Self-promotion does seem to be the key to success, that and a lot of luck, and maybe even just some common sense. I’m currently working on a mystery and even though it would be great to see it in print, I would also have no problem offering it for $.99 on Amazon.

I actually do have some marketing experience and it’s not hard to see that there’s a great opportunity for volume in e-book publishing that can make it worthwhile. That makes it very different than the vanity publishing of the past. The trick is to discover the pricepoint where you can optimize your earnings. Personally, I don’t mind taking a chance on a book that doesn’t cost that much – guess that’s why I also like Ukazoo! That’s a great bookstore in our area with lots of used books. So, kind of interesting!

In some of our local writing groups and some national conferences I’ve attended we’ve talked a lot about establishing a platform, that’s kind of a name-recognition, getting people to know you type of thing. Lots of folks suggest a blog like this one, a web-site, being involved in different groups. I had a story published in a local anthology a couple of years ago and volunteered to read at a bunch of different places. I was very surprised when a lady who was complimenting me on a story that I read at a craft festival (wasn’t even the story in the anthology) said that she’d heard of me! Guess that’s one way to get some name recognition. I’ve also belonged to the Maryland Writers Association for a long time and now I’m in AWP (Associated Writers Programs) and the SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators) in which I’ve been fairly active. All of these activities are something that you can do now instead of waiting for your book to be published by you or someone else.

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E-Book Publishing

A good idea or not? When some of my friends have talked about doing this (and at least one actually has), I couldn’t help wondering if they were leaping too soon. All you have to do is read all the hype going on to know that this phenomenon is taking off more quickly than many of us anticipated. But there’s extra work to be done if you go down the path on your own. Take a look at this interesting discussion with Jane Friedman.

Thanks to SINC – Sisters in Crime – for their great newsletter!

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Doing What Needs to be Done

Where have I been? Ahh, finishing revisions on a novel. I have been living and breathing one of my books these past two weeks because I said I would finish by November 1 in time for Nanowrimo. I chose yesterday as a deadline because I thought I would submit it to a novel contest – haven’t done that before – and National Novel Writing Month is just too much fun to pass up. And when did I start these revisions? That was last August and I putzed around for a good amount of time. I didn’t really do the heavy lifting until these last two weeks. But I did learn something major during this crunch time and even though I will be picking up that novel in January to work on it again, the last part could use some more polishing, I know it’s close to being done.

A literary novel is not like a genre novel. I really don’t know anyone who sits down and outlines the plot ahead of time as it’s wise to do with a mystery or some other fast-paced type of book. Each one has its own shape and the process is a lot like discovering a statue within a block of marble. (Michelangelo?) Through trial and error, I realized that no logically thought out structure worked for this book that I like so much.  When I took it to Sewanee this summer, it seemed obvious that switching back and forth between points of view, chapter by chapter, was not a good idea. Neither was a traditional frame, third person, or a variety of other things I’ve tried. But sitting down to revise it once again, mainly on a structural level, my free-form style worked. There was a kind of flow that fit the book perfectly that I knew I would eventually “discover.”

What I learned was that I needed a big block of time not just an hour or two a day, a time where I lived with it ten/twelve hours a day so I could feel the book’s natural shape.  Since I usually write for an hour here an hour there, I’m glad I accidentally picked up on how to do this kind of revision more efficiently.

Of course, now I’m exhausted but I’ve already started my Nanowrimo book and will have to do a bit extra for the next couple of days but that’s okay. Writing is a pleasure even when it’s driving me crazy!

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About My Last Workshop

Another installment….

When the book is published (I’ve decided to take an optimistic view), lots of teachers and students from Hopkins will be able to say that they helped me. I’d entered the program to work on Bad Luck Companion and I could imagine the completed manuscript now, an important step (Now I think that it’s essential) in the writing process. I just had to finish the work.

It’s a funny thing how you can get swept away by different projects though. After this workshop, I had a semester to work on my thesis which I’ll talk about later. Then, after graduation, I decided to transfer my diary entries about school into the manuscript, Surviving a Graduate Writing Program. Before I knew it, November was upon me and I decided to take the 50,000 word challenge. That’s the year that I drafted The Terrifying Miss Bascom. I’ve made major revisions to that book four times and I’m just getting ready to send the book out again after incorporating my Sewanee revisons (plus other ideas). I actually did send it to some agents last year but it was obvious from their comments that it needed more work. I have another book that only needs a little more revision. But have I finished Bad Luck Companion? Nope. I wonder if other people get swept away like I do? I did participate in Nanowrimo three out of the last four years because it’s so much fun but I also do think it’s a good idea to have two projects going simultaneously because if you get a little stale, you can switch to the other project for a while. I guess I’ll get back to Companion next summer! Back to 2006!

During the semester, I also wrote two short stories that I workshopped. The first one was the product of an online conversation that I’d had with my friend Cyndi (Italy Workshop) about twisting a love story to another purpose. The story was about a serial killer stalking his victims which eventually morphed into a story about a man erroneously suspecting that someone he’s just met is a serial killer. I thought that it might be a good idea to publish some mystery genre stories to help pave the way for marketing my mysteries so I decided to workshop the story.

They didn’t like the beginning segments about the killer reading about his acts in the newspaper. The introduction was heavy-handed. They also weren’t sure how to react to a genre story. My teacher asked me why I was always killing people! I didn’t have an answer for him.

None of the mystery writers that I’ve met have been morose or unduly depressed except for a man I once met who wrote mysteries about child abusers. I couldn’t even make it through his book. The other mystery writers that I’ve met were the glass-half-full type who like to play with the puzzles. Many of them would make good grandparents, a wholesome bunch. The lure of mysteries is the riddle or setting up the riddle so a reader doesn’t find out who the killer is too soon and it makes sense to her when she does!

During my semester with this teacher who was great by the way, I also took a mystery workshop at the Bethesda Writing Center. I didn’t tell the folks at school about those Saturday sessions. It was foolish to stretch myself so thin but I’d been trying to register for the class for years and was finally successful that fall. I’m glad that I did. The teacher has since retired and I’m not sure that anyone could ever replace her, she was so open and knowledgeable about the genre. She gave me some great tips about how to improve my books, tips you can only receive from a successful author who knows the market and steered me clear of some comments from the class that could have tied me up for months.

I’ve always imagined that I wouldn’t confine my writing to one genre, that I would enjoy writing mysteries as well as “literary” novels. Keeping my options open, still appeals to me. 

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New Fiction Workshop

In my last post I explained how I started this blog with material from my diary called Surviving a Graduate Writing Program.  The saga continues….

This workshop was comprised of seasoned students. Five of them I knew, three from previous workshops. Having been through the rigors of earlier workshops, the group was fairly supportive. We met  in the old Tower room below the clock of Gilman Hall where many of the MFA workshops were held. Professor Irwin had a workshop in the same room that sometimes went over its scheduled time. I always enjoyed having a chance to say hello.

The new first chapter was well received and my teacher commented that he thought I might be able to publish it as a short story. The approach was a soft one, starting with some description and featured a scene between my main character and his best friend where he wrestles with his decision to leave Peoria. After the workshop however, I decided that it still wasn’t right, that the soft tone I’d been exploring didn’t match my vision of the book. I decided to go back to a more funky approach that would allow me to maintain what humor I could muster and alternate that against the darkness of the overall tale.

The style of writing that I’d used for this draft was a healthy change for me. The sentences moved smoothly through the chapter which ended in a nicely rounded way. My teach said that he liked the way that I integrated my description into the action. My writing was improving!

I decided to work on some of the missing chapters in the body of the book and present one later in the workshop. The tone was once again funky, like some of my earlier submissions in other workshops, and it confused the other students until I explained that I’d shifted back to my earlier tone choice, once again dumping some of my material from that earlier draft.

Trying out my different approaches to the beginning of the novel was quite a learning experience, one that I don’t think I’ll ever really experience again. or if I do, I won’t worry about wasting time on false starts.  What I learned throughout all these revisions was that my first instinct about how the book should begin (with some modifications of course) was the right one. By using all the comments from my Fiction Techniques class, I’d ended up including too much information in the first chapter.

I didn’t really mind not using all of those extra pages of writing. They were experiements and it was well worth my time to find out what I shouldn’t be doing. If this manuscript was more like books that had already been published, it would have been a lot easier to write. But I’m also very happy that I’ve never seen anything like it because that means it’s original, not a bad thing.

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Going Back to Graduate School

If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know that I received my MA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University in 2007. Having some distance has given me some perspective as well as helped me understand that writing programs have a hard time meeting everyone’s needs in their workshops. What I appreciate most about my graduate program is what I learned about editing my work.

There’s no easy way to learn how to revise your work and after I finished school, I was pretty sick of workshops. During this past year I broke my own nonparticipation rule with three different groups. I started editing a young adult novel this year, my first in that genre, and I thought some feedback would be helpful. I had to quit one group because some writers insisted very strongly that I had to use all of their suggestions which is rubbish no matter who is commenting on your work. I’ve been participating with another children’s group online (SCBWI) but although they started out with a bang and some of the comments were very useful, they just kind of faded away as many groups do. 

The workshop at Sewanee was very different. I didn’t hesitate to accept most of  Margot Livesey’s comments and there were only a few that I didn’t want to take where her style wouldn’t have sounded right in my voice. If you’re lucky enough to receive comments from such a talented author, then you will at least know that the ideas are coming from someone who knows more than you do! I asked the class to specifically comment on the points of view I’d used and although I understood that I needed to adjust how they were presented, I didnt’ take any of their comments as is. I think that comments should make sense to you and if they don’t, then you should do what you think is best since that’s your decision and no one else’s at least until you submit a manuscript to an agent or an editor.

Besides the basics of grammar and sometimes factual inaccuracies, there is one situation where I believe everyone should revise based on comments during a workshop. If a couple or maybe a bunch of people pinpoint a particular paragraph or even a sentence (even if they suggest different edits) then I’m comfortable assuming that something needs to be changed in that paragraph. That said, here’s the next installment of my diary of what happened in graduate school, Surviving a Graduate Writing Program.

My Last Workshop

I had two more classes to finish before I did my thesis. Keeping a steady pace at school as well as working full time had been wearing me down and taking time away from my writing. I decided that I wanted to make one big push and finish my degree in the Spring of 2007.

In the Spring of 2006, one of the graduating students in my program had told me that I should ask someone to be my thesis advisor at least a year in advance to make sure I could find one. I decided to ask a fiction teacher in Baltimore that I’d never had for a class. The teacher who also taught in the MFA program was concerned that we didn’t know each other, so I’d agreed to sign up for his Fall workshop. Our director had given us the option of counting our workshop in Italy as one of our electives. The workshop with my future thesis advisor would then count as my last workshop in the program.

At the beginning of my program, I’d decided to take classes from different teachers so I could have a wide variety of experiences. I wondered if I should hve made more of an effort to take multiple classes from other teachers. I’d never had a class with several of the fiction teachers in Washington including my fiction advisor who taught most of his classes in D.C.  I did take an extra Saturday grammar seminar with him and knew that I would have liked to take his classes if our schedules had matched but it was too late to worry about my strategy now. We only needed nine courses for our degree. If I’d focused on taking more courses from different teachers, it would have taken me longer to finish since courses weren’t offered every semester.

At least I would have a chance to study with the other fiction teacher in Baltimore. I decided to try yet another approach for the beginning of my novel in progress as my first workshop submission. During the summer after my workshop in Italy, I’d developed a new opening for the book.

More tomorrow…..

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Dreams are Good

Reading one of my fellow bloggers this morning, I felt that rush that keeps some of us going. Not long ago, writing was bliss. I set goals for myself and when I drafted a Nanowrimo book in one month, or even a chapter in one weekend, I was content. Exposure to the elements has changed me a bit.

Is it snowing in Maryland? Were you stranded by a flood in Minnesota? No, I’m talking about all those people who ask me if I’ve had a book published. I’m sure that you all know who I’m talking about. They’re those people who don’t care if you’ve had stories published or if you’ve improved so much that revising that unpublished book of yours makes sense. There was even a lady once at a symphony concert who slyly asked me if I wanted to write the Great American Novel.  

I think it was Joyce Carol Oates who wrote about writing as an act of faith.  Writing a book is a great accomplishment. Yet the act of faith is that someone will find you original and craft-wise enough to publish your book. The problem with our ego is not about the actual writing. I think it’s about identifying too closely with a book which as good as it may be, may never actually strike a chord with an agent or a publisher. They reject the book, they reject us. Forget these guys and dream a little.

The rush I talked about at the beginning of this post is when I dream that it’s finally happened, someone likes one of my books enough to publish it. Will I use a pen name? Maybe. How about you? Read the post, and see what she says about pen names.

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Book Talk – Moby Dick

Reading is important for every writer, that’s what everyone says. I had plenty of reading to do in my graduate program and I’ve made a point of continuing to educate myself by occassionally reading a classic. My reading plan is not scientific. If I run into a one that I haven’t read recently, I buy the book or if I’m planning a long trip, I will even buy a reasonably priced used audio book. This approach is not thorough. It’s also not economical and it’s resulted in stacks and stacks of books all over my house. I frequently look longingly at new bookcases and promise myself that I will go to the library next time. Meanwhile, I’m playing catch-up on last summer’s purchases. My latest foray into classical reading land is an audio version of Moby Dick.

I decided to write about reading Moby Dick today because there’s a new book out about Melville’s classic. PW has an interview referenced at Kind of interesting because he talks about how we can learn in a human sort of way, not a writer sort of way, about life from this book. The only thing I’ve picked up so far (really, I am going to finish the book but I became distracted by NPR again), is that Khan in the second Star Trek movie is quoting Ahab when he says, “He’s tasking me.”

The first part of the book takes its time getting to the actual tale of the Captain’s quest for revenge but there’s a lot of interesting details about life in New England and whaling and later about the whales themselves. (The whale part does go on and on.) I don’t really think that the discourse about Ishmael’s cannibal friend is all that big of him though. When he defends him, Melville sounds condescending, probably the best attitude that someone of that time period could have.

What I found disturbing was the great defense of whaling. There is no recognition of the value of wild life or any clue that people thought hunting them might lead to their extinction. I wanted to skip through that part but was afraid that I would miss something important so I didn’t.  I thought the long passage was surprisingly in bad taste, maybe even for that time period and I don’t think anyone would say I’m a radical tree-hugger. As far as “learning” anything from the book, I think not. The historical details may be a good record of the times which I think is okay if that’s your goal. Since I finally advanced to the disc where Ishmael realizes this Captain is nuts, I imagine that I will finish the book even Faulkner got to the point more quickly in Absalom, Absalom.

As far as reading literature to help your writing, this book has reminded me that while there might be techniques or ways of applying your writing craft that you can pick up in a classic, the books are not modern in style and not necessarily a good guide for a writer today. Just my opinion.

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Is Nanowrimo Worth the Time?

My answer is always another question. When was the last time you finished a first draft of a book? If you can say you finished one within the last couple of years, then I want to know how long did it take you to finish the first draft? Two, three, (expletive deletive here) eight to ten years?

There are a lot of reasons why it’s easier for me to write my first draft during Nanowrimo. The first reason is that it helps me battle my procrastination. It’s also a game. Can I master myself enough to write everyday? If I do, I try to update my Nanowrimo count every day.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt lonely when I’m writing. I have missed talking about writing with other writers though. I go to the conferences for the chit-chat as much as I do to see if there are any agents I like or to learn new techniques.  Even if you don’t go to any Nanowrimo write-ins, you’re still joining a group of fellow writers and you can chit-chat in the forums.

Most people that I know actually finish the first draft after Nanowrimo because 50,000 words is not really enough for most types of books. The total immersion in the writing during November does make it easier to keep going into December and then you have a new book to edit for the next year. If you get into this type of writing calendar, you will have overlapping “book” years. The book that I’m almost done editing is from 2007 and this is not the first time I’ve done a complete edit of this book, this is the fourth edit. After I’m done with a major revision and I think I’ve cleaned it up as much as I can, I’ll send it out to see how it goes or maybe take it to a conference.  But I imagine this is the last major revision I will do of the book unless one is requested by an agent or an editor.

The book I have from 2008 has been through some editing but has not really seen the light of day yet, I’ve only showed a few pages to a couple of agents once to see if they thought publishers might be interested. I plan on sending it out for the first time in early 2012. The response will tell me how much more editing I’ll need to do. I have another one from 2009 that is a follow-up to 2008 so it will be interesting to see how the 2008 will do. I ended up deciding not to do Nanowrimo last year because I was getting too far behind on the editing part of the cycle.

Having some deadlines and plans are the major reason I think Nanowrimo is so great. Don’t forget the way it changes your writing habits. Nothing makes you improve more than writing every day! It’s also a lot easier to keep the same tone and plot going if what you’ve written already is still fresh in your mind.

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Ready to Send Your Book to an Agent?

I did have an agent once before I went back to school to get my Masters at Johns Hopkins. If you go back to the beginning of this blog, I talked about how I took non-credit writing courses first and ended up in a mystery writers group. My intent was not to learn how to write mysteries but that was the only novel course offered one semester. The little group helped me immensely. Unfortunately, I’m the only one who’s still writing. 

The agent (who will remain anonymous) charged me money up front for mailings which I don’t think was such a big deal. However, I wasn’t ever able to find out exactly where he sent my mystery manuscript. Later after I let him go, I realized that he probably didn’t send it anywhere because the two places I sent it, gave me loads of feedback.

The point of bringing this subject up today in rainy Minnesota before I head back to Baltimore, is that the main reason the first small publisher gave me for turning down my book was that it was too sloppy. They noted that I had used “there” instead of “their” one place and something else which I can’t remember now. When I did a search for what they’d cited, I only found three instances of what they had noted. Yet, looking at the manuscript again, I could see even with my inexperienced eye that it needed to be cleaned up in a major way.

Rule #1 — Don’t send out your manuscript too soon. As proud as I was to have completed a book, I should have held onto it for a while and revised again after several months. I would strongly recommend that to anyone who has just finished a book or even a short story. I have seen people who keep revising and never sent out their stories which isn’t good either. It’s good to take a dip in the water once in a while even when you’re in the early stages.

The second publisher was Avon. The editor gave me some useful ideas about how to start a book and actually did contradict some of the comments that I received from Poison Pen. My general impression was that she wanted to keep me around for when I was more experienced but she didn’t personally like the book enough to buy it. Which brings us to my second point.

Rule #2: Some people will like your work and some people won’t. I’ve had people say they hate the way I did my points of view in my current manuscript. That was extreme but useful. I was pleased that they hated one of my main characters. He’s one of those kinds of guys that women love to hate! The people who love my current manuscript, thank you thank you thank you. We will see if it flies! Those generous people do help keep a poor writer going.

We all need to remember that not everybody will like our stories no matter how well they are written. Give yourself a break and send out your manuscript again and again. That little speech is as much for me as it is for you!

Rule #3 — You don’t absolutely have to have an agent. If you’ve never published a book before, it seems like agents are saying come back when you’ve published a book but how do you get the first one published without an agent? Plenty of people have trouble finding one. You can start with the big agencies but my impression is that they very rarely pick up a newby author unless they’ve graduated from Iowa or the agent is just starting out. For most of us, finding an agent is going to take a lot of endurance.

I’ve dipped my toe in the water a little bit before this last round of edits and I think my story is good if I can shine it up a bit. If I don’t find an agent after a year and it doesn’t strike a chord with a small publisher, I’ve decided I will try the e-book route because I do love this one and I don’t want it to languish in a drawer.  For my other book, a YA fantasy, I still haven’t decided if I will try to get an agent first. You don’t need to have an agent to submit to those publishers. The genre of your book is a major consideration.

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