Writing Prompts for May 3, 2012

Here are a few more little assignments for the writers who may need inspiration today. Feel free to alter or contradict them at your discretion. The point is merely to get an idea and run with it. Farewell and good hunting!

1. Anxiety tastes like…

2. “I brought her here to see if we could trust her.”

3. A moment of unexpected good.

4. How is your character attached to a certain place in your story? What are sounds, textures, sights, or memories of specific events? How does your character perceive those details? Do they trigger a strong emotion in him? [Many thanks to Donald Maass for this exercise]

5. The gun didn’t shoot.

6. Describe someone’s tattoo of an animal. Why did they get it? Or might there be a tattoo on an animal? What’s your explanation for that?


Distracted? Hire an Editor.

He's quite the motivational speaker, isn't he?

I hope you all can forgive my absence for the past week and a half. Things have been…busy.

Well, after a very intense week of revisions, I am happy to report that the working draft of the novel has been shipped off to an editor I hired, and I will be relaxing a couple of days before the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. This is just the first step, mind you; the edits and revisions have only begun. But at least the process has started.

A few words of advice to fellow writers. I don’t know how helpful they will be. They’re just bits of wisdom I picked up along the way. Or bits of incredibly obvious things I somehow had trouble remembering, as the case may be.

1. Don’t rely on a diet of coffee and Pop Tarts to get you through a week of intense writing. It’s quick energy, but you feel awful afterward, in soul and body alike. Repeated jolts of caffeine and sugar mean there are plenty of crashes, too. And the human body simply is not equipped to run a week-long gauntlet of that kind of stress. Eat healthy when you’re writing.

2. Personal hygiene keeps you in a good mood when you’re writing (I learned this mostly in a negative way, living as a slob for the revision process). Seriously, brush your teeth and take showers at bare minimum.

3. “Go write” means “Get off of Facebook and Youtube and write the freaking book!” It does not mean you get to surf for seven hours that could be spent working on your masterpiece. Generally, if you have set aside time for writing, and yet your fingers aren’t typing prose and dialogue to progress plot and character, you are distracted.

4. Per the title of this blog post, if you are finding yourself hopelessly distracted and can’t seem to get focused on the work, it helps to hire a freelance editor and arrange certain deadlines, such as “send me the first chapter by the end of the month.” Or at least grab some friends who want to read your stuff, and tell them to expect it by a certain time. This approach worked motivational miracles for me; I know for a fact that I’d still be puttering around with 2/3 of a working draft without having someone like Bree Ervin waiting for the manuscript.

Hope some of that helps if you’ve got a writing project. Catch you all later, everyone!

More Thoughts on Reader-Focused Fiction

Considering the rhetoric of self-publishers and indie publishers these days, especially in regards to traditional publishing, you’d think that authors are finally unshackled from the chains of tyrants who cruelly eviscerated work that “didn’t sell” and denied them entry into the life meant for them, the life of a Writer. Even if you’re not looking for Stephen King-caliber popularity, you are apparently being cheated out of your true potential by going with a gatekeeper. The image of the big publishing companies has rather swiftly evolved into something a little like this.

Meet my pet. His name's Skippy. Yes, you read that right. Skippy. Don't judge me.

But as happy as I am that everyone now has the option for selling their work and becoming known as an official Author, I want to reiterate from a previous post: your writing is meant to serve others.

I mentioned that I appreciate the gatekeepers, and that some people are running away from them for the wrong reasons. Even though the self-publishing industry is thriving more than ever, it seems to have lost a great deal of focus on serving readers with great storytelling, and shifted its focus to marketing. That could be just my limited exposure to such talk, so please tell me if I am wrong.

Most writing talks and articles nowadays are geared toward self-pubbers, with instructions on how to format a book, what price the Kindle edition should have, and how you can advertise your name through social media (Maybe that’s just “most” articles and talks I’ve seen and I need to hit the Writer’s Digests again).

I’m here to ask all fiction writers, no matter what they write or how they publish it: how high is excellent storytelling on your priorities list?

What of the readers who need a great book in their hands? What of the complex characters and patiently built plots they hunger for, flowing in the veins of a living story that tells them something True about themselves and about mankind?

Are you willing to kill your ego and send the book to an agent, or hire an editor for it? Remember this: every writer goes to war, picking up a rifle and doing their part. And whether or not they know it, they’ll need a drill sergeant to let them know what they’re getting right, and what they’re totally screwing up. If you’re a writer, you need such a colleague because you are bound to a cause that serves others, gifting them with an endless supply of new stories that they will care about. Readers want and need stories that challenge, that bewilder, that terrify and amuse and race through the blood until it becomes a part of them. Renewing your commitment to excellence is more important than ever, for your readers have so many excuses to be distracted.

Don’t let them be distracted. Give them a story that captures them as surely as a spell, and do this by honing your skills and wit until they are as sharp as obsidian. Learn to care about your readers more than whether the story needs to run through a gauntlet of “gatekeepers” to reach them. Your readers are starving for wonderful new fiction. They need the best tales you’ve got.

NASA in Decline

After the firestorm of creativity, innovation, and boundless optimism that was the Space Age, we have fallen far indeed. If we had taken the suggestions of people like Robert Zubrin and Bill Nye a mere ten or twelve years ago, we could have astronauts treading the surface of Mars right now, expanding our presence in the Solar System while pushing the limits of our technological prowess, and all the while feeding the basic human need for exploration.

Instead we have been puttering around low Earth orbit for a few decades, overlaid with the cacophony of talk about going to Mars without actually committing to it. And here’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, telling it like it is:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Interview

We have to remind ourselves that exploring other planets is the next logical step of feeding mankind’s collective need to go, to find, to learn. And if our government doesn’t remember NASA’s role and presence in space exploration, and forgets that America has the most experience and expertise, then stepping on another world is going to be so much more difficult than it needs to be.

If you lose the drive to explore and discover, life is barely worth living anymore. If you don’t feed it, your aspirations start feeding on themselves, like an Ouroboros serpent swallowing its own tail. Now is not the time to give up our lofty goals and designs for the conquest of space, just because politicians with stunted imaginations have such a hard time envisioning the need or value of what NASA has given us.

Why I Picked Traditional Publishing, part II

Self-publishing is great for those who are willing to pay out of their pockets to hire editors, cover artists, print-on-demand services for anyone who orders a hard copy of the book, etc. And that is no small task. There are a lot of balls to juggle when you self-publish that take time away from actual writing. All the marketing, formatting, financial records, and production falls into your lap. Even if you hire people to help, you’re still the boss. And some writers are great at handling challenges like that, ready and willing to do that extra work. To them I say bravo.

But that’s not for every writer. Writers are anything but uniform, and that goes for the challenges they’re willing to tackle. Self-publishing can be a tragedy for someone who might have done great with a traditional publisher, if they fall apart trying to hold up their own island by themselves. There is still a need for traditional publishers, because not all writers can carry that burden. The real tragedy is that self-publishing makes it very hard to be respected in that old-fashioned world. If you self-publish, then decide that traditional might be the next step…well, let’s just say there are few tales (in this industry) of prodigal sons who were lovingly accepted back “into the family.”

And as far as my own fiction writing goes, I know that the best chance to serve a reader lies with the experienced men and women of a traditional publishing house.

My other reasons for sticking with traditional publishing for as long as possible are legion. I’ll do my best to express them here, hopefully giving you food for thought. Again, I’m not knocking self-publishing, and I’m not saying my road is the best one for you. It’s up to you to decide whether to embark on the adventure of self-pubbing, or to say “there’s no school like the old school” and enter the imperiling realm of agents, editors, copyeditors, contracts, and royalty checks.

1. I have already been published traditionally. My work went public, even with critical and often painful editorial guidelines breathing down my neck (of course, my only credit so far has been a short story and a couple of articles, but it still counts). Having any street cred at all will go a long way to get a publishing house to pay attention to you. Some houses are more mindful of it than others, but the point is, it helps.

2. I am willing to hunt for a literary agent, and keep submitting queries and proposals until I snag one who will stand up for my novels.

3. I am willing to spend the time and effort to shape up a proper contract with a publisher, with hefty doses of advice from said agent.

4. If I get a contract I don’t like, I don’t need to sign it. Agents and publishers expect compromise and negotiation, so if I think I’m getting a raw deal, then I have every right to ask for something better.

5. Despite what a number of self-pubbing advocates say, traditional publishers are still doing marketing for their books. Granted, they expect you to get your name out there and sell the book through blogs, social media, and book signings. And they do rely more on that kind of marketing than they used to. But they don’t abandon you to the sharks; they still take care of putting ads in magazines, and send review copies to critics and review journals like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Those review copies are important, especially if your book gets a favorable review.

6. Legitimate publishing houses pay for the editing, formatting, cover art, printing of the first hard copies, and everything else a self-publisher needs to pay for out of their own pocket. I’d rather just write the book, and trust them to take care of those other things for me.

Of course, with editing and my pitch appointment still in the future, it’s easier for me to be optimistic about going with a traditional publisher. I haven’t yet had my heart ripped out and seen my novel disregarded. But when April comes…we shall see. We shall see indeed. And I’m willing to risk a year or two of hunting for agents or publishers. I’m willing to risk poor reviews before the book’s release. I’m willing to risk my career on the decisions of an editor-in-chief deciding whether to buy my books. I don’t trust myself to juggle all the things a self-publisher needs to juggle. And I’m still willing to trust people who, if they bought my novels, would have a vested interest in my success.

Whatever path you choose for your writing, may you be blessed and joyful on your journey.

Why I Picked Traditional Publishing

Ah, yes, the old chestnut of self-publishing vs. traditional. As if nobody was blogging about this before…

Authors are presented with a lot of options these days, when they want to get published. That’s not news to you. You already know the Kindle, and other outlets like PubIt! (for Barnes and Noble’s Nook) and Createspace have made it possible for a writer to share his novel with the world, within hours after the last word has been typed. Indie publishers who take the misfit works of writers who can’t find a wide audience, self e-publishing, and print-on-demand are seeing an all-time high, and many writers celebrate the new wave of author-focused publishing opportunities that slice away the middle men and let a novel’s creator make their own road to success.

In the wake of the digital era, more than a few bloggers have asked, “Why are some people sticking with traditional publishing, the plodding mastodons of a bygone era that surely must bow to the march of progress? Is it because old habits die hard? Is it because the writers are too insecure to take responsibility for publishing the work themselves? Is it because those publishing mastodons, carrying the nametags of Alfred A. Knopf and Tor and Random House and HarperCollins, still hold a lot of the prestige and reputation writers crave? Is it because they want those corporate fat cats to take most of their hard-earned money?”

In my honest opinion, the answer is a little more complicated. It’s not enough to say that “greed” or “giant corporations” are the reasons why writers now flock to Kindle or smaller publishing firms.

God knows that greed and the sometimes unfair policies and practices of publishers contribute to the problem, though. Several authors I know have been unfairly marginalized, neglected, or even cheated on by the publishers that were supposed to help the author market their work and give them a certain cut of the profits. They have decided that self-publishing is much less aggravating, and gives them far more control over the books and stories they sell. And I wish them the greatest success. Forget the numbers and the “odds” against self-publishing getting them fame and fortune. I want them to get so lucky, it’s as if they grabbed the finest pot of gold a leprechaun ever put at the base of a rainbow.

But there have also been a lot of self-publishers who might have given up on traditional publishing too soon.

See that statement I made up there, that the new trends in book publishing are author-focused? That’s truer than you might know. When writers talk amongst themselves, it’s easy to forget that books are not just marketable products that help spread our names to the farthest reaches of Amazon. And it’s easy to forget that it’s not even about us, the writers. It’s about the readers. Writers, in effect, serve anyone who finds and treasures their words. You give their imaginations and minds a chance to expand, to thrill, to love or hate. Those might be your words, in your novel, but you’re giving the reader an experience. With every new page they turn comes a new chance to enrich their lives, or simply to make their day.

We also have to consider the aversion to risk and difficulty. We don’t like putting our precious work up to the judgment of a large entity (like a publishing house) that doesn’t care about it like we care. And sometimes that drives people to self-publishing. At least your work is guaranteed to reach the world if you e-publish it yourself. But is risk and difficulty always a bad thing? Doesn’t it do a novel good when it’s edited by people who have been editing novels for decades? Sure, it’s your feet that are being put to the fire. The same can be said for every writer. This is a part of the job if you want to be traditionally published: killing your ego, to make sure the reader finds your book in its best possible state.

[To be continued…]


Writer’s Workshops: To Critique or Not Critique?

Written text with red ink. It is to some writers what crucifixes are to vampires.

Picture, if you will, two writing workshops. One of them coalesces each Thursday at the local Barnes and Noble, and often draws aspiring writers who need some encouragement to continue in the craft. Many of these less-experienced storytellers have not yet developed a thick skin for unflinching critique, or for rejection letters. As a rule, the workshop outlaws critique of someone’s writing during the time they read it to the group. Some members are more than happy to critique if it’s requested, but you can only give and receive positive comments during the workshop.

The other group is led twice a month at a nearby library, mostly drawing middle schoolers and high schoolers. After a few years of fun, open minded, just-get-it-on-the-page writing exercises, the longstanding group decides to go ahead with allowing critiques of each other’s work (written outside of the workshops, and brought to the group for the express purpose of putting its feet to the fire). The fun, raw creativity of writing exercises still goes on, but now critique sessions will be part of the experience.

I attend both of these workshops, and have led the latter for five years. Both have blessed my life with writer colleagues, and with resources for growing as a storyteller. I plan to keep going to both for as long as possible. The first one may not get many opportunities for its members to be direct with the weaknesses in someone’s writing, but I appreciate its attempts to accommodate new writers who are still shy and may simply need encouragement and a positive environment. The latter will help its attendees, I’m sure, with constructive criticism and iron sharpening iron, and I’m excited that the group is moving in a new direction. Still, the presence of criticism might, just possibly, turn off newcomers who are not yet ready to hear negative things about their writing, no matter how well-intentioned.

There are trade-offs, is what I’m saying. What you’re looking for and what you need as a writer will help you find out if a particular workshop is ideal for you. Some questions I have for writers out there, out of curiosity:

Which writer’s workshop would you rather attend, if you could only pick one?

What do you want from a workshop? What do you need? They’re not necessarily the same thing.

Do you prefer writer’s workshops that have no critiquing, or ones that make time for both critiques and fun exercises? Or do you want a solid critiquing session, where each member runs a gauntlet of highlighted typos, suggestions, and potentially devastating criticism of their words?

When it comes to workshops, how do you think new writers should enter the fray? What kind of group do you think stands to benefit them the most?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and get a discussion going. Thanks for your time, everyone! Catch you on Thursday.