Friday, May 25, 2012

The Scene You Don't Want to Write

I have been struggling recently with a scene in my new novel, Cry Me a River.  I have done everything I can to procrastinate, avoid, and fret.  I have researched, I have worked on other projects (this blog, for instance), I have socialized on Facebook and Twitter, and I have read books.  Now, three days have passed and I have written a grand total of 455 words. 

The problem is, the scene causes me emotional and physical pain.  Why? Well, when dealing with emotions in my writing--anger, disappointment, joy--I try to embody those emotions within myself while writing.  I feel this allows me to portray those feelings with more honesty and realism.  The scene in question deals with the death of a loved one (a daughter's ashes are being returned to a Colombian village).  To properly be "in the moment," I have to emphathize with the mother, with the bearer of the ashes, and with the missionary who had enabled the relationship with the American husband that took the daughter from her home country. 

Some of these emotions, I have a difficult time processing.  I do not willingly want to expose myself to those raw feelings.  They are too visceral, too heart-wrenching.  So, I hem and haw, waste time and don't do it.  Can I write the scene without tapping into those emotions? Sure.  But it wouldn't ring true.  I want a masterpiece, not a soap opera or a television drama. The risk is that without embodying those emotions while I write, I will overdramatize them.  Melodrama:  something I want to avoid.

The task at hand is daunting, but not impossible.  Like many people, I am stalling.  The truth is, I WANT to write this scene.  It is a pivotal, powerful scene, full of conflicting emotions, drama, and love.  I want to write that.  I want to feel those things.  With sadness, grief, anger, love, joy, disappointment, and desire, we are attuned to life.  We know we live if we experience these inner tragedies and victories.  My book is about embracing life, and so this scene is important.  Perhaps that is why I am stalling:  I want it to be perfect.  I want it to be powerful.  I know that means it will take a toll on me as a writer, the creator, if I want it to convey something to you, the reader. Is that so bad?

Off to work I go.  I hope to have it finished by Monday.  I will let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The State of Publishing

I am not an alarmist.  I am not someone who cries "The sky is falling!"  I make no accusations or prophesies.  I do not pretend to know what the future holds. 

However, I can smell a skunk when he is near.  I can see a rotten apple before I pluck it.  I can hear a train coming and know not to cross the tracks.  I can taste the spoiled milk and know to throw it out.

I began writing when I was young.  Before I ever took a college creative writing course, I had studied the craft of writing and followed the publishing world.  I submitted articles, anecdotes, jokes, and stories to magazines for 5 cents per word or less.  Sometimes, contributor's copies weren't even offered.  I knew then that writing was a pitiful career choice.  The potential for ruin for the shy, the fainthearted, the under-talented, was great.  I dared only to enter into the lake of publishing by dipping my toes in the water. 

My only other activity concerning writing for decades was to wait.  To watch.  To refine my skills, define my audience, and confine my art to a drawer and a hard drive.  Recently, with the advent of a new era in self-publishing, I have awakened the hope and wonder of my semi-dormant skills and faith in becoming a published author. It was a dream I didn't think would ever transpire.

As I continued to research, I continued to hold a fondness, a loyalty, to the legacy of the publishing world.  The historical behemoths of publishing, the massive, dinosaur-like monstrosities in New York and Chicago, in London and Toronto seemed impregnable, but rightfully so.  Not everyone DESERVES a chance at publication.  For God's sake, it is best that some are not given that opportunity to muck up the pristine waters of the lake.  What a bunch of baloney.

I don't write romance novels. I have only read a few.  Some were my mom's Harlequins, more than two decades ago.  However, I have always known that the market and the authors of these books made a pittance.  I read this post by famous self-pubbed, whiner extraordinaire, viciously enthusiastic supporter and trumpeter of self-publishing, JA Konrath.  Although I don't drink Mr. Konrath's kool-aid 24/7, he often makes salient points and gives some sound advice if you have the time to wade through the detritus of his arguments and rantings to find the scraps and nuggets of goodness. 

This particular post, though, was completely enlightening.  So much so, I had to share it and my absolute distaste for Harlequin and their poor business practices.  The post is written by Ann Voss Peterson, author of PUSHED TO FAR.  Her career is very impressive in terms of total books published and total books sold.  But, Harlequin publishing hasn't treated her fairly at all, if you read the post.

I don't believe them to be "evil," any more than coal companies in the early 1900's were evil.  Or Enron was evil.  Or Exxon Mobile and the offshore drilling are evil.  They are advantageous, as most businesses are, but they have overstepped the boundaries of good taste and fair business practice.  Poor taste and bad practice to the point that they should be made to stop. 

It is the Harlequin's of the world, and agents who support them through their contract negotiations, who are turning the tide of this war on publishing.  The first salvos from the self-pubbed camp have been pathetic, with a few scattered victories to lift spirits.  There have also been defections and converts, but now, the corrupted system (think Rome) is being exposed and it may not be too long before the lake of publishing overflows its dam and creates a new body of water altogether.  I am not intoning the death knell of the Big 6.  They aren't called the Big 6 for nothing.

Right now, only a chosen few are feeling the ground swell.  Some readers are beginning to sense the shift, but are just getting over their "free book" high and seeing their Kindles and Nooks full of unreadable dreck and overpriced Best Sellers.  Soon, though, the authors themselves, will be running for the hills, hiding in the woods, turning printing presses and hiring out cover artists, laid off publicists, editors, and marketing directors.  Soon, agents will be offering service packages for a flat fee and a smaller take of the royalties (5% of 70% on a $4.99 ebook is bigger than 15% of 2.4% on a $5 mass paperback, right? The agent makes 18 cents per copy rather than 2 cents!).  Soon, more print-on-demand stores will open.  Soon, vanity presses will lower their costs.  Soon, more online ebook stores will open, offering more to the consumers.  Bigger discounts, more selection, exclusive content, bundled purchases, merchandise giveaways, etc.  Jeesh, I am starting to sound like Konrath!

But, seriously, check out her book, give Ann Voss Peterson some props.  Support your local artists, whether they be musicians, artists, or authors.  I read PUSHED TOO FAR myself, and her writing is very similar to Patterson's.  Engaging, suspenseful, and interesting.

As far as writing goes, though, before you go skinny dipping in the lake of publishing, you better look close before you leap.  There are sharks and alligators waiting to eat you up, if you aren't careful.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Self-Publishing Basics: Editing

I have already discussed editing before, but I think the subject is so imperative to self-publishing that it couldn't be ignored when discussing the basics.  Editing comes in many forms.  To completely understand the process of publishing is not my goal here, but I feel it important to at least hit the high spots of how a book goes to print.

The Author's Edits

As writers, we need to understand that grammar, spelling, and punctuation are crucial to ensuring that our message is clear.  I teach writing students that the number one rule of writing is clarity.  If  we can't make others understand, then we have failed.  Our job is communication:  ideas, stories, events, information, emotions, or messages.  Our readers must be able to pick up our book and at least on the surface, understand what we are trying to convey.

To do this, we as authors must be the first and most stringent editors.  This is difficult, because we often gloss over small details. Our inner voice "hears" the comma and therefore it is there, whether we typed it or not.  We read it to ourselves and see "him" when it actually says "hem."

I am as guilty of this as anyone, so I do not feign superioritity, but rather empathy.  Recently, I submitted my novel DARK MOUNTAIN to a friend to edit it.  At our first meeting, she asked me, "Did you know you start a lot of sentences with 'And?'"  I nodded, realizing that I did in fact do this purposefully at times.  I also don't add a conjunction sometimes in compound sentences on purpose.  I try for a unique style and voice that transcends grammatical rules without sacrificing the reading experience, the clarity (see, I did it right there).  The problem was, when I re-visited the manuscript, I saw something HORRIFYING.  I didn't just use this technique once or twice per chapter but rather multiple times on EVERY PAGE! Boy, was I ever embarrassed. 

Other things that crop up:  the Oxford Comma (serial comma, the one after the "and" in a list), the ommission of words ("he went the trip"),  and lack of capitalization (coke instead of Coke).  More probably exist, I don't know.  The point is, as the writer, your edit goes first.

The author's edit needs to go deeper than grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  We need to be aware of all of the elements of a story.  This is a tall order, but if we have honed our craft, then it becomes easier.  First, if you are to be a writer, you need to be a READER.  Understand what story elements work:  pacing, dialogue, plot twists, character development, suspense, paragraph develepment, sentence length variance, transition words, story intros, rising action, resolutions, multiple plots, interweaving plots, and more.  Understand the elements that are common to your genre by reading in your genre. 

The second step you can take in order to hone your craft is to study.  Plenty of resources exist at the library, online, in writing magazines, and through writing classes offered locally.  The best way to become a better writer is to spend time writing, find an audience, and discover what works and what needs more work.  You have natural strengths as a writer; nourish them.  You have natural weakness, too.  These you will need to strengthen through practice, study, and feedback from an audience.  Writer's critique groups are great places to hone your skills, and tighten your writing.  Be prepared to offer as much constructive feedback as you receive; a critique group becomes stronger only if every member gives as well as receives.

The Line/Copy Editor

Once you have polished your novel to the best of your ability and feel it is strong the way it is, it is time to send it off to get it taken apart and taken to a different level.  That would be what editors do.  Before you cringe, thinking this is too harsh of a punishment for the baby you have sent out, realize that this part of the process is necessary.  You are too close to the novel.  You have birthed it, wiped its little story bum, burped it, and watched as it took its first steps and spoke its first words.  Now it is time for someone else to mold this young'un to make it better. 

Think of an editor as a grandmother, a loving kindergarden teacher, a Bible school teacher or a favorite Aunt.  Their role with your baby is important, but they are removed from it.  In the end, the grandmother hands the baby back to the parent with its bum dry, a few more sweets than is normally recommended, and smile on her face.  The point is, they love your baby, too.  They just see it differently than you do.  You may find that they can be more strict, more precise, and less attached to your baby than you are.

This can result in the recommendation to cut characters, lose chapters, change directions, change the order of events, add a section, fill in plot gaps, fix get the picture.  Your spit and polish is all fine and good, but the editor brings in a butcher knife, a plunger, and a brush.  Some things need to be cut, some sucked out, and some spread around. 

The Conclusion

In the end, all of these editing processes are necessary.  They occupy a totally different skill set to putting the story on paper (screen).  The self-published world gets knocked hard because writers rush things out, don't edit, don't have the writing chops, and don't get their work edited.  It is a shame.  Some of these writers actually may have a good yarn to tell.  By ignoring editing, they make a mess of things.  They ruin their reputation and continue to support the opinions of those who think that self-published writing is "dreck."