mess and I can’t wait to review it for you next month!  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Positive Critique is Positive

I live in a tiny little village in Northwest England where I always see someone I know while walking the dog, I know the local butcher and the postman by name, and I know the names of all of the kids on our street. The one thing I didn't know -- any writers who I could interact with in real life. 

Until very recently, ALL of my writer friends were virtual. Which is great, because yay writer friends. But not so great because I couldn't remember the last time I actually spoke to someone in person about writing. Even as a self-professed semi-introvert, I felt like something was missing from my writing life. So, I did the only thing I could think of -- I posted a "hey, is anyone interested" post on the community Facebook page.

And, lo and behold, people WERE interested! People I didn't know, but who agreed to meet me in the local pub on a random Monday night. We met for the first time in early December to get acquainted and discuss expectations for the group. I'll admit, it was daunting, but also really cool to meet fellow writers living down the street. A couple of people are poets. One woman is starting her first novel, and another is producing a book based on her crafts business. We agreed that for all of us critique was our primary motivation for joining a group, so the agenda for next time would focus on feedback.

Fast forward to yesterday and the first "real" meeting. Everyone brought something to share and we all exchanged work and took turns providing feedback. As is the case with many new groups, almost all of the feedback given was positive -- which doesn't mean it's not useful!

We, as writers, are almost pre-programmed to believe that the only feedback worth having is that which criticizes because it helps us to improve. For me, in the drafting stages, it's nice to hear when something's working, but it's improvement that I'm really after. So, when those assembled around the table yesterday looked at the first three pages of my latest book and said good things, I'll admit that at first I was a tiny bit disappointed.

Then I thought about it some more. Almost everyone laughed or smiled while reading my opening pages. Result! I'm writing a rom com so I know I'm hitting the right note. I asked specifically about language because my main character is a Brit, and they assured me she was spot on. Another result! And everyone said they were interested in my love interest and wanted to know more about him and where the story was going. Three for three -- and all of that after reading only three pages.

It's no wonder I came home and cranked out another 3K words on that story. The writing group feedback -- and the encouragement gained from such positive feedback -- was inspiring. Will I take it to the bank and decide I don't need editing and/or the rip-it-to-shreds feedback my critique partner so lovingly provides? Absolutely not. But will I use it to give myself a push to make my (self-imposed) deadline for getting this draft done? You bet I will! In fact, if you'll excuse me, I have another 3K to write today.

Monday, January 9, 2017

How do you deal with Writer ADD?

A post by Mary Fan
I have a major case of Writer ADD… that is, I can’t decide what to work on next. While I’ve always
had multiple ideas kicking around my head at once, I can usually hunker down long enough to finish one first draft before starting another.

This time’s different. I’m finally getting back into my writing groove, but it’s as if all the books I didn’t write during my slump are demanding to be written at once. Originally, I was going to work on the experimental magical realism book I’ve been plotting forever (a few pages of which I shared on this blog for a CRITEEK!). Maybe it’s just because this one’s hard to write, or maybe it’s because I’m not confident I can make it what I want it to be, or maybe it’s because I’m fairly sure it’ll never be marketable, and the mercenary side of myself is asking why I’m bothering… whatever the case, a clawing, pestering part of me keeps demanding that I work on something different, even though I’m already several chapters into the first draft.

I finally caved and decided to give a second WIP a go, just to see what would happen. Since I kept hitting walls on WIP 1, I figured starting WIP 2 in the meanwhile couldn’t hurt. WIP 2 is much more my usual speed… YA sci-fi, though a bit different from what I usually write in that it’s less adventure-y and more contemplative… more the Interstellar kind of space story than the Star Wars kind. Since the tone’s so different from what I’m accustomed to writing, I’m once again hitting a wall.

I’ve never been afraid to switch up styles before—in fact, I like never writing the same book twice—but I feel like I’ve wandered further outside my comfort zone than usual with both these WIPs. That’s probably a good thing in the long run… after all, trying new things is the only way we grow. But I’m not entirely sure if now’s the right time… after all, it took me months to feel like writing again (like, want-to-sit-down-everyday-and-eagerly-bang-out-words writing, rather than beat-words-out-of-myself writing). Maybe now’s not the best time to be challenging myself… part of me just wants to write a just-for-fun book. Something easy that practically writes itself.

Which brings me to potential WIP 3... an idea that hit me completely out-of-the-blue. I don’t have any concrete outlines or notes for it yet… all I know is that it’ll be about a warrior girl in a cursed kingdom who gets to fight monsters of some kind and enjoy a fluffy romance that ultimately leads to happily-ever-afters all around. In other words, I want to write a Disney movie of a book.

Great. That’s three potential WIPs right there. I worry that I’ll start #3, only to get five chapters in and decide I want to work on something else entirely. I’m hoping that brainstorming it will help get it out of my system for now, so I can at least finish something. But who knows…  I’m seriously considering rolling a die to pick a WIP, and then sticking it out until the bitter end, however it turns out.

Does Writer ADD ever get to you? And if so, how do you deal with it?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

6 Questions with YA author Melinda Michaels

Melinda Michaels, my quasi-neighbor (we literally live in the same neck of the woods) and writing buddy, is the author of Golden, a YA retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. She's currently working on Roses, the second standalone in the same universe. You like ABC's Once Upon A Time? You're going to love these books.

I thought it would be fun to do a quick Q&A with my girl. Six pithy questions.

Q: If your books were a food, what would they be?

A: Clementines. Not quite a meal, but you can binge on them and they aren't bad 😉

Q: What celebrity would you want to play your main protagonist(s)?

A: I always thought a young Carey Mulligan would fit well for Hanna, but there are so many up-and-coming actors that I think it would be nice to see an unknown in most of the roles. I like new faces.

Q: Biggest challenge to your writing....and go!

A: Fighting with myself about if my stories are good enough, thought provoking, interesting and just plain entertaining. I have a severe lack of confidence mixed with an extreme amount of arrogance, which leaves me stressed about my writing.

Q: A favorite line from your book(s).

A: One of my favorite lines is from Carly, Hanna's best friend in GOLDEN. 
"Who lives their life like that? Not living today because of what's going to happen tomorrow? It hasn't even happened yet."

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: I just finished re-reading A Christmas Carol as I read it every year.

Q: What TV show are you currently binge-watching?

A: The Crown on Netflix and Sherlock Holmes on PBS.

Thanks for stopping by, Melinda! See you for our weekly writing session.
*For the record, I too am enjoying The Crown.

Connect with Melinda on Twitter! And check out her books. She's good people.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Google Search: What if they...

A new year is upon us and here at Across the Board that means trying out new things. Among the changes you’ll see this year is a new reoccurring segment called ‘Google Search’. Have you ever started a search in Google and noticed the predictive suggestions provided? If so, then you’ve probably also noticed that a few of them can be a bit humorous. We Borders decided to have a bit of fun with these Google predictive suggestions this year in our new series.

Here are the rules:
  1. Start a random search string in Google (or could be from one of your previous searches)
  2. Choose one of Google’s suggestions
  3. Write up a post (or some flash fiction if you’re feeling really creative)

That’s it. It’s all about creativity and fun.

Since I suggested this crazy game, I’m the lucky one who gets to go first. For my random search, I started with, “What if they” and here’s what Google gave me:

I had to go with “What if they mated” for my topic today. My spin on this is what if they mated one book with another? What would we get? I read You by Caroline Kepnes earlier in 2016 and enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun with my Back Jacket Hack-Job of You, so I decided to use it for my inspiration here as well.

What if they mated You by Caroline Kepnes with....

1) The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This mating may or may not work out well for Joe. While I believe Joe’s obsessive tendencies would lead him quickly to full-on OCD, it would likely ruin his game. Original Joe would sometimes wait hours or days or even weeks to get the results he desired. OCD Joe might not be able to hold out that long. He would feel compelled to stalk Beck at the exact same time every day, in exactly the same way. It would make it much harder for him to blend into the background. Also, he’d probably get caught sneaking into Beck’s apartment because he’d have to organize all her personal items before leaving. Of course, with this mating the title would need to change. The Beck Project seems obvious.

2) 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I believe Joe would love this mating. He’d be able to keep going back in time and take his stalking to a whole new level. I imagine Joe would go back 50 years in time, select his prey, stalk her for a few years, go back to the present and stalk her again! Yeah, this takes creepy to a whole new level.

3) 50 Shades of Grey by E L James

Speaking of the number 50, Joe would have fun in a mating with 50 Shades of Grey. He would still be able to monitor emails and phone calls, control his woman, and he could even put her in a cage. But the bonus is that she’d know about it—no hiding! Since Joe is so sinister, I assume the title of the mated version would need to be changed to something like 50 Shades Darker—oh, wait . . .

4) Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

The mystery for me in this mating is if Joe would be Harry or Voldemort. Joe thinks he’s a good guy, so that’d make him Harry. But he doesn’t exactly like to be the center of attention. He wants to hide in the shadows, and that’s where Voldemort likes to slither. While I have questions with this mating, I am absolutely certain Joe would love to be able to wave a wand to make a little magic happen. Maybe even conjure up a potion such as Amortentia to ensure his desired results. And that invisibility cloak—priceless!

5) The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Ah, in this mating Joe will finally have an arena for his obsession. He’d be able to prey on his victim beloved 24/7. And as an added bonus, he’d be adored by millions of viewers for his superior stalking abilities. He’d be rewarded for eliminating his competitors. Although, in this mated version Joe wouldn’t have to kill his beloved at the end of the game. She’d be forced to serve him for the rest of his life—or at least until he found a new target for his adoration.

Well, there you have it. My twisted version of ‘What if they mated’. What books would you mate?

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed this first installment of our new Google Search segment!

~ Carrie

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Let's resolve that 2017 is a much better year

Oooh, boy. 2016 kinda sucked from a global perspective, didn't it?
Brexit. Aleppo. Bowie. Trump. And that's just a millimeter off the top of the iceberg, am I right?

Anyway, we at Across the Board decided to share our 2017 writer resolutions -- what we vow to do smart this upcoming year. In no particular order...

Brenda: Fewer distractions. More words.

Stephen: Finally write that haunted house novel.  Or voodoo zombie.  Whichever one is going to turn out to be the hot new craze I'm about to start.

Jonathan: Finish my book and query it to at least three agents by April 1st.

Mary: Just keep writing, just keep writing, just keep writing, writing, writing, writing... What do we do? We write, write, write!

Carrie: Focus on writing more frequently.

Kimberly: Query my YA novel. Get off the freaking internet. Seriously, Mama's got to disconnect.

Happy New Year, everyone! May it be a good year for you.

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