Random Thoughts: The Writing Life – Stock Answers for Uncomfortable Questions

So, on June 7th I have a guest blog post appearing over at http://novelspaces.blogspot.com/

I won’t get too spoilery, but in it I talk about questions that people often ask authors and writers.

As an extension of that, I have a few stock answers that you may feel free to use in the event that you, writer, are asked an uncomfortable writing question.

(These are not serious, by the way. I’m pretty sure following this template will guarantee that people stop asking, though, if that’s your goal.)

Q: How many books did you sell?

A: A bunch. OMG! DO YOU SEE WHAT THAT SQUIRREL IS DOING TO THE STUFFED PANDA IN AISLE SIX?

Q: Is that really how you have sex?

A: Stop trying to flirt with me!

Q: What do you wear when you do your writing?

A: Seriously, stop trying to flirt with me! Your spouse is right there. Also it’s not very sexy. *coughmumbles Union suit.*

Q: Could you write me into your story? Especially into a steamy sex scene?

A: Oh, you mean like where you get chopped up and steam-cooked with rice and vegetables? Like that? Wow. That’s weird. Are you sure you’re okay?

Q: Do you know James Patterson?

A: Are you talking about your sock puppet friends again?

Q: Did you finish writing that book yet? What’s taking so long?

A: Well, it needs to make sense when it’s finished, so there is that.

Q: So that scene in your book… That’s about me, isn’t it?

A: Um, no. And stop it.

Q: Also, how are sales? When are you going to see some money from this?

A: As soon as you wave some in front of my face and buy this copy I happen to have right here.

Q: Do you have a deadline?

A: *looks at watch* Shouldn’t you be at work?

Q: Soooo, how DO you pay the bills?

A: On time.

Q: Have you published anything lately?

A: IF YOU REALLY CARED YOU WOULD ALREADY KNOW THAT! *runs away crying*

Random Thoughts: The Writing Life – Genre Hopping

So on May 28, my friend (and the person who wrote the introduction for Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales)  wrote this excellent blog post over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University and in it he mentions genre hopping. It is something that I have a tendency to do. What Dario says in there about experiencing great success with a non-fiction travel book versus the excellent thriller Sutherland’s Rules got me thinking about that. Genre distinctions are useful in terms of pointing potential audience in the direction of fiction that they might like, from the publishing standpoint it’s a marketing category. Genre tells publishers something about audience and gives them/us a starting point in terms of how to market a work. For indie publishers, particularly just starting out, we are just beginning to navigate marketing. When we genre hop, we set ourselves up for extra challenges in that regard. Moving from contemporary fiction to, for example, a  collection of short stories in the new weird genre as I have done between Haunted and Aliens in the Soda Machine can mean that we are starting from scratch between marketing approaches. What is more interesting to me (and probably tells you where my heart really is in all of this) is the writing process, and what leads us, as authors in the process of creation, to do things like genre hop when conventional wisdom indicates that we shouldn’t do it. I think, in my case, it starts with reading habits that began well before I started to write fiction seriously. I’ve always read widely. Even since I was a little kid. I read everything I could get my hands on. When I ran out of books I would break into my parents’ collection and read things meant for adults. I think what that has meant for me in terms of writing is that my writer brain refuses to align itself with a singular category. The stories that take proto-shape in my head naturally genre hop. So the focus becomes not categorization but just telling the best story that I can in whatever form best suited to that story. It also means that things will happen during the proto-stages of a project to change the direction of a story. Haunted was an example of this. I’ve mentioned it in interviews, but Haunted was a novel meant to be contemporary fiction about a family dealing with grief. As I was writing it felt that something was missing. The missing thing turned out to be the voice of the deceased. And so a paranormal element was introduced to the work. There is a sequel, and of course a third book planned to follow the misadventures of the McTutcheon sisters. The second book explores the relationships within the family as they move on with their lives and as such is straight up contemporary fiction. By the time we get to the third book, however, it fulfills the promise of the first novel, with multiple ghosts haunting a bar. I am aware that makes this particular trilogy a bit wonky for purposes of categorization. As fiction, the hope is that each book will succeed because the reader cares about the characters. But in terms of genre distinction and marketing I’ve definitely set myself up for some serious challenges. I mean, this is a trilogy that will hold together but within that each book has a distinctly different flavor. My genre hopping writer’s brain has dictated the terms here. As an indie publisher, it is a pleasure to be able to experiment in this way. The weirdness of genre as it presents in this series is one of the reasons that I chose this particular set of projects to self-publish. Sometimes, writer-brain wants what it wants. (Which is not to suggest that I’m whimsically following the mythic muse down whatever path s/he chooses. Far from it.) I also have the freedom to do this right now because I’m a relatively unknown writer. Point 1 for obscurity, here. In the works, I have other things that more readily fit into distinct categories. But they aren’t necessarily all the same genre. I have never read that way, so it makes sense to me that I don’t write that way, either. I think the trick is to genre-hop with some sort of purpose, but there isn’t an established path for genre hoppers, even though I suspect that there are more of us out there than is immediately evident. So, what about you guys? Readers and writers alike, do you genre-hop? What are the benefits and challenges you experience there?

Random Thoughts: 19 Days into Book Launch 2 – Electric Boogaloo

Hey everybody!

So this post is bound to be a bit… uh… scattered. I am 19 days into the official release of Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales.

This is not my first day at the rodeo in terms of Indie book releases, but I don’t remember being this scattered at this time last year when I released Haunted.

Then again, maybe I am blocking that memory. It’s been a fairly intense writing year for me. Since the release of last year’s Haunted, Devon Miller and I have started and completed the first book in a trilogy, I have started and completed the sequel to Haunted (which should be available in 2016.) I’ve started an sf novel and released a collection of short stories.

Perhaps I am due for a bit of scatter, a sort of forced slow down. But I think the issue is that I keep forgetting about all the things that have to be juggled when a book is released into the wild in addition to the day to day goings on in this particular corner of writer-land. Marketing and promotion is ongoing, but it is particularly intense leading up to a launch, and in the weeks immediately following. I’m still learning, still trying new things and doing things from the last big push that worked. I think when it comes to that side of this that will always be the case. The tools are constantly changing. When this is all happening I tend to forget how much time and energy it really takes and when current projects slow down my knee-jerk reaction is to wonder, “Why is the writing taking longer? What’s wrong with me?”

Yep. I know. Moronic right? I have to remind myself that my attention is also on other tasks that are consequential. I’m not sure why that is.

Another thing that’s happening is that I keep thinking about the next publishing project, and the one after that. There’s an impatience to work on those things. The problem there is that the sequel to Haunted needs to sit untouched for a while. I need critical distance before edits. (Some folks can dive right in, but I’ve learned what works for me, and distance is key.) To round out the tale of the McTutcheon sisters, there is already a third book percolating in my brain. Of course, writer brain wants to work on that, too. But that would be unwise, as I’ve begun the sf novel. This order of projects was planned, by the way. There’s a rhythm to these things. If I dive into the third book about the McTutcheon sisters before the second book has been edited, that sets me up for bigger problems with inconsistencies later. A book changes dramatically from first draft to final version. So, between those books, I’m working on the sf novel. My head is getting turned by other ideas, and maybe a bit of self-imposed pressure to get that next book out, asap. In the midst of it all, I’m thinking, “WHY AM I NOT GETTING MORE DONE!”

My own advice dictates that I’ve got to finish the thing I’m doing right now. My own advice also says that a rushed book is a shitty book. So when my head is spinning like this, I have to tell myself the things I would tell another writer going through it.

Worry about one thing at a time. Stay calm. Make sure you’ve got enough coffee.

How about you guys? How do you handle it when your head starts doing this?

Random Thoughts: Writing Myths

So, writing myths come up a lot in the course of doing this kind of work. From the beginning stages when you are starting out and you half believe them all the way to having that first book put out. By the time you’ve got something out there you know that the myths are false and they start to sound increasingly harmful and ridiculous over time.

I’ve already written about one of the most pervasive myths about writing, regarding the muse in the writers and self-sabotage series of blog posts, but I wanted to talk about some of the other ones that pop up every once in a while.

This blog post is not likely to be comprehensive because there are a lot of them. Mountains.

One of the myths about writing, or any creative path, really, is the belief that in order to do art one must, in some way, be tortured. No. I cannot emphasize this enough. Not true. Artists who happen to be tortured for any number of reasons create in spite of also facing down drug addiction, depression, poverty, etc… While it speaks to enormous personal strength to be able to create in spite of such conditions, the “torture” is not the thing that propels the art. We might make that part of the art, it might provide some real world knowledge of struggle to help lend verisimilitude to the writing, but it is not necessary and I don’t think it helps to glamorize this. The starving artist is not an ideal. I can tell you personally that certain types of struggle make it much more difficult to create. If I am not feeling well it is difficult to overcome that in order to apply the focus that is required to write. What the narrative of a tortured artist gives us is a compelling narrative about the artist, it does nothing to improve the work unless the artist takes that struggle and applies it to the work, which is an artistic choice. In and of itself, the suffering of the artist does not necessarily equal greater art, or any art at all. I’d also like to point out that there are plenty of people with personal struggles in other types of work that perform in spite of those struggles.

This leads me to the myth that drinking and/or drugs help with the creative process. While there may have been some rare folks who were able to fuel their art in this way, for most of us arting while intoxicated is a very bad idea. I’m not going to lie. A few sips of wine might loosen self-imposed inhibitions and help creativity initially, but keep drinking and the words on the page look more like your cat was dancing on the keyboard. If you have to use a psycho-active substance to keep the ideas flowing, coffee is your best bet. Or tea, if you are a tea person.

Writers and coffee… well. That one, with a few exceptions that I know of, is true. Most writers love coffee. A good way to show support for a writer (aside from buying their books, leaving reviews or recommending their work to friends) is to offer them a cup of coffee.

Writers and money. Man, this deserves its own series. Writers are rich. (Um, no. A few are, but that’s it.) Writers are always broke. (Sometimes true, but most of us have day jobs and if we’re smart, we keep them until we can afford to let them go.) Traditionally published authors don’t have to do other work. HAHAHAHAHAHA! (Some don’t, most do.)

Writing is fun, or a luxury. I actually had a woman very bitterly say to me once, “I wish I could afford to work part time and just write books.” In the moment, I didn’t respond but that one really pissed me off. Working part time is a sacrifice I made so that I could pursue the very hard work of writing fiction. Is it fun? Sometimes it is. In fact I am one of those annoying people who just LOVES to work if the job is right. But writing is fraught with difficulty, challenges and uncertainty.

JUST write books? JUST? Are you kidding me? Don’t even get me started on the huge skill set you need to develop if you choose the road of author-publisher. While I love the challenge of learning new skills and the results that can happen when those new skills are put to good use, it is hard work. It is real work. It doesn’t suddenly become “not work” because I happen to like it. Interesting side-note, no one would have suggested to me that broadcasting was not work when I was doing that professionally, and that was something I enjoyed too. (Bonus myth-busting: A majority of broadcasters are not wealthy. At all.)

So what about you guys? Which myths about writing bug you the most? Which make you laugh the hardest?

 

 

Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox- Other types of writer’s groups

So, the past few blog posts had to do specifically with writer’s critique groups and I had mentioned that other types of groups can also be useful. There are a whole host of reasons why a critique group might not come together or might not be the right fit for you in terms of receiving feedback. I’m thinking of logistical reasons as well as personal preferences. Most of us have day jobs and other responsibilities which makes time a really important issue. It can sometimes happen that a critique group eats into writing time to a prohibitive degree and you prefer a quid-pro-quo work exchange with other writers you trust. So maybe a group with a slightly more relaxed agenda is a better match.

I mentioned groups that are more social, about connecting to other writers to talk about the thing that we do. Writing is a solitary occupation and sometimes it feels like what we do is happening in a vacuum. It can be just as helpful and motivating simply to meet with other folks jumping through the same hoops and experiencing similar peaks and valleys. In short, only writers really get what writers go through, from first draft to submissions to that first publication and beyond. There are things about this that are idiosyncratic. (Although the same can be said of other career paths.) If nothing else, making a point to connect with other folks who write can make you feel understood and that has a lot of value. Another benefit to the socially-oriented writer’s group is that these tend not to be so concerned about regular attendance, which is great for anyone who has a lot of demands on their time.

There are other groups that talk about specific topics as they relate to writing. I’m thinking of Juliette Wade’s Worldbuilding Hangouts on G+. The focus in her hangouts is self-evident and the discussions are serious but they are also a lot of fun. These types of groups can really help a writer to stretch the way they think about the writing, offer new perspectives on sometimes old topics, and of course help to generate new ideas.

Whichever type of group you choose to try, all of them are useful for networking which, let’s face it, is necessary in every field of work. I am tempted to say there is even more importance on that in creative fields because often, that is how things get done. And since we do the bulk of the work alone networking of this kind can sometimes act as a lifeline, a reminder that although the work is solitary, we are all still connected to something other than ourselves, that there is a community out there that we can reach out to when we need it.

Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox: Critique Groups III

Okay, so in the last post about critique groups, I mentioned ground rules and that I would do a post about the afore-mentioned ground rules in critique groups. There’s plenty out there on this topic, but I’m going to talk specifically about those that I felt helped everyone get the best out of critique, and gave everyone a fair shot at both receiving and giving critique.

Before I get into ground rules, I just want to mention the obvious, which is that critique groups work best when they meet regularly and face to face (whether online or in a coffee shop.) It adds a level of accountability and helps everyone maintain a level of momentum. I recommend once a week or once a month at a set time. How much time you spend can vary, but generally, the groups I’ve been in settled on an hour of focused work. In those groups, we exchanged work a week prior to the meeting, to give everyone a chance to read thoughtfully and make notes and comments. (If the author has specific questions they’d like the group to consider, it’s good to include that with the work when it is shared. ) This seems like a small thing, but it leads to a better, more thorough critique, though I’ve known of groups that read the day of the meeting. Here I’d just like to leave a reminder that I’m talking about what has worked for me.

Some folks prefer to handle the process of critique organically. But the best experiences I’ve had is when ground rules have been established. Ground rules can be as extensive or as general as the group needs, but I think the more basic the better.

The first ground rule about critique is that work shared within the group is not meant to be shared with anyone outside of the group. Obviously, this is to help establish trust. No one wants their word-baby exposed to the world before it’s ready.

The second ground rule, generally, has to do with structure. At the beginning of the meeting, the group will choose which piece to go over first, and then go in a circle, allowing everyone to offer critique. It’s best during this time for the author not to interrupt the feedback, to just take it in and then ask for clarification at the end. This helps to eliminate cross-talk, which is the biggest criminal in terms of sucking up time. Cross-talk is going to happen no matter what. In CLAW, with Rune Skelley, we came up with a safe-word to get everyone back on topic when this happened. It is possible we had way too much fun with that…

Anyway, at the end of that first round robin, it’s usually time to pick the next vict… er… piece and start over.

The third ground rule that we developed was to leave grammar and spelling out of the discussion to focus on the content of any given piece. Largely this was because the author generally received a rough or digital copy with those things already pointed out, so for purposes of the meeting it was redundant.

Last was not so much a hard and fast rule as it was a suggestion, and that was to remember the management technique of “the compliment sandwich.” You know what I’m talking about, when the person says, “Well, I think you do a really good job with x, but y needs some work. This z, however was really great.”

Obviously, due to the nature of what a critique group does, that y section takes up a lot more words. But it is as important to note what is working about another author’s work. Sometimes that can point out a solid direction for rewrites as much as the rest of it.

It would sometimes happen that in a particular week we didn’t have work to look at. When that happened, we’d choose a topic regarding writing to discuss and sometimes we’d pull out writing prompts to do, just to get the idea engines moving.

 

Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox: Critique Groups II

So, you found a critique group and you have work ready for scrutiny. Now what?

Be prepared to hear things about your work that you won’t like. Do your best not to react to the feedback as if it is an attack on you, or the work. Because it isn’t. The people offering feedback have taken time out of their own week to read your work with the goal of helping you to make the work better. It helps if you remember that going in.

I’m not going to lie, the first round of this can be a bit of a shock. My advice here is to take it in and try not to react unless it is to ask for clarification. You’ve got to give yourself time to digest the input before you can make decisions based on it. What I like to do is wait until all the feedback is in and look at it as a whole before I integrate what’s there.

Some of it will be useful. Some of it won’t. That *might make you feel like you’ve wasted your time. You haven’t. I say this because if even one comment helps to make a better story, that is a win. If only one sentence is made more perfect than it was in your draft, that is a win. Nobody is there to make life harder for you, they are there to make your story better. (If they are there to make life harder for you, you are in the wrong place and should run away.)

Some things to expect that might be confusing…

1) Contradicting feedback: You might hear from different people that they want less or more of something on the same piece of prose. You might also hear contradicting rules for grammar. Not all of them are correct.

2) How *insert name here* would write the story: Someone wants to take your story and run with it in a totally different direction/genre/outcome.

How to handle #1: Do not panic. Wait until the results are in and see if multiple people say the same thing. If they do, they might be right. If it is all very different, you might not have to address the issue, although you should, as the author consider all of it. Consensus, when it comes to feedback, is not always correct over the course of a long piece. Always remember that you are the decision maker and that all of these things are just suggestions. When it comes to the grammar stuff I suggest consulting a grammar guide that you trust. When in doubt, always defer to Strunk and White.

How to handle #2: Try to remember that the reason the other person is suggesting you rewrite the entire thing to their personal taste is because they are engaged with the text, which means that you did something right. Then ignore it in favor of what you set out to do. A good critique should serve to strengthen the story you are writing, not the story someone else would write if they were in your shoes. The funny thing is that sometimes the same person who is guilty of this is also the same person who says the most helpful things in other areas of the work. Also consider if the departure point on the page versus what the person has in mind is a particularly weak/ineffective moment. Sometimes I find when people do this that is what’s happening.

Remember that everyone at the table is human, including yourself, and that you are all there for a shared goal. Keeping that in mind will keep the process a bit easier and make the group more productive.

Also important? Setting up ground rules, which I’ll address in another post.

Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox: Critique Groups

So, I thought it might be good to take a break from the writers and self-sabotage theme for a bit and talk about things that can be useful to writers. Or at least things that have proven to be useful to me, as a writer.

One thing that I have found beneficial is critique groups. I’ve heard horror stories about different critique groups and some writers I know have sworn off this method of receiving feedback because they haven’t found it useful, preferring one on one work exchanges. (The lesson there is that no matter how an author does this, it is always beneficial to have eyes other than your own on the work.) I think I’ve been lucky in terms of finding a good critique group to work with.

One of the first criteria in joining or forming a critique group that will yield productive results is discerning whether the group is geared for writers whose goal is publication or for writers who are hobbyists. If your goals and the rest of the groups’ goals don’t match this can lead to a lot of problems immediately. The good news here is that this is easy to identify. If your goal is publication and you are expecting the group to be focused on giving and receiving critique, but the group is more interested in simply heaping praise on each other’s work or conversely offering snark for the sake of snark, or even worse, for the goal-oriented writer, just kvetching for an hour and a half about things having very little to do with writing, then that group is probably a bad match.

Writer’s groups that are there for the sake of being social are good but for different reasons. (Which I’ll maybe do a post on some other time.) Sometimes these social groups masquerade as critique groups so before you make a commitment to one, check that your goals and the group’s goals are aligned. For this reason, I don’t advise joining groups that are open to the public that don’t have criteria for joining. Sometimes local libraries will have information about writing groups, also bookstores and coffee shops are good places to look.

If you are new to critique, one of the things I suggest is that before presenting work to a group (or even one person whose opinion you trust) is that you wait until the first draft is complete, regardless of length. I say this because it is easy to allow the story you set out to tell to get sidetracked or turned in a different direction due to feedback. This is not a hard and fast rule for everyone but make sure the piece is ready for feedback before you subject yourself to it.

Making sure the piece is ready is pretty straight-forward. Any problems you can identify and fix before someone else is required to spend time with it should be done, and that includes everything from spelling errors to story problems. Sometimes you can identify a problem on your own, but can’t get a handle on how to fix it, sometimes you know something in the story isn’t working but can’t put a finger on why. This is where critique is useful  It can help to have a list of specific question that you want feedback on when this is the case. That list of questions can help you to get more out of critique.

One of the biggest benefits of critique is that identifying problems in the work of others helps you to identify issues in your own work more easily. This all serves to strengthen your own skills. In a well-aligned group that means everyone gets to elevate their own craft together, which is the ideal outcome.

 

Random Thoughts: Self-Sabotage – Waiting for the Muse

Ah… the muse. This is an idea that comes from Greek and Roman mythology wherein there are 9 goddesses who inspire. Usually personified in the singular, the muse is responsible for providing inspiration. While it is certainly a seductive notion and it can sometimes feel, during the process of creation that some magical force is guiding the work, there is no muse. The muse is you. The magic happens during one of those rare moments when all of your accrued skills are working in tandem more beautifully than you think is possible on your own. But it is still you.

Waiting for inspiration to strike is another excellent way to prevent you from finishing things. I’ve said before in this series that not every moment of the creative process is joyful. Sometimes its painful, sometimes, the words are sluggish, or you feel distracted, or some other activity seems more promising. The idea of the muse, though, is pervasive and there are ways that this notion hurts writers beyond preventing us from finishing drafts, which I’ll get into later.

I repeat, the muse is you. Inspiration or story ideas come from everywhere, overheard conversations, a news story, a science article, something you and a friend were talking about, weird notions that present themselves to you in dreams, that guy that made you angry at work, or any number of things. The point is that inspiration comes from the real world around you, it is what happens in the creative person’s brain that turns it into magic, but it doesn’t turn into magic unless you roll up your sleeves and turn up at the page regularly, prepared to work. Working writers often have a host of rituals, tips, tricks and processes to court ideas that lead to craft. Rune Skelley has two awesome writing prompt generators to help get the creative juices flowing. If you use them, you might not end up with a story that works, but you will be working on craft and generating ideas that are new to you and could lead to something greater.

There are books out there that contain nothing but writing prompts if you need a jump start. There is no quick and easy fix to courting inspiration, but my advice is to try new things and most importantly, pay attention when you are out in the world. You never know what will capture your imagination in a useful way. If you wait for the muse to strike you might never reach your goal, which is a finished draft. When you do have one of those moments where a story arrives in your brain, seemingly complete, embrace it, celebrate that, but recognize that it is still coming from you, and don’t wait for the moment to arrive. Chase it down, make it happen. And that’s all I’m going to say about the self-sabotaging aspects of the muse idea.

The muse is a pervasive myth about writers and artists, that I think is detrimental in a couple of other ways. Everyone knows that there are frequent, and necessary, conversations in writing communities about paying the writer. (I would extend that to paying the artist, just to broaden the conversation. It is a bad problem in the arts. I should note that my fave business blog can be found here.) There are a lot of factors that lead to writers and artists not getting paid for their work, but I think that this notion of the muse has something to do with how art and the work of art is perceived.

The idea of the muse adds to the perception of non-creatives that art itself is not actually work, or that if it is work it isn’t hard work. If the perception is that all creatives are inspired by some genius that comes from outside of their own effort, that makes it easier to justify not paying artists. And that, my friends, is just disgusting. Those of us in the trenches know that creating is fraught with challenges and difficulty and it is a hell of a lot of work, sometimes with very little material reward. Yes, we do this because we love it, we can’t imagine not doing it, but it isn’t magic. It takes time and effort. A magical muse did not dump a story or painting whole cloth into our laps and say, “Sell this and reap the rewards!” To be honest, I don’t know if I would be interested in this work if it was that simple.

Anyway, that’s my perception of the muse. What do you guys think?