Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Learning New Tricks or What an Old Dog Can Teach Us

Tux and the Bush

I have a male dog named Tux (his name has been changed so the other dogs at the park won’t mock him). The other day we were out for our morning walk in the park. As we passed a bush, he paused, lifted his leg, and did his thing.

So what? You may ask. No big deal, you say. Ah, but it was a big deal. Tux is ten years old. He’s never, ever lifted his leg before.

What Are the Lessons for Tux?

Old dogs do learn new tricks. Tux is living proof of that. He took a risk that

  1. He wouldn’t fall over,
  2. He could perform his duty like a male, and
  3. No one would make fun of him.

Luckily, there was no one around to see him except me, and I was too stunned to say a word (I did, however, give a fist pump when his back was turned).

Why did he do it? My guess is that because he’d been talking trash with three rude dachshunds over the last few months and his manhood had been impugned. He was determined to prove he was, indeed, macho. He only needed to lift his leg once to prove his point.

I didn’t want to ask how the mouthy dachshunds knew he’d lifted his leg, but I suspect that he didn’t need to prove his manhood to them because he’d proven it to himself. They probably knew right away by the way he swaggered up to them.

What Are the Lessons for You and I?

There are three lessons that you and I can take away from this episode.

  1. If you’re going to take a risk, minimize the consequences.
  2. You needn’t prove anything to anyone but yourself.
  3. Take pride in whatever you do.

Taking a risk is hard we all know that. It can be scary as hell under the best of circumstances and terrifying under good circumstances. Sometimes, though, we need to risk in order to advance, to feel alive, to prove to ourselves that we can.

It would be wonderful if every risk we take paid huge dividends. But they don’t. Some risks turn out to be unmitigated disasters. Ignore the naysayers in your life. You’ve proven to yourself that you can and will take a risk for what you want.

If the risk you take turns out to be a complete disaster, don’t hang your head as if you did something bad. You didn’t. You did what you thought was best at the time you did it. So hold your head high. You are a risk taker. Take pride in that because so many others play it safe all the time.

Pride and Panache

Tux hasn’t bothered to lift his leg again. He’s returned to squatting like a girl, but now he does it with pride and panache.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Expert Advice - Who to Believe?

Advice for Writers

Everywhere we writers turn, we find agents, other writers, publishers, even people who are not associated with writing at all, giving us advice on how to write, how to find an agent, and how to get published. On one recent day, I collected the following tidbits of advice from agents, writers, promoters, editors, et al. on Twitter:

      • 20 Strategies to Defeat the Urge to Do Useless Tasks
      • The Anatomy of a SHORT Synopsis – Pt 1
      • Top 10 Worst Self-Publishing Mistakes
      • Tips on promoting your book on Facebook
      • 16 Tips for Being Productive While Working From Home
      • How to display your average feed readers
      • It's not what your character does. It's why.
      • How to Use Mind Maps to Build a Story
      • Getting the most out of your time and money at a writing conference
      • [D]on’t have your assistant write your query letter on your behalf
      • 13 Of The Most Ridiculous Things Overheard In Bookstores
      • Promote your book like a pro - excellent advice - and very simply expressed
      • 20 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Submitting Your Work

As you can see, there is advice for nearly every situation and for every writer out there. There are sometimes conflicting viewpoints just to muddy the situation further. With so many people offering advice, who do you believe? Do you believe any of them? Why believe any of them? How do we choose who to believe as opposed to those who may be blowing smoke up our pants leg? To tell the truth, I haven’t a clue.

Advice from Authors

When I ran across a recent article full of authors, some well known and some unknown (to me) offering up the best advice they’d received when they were starting out, I tarried long enough to read the entire article. I’ll share the two that resonated most with me.

Bestselling suspense writer Elizabeth George, author of 23 books, remembers that the best advice she ever got was from mystery writer P. D. James after George received a rejection of her first novel. “My dear,” P. D. James said, “you have done something many people only dream of. You have written a novel You must never give up.” How could George possibly give up after receiving advice from P.D. James? Luckily for her readers, she didn’t.

Probably the most succinct advice was received by another bestselling author, Sue Grafton. She passes on the advice she received, “Park your butt at your desk and get on with it.” Advice that is short and to the point, and, for the most part, easy to implement.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Self Publish?

Famous Authors Who Self Published

What do Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Beatrix Potter, Pat Conroy, Nikki Giovanni, and Marcel Proust have in common? They all published one or more of their manuscripts themselves. Proust, for example, paid to publish the 1500 pages of Rembrance of Things Past. Conroy, who in my opinion, is one of the best writers currently writing and who wrote the immensely popular The Prince of Tides self-published his first novel, The Boo.

At one time, being a self-published author meant that you were less than. Less than a “real” writer. You were a second-class author. You were an author who couldn’t find a New York publisher for your book.

Control over Content

These days, though, many authors are choosing to go the self-publication route. One author told me that she prefers having control over her work. Another writer told me that since he would have to do as much publicity and promoting his book if he had a New York publisher, he might as well do it and make more money doing it.

Of course, being self-published means that no one is giving you an advance of any amount. But then, as my friend pointed out, no one is telling him to change the gender of his protagonist or delete three chapters in the middle of the book or change the title to something that makes no sense considering what the book is about.

Cost of Self Publishing

Self publishing is not free, either. If you want to be successful, you need to hire someone to design a cover for your book, you might even hire a freelance editor to ensure that the typos are gone, the grammar is correct, and the book flows. One self-published author estimated that he spent $3000 to self-publish his book. In these days of economic hardship, who has $3000 not already earmarked for something else?

Then there is the time-consuming promotion of your book. While you’re promoting your current book, you’ve got no time to write the next book. Should you wait until you have a small library of books written before you self-publish your first one?

Self Promotion

In The Writer magazine (June 2010), Judy Gruen, author of Women’s Daily Irony Supplement (2007), said, “Today, all authors must self-promote vigorously, but self-published authors must do it like they’re on steroids.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is No News Good News?

First Queries Are Like First Love

As you send out your first query letters, all is right with the world. Optimism reigns supreme. You know the agent to whom you sent your query will love you forever.

Then reality sets in as the response to those queries begin to arrive. They don’t love you as much as you wanted them to. In fact, they don’t even like you. So don’t even mourn them. Let them go.

When I sent out my first batch of queries for the futuristic mystery I’d written. I did my homework and chose my agents carefully. I just knew some agent would fall in love with it. I was careful to enter each query onto the spreadsheet I’d created for the task of tracking who I’d sent the queries to. I certainly didn’t want to anger even a single agent by mistakenly sending my query to them twice. I’ve read their rants against authors who do that.

Every day for two weeks I added to the spreadsheet. I’d list the agency, the agent’s name, when I sent the query, and when I could expect a reply. Then I watched the spreadsheet like a hawk so I’d know when an answer should drop into my email box.

Some agents answered rather quickly, too quickly in my book. I dutifully filled in the word “Rejected” (in red) and the date I’d received the rejection notification. In a few cases, the agent didn’t bother sending even a form letter of rejection. The date I was expecting to hear from them came and went. I’d wait an extra day or two, and then typed in “Rejected.”

No News is Good News?

I began to wonder if no news is good news in the business of querying agents. It was hard to tell. Maybe the agents who weren’t responding were using silence as their means of rejecting my manuscript. But what if they weren’t, I asked myself over and over. What if they were letting my query and first few pages of the book marinate? Or sending it to someone else in their office?

Optimism and Pessimism at War

My optimistic side warred with my pessimistic side.

Optimistic me wanted it to be no news is good news and when I did hear from the agent in question, I’d be asked for the entire manuscript - always a good sign, right?

Pessimistic me, on the other hand, said that the silence only meant rejection by the agent who doesn’t care to send out a form rejection letter so I could put Rejected in the appropriate column of my spreadsheet with a date beside the awful word.

Good Old Optimistic Me

As I write this, I’m waiting for six more agents to respond to my query letter. This morning Optimistic Me is firmly in control and no news is good news is the order for the day.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Silence Really Golden?

Silence is Golden

Silence is golden or so they say. As writers, we believe we need that golden place where there are no distractions, nothing to keep us from writing thousands of words each and every day.

So many of us wish for solitude in which to write. We tell ourselves that we need quiet and peace in which to write. Without silence, we say, there is no way to be creative. Yet, when we find it, we often fill the silence with music, or television or anything to fill the aural void. We become uncomfortable with silence without acknowledgement or understanding. Oh, we may write a hundred or two hundred words, but the 5,000 words we knew we would write if only we had peace and quiet never materialize. We walk away from the keyboard after a few minutes because on a molecular level, we’re uncomfortable with silence.

Silence and solitude are hard. It is hard to be so alone even in familiar places, like our own home. Do we really need solitude or even quiet in order to write? Or is that something we’ve bought into because so called “experts” have convinced us that what we need. Experts who no longer write or who don’t write except maybe once a week or maybe have never written any thing but school essays.

Writing Habits Evolve

I used to be able to write sitting in front of the television watching a baseball game or my favorite weekly television program. I no longer want to write there. I learned to write in coffee houses overseas, but I can’t do it here in the US. Now I need as few distractions as possible to write. I’ve tried listening to music as I write, but find it a distraction because I end up singing along - not out loud, mind you.

I’ve tried writing in the big easy chairs in my local bookstore or favorite Starbucks, but that doesn’t work either because I tend to eavesdrop (writing down the most interesting of the conversations I overhear, of course). I’ve given up trying to find other places to write. I only write now in the peace and quiet of my home sitting in my recliner that has, over the years, become a bit saggy just as I have.

Where Do You Write?

Where do you write best? Is it at a crowded coffee house? On a park bench in your local park? A library? An empty classroom? Where do you write?

Do you need silence to write? Or the hustle and bustle of people nearby? Or does it matter where you write?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Crossing the Bridge Called Rejection

Handling Rejection

How do you handle rejection? There are so many forms that rejection can take, and regardless of the kind of rejection you face, it is always hard, very hard, to get over the hurt.

As writers, we’re told that we need to get used to being rejected. First, there are our beta readers who may - or may not - like the books we’ve worked so hard on for so many long months. We know we shouldn’t it take personally because we’re told that every time we turn around. So we’re gracious, we thank our beta readers, and we send the manuscript to someone else to read.

No Judgmental Agents

When we’ve made our way through our beta readers, then it’s time for the critique groups who can, and should, be critical of our efforts. After that, perhaps you hire a freelance editor to read the book. Then, we think we’re ready to send out a query letter to the agent of our choice. So we write a letter to the agent asking her to represent our book to publishers. What we get back is a rejection letter, if we’re lucky - there are times when we may not even hear from the agent - ever. The agent assures us that she’s not passing judgement on our work, it’s just not right for her. She tells us to keep sending out letters to other agents.

Post Rejection Blues

It was one thing for our critique group and/or our beta readers to say they didn’t care for our book, it’s quite another, after months of revising and rewriting the manuscript, for an agent to say that she’s just not that interested.

It’s hard not to wonder if we’ve wasted our time. If an agent doesn’t like our manuscript, and she’s only seen, at best, five or ten pages of the whole, why continue? All that time trying to find the wherewithal to continue, all that time working alone, all the revisions and it’s been rejected by a professional.

Cross the Bridge, and Get over Yourself

Somehow, though, after a few days of wondering if, or whether, we can continue writing, we decide that the agent is only one of many agents in the world. So we decide to put into action the advice we’d read somewhere. Cross the bridge, and get over yourself.

So we cross the bridge, we get over ourselves, and we send the manuscript out to a few more agents and while we’re waiting on them, we start a new book because writing is as much a part of us as breathing. And, after all, hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What Are the Odds?

Raise Your Hand if You Want to Write a Book

I read a throw-away line somewhere that said a poll taken in the US showed that 80% of Americans want to write a book. Somewhere else I read that only 2% of writers get published. If those two statistics alone don’t depress you, read on and let’s take a harder look at the numbers.

What Are the Odds?

There were 309,453,592 people in the US as of June 8, 2010 (when I wrote this). However, that number includes every man, woman, and child. The most current number of adults in the US, according to the US Census Bureau, is 281,421,906. Eighty percent of them is 225,137,520 - that’s how many people want to write a book. Of those people only 2% or 4,502,750 people will be published.

The odds of my being published are 1 in 4,592,750. Not great odds, are they? In fact, the odds in favor of winning the Power Ball jackpot are far greater, something like 1 in a 195,249,054. I’m beginning to feel better already.

But Will They Put Pen to Paper?

That being said, how many of those 225+ million people will ever put pen to paper (so to speak)? Of those who do, how many have what it takes to get 100,000 or even 50,000 words down on paper? Of those, how many can then spend the next several months rewriting and revising? Of those, how many can write a decent query letter? Of those who do, how many can handle the first, second, or tenth rejection letter? Of those who can, how many can handle the 20th or 30th rejection letter?

I figure after all that, my odds of getting published are far greater than winning the lottery. And I don’t have to spend any money to win the getting-published lottery.

Why Not You or Me?

What choice do we have? We must tell our stories no matter that the odds are against us. Some one has to be published. Why not me? Or you?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Show and Tell

How many times have you read or been told to “show, don’t tell?” A dozen times? A hundred? A thousand? Too many?

If you show, don’t you have to tell something of what the character is feeling, thinking, doing? How do you show what your character is thinking if you don’t give the reader some details? Your character is sitting on a park bench letting the rain run in rivulets down her back. If you leave it at that, the reader has no idea

  • why she’s sitting in the rain,
  • whether she’s delighted to feel the rain trickling down her back and pooling at the waistband of her slacks or
  • whether she’s utterly miserable and why

So, in my mind, you have to tell the reader something about what a character you’ve just introduced is going through for him to be able to understand the emotions you so masterfully showed. How else do you show the emotions of your character and have them make sense? Sometimes the reader needs more than facial expressions or hunched shoulders to know what’s going on. How can you show through a character’s facial features or body language what the details are? The reader will pick up on what’s going on through the lead up. Maybe, maybe not. Wouldn’t it be better to make sure your reader understands?

Won’t the critics then pounce on you for being too detailed? If your character is at a loss whether to wear the sexy red dress or the ubiquitous little black dress, would it be better to tell your reader about what’s going on in her head as she tries to decide which dress to wear and why it matters? Or would it be better to have the character hold each dress up to her chest several times with brows furrowed to show the effort she is making to make that decision? As both a writer and a reader, I understand the author knows this character much better than I. Some insight as to why this decision is so difficult would be appreciated. Is she having trouble deciding because she wants to look sexy for that new client with those bad-boy eyes or should she dress to impress her new boss and wear the black sheath? No wonder she’s having trouble deciding.

In real life, too little information can lead to misunderstandings and it can lead to even more misunderstandings in your fiction. Readers don’t like to be fooled. I remember reading a mystery a few years back and being sure I knew who the killer was because I’d mentally noted the clues the author handed out. When the killer was announced near the end of the book, I fairly shouted “No fair!” and flung the book across the room. The author had held back key details that would have allowed his readers to figure out the real killer. Was he trying to show rather than tell and couldn’t figure out how to show the key details? Maybe. Probably not. But you see what I mean, don’t you?

I’ll leave you with this. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, German-born American architect (1886-1969) said, “God is in the details.” As both a reader and a writer, I love the details. Don’t you?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting Out of My Head

Do you live in your head? I do.I have characters chatting, I have new book ideas vying to be heard, and ideas for revisions swirl around the periphery of my mind. I tried meditation for a while. It doesn’t work for me. As I tried to meditate and without really being aware of it, the voices creep back in, an idea for a blog post sweeps through, and the answer to a troubling paragraph begins forming.

Taking a Walk

What has worked to get out of my head is walking my dogs in my neighborhood park. It takes me a while to become aware that I’ve stayed in my head even as I walk. At that point, I force myself to pay attention to the surroundings outside my head rather than to those inside. I first listen to the birds singing in the trees over my head or the woodpecker working on a post nearby.

Then I watch the wind move through the trees as it comes toward me. I think of whether I can put it into a scene of my WIP as the two main characters walk down a country lane. They could be talking about . . . . Wait a second, wait a second! Get out of your head, I order yet again.

Next I notice what has changed in the park since the day before. There was a storm in the early hours of the morning. As the wind moves through the trees, it dislodges droplets of water and I am in the midst of a mini-shower of cool water. Delighted, I note that the droplets have made me smile. It seems greener than the day before, too, probably because the rain has washed away the dust covering the leaves.

Where are the pair of ducks that hang out in the small pool of water behind the honeysuckle? They’re not there today which is just as well since they are very vocal at being disturbed. Listen, I tell myself. Yes, there it is. The burbling of the small brook as it moves down its path and over the stones.

As we go around a curve in the path, we meet an owner and her two dogs that we see every morning. We stop and chat about the weather, our dogs, and how cool it is at six in the morning. We move on, going our separate ways in different directions.

Back in My Head

Thirty minutes later, the dogs and I are back at the car. My oldest dog is limping because of the arthritis in her front paw, my youngest wants to go around again. But reality in the form of my oldest dog limping has returned me to inside my head, Should I take him to the Vet? Can the Vet do anything I can’t? I ask myself. My characters begin their conversations again, the revisions are changing, and what’s that idea for a new blog post that just flitted by? My day has begun.