Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Long Live the $10 Word or Dumbing Down Authors

All over the media, be it in hard copy or on the Internet, you see stories about the eminent demise of traditional publishing. With the ever-growing popularity of e-book readers like the Nook and even the iPad (yes, I, too, lust after one), people are saying that the print media is dying if not already dead. I don’t know about that, I do know that publishing is changing. What I lament is the dumbing down of books regardless of how they’re put into my hands.

I long for the days when writers were not only allowed to, but were expected to use the English language to its full potential. I read a blog the other day that speaks to this very issue. The blogger was saying that authors “should always” use a short word rather than a long word. He also asked why use a $10.00 word when a .05 cent word will do? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because not all of us want to write to the lowest common denominator. Maybe because most of us still believe that readers aren’t dumb.

When I was a youngster, I was told that if I use “big” words, no one would understand them. Why not? I asked. I was told that no one wanted to have to look words up in a dictionary. Why not? I again asked.

I thought everyone kept a list (mine is on my iPhone) of words that we have come across that we didn’t know the meaning of and have to look them up. Words like “crepuscular” (an adjective meaning relating to or resembling twilight) or “refulgence” (a noun meaning a radiant or resplendent quality or state, i.e., brilliance).

Granted, we probably might not want to use either crepuscular or refulgence, but the author of the blog post mentioned above suggested we not use the words, “accommodations” for rooms,“purchase” for buy, or “utilize” for use. The author went so far as to say these “big” words constituted “bad” writing and that they “muddled” prose. Oh my.

I’ve always thought that authors whether they’re writing fiction, non-fiction, blogs, tweets, or Facebook entries should strive to use the English language to its, and our readers, fullest potential. Apparently, I’m wrong. The blogger says that we authors should prefer the familiar word to the “fancy” word. What if the fancy word is the familiar word to us? His advice to dumb down is one I’ve heard before. I for one reject his advice. Long live $10 words!

If I believed that the blogger was speaking for the publishing world, I’d be lamenting its death with all the other naysayers.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Forgiving Myself and My Writing

Elizabeth Gilbert’s birthday was the other day (July 18th). She wrote Eat Pray Love, the bestselling book about the author going to Italy, India, and Indonesia on a soul-searching journey after her divorce. The Writer’s Almanac had an interesting quote by Ms. Gilbert that I found thought-provoking.

She said that discipline, for writers, is “important, but sort of overrated.” She believes that the “more important virtue for a writer . . . is self-forgiveness.” She says that a writer’s “writing will always disappoint." She added, “Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness.”

A while back I began sending out my futuristic mystery to agents. I was confident. When the first rejection came in minutes after I had emailed the query, I told myself the agent hadn’t even bothered to read the first pages of the novel and, equally important, she was but one agent.

While I was waiting for the other agents to respond, I continued researching query letters, agents, etc. I reworked my query letter (see my blog “Query Advice that Makes Sense” http://kaybigelow1.blogspot.com/2010/06/query-advice-that-makes-sense.html). As each rejection arrived in my email inbox, I dutifully noted the date of rejection, added it to my spreadsheet tracking the rejections, and continued to send out queries.

Still the rejections kept coming. I blogged about “Rejections Limits & Moving On” (http://kaybigelow1.blogspot.com/2010/07/rejection-limits-moving-on.html). I emailed more queries.

After about the 15th rejection, I blogged about “Abandoning Writing” (http://kaybigelow1.blogspot.com/2010/07/rejection-limits-moving-on.html). Things were getting serious. I was contemplating laying down my pen so to speak.

In the midst of all this angst about being rejected, I started a new novel - a historical set in 1900 - that had been spinning around in my head for a couple of years. It wasn’t writing itself though. I felt like I was slogging through a dense patch of mud. I stopped writing for a week, but the main character kept whispering in my ear.

Then I read Ms. Gilbert’s quote. I had to think about self-forgiveness. I thought, “I’m not sure what she means.” What do I have to forgive myself for? I wasn’t the one doing the rejection. I had done my best and my best was obviously not good enough.

Then I asked myself, “Was that mystery the best you could do?” I answered, “I don’t know.” I do know that my writing improved with each book I worked on. So maybe it wasn’t my best. Maybe my historical would be my best. So I went back to writing. It is going slowly, but that’s more, I think, because it’s set in a foreign country in 1900 than my reluctance to write. I can’t afford to throw in a random piece of modern slang or put a modern convenience, like a toilet, into a house when those conveniences were unavailable. The research was, and continues to be, time consuming because the information I need about the time and city in which the book is set is practically non-existent.

In the meantime, I gave Ms. Gilbert’s words about forgiving yourself some more thought. Then, like the proverbial cartoon light bulb being turned on, I finally got it. My writing disappointed me because it was being rejected by agents (who weren’t necessarily commenting on my writing in the first place) but were saying that my book wasn’t what they were looking for. So I forgave myself for writing a book that no agent wanted to represent. I’m still waiting for a few agents to respond, but I’m being realistic and not holding my breath.

While I wait for the last few agents to respond, I’m moving forward with my historical. Will it be the best I've ever written. I don't know, but I hope so.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Bit of Luck

As I sit writing, my mind occasionally wanders. Most of the time, I catch it before it can go too far off course. There are times, however, when I find myself wondering what I’m doing spending my time writing books that I can’t get an agent for much less get a publisher for it.

It has occurred to me to wonder how much luck has do with a writing career. An author is in the right place at the right time, an author meets a friend of a friend who just happens to be an agent/editor, or an author is selling his self-published book out of the trunk of his car and a passerby buys one, loves it, and sends it to friend in NYC who happens to be looking for just that kind of book, or the lucky writer who found an agent who saw some spark in his writing and took a chance by representing him and finding a publisher who also saw that spark.

Meanwhile, the majority of writers toil away perfecting their craft and diligently keeping their hopes alive with the occasional success stories being told around a virtual camp fire about some unknown writer hitting it big. I was thinking the other day that nearly every profession has stories of someone become an “overnight” success after being discovered. I think that’s why we continue to write with little real hope of reaching the top of the best seller lists. That’s not the reason we write, to hit the top of the best sellers list, but it is part of the dream, isn’t it?

Today, we writers read about how fast publishing is changing, from e-books to Amazon becoming a publisher to how the iPad is going to change the book world. How are we to know whether our writing will find a place in the new world of publishing? It’s a scary place out there for writers today. I have to hope that the new modality will be a boon to the writer who hasn’t yet written her best seller and who only needs a bit of luck to go from toiling writer to best selling author.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Daily Word Counts

Do you keep track of how many words you write each day? Me, too. Does it help your writing or hinder it? If you don’t write a certain number of words on a given day, do you beat yourself up? If you exceed the number, do you do a triumphant happy dance?

Why do we track the numbers of words we write on a daily basis? Isn’t it enough that we know we have to write 75,000 words and track that number? It’s really not necessary. Most, if not all, word processing applications keep track of the number of words in our most recent WIP. So it must be an obsession with our progress.

Before I started writing fiction, I didn’t keep track of my daily word count. It was after my first year that I participated in the National Novel Writing Month (WriMo) that I began tracking my daily word count. That I can understand. You need to write 1667 words every day during the month of November in order to write a 50,000 word novel. I can’t tell you why I kept tracking my daily word count after that. I can tell you that it has become a habit though.

I don’t give myself a set a number of words that I need to write each day. Obviously, some days i write more than on other days. I don’t beat myself up if I write less. I’m pleased if I write more, but I don’t set that as a standard that I must meet on each successive day.

Then why track my daily word count? I have to open the spreadsheet to track the total words in my current project. Actually, I don’t even need to do that. My word processing application tracks that for me and lets me know what the total is at the bottom of the page. So I really don’t even need to track that. Then why do I enter the total words written at the end of each day? I don’t know. I can’t explain it.

There are some days that I shouldn’t even look at the total number of words. One of the things that I’ve learned from my annual participation in WriMo is to turn off my internal editor and write. Never mind that there might be misspelled words. Never mind that there may be a better way of describing something. The key to WriMo success is to write. Period. No self-editing. No going back over the previous day’s output and “fixing” things. Write. I can’t seem to do that during the other eleven months of the year, however.

I digress. I’ve reviewed my spreadsheet and found that there have been days thus far this year when I haven’t written a word. Not a single word. There are other days (well, a day) when I wrote 5000 words. Those are interesting statistics, but they’re not going to change how or when I write so they’re useless statistics.

It just occurred to me that I’ve written over 500 words about keeping track of the number of words I write. What’s wrong with this picture?

Please tell me that you’ve become as obsessed about the number of words you write every day as I’ve seemed to become. Tell me I’m not alone in this.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bad Poisons & Good Venoms

I’ve been researching poisons for my work in progress. I’ve learned too much about the ways to poison someone. There have been a lot of surprises. A few of the more interesting things I found are below.

Nutmeg was highly prized in the Middle Ages and was widely traded. In Elizabethan England, it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch dominated the nutmeg trade after nearly decimating the natives of the Bamda Islands, the world’s only source of nutmeg at the time, and then kept the location of the islands secret. In Connecticut (the Nutmeg State), traders whittled wooden nutmeg seeds resulting in the term “wooden nutmeg” coming to mean a fraud. As much as it was valued, however, the seeds of the Nutmeg tree while not deadly are toxic if injected intravenously. If ingested, the seeds can cause nutmeg psychosis.

The Gila Monster is the only venomous amphibian native to the US. If you are bitten by a Gila Monster, a 20-inch reptile, while visiting the American southwest, you will immediately be in severe pain at the bite site and you can die from respiratory arrest. Adding insult to injury, literally, the reptile is tenacious and may have to be cut off. Luckily, the Gila Monster will not attack unless provoked. Interestingly, the venom from the Gila Monster promotes the release of insulin. An injectable synthetic version of a protein found in the amphibian’s saliva has been developed to treat Type Two diabetes.

A species of the pit viper, Pygmy rattlesnakes are found in the southeastern US. They normally range in length from 16 to 24 inches. Because of its size, it is unlikely that a Pygmy rattlesnake can cause death in a human adult although it can adversely affect an adult for several days. A US drug company has used a protein found in the snake’s venom to prevent blood platelets from sticking together.

A cone snail is a predatory sea snail. It harpoons its victims and the larger varieties can cause death in humans. The paralyzing toxin injected by the cone snail is used as an ingredient in a drug used to relieve severe chronic pain.

There are hundreds of other interesting poisons. Choosing one for my book has been difficult because there are so many options. Of course, I also have the option of creating my own poison since my mystery is set two hundred years in the future. You gotta love writing futuristic books.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Abandoning Writing

Have you ever become so frustrated with throwing yourself at the brick walls that constitute agents and publishers whilst yelling, “Let me in, let me in. I deserve to be on the other side of this wall. After all, I’ve done everything you’ve said to do,

  • I’ve written a 86,000 word novel,
  • my punctuation is excellent,
  • my grammar impeccable,
  • I’ve deleted nearly all the adverbs,
  • I’ve even deleted conversation tags,
  • my characters are interesting,
  • they are three dimensional,
  • my plot is interestingly complex,
  • it is is not over done,
  • my query letter was exactly what you asked for on your web site,
  • my query letter had the hook, book, cook components in it.”

Still they ignore you.

Add Image

Certainly no writer worth her salt would abandon writing, like some abandoned toy, after one rejection or, indeed, after a dozen rejections. But what about after the 20th? Or 30th? Or 50th? At what point, in the agent rejection game do you sit down and seriously consider what you want to do? Keep banging your head against the walls or move on.

At what point do you (or, indeed, will you) set your favorite writing pen (metaphorically speaking, of course) aside and say, I can’t (won’t) do this any more? Is that an option for you? How much frustration will it take for you to stop writing?

Have you ever thought about giving up? I mean really, really thought about not writing any more? What does that feel like? Does the thought of not writing any more make you queasy? Give you a headache?

Does the thought of not writing fill you with dread? Especially after you ask how you will fill the void created by not writing? What will you do with all those hours you now spend writing? Is it a freeing experience?

Do you tell yourself that you’ll have more time

  • to read and perhaps reduce that towering pile of books you promised yourself to read,
  • to spend with your family and friends,
  • to watch the television programs your friends are into,
  • to exercise,
  • to just sit and enjoy the silence,
  • and a thousand more things that you never really wanted to do before you quit writing.

Will you ever quit writing even if you never get published? Have you set a time specific? For instance, if I’m not published by the time I’m 40, I’ll quit. Have you added another year or two with each passing year? Will you still be saying, “If I’m not published by the time I’m 70, I’ll quit?” Does putting an age limit on it make the decision to quit writing easier or harder than saying I’ll continue to write until I’m published?

I wonder if the time comes in every non-published writer’s life when he asks, “Should I continue?” How many writers, some quite good, have we lost? How many writers have abandoned their dream of becoming a published author?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Copyrights and TBR Piles

Noah Webster had argued for a copyright law when his Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783) was being pirated and he was being denied profits from his book. On May 31, 1790, the US Congress enacted the US Copyright law. President George Washington signed it into law also on May 31, 1790. The law gave authors the exclusive right to publish and sell books, charts, and maps for 14 years. The author was allowed to renew the copyright for an additional 14 years. The Act said that violators of the law “shall forfeit all and every copy . . . to the author . . . who shall forthwith destroy the same.” As for the offenders, they would “forfeit and pay the sum of fifty cents for every sheet” found in his possession. The copyright’s owner could also file a lawsuit in “any court of record in the United States . . . within one year . . . .”

Copyrights became available for drawings, models, paintings, and photographs in the 19th century. Musical rolls for player pianos were added to the list of items available for copyright in 1909. Since the 1970s, copyrights have become available for cable television, computer software, DVDs, MP3s, and tapes.

The lengths of the copyright have gotten longer. Until 1998, copyrights lasted for the duration of the author’s life plus an additional 50 years before going into the public domain. In 1998, however, the term of the copyright was extended for an additional 20 years.

Think how many books no longer fall within the protection of the copyright laws. There must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of books, within the public domain. With the advent of ereaders, obtaining copies of those public domain books has become easier leaving one to believe that there will always be a source of books to read. It occurred to me the other day, since they are in the public domain, i.e., no longer covered by a copyright, why are we paying for them? Probably to pay for the costs of converting the book to an ebook. One can but wonder how much it costs to convert the book. Be that as it may, you can always go to Google Books and try your luck there. For instance, I entered The Scarlet Letter, and the book was there in an easy-to-read format. As of October 2009, Google had scanned over 10 million public domain books, and created a world-wide controversy in doing so, apparently.

I can barely get to my TBR (to be read) piles, one on my ereader and one on my bookshelves. much less the hundreds of thousands of free books available to us. It is somehow comforting to know, though, that there will always be books for me to read even if I get super ambitious and read everything in my TBR piles. All I’d have to do then is to win the Lottery so I could buy more books or (not being inclined to holding my breath while the latter happens), I could return to Google Books and browse their library.

Do you have a TBR pile? I know, I know, doesn’t everyone? If you do, how many books do you have in your TBR pile? If you don’t, why don’t you?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rejection Limits & Moving On

Exactly at what point do you decide that no one wants to publish your book?

Do you have a set number of agent rejections in mind? Do you say, “I’ll stop querying when I reach the ten (or twenty or thirty) rejection level? Or do you continue to research agents and continue to send out your masterpiece until you move into the 50-rejection range? Do you take hope and guidance from the now-famous writers who suffered the arrows of rejection time and time again?

If you don’t find an agent willing to represent your book, do then send your book directly to editors at the publishing houses? Or do you shelve the book thinking that the next book you write will be THE ONE and someday when you’re a best-selling author, you’ll pull this first (or second or fifth) book off the shelf and resubmit it knowing that your publisher will now publish it because it’s yours?

Or if you don’t find an agent, do you consider publishing the book yourself? Do you tell yourself that since you have to do most of the marketing of your books yourself regardless of who publishes them, you might as well increase your income by self publishing your book? If you have the $3000 it will take to do it yourself, will you? Can you move beyond the stigma that long-ago attached itself to the self-published by telling yourself that times have changed and self-publication is no longer the refuge of the unpublishable?

Or if you don’t find an agent, will you consider publishing the book as an ebook for Amazon’s Kindle? To be sure, there’s still the marketing to be done. Have you done the math to figure out that if you price your book at $1.99 and you sell 500 copies, you’ll be $350 richer? Is it worth it? Do you tell yourself that you’ll be one of those Kindle authors who will be picked up and given a three-book deal by the likes of Simon & Schuster?

Or will you simply say, “I’ll query 20 (or 30 or 50) agents and one (or 5 or 10) publisher, then if no one wants my manuscript, I’ll learn from my mistakes, put the manuscript on the shelf, and move on to my next manuscript.” Can you do that? Or are you convinced that this manuscript that has suffered so many rejections will appeal to one of the hundreds of other agents you have on your spreadsheet and continue to query even though you long ago passed your limit of 20 agent rejections?

It’s an interesting dilemma and not one faced by many people in this world, but one that must be faced by most authors. When do YOU set aside a manuscript and move on?