Friday, August 30, 2013

For the Love of Old Books, Sheet Music & Fountain Pens

 by Priscille Sibley

On a recent visit with my older sister, she told me I took all the good stuff from our parents. To be honest, they didn’t leave much behind of value, but as the youngest, I would have traded more years with them for the few material things I received. Honestly though, at the time, my sister could have taken anything she wanted or at least have gotten dibs on it.

My sisters didn’t seem to have any interest in the old books I pulled off the shelves, my grandfather’s sheet music (from his days playing honky-tonk in a speakeasy), or the odds and ends, snapshots, whistles, or an old fountain pen, I found in my grandfather’s desk after he died. At the time these things were trash to my siblings. The junk didn’t go in my oldest sister’s house or into the sleek, newlywed digs of my middle sister. I kept them because I still needed a connection to my parents, and to my grandfather.

Novels are also usually about connections – or disconnects. Human beings push and pull away from each other like protons and electrons in atoms, always circling, always prying and stretching from those connections. It causes tension. In a story, you need that tension. Even if you read the first sentence here, you might recognize that my things, these loose odds and ends, these material mementos I kept to connect were, at least during that conversation with my sister, a source of tension. (It didn’t escalate. I wouldn’t let it that day.)

When we write, there should be tension on every page. Even those things, which can bind, can tear people apart. Let them. As you write, let the tension roar. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Few Things Authors Should Keep in Mind While Navigating the Wonderful World of Book Clubs.

If you’re a soon-to-be published author, you’re probably a little nervous about presentations and book clubs. Okay, maybe you’re terrified. (I was!) Among a million other things, you might be wondering…

Do real authors worry that someone will ask a question they can’t answer? Do real authors make sure they're wearing socks with no holes in them in case they’re asked to take off their shoes in someone’s home? Do real authors worry their mind will go blank in the middle of a sentence? Do they worry they’ll be compared to other novelists? Do they spill their wine and talk with spinach in their teeth? 

I’m here to tell you that, yes. Yes, they do.

Before my debut novel, THE PLUM TREE was released last year, my stomach churned when I thought about book clubs and presentations. Although I was excited about meeting readers, I wondered what would be expected of me and worried that people would change their mind about my work after meeting me in person. After all, how could an overweight grandmother with anxiety-flushed cheeks and trembling knees have anything important to say? And her book? It must have been a fluke.

Then I read an interview featuring Jenna Blum, author of THOSE WHO SAVE US, where she said books clubs helped dispel her fear of talking about her novel in front of strangers. What? Über-talented Jenna Blum, one of Oprah’s Top Women Authors, was nervous too? That was when I began to think maybe I’d be all right after all.

Now, eight months after the release of THE PLUM TREE and a dozen or so book clubs later, I’m here to tell you Jenna Blum was right. Books clubs are a wonderful way to ease into the new and often-scary “public” world of debut authorhood. After all, what could be better than having excited readers ply you with delicious food and wine while they chat and ask you questions about your novel? Trust me when I say it gives you a much-needed boost and is a great reminder of why you spent all those lonely months and years staring at your computer and talking to the dogs. And yet, like every author, you’ll eventually learn that not every book club experience is the same. To give you a heads up, here’s a list of a few things my fellow debut authors and I have learned while navigating the weird and wonderful world of book clubs.

1) Book clubs are not always about books. Although it might seem a bit strange, some book clubs don’t read the books they’ve chosen. For them, it’s a reason to get together with friends—for food, wine and conversation. While that’s all well and good, and people are certainly free to do as they please, it can be a bit awkward for an author who expects to talk about her novel. The good news is, you’ll make new friends and, hopefully, because they met you in person, some of them WILL read your book. If you’re worried about what to do in a case like this, remember that nearly everyone is interested in the process of becoming a published author. You can always talk about getting your agent, copy edits, revisions, rejection letters, word count, publishing houses, and the first time you saw your novel on bookstore shelves!

2) Sometimes the conversation goes in one direction and stays there. I know of one book club meeting where the members were so certain the book was going to be made into a movie, they spent the evening talking about auditioning for their favorite parts. While I’m sure the discussion wasn’t what the author expected, I’ll bet it was fun! If this happens to you, go with the flow and enjoy the enthusiasm!

3) Every book club needs a leader and sometimes it has to be you. One of my author friends stood by the kitchen door holding her purse while the book club fired questions at her before she even had a chance to take off her coat! Although I’d like to think that the excitement of meeting a published author caused the members to forget their manners, I’m sure it was a little awkward for all involved. Eventually, the author said, “Let’s grab our snacks and take a seat!” From there, things went well. It’s important to remember that there will be times when you have to take charge. Don’t worry, everyone will be glad you did!

4) Sometimes you’ll feel intimidated. No matter who you are or where you came from, there will come a time when it feels as though everyone in the room, and I mean everyone, is better educated and more successful than you. You might feel silly talking about your little book. But guess what? When it comes to being a published author, (unless, by chance, one of the members is also published) YOU are the most successful person in the room. The book club members, whether they’re heart surgeons, college professors or political analysts, are in awe of your accomplishment. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have invited you! Try to remember how you looked at published authors before you became one. That’s how most book club members look at you. Smile and be proud!

5) People will think that because they read your book, they know who you are. Every now and then, some questions and comments will surprise (or shock) you. Just like in the real world, people will say what’s on their minds before thinking. And sometimes, just like in the real world, they’re only being nosy. Smile, do your best to answer politely, ( or even better, with a dash of humor!) then change the subject.  

6) If you’re feeling particularly nervous, it’s okay to bring backup. One author friend sometimes takes his wife to book clubs and she’s always a big hit. I’m sure partly because the book club members want to know what it’s like to be married to a published author! I’ve taken my mother a few times because THE PLUM TREE is loosely based on her experiences growing up in Germany during WWII. People love asking her questions. I always say the more the merrier, and I imagine most book clubs feel the same way. But remember, every situation is different. If there is a formal dinner being served or restaurant reservations are being made, it’s best to ask first. Most book clubs offer to pay for the visiting author’s meal, but you can't expect them to pay for your guest. As a side note, if the meeting is being held in a restaurant, order something easy to eat (unless you don’t mind slurping spaghetti while fifteen people watch) and be prepared to take most of your meal home. You’ll be talking too much to put food in your mouth!

7) Every book club is different. And that’s what makes them so interesting and fun! Here I quote an author friend: “Each one has its own flavor unique to the members attending. I love the challenge and surprise those unique differences present. It's a little bit like improv theater. At one meeting, to my amazement, the conversation became so animated between the readers it was as if I was no longer in the room but watching behind one of those two-way mirrors they use in police stations or child psychologist clinics. Finally, one of the members turned to me and asked—how does it feel to have a bunch of strangers talking about you and your book as if you’re not here? I was speechless. It took me a few seconds to finally nod and smile and say, "Oh, it's great, carry on." I was in author heaven.

8) Some book clubs start with wine, continue to more wine, and finish with wine. This can be loads of fun or extremely awkward, depending on your temperament. In the case of one woman becoming so intoxicated she insisted the author examine her teeth, it was probably crossing the line a wee bit. But hey, to each their own. Everyone has their own version of entertainment! It’s best to laugh and chalk it up to experience. (and help with character building for your next book)

9) The best book clubs are those where the members are willing to share their personal stories. Here I quote another author friend—“Sometimes it can almost turn into a group therapy session. But it's interesting to hear how your book connects to their experiences, sometimes in very unexpected ways. In a book club, you get a chance to go beyond "I get it" and really get to know your readers.” For me, this is the most rewarding thing about book clubs!

10) Always be prepared to do a presentation. One book club I visited had rented a room in a historic downtown club. I was familiar with the building and assumed they would be gathered in one of the small side rooms. Imagine my surprise when I saw a sign that said the book club meeting was in the BALLROOM. When I walked in and saw the linen-covered tables, a buffet, and crystal chandeliers, I was certain there had been a mistake. Clearly, the ballroom had been set up for a formal party or wedding reception. Even the chairs were covered with white linen. As it turned out, FIVE local book clubs had gotten together to rent the ballroom, all to meet little old me. Imagine that. I quickly realized they were expecting a presentation and said a silent thank you to the author Gods that I had my notes and props with me.  

11) No matter what happens, remember that book clubs are supposed to be FUN!!  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Five Things I've Learned About Writing

I'm no expert on writing, but I've been doing it since 1989, so maybe I've learned a few things.  I'm still discovering various aspects of the 'beast' so here goes:

Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing

1)      There is an ebb and flow to writing.  Sometimes, the ideas and words come in a steady stream and the work seems like play.  Other times, grunting out a single word feels delivering a 10-pound baby.  This is natural and a part of life, like breathing.

2)      The writing life is a journey of choice.  No one cares whether or not you make this journey.  It is your choice if you do so.  And no one will protect or support your work.  People will support YOU and, if YOU love the work enough, they will end up supporting that, too.  But don’t blame others for what happens, or doesn’t happen, with your work.  Own it.

3)      Writing is HARD.  It takes a huge amount of courage to put yourself on the page.  It takes years to hone your craft.  It can take more years to find publication. Writing takes every part of you—your heart, your soul, your senses—to create a new world.

4)      Writing brings you closer to Spirit.  When you create, you mimic the Great Creator.  This gives you understanding that may have eluded you otherwise.  You understand that, as a writer, you must love all your characters, even the bad ones.  This is a reflection of Divine Love.

5)      Publication will never be what you expect.  Often, the changes in your life after publication will be miniscule.  Sometimes, there will be disappointment.  None of that matters.  What matters is that you write and keep writing.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Proper Care & Feeding of Your Critique Partner

by Mindy McGinnis

I've talked quite a bit on the blog about my journey to publication, but I'll do a quick summation. I had been writing - and failing - for about a decade before landing Adriann Ranta as my literary agent. After that, I was on submission with NOT A DROP TO DRINK for a solid six months before getting picked up after a whirlwind auction. I was still rather stunned about my change of fortune - and honestly, still am.

Quite a few people have asked me why it took so long for me to get published. Even in this self-confidence-slaying business, ten years is a pretty long haul to seeing my name in print. And honestly, I don't mind it when people ask why my journey was such a long one because it gives me a chance to lay it all out for anybody else who might be making the same mistakes I did.

And my biggest one was that I didn't want to listen to anybody.

Obviously, I was a genius. Obviously, I deserved to be published. Obviously, my book was the best thing that ever happened. Obviously, anyone who didn't realize that was an idiot. Obviously, I had never had anyone else read my stuff because it needed to go straight to the biggest editor at the biggest publishing house, and then straight to press.

And obviously... I was an idiot.

I truly did write a book and not even edit it, or show it to anyone else for their advice. I just wrote an incredibly bad query and started sending it out. I was rejected - with good reason - left and right, and I bemoaned the state of the publishing industry and their inability to recognize my talent.

All of that could've been avoided if I'd found a good crit partner, listened to their advice, and begun to grow exponentially as a writer as a direct result. But because I was convinced I was a genius and terrified someone would steal my incredibly original idea (it wasn't), I never took that step. And that's the reason why I failed (miserably) for a good long while.

So the first piece of advice I give anyone who asks me for it, is to find a good crit partner, which is immediately followed up by, "How?"

I found both of my CP's (RC Lewis and MarcyKate Connolly) by using a writing community called AgentQuery Connect. I am very attached to AQC, as it is a positive and helpful (not to mention free) environment. But there are plenty of other great writing sites to meet CP's at, and I encourage everyone who has met their significant writing others online to share where in the comments.

Granted, it wasn't love at first sight. I met RC and MK fairly early on in the forums, but we didn't actually start exchanging manuscripts with each other regularly until we'd been on the boards with each other for a year or so, if I remember correctly. I have had other CP's that had come and gone - some more or less helpful than others - before I met these two and we became the wood glue in each other's fiber board.

I want to hit on the fact that it wasn't easy, and that I didn't find true love right off the bat. I know a lot of people get discouraged after a few bad (or just less than helpful) experiences, but you can't give up on finding a CP because of a few bad apples. Finding a great CP is just like dating - there are going to be some clunkers before you're all, "Marry me!"

And once you've found someone that is a good fit for you? Again, it's not that different from dating.

  • Support your CP. They're entering a pitch contest and need you to look over something in the next few hours in order for them to hit the deadline? Do it. You'll be in the same situation one day.
  • Reciprocate for your CP. They leave detailed comments in your ms, along with their reactions as a reader and thoughts as a writer. Don't reward their hard work on your behalf by responding to their ms with, "Speed up the middle, Make the mom more likable, and shave off half your dialogue tags."
  • Listen to your CP. So they aren't relating to your MC? Well, damn them! Wait a second... you trust this person's judgement. And maybe one of the reasons you have an insta-flare of protective writer ego is because deep down, you know they're right.
  • Realize your CP is human. Which means they're not always right. In the end it is your ms, and if they think something should be phrased differently or they don't like a particular piece of dialogue, definitely consider their opinion. But that doesn't mean you have to always agree. Trust me, my CP's and I read draft after draft of each other's work, and we do see when one hasn't taken the other's advice on the little stuff -- and it doesn't matter. 
  • Respect your CP. Don't send them your 120k first draft and ask them to find all the problems for you. Always edit before you hand anything off to your CP. It's not their job to catch your mistakes - it's their job to catch the ones you missed in edits.
  • Value your CP's time. Likewise, if you shaved a few dialogue tags and sliced an unnecessary word here or there, don't send your CP your entire ms and ask them to re-read and give you their thoughts. Only ask for an entire draft overview if you are re-shaping plot, changing character motivations, or making other big changes. Later on in the relationship you may make smaller changes and ask for an overall read - at their discretion - but don't throw this at their heads right away. It'd be like being married for two days and suddenly demanding five children, right now.

There are other Do's and Don'ts in the CP relationship world, but these are the biggest ones I can think of off the top of my head. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!


Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 24, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13The Lucky 13s & The League of Extraordinary Writers. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Front and Center

On August 1, I began a new approach to writing. For the first time since I started writing seriously, way back in 1989, I found myself in the position to put my writing front and center. I guess it’s taken me 25 years to figure out how to do that. However, if I tell the truth, my situation has more to do with the fickle finger of fate than with any decision-making power I might have on my own.

In my early years, I tried to squeeze writing into what corners I could while teaching high school and raising three sons.  The result of that effort was quite unsatisfactory--I discovered I was not the kind of person who could get up at 4 am, write for two hours, then get kids ready for school, go to work, put in a full, hard day, coming home for the 'second shift' of cooking and laundry.  My writing would have to wait.

Finally, in 1989, I decided to quit teaching (!) and pursue my life's dream of writing.  However, though I did pursue it doggedly, I still worked part-time jobs to earn money and I still had one child at  home.  But, things were better.  I began to publish articles and short stories.  It was a start. 

A dozen years later, I earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and began teaching part-time.  I still had time to write and, eventually found a publisher for my first book, a memoir, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ.  That was six years ago.

The last six years have sent me in a tailspin personally; professionally, they have been stellar.  Some days, it’s hard to live with both realities. On the personal front, I have lost a beloved daughter-in-law, just months after she’d given birth to my grandson. My husband and I then invited my son and the grandchildren to live with us while they tried to cope with their devastating loss. My granddaughter was 5 and my grandson was 5 months when their mother died.  My attachment to them both is enormous.

I have watched as my son remarried and started a new life, watched as they all drove to this new life 15 hours away from me. Not soon after, my husband was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and went on disability. The very next year, two weeks after my debut novel, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN was released, I was diagnosed with stage 3 uterine cancer. I spent last year recovering from surgery and receiving chemo and radiation. Thankfully, I am currently cancer-free and have great hopes of continuing to be so.

Professionally, things have been great! I’m with one of the Big Six, St. Martin’s Press, something I never dreamed would happen. I have an agent who has her thumb on the pulse of the publishing world and I was able to complete book 2, QUEEN ELIZABETH’S DAUGHTER, while dealing with the cancer—writing was the only thing I could do that made a difficult situation tolerable. The new book will be released in March.

I’m hard at work on book 3, which will take me in a completely different direction. Set in West Virginia in the 1960’s, this book is more literary than the previous books, whatever that means.

So, how did these events propel my writing front-and-center?

Though we need money to help compensate for my husband’s no longer working, I have not been lucky in finding a teaching job. I suspect my age may have something to do with that! But my inability to find a salaried position could be the universe telling me NOW is the time to write! NOW! 

If I am to be the main breadwinner, perhaps it is my writing I should turn to for support. As most of you who write know, there isn’t a great deal of money in this business unless you really hit it big. I do not anticipate such success—though, believe me, I remain open to it! What that means is, I must write more books. Lots of books—three or four a year.

That’s my motivation—my writing is front-and-center because I need the money and, thus far, writing promises to be my best avenue for getting it. I wish I could say I had the courage and determination to dedicate myself to writing—you know, the artist slaving away in spite of poverty and hunger…but that’s just not me. If I slave away, I want to be rewarded.

I’m giving myself one year to see how this new approach goes. Well, maybe 2 or 3 years. After all, I’ve waited a lifetime to focus solely on writing—the time is NOW!



Friday, August 9, 2013

Let's go Clubbing! (Is there a cover?)

by Sam Thomas

In recent weeks I’ve been discussing the question of book club appearances with my wife/manager, and she wondered why authors don’t charge (or don’t often charge) for book clubs.

This question seems especially relevant in light of recent posts here on Book Pregnant and elsewhere, in which authors wrestle with the competing demands on their time: Between revising, various edits, book clubs, book fairs, social media in all its iterations, blogging, etc., authors can do a lot of work without doing any writing. So why book club?

The first answer, and the one I knew even before I started clubbing (so to speak), was that in a world of vanishingly small marketing budgets, it’s the author’s job to get out there, pound the pavement, sell books, and build a loyal audience.

What I did not realize was how many different kinds of book clubs there were, and how much fun they could be. In the six months since The Midwife’s Tale dropped, I’ve met with twenty or so book clubs, both in person and by video-chat. Thus far they have run the gamut from sedate (coffee in the afternoon) to raucous (beer, wine, and cocktails running late into the night).  Topics have ranged from the history behind my book, to the writing process, to who I would cast in the movie.

When I walk out of the book clubs, it is as if I’ve stuck my finger into a light socket. Talking to smart, engaged and curious readers energizes me like nothing else in the world. They – and the impending contract deadline – are what gets me through the copy editing process.

All of which brings me to a rather delicate question: Should an author (or when should an author) charge for book club appearances?

Obviously the answer is going to depend on another question: Can an author charge for book club appearances? For most debut authors, the answer is “no” simply because nobody is willing to pay. But as we move through our careers, the answer might change, so I’ve been thinking about when and what I might someday charge.

I don’t have an answer to the question, but I am extremely interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Cure for Overwhelmed?

Hello. I’m a published author and I've suffered from Author Overwhelmed Syndrome (AOS).

I don’t think I’m alone in this.

When my debut novel, Night Swim, came out in January 2012, I said yes to every invitation, blog request, book event that came my way. It was a thrilling, stimulating time. --My dream realized. But, then, I couldn't stop. I went into overdrive aka "whip-myself-everyday-for-not-not doing-enough" overdrive. Eventually, my inner gears wore down, the ones that run the machine of who I am. I began to malfunction.

Anxiety. Depression. Lack of sleep. Chronic fatigue? Those were the signs. I was speeding downhill, nothing to stop me except a big fat tree at the bottom of the road.

Every profession has its demands.  Every dream has its responsibilities.  Maybe this overwhelmed-ness is an American syndrome.  But I also know that different professions and industries have developed stopgaps, protection measures (or, I like to think so, anyway) for its workers.  We have minimum wage for instance. We have overtime pay for hourly wage employees, we have health benefits—you get the idea—all meant to keep people out of danger zones. What about my industry?

As the publishing world continues to erupt and transform, authors are doing a lot of heavier lifting--maybe more than ever--simultaneously promoting books, hosting and posting on blogs, writing their next books, working second jobs (because most authors do not get advances large enough to cover yearly living expenses), and keeping up on industry changes that impact book sales.

So, I wonder? When is it okay for an author to say:  Enough.

How can authors--how can I--elude the sticky Venus fly trap of AOS?  At what point do these efforts to self-promote produce diminishing mental health and/or insignificant book sales?  What are the signs?

The answer to that is unique to each author. But, here's a few suggestions to consider. 

First, begin by assessing the five big-picture areas of your life: family, health, finances, recreation, creative work.  Do you have time and energy to tend to the needs of your family? (kids? aging parents? spouse or partner?) Are you taking care of your health? What is your current financial picture? Do you need to take on additional work to support your monthly living expenses? Do you have time for play?(Yeh, play. It's important.) Are you getting enough Sleep?  Rest?  Do you have time and, equally important, energy to write?

From there I came up with a few energy re-alignment strategies that have helped me so far.  Maybe they will help you, too.

·         Engage in a non-verbal activity for one hour every day, seven days a week.  I like to take pictures with my smart phone. It works on a different side of my brain and refreshes me.  There’s no pressure to perform or get it right. Gaze out the window. Meditate. Play your guitar. Pray. Do anything that doesn't require pen and paper or computers.

·         Exercise every day - Walk, run, bike, yoga, sex; whatever gets your physical body in gear and is fun. Dance around your living room.

·         Commit to unplugging at least 1 hour before bed every night. Do this for 10 nights straight and it will become a habit you won’t want to give up.  What will you do? Read, of course. Your brain will thank you.

·         Schedule one afternoon or night every week at least (no exceptions) to play.  See friends. Watch movies. Read! Go to the beach. You are not wasting your time. You’re watering your spirit, your creative self. The payback is inspiration and renewed excitement around creative projects.

·         Say no to things. This is most difficult for me.  I want to please.  I don’t want to miss that next opportunity. But saying no has become necessary for my physical, mental and creative health.  

    The essential, ongoing question around all of this is: Are you taking care of  yourself? Nothing more, nothing less. That's the bottom line. 

Jessica Keener’s new collection of stories, Women In Bed, is forthcoming October 1, 2013. A new edition of her debut novel, Night Swim, will be out on September 10. She is recovering from AOS.