A Saturated Book Market--Drown or Swim?

A Saturated Book Market--Drown or Swim?

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We spend months, years, writing a book of dazzling brilliance. We might be the only ones who think so, but hey, it was so hard, such a long process, such a fun process, such a tortured, frenetic, creative, maddening, exhilarating process, that only something splendid could emerge. You know, like a baby, who every mother knows is THE BABY of all babies born to date and to follow. The computer screen and keys are covered with sweat and tears, in some cases blood (well, what do you expect, working fingers to the bone day and night, week after week?). We wipe off the spatter, lug the laptop off to a computer nerd and stoically accept that we’ve driven the thing to chronic fatigue. We let it rest for a couple of hours and get ready to send THE BABY out to agents, trusting that one of the 300 we target will be bright enough to recognize, if not salute, our genius.

Then we wait.

And wait.

Suddenly, out of the blue, after we’ve gnawed our fingernails down to the cuticles, something from someone agent-sounding lands in our inbox. We stare at it for anything from a second to several hours, afraid. Very afraid. We can’t even remember the agent’s name because we sent out so many queries, but something rings a bell when we spot the words Meh Literary Agency.

Finally, because we’re fearless and let’s face it, a little crazy to be doing any of this in the first place, we click on the thing and…

CLANGGGGG (or thudddd), we read and absorb the dreaded Thanks but no thanks. And our pitter-pattering hearts plummet.

We run to Amazon to find a self-help book, scramble to download as many versions of The Secret as we can find, revisit our vision board to reinforce our positive beliefs and positive thinking and positive images of success and abundance…

and start all over again. Truth is, we’ve just gone through a rite of passage. Some of us have received so many rejections, we’re pathetically grateful that Cujo still wags his tail when we come home.

“What’s it all about?” we wail. “Is it a marketing thing? My query? My synopsis? My novel? No, it’s HER. SHE’s just too dumb to see my potential. And who needs traditional publishers anyway? Half the time they don’t know what they’re doing either.” Tears splash. “No, it’s ME. I’m worthless. That’s the problem. Nothing has ever worked for me in my whole entire life.” And as we design a brochure advertising our dog walking services, we mutter, “Screw everybody. I’m going to self publish.”

Back we go to Amazon, and with fire and zest, throw our baby head first into what might otherwise be known as the Bermuda Triangle.

To our horror, we discover that 84 million other writers are doing the same thing.

So here are a few tips to prevent you from drowning in the publishing industry:

Take up pottery. Or knitting.

I was enchanted to learn that a woman in Canada can spin Cujo’s hair into yarn, from which she knits anything: sweaters, beanies, teapot holders. Just keep brushing the dog, or start a small business that’s similarly innovative.

Stop writing.

Immediately.

NO! No? Hmmm…there’s obviously a writer in there somewhere, if you feel so strongly about it.

Write, but stop caring whether anyone reads.

If you can get someone to read your book without rolling his eyes or stopping after page 2, do so, but otherwise just print it out and make a papier mache hanging plant.

That’s right. I don’t have any suggestions that you haven’t already considered:

Make sure your manuscript is in the best shape it can possibly be before submitting it anywhere. If you self publish, get a great cover, get a book trailer, get a publicist, stop writing so you can spend all your time marketing. And from then on, HUSTLE HUSTLE HUSTLE.

We all have to do it. There are few shortcuts and even fewer life jackets. The only real suggestion I can offer from the heart is, make it about the work. Nourish your soul by expressing yourself and telling your stories. Make it about giving something to a reader that s/he will want to go to bed with every night. That will save you from drowning.

A Flutterby's Reasons to Write

A Flutterby's Reasons to Write

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GraveFinalCoverMarch2015Recently fellow writer, Nicki Gilbert, asked me to join her on a global Blog Hop. I'm kind of athletic, I thought. I can do that. So here I am, happy to connect with others who hunt words and string them together, swallow or spit, maybe on a rough day choke on a few. Connections like these make up for all the time spent alone in our heads, since writing is less about isolation than it is connection, covering unfathomable distances to lodge in the hearts of readers we may never meet.I don't find writing easy. Sometimes it flows and often it stalls. I wish I'd studied forensic anthropology or worked for NASA, but I'm rubbish at math and science. I have a love/hate thing going on with writing because often I feel it's so much bigger than I am. I grapple with impostor syndrome, and whenever I sit down at my laptop, ask the question, Can I do this? Well, whether I can or not, I do, and honestly, there's nothing else that makes me happier, or more miserable, than writing. What's life without a bit of angst and drama?
  1. What am I working on? Creative confidence! And moving on from publishing a memoir, TIN CAN SHRAPNEL, which I wrote in response to an outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008. I entered my novel GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS in ABNA 2014 and am through to the quarterfinals, which has talked me off the writing cliff for the next six weeks. (Jumping in here to invite, nay request you to review the excerpt, which is a free download on Amazon here.) It's hard to leave both these books behind and move on. I keep thinking I should be doing more to promote them because it's no longer enough to write, but honestly, diving into another project is my best option. So I'm working on a new novel, a thriller, and planning to edit my young adult fantasy in which Shakespeare returns as an English Mastiff, collaborating with a young ballerina to change the endings to some of his tragedies.
  1. How does my writing differ from others of its genre? I venture into gothic territory because I love dark, rich novels that are sensually vivid. I guess my work departs from a lot of the traditional tropes of genre fiction, but it does retain some characteristics of the mystery/thriller. I resist classification and work towards having genre serve me, rather than the other way round. Like many of us, I'm finding ways to stay afloat in a choppy publishing sea, hoping to parasail rather than drown. Or maybe submersion would be better, because then I'd get to scuba dive and swim with Great White Sharks.
  1. Why do I write what I do? Often there'll be an issue lurking like injustice or cruelty. I'm intrigued by the distortions of power and the way cultures connect and diverge, conflict and clash. I wrote my memoir because I wanted to give victims of the violence a voice and platform to express what had happened to them, make their stories and history, which have largely been ignored, indelible. At the center of my novel is a Peruvian festival that seemed cruel when I learned of it. It haunted me and led to months, years of research, manifesting in GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, also my MFA thesis. I need to feel a spark inside or a driving force, often initiated by a compelling character, one that demands attention and who's assertive about his or her realization. When I start to care about a character's journey and believe they'll go the distance with me, I know I'm onto something.
  1. How does my writing process work? Sometimes a story will scratch at my mind, and I'll toy with it for a while, see whether it holds on or falls away. I wrestle with the internet's distractions when I sit down with my laptop, and freelance editing takes up most of my time. At present, I have to pin down writing moments wherever and whenever I can. I carry a diary with me so I don't miss random bursts of inspiration. I try not to edit as I write, just get the first draft down, but more often than not the editing happens as I go. I work with a vague outline that makes provision for characters to take some control, because I need the process to be organic and dynamic, and it can only be that if I'm sometimes less than sure where I'm headed. Working this way allows for surprises and twists, many of which surprise me too.

And now, introducing my fellow blog hoppers:

NickiGilbertPicSouth African by chance and Californian by choice, Nicki Gilbert lives in the Bay Area with her husband, four kids and an aging dachshund. With dreams of reporting live on CNN, she majored in Drama and Journalism at Rhodes University in South Africa, met a boy, married him and moved almost 180 degrees west to San Francisco, to live her life as a wife, marketer, event coordinator, non-profit board member, and eventually stay-at-home mom. There was very little writing and even less acting during those years. Last year Nicki started blogging for Times of Israel, and now writes on her own website Red Boots – from dancing to walking and everything in between, and beyond. As a reluctant yet full-time, barely-at-home mom, writer, avid reader, country music lover and wannabe surf diva, she writes to keep perspective about it all. With tears, humor, skepticism, love, pain and truth. Trying to keep it real. Follow her at www.redboots.me and on Twitter @nixgilbertca.

image-scott-lambridisScott Lambridis' debut novel, THE MANY RAYMOND DAYSreceived the 2012 Dana Award. The novel, about a scientist who discovers the end of time, is seeking publication. Stories of his have appeared or are forthcoming in Slice, Painted Bride, Cafe Irreal, Flash Fiction Funny, New American Writing, and other journals. He recently completed his MFA from San Francisco State where he received the Miriam Ylvisaker Fellowship and three literary awards. Before that, he earned a degree in neurobiology, and co-founded Omnibucket.com through which he co-hosts the Action Fiction! performance series. More at scottlambridis.com.

Blog PicHeather Jackson is a YA novelist, television screenwriter, and small town fugitive. She escaped her rural roots for the big city of Toronto by attending Ryerson University’s Radio & Television Arts program and the Canadian Film Centre’s Prime Time Television Writing program, which led to a career penning television cartoons and teen dramas. Currently she is writing episodes of the animated horror-comedy CAMP LAKEBOTTOM, as well as writing a YA mystery thriller, PSYCHO SMART, and a YA dark fantasy, DEMONS DON'T DO LOVE. Neither are autobiographical. Mostly. When she’s not writing books or screenplays, Heather blogs about writing craft and the writer’s life at heatherjacksonwrites.com. She is also pursuing the preposterous goal of becoming a gymnast at thirtysomething. Find her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW.

038When not cycling or kayaking, Michael Brigati can be found at home in the woodlands of Virginia or the oceanfront of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. With only Alaska left to explore to complete his 50 state bucket list, this adventurer has travelled a long way from his birthplace in the Bronx, NYC. After receiving degrees in Psychology and Anthropology from Ricker College in Maine, he ventured south and pursued a graduate degree at Virginia State University in Counseling Psychology. After being introduced to the field of Emergency Services, he soon joined the Chesterfield County Fire and EMS Department. A decorated officer, Michael retired as a Senior Captain, nationally registered paramedic and master rescue diver. He also served as a Crisis counselor for emergency personnel and was selected as a seminar presenter at the World Congress for Incident Stress. Currently, Michael is a contributing writer to Emergency Scene Magazine and his novel, FIRE THIEVES, is set to debut in 2014. Follow him at Michaelbrigati.com and Twitter @MichaelBrigati.

JennCropped1Jennifer Skutelsky was educated in South Africa and the US, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing. An editor and writing coach, she is the author of two nonfiction books, and blogs at Musings of Disorientation. Her novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, a gothic mystery set in the Andean highlands, won the Clark Gross Novel Award at San Francisco State University in 2011 and is a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2014. Also a ballet teacher and visual artist, Jennifer has a soft spot for elephants and rhinos and lives in San Francisco with her daughter, two cats and a dog named Fifi. Find her at www.jskutelsky.com and on Twitter at @jskutelsky.

Stereotypes, Caricatures and Clichés: Say Hi to your Novel's Assassins

Stereotypes, Caricatures and Clichés: Say Hi to your Novel's Assassins

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Winner of the Clark Gross Novel Award 2011 and quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2014

Some day I'd like to write a novel with nothing but dollops of these. They're very seductive. How much fun would it be to write sentences like On a dark and stormy night, it rained cats and dogs as Jemima stumbled on a moose that lay, dead as a doornail on a grass verge by the side of the road less traveled. She avoided the corpse like the plague and knocked her head on some low hanging fruit, thinking only how smart she'd been to take one day at a time. The morning's events were just the tip of the iceberg. Jemima of course has long flowing locks, gray eyes, and a killer bod with legs up to her armpits (I never quite got that one). Jeremy, her boyfriend has green eyes that snap fire, biceps and a six-pack, and he's often sullen. But very sensitive.

Stereotypes, caricatures and clichés are familiar to us because they have a long tradition of repeated use. They seem to express exactly what we need them to. They roll off the tongue (let's play spot the cliché) and slip easily into our oral and written narratives, everyday speech and even our thoughts. The English language is full of idioms, figurative expressions that are also overused, but what we need to realize is that all these depictions are actually dead. Yeah, they're zombies, and they can kill a good story with just a couple of bites. Sadly, they're difficult to avoid because they're so insidious, but that's our task as writers: to offer fresh, innovative writing that can surprise readers who have seen it all and bought the T-shirt. See? They creep in everywhere, and often a reader will absorb them without having to work, and the writer who resorts to them, doesn't have to work either.

So without further ado, let's look these assassins in the eyes and stare them down (that's three in one sentence):

Stereotypes: These have to do with the assumptions we make about groups of people or certain types of individual. When we subscribe to popular, judgmental beliefs in our writing, we create characters with little room to breathe or grow because the stereotype freezes them in place. The man as strong and silent; the woman as nurturer; porn star as dumb; politician as corrupt. Based on vague, or even specific observations, we group entire cultures, genders or professions together, making conclusions that clump people in often unflattering and rigid groups, for example the dubious perceived qualities of the Irish/Polish/Jews/Blacks/Whites. This assessment can extend to physical attributes as well--you know the ones I mean. And the assumptions can be just as rigid if they're flattering or complimentary.

Rescue your novel by staying away from them. If that's not possible, and your character does represent a distinct type, then go for depth. Show what lies beneath the surface, and make it surprising. Depth will often have something to do with the journey a character has taken to get to where s/he is, and no two journeys are identical. They can be similar, but they're never the same. In a broad sense we share basic similarities because we're human, but X doesn't fall in love with the whole alphabet, he falls in love with just Y. Why?

Caricatures: Tricky little buggers because they're so tempting, especially if you're feeling snarky. They're characters who reveal a combination of exaggerated and superficial qualities, and they're loaded. The exaggeration is less problematic than the shallowness, because a novel needs characters that are rich and vivid if it's to survive at all. A novel's characters also need to be malleable in the writer's mind, and caricaturing tends to fix them in a mold that's difficult to break. Like stereotypes, caricatures are also informed by preconceptions and/or prejudice.

Rescue your novel by looking beyond the obvious and bringing out distinguishing characteristics: fresh body language that betrays emotional depth, inner worlds that contradict preconceived notions. Here too, go for depth, unpredictable quirks and unexpected motivation, flaws in the perfect protagonist, nuance or pathos in your villains.

Clichés: These show up everywhere, like a rash. Sometimes we don't even notice them. They'll creep in on lazy writing days, and we all know those. The days we don't want to dredge our vocabularies for words we seldom use, metaphors we have to hunt down at twenty minutes a shot, fresh language that no one we've encountered to date has used before. And one or two clichés can't hurt, can they? They can, because they hang around in bunches, like grapes. Or a rash; a rash is good because clichés also spread.

Rescue your novel by reading as much as you can, and writing as much as you can. Know your enemy (hah!). If there's the slightest suspicion that you might have let one cliché slip in, take it out. If the words were too easy to come by, delete and opt for struggle. This is a bummer, I realize, but your novel will thank you. The only place you might possibly, occasionally, now and then get away with them is in dialogue, because that's the way we speak.

Recognizing this trio will make it that much harder for them to gain access to your work, and your work is about you, your story that no one else has written. Your insight, your sensibilities and your voice. You don't want it to look the same as anyone else's, do you? (Okay, so I wouldn't go pfffft to Charles Dickens or Flannery O'Connor, but who knows, if you're authentic and imaginative, they wouldn't be so quick to huff at you either...)

JennCropped1PS One of the only times to use stereotypes, caricatures and clichés is if you're an assassin yourself. Meet them on your terms and turn them on their heads. For example, what if it really is raining cats and dogs, and puppies and kitties are landing thunkity thunk on the sidewalk? Now that opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities.

TIN CAN SHRAPNEL: A Memoir Of Violent Displacement And Return

TIN CAN SHRAPNEL: A Memoir Of Violent Displacement And Return

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tincancoverfinal600x800.jpgTIN CAN SHRAPNEL is the story of one woman's journey to salvage hope from the hate and madness of horrific xenophobic attacks that broke out in cities and townships across South Africa in 2008. Reflecting the voices of a small group of men and women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, author and ballet teacher Jennifer Skutelsky traces events leading to the accommodation of more than 20,000 dislocated people in refugee camps. A story of chaos and courage and missing children, it is, more than anything, a story of universal truth, and finding a way back from the end of the world. 2014 ERIC HOFFER AWARD FINALIST

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GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS

GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS

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  Winner of the Clark Gross Novel Award 2011 and quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2014

 

 

 

 

Deep in the Andean highlands, a delusional boy and his blood-spattered llama stumble on the body of an angel. When the governor investigates and discovers a woman with the wings of a condor stitched into her back, he instructs the boy to keep his mouth shut, and Dr. Gregory Vásquez Moreno to do a secret autopsy.

Stunned by the victim’s injuries and eerie resemblance to his late wife, Nita, Gregory confronts the work of a butcher. Nita’s secrets lie buried in the stranger’s bird-like body, stripped bare by his scalpel, and Gregory’s trust of the beautiful woman he’d married splinters. Defying the governor, he turns the body over to the Chief Medical Examiner, and a brutal police force steps in.

Gregory senses the killer stirring when he meets Sophie Lawson, a forensic anthropologist traveling from San Francisco with her son. Sophie could be Nita’s twin, but the likeness has a ghostly edge, for in the high-altitude village they’re visiting, reality and fantasy compete.

As fear tightens its grip on Gregory, Sophie’s exotic vacation implodes when she disappears. Before she meets a grotesque fate, Gregory must undertake a frenzied search across a mountain range haunted by ritual and superstition. Nothing prepares him for the macabre truths he uncovers.

GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS is a story of powerful and enduring love, with the dark resonance of a gothic mystery and grit of a thriller. In a land scarred by sorrow, one man will go to any lengths to restore his loss, even if it’s in pieces.

 

Honoring your Creativity when No One Else Does

Honoring your Creativity when No One Else Does

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This post published at Write On Sisters. Rejection sucks. There’s no better word to describe the feeling of just having swallowed a vacuum cleaner hose when:

  • BearVacuumCleanerit’s taken you a year to pluck up the courage to phone The Man and ask him to escort you to a gala fundraiser, and he says no, he’d rather go out with Attila the Hun;
  • you apply for a job/fellowship/residency, and the institution writes back to say they’re giving it to a twelve year old who can’t read or write any discernible language other than Code;
  • you tell your significant other you’d like to enter a beauty pageant, and he falls into a dead faint or rolls on the floor in fits of hysterical laughter that only wane when you schlep him off to the emergency room.

Then there’s the rejection that most, if not all writers know. It’s the one that feels worse than the hose. It’s the one from an agent that says your baby is sub par, and as any parent will tell you, a mother is the only person who gets to criticize her child. (Even Pa will get a clout if he tries.) It’s the rejection that says Dear Argentina (your name is Angela), I’m sure you’re very talented, but as this form letter illustrates, so is everyone else, and while I didn’t fall in love with your submission, scores of other agents will. Which translates loosely as Your book is drivel, and you’re a clown.

Most of us have reams of these. We wear them pasted on our foreheads, pinned to our backs or wrapped around our wounded souls. No matter how many well-meaning friends and colleagues cajole us into rationalizing that this is just how the industry works; however many blogs we read encouraging us to take rejection in our stride; and however stylishly we gird our loins (ever tried to picture this?), it always stings and most definitely definitely SUCKS.

So rather than advise you how to prevent it (because I don’t have a clue, nor does anyone else, whatever they tell you), here are some tips on how to use a vacuum cleaner:

  1. Remember, it’s just a vacuum cleaner, and it has a very specific job to do. There are dozens of makes, and if the one you have gets stuck in your throat or anywhere else, toss it and look for a better model. Could be your vacuum cleaner doesn’t like pet hair, in which case it’s of no use to you. Shift the balance of power and understand that the agent who sings arias as she devours romance novels, isn’t going to know what to do with your zombie chef recipe book. Look for someone whose death wish matches your own–key word MATCH. Or: if the man prefers Attila the Hun, he’s not The Man.
  2. Could be your vacuum cleaner suggests you demolish the house in order to accommodate its preferences. Maybe this is generous advice, maybe not. If you think it’s generous, consult with a new architect, if not, then clean out the bag. Some agents do give feedback that makes sense, and their suggestions will resonate. If they’ve gone to the trouble of reading your novel, odds are something sparked their interest and some, not all, actually do know their stuff. If a few agents give you similar feedback, that’s when to pay attention. Again, there’s not much you can do with a vacuum cleaner that spits out pet hair when you own an orangutan, but you’ll know deep down what advice you can use.
  3. Maybe you don’t need a vacuum cleaner. What you really need is a plain, old fashioned broom, that does what it’s told if you use it correctly. Most people would choose a vacuum cleaner over a broom, but they forget the story of the tortoise and the hare. But I digress. If you’re a writer, write, and if you want to reach a reader, publish by whatever means you have at your disposal.
  4. Find a hotel where someone else does the cleaning and check in for at least a night. If there’s no budget for that, let the dust accumulate and go to bed for a day or two. This is possibly the best advice I can offer. Find a good series on Netflix, tell the cat to go hunt for his own dinner, and nurse the wound. Because that’s what it is. Rejection is a wound, whether big or small, and to delude ourselves by pretending it doesn’t hurt is to deny an intrinsic longing in every one of us. We have a biological need to belong, which implies acceptance, and a steady barrage of rejection tends to isolate us. This is when we most need support, from ourselves first, and from friends and other writers who mean us well and know what we go through.

It takes courage to write, and it’s not easy to do. Rejection may be part of what we take on, but it doesn’t have to disable our potential or alienate our dreams. Vacuum cleaners and houses come and go; we go on. We’re the constant, the dreamer, the hero. By honoring ourselves and our creativity through every slump, grind, block, collision, conflict, and melancholy, we lend steel to our bones, wind to our wings and fire to our watered down visions.

 

Jewish Secrets from a Yiddishe Mama

With Passover and Easter upon us, this seems like a good time to share some Jewish secrets. I love food because it heals everyone–people, dogs, iguanas, plants. A piece of dark chocolate nibbled while sipping a dessert wine; spaghetti slurped and splattering sauce; roasted sweet potatoes served with crisp, tender chicken; food can transform a foul mood, acquaint strangers, comfort kids and…er…lubricate relationships.

Coming from the daughter of a Yiddishe mama, this belief isn’t odd. My mother used to chase my toddler daughter around the garden with teaspoons of avocado, and today, decades later, she still wonders whether we’re getting enough to eat. Her mother taught her how to make dishes that the family drools over, and here are a few to try.

You’ll find similar recipes anywhere you choose to look, but I call them secrets because although I’ve attempted for several years, I have never, not once, been able to cook the way my mother does. So they’re as much a mystery to me as they will be to you. It’s not intentional; my mom really does want to hand this legacy down to me; but neither she nor I can figure out whether my failure is a result of being cuisinely challenged, or something magical that happens between her and the ingredients. Some people kill orchids and are very sad about it. Well, maybe I have the same effect on ingredients.

KNEIDLACH

These are (supposed to be) fluffy oval or round dumplings that wallow in clear chicken soup. Put one pinkie wrong and they’re inedible, get it right and that’s all you’ll want to eat for a week. You can buy a ready mix at a grocery store, but meh. I should add that not a single other person in all my travels has ever been able to produce kneidlachof this caliber. Including me. Mysterious? You bet, because the recipe is pretty standard. Maybe it has to do with timing. They’re supposed to cook for 3/4 of an hour. When I made them last year, 2 hours later they were dense as rock in the middle and needed another hour on the stove. Which didn’t help.

Here’s what you’ll need:

3 eggs.

Half a cup of cold water (as in fridge, not tap or bottle).

Half a teaspoon of salt.

1/4 teaspoon pepper (or way less if you don’t like pepper).

Matzo meal of a completely indeterminate amount (maybe, sort-of, who knows: 3/4 of a cup).

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.

2 tablespoons softened chicken fat (otherwise known as schmaltz, and if you can’t find that, maybe oil will work).

Here’s what to do:

Crack the eggs into a bowl and add the water, salt, pepper and cinnamon. The schmaltz is usually the consistency of coconut oil, so you’ll want it to soften before adding it. Make sure to fold it all together so that there are no lumps–you can even use one of those old-fashioned egg beaters to do it. Now here it gets tricky. Gradually add the matzo meal until the mixture is soft, but not runny, then keep it in the fridge for at least one hour. Even then the mixture shouldn’t be hard, and will stick to your fingers when you start to roll the balls. Wetting your hands helps with the sticking.

Roll the matzo balls and place them in a pot of lightly salted boiling water. Turn down the heat and cook for 45 minutes to an hour.

Keep them separate from the soup until ready to serve, and if you’re going to eat them a day or so later, heat them up separately too. When the soup is hot, delicately and with a flourish, settle your kneidlach into as many bowls as you need. Expect applause, and if it’s not forthcoming, demand it.

 KRAUT BLINTZES

My mom and daughter

Oh heavens, these are delicious…

Here’s what you’ll need:

A cabbage, preferably a pretty one.

However many pounds of mincemeat you think you’ll need.

An egg.

A lemon.

One or two plump, deeply red tomatoes.

Salt, pepper and some water.

Here’s what to do:

Boil cabbage leaves until they soften, but not so they get all limp and sad.

Remove them from the stove, pour cold water over them, drain and set to one side to cool.

Pour boiling water over your tomato/es to soften the skin, and peel (or use canned tomatoes, meh).

Mash the mincemeat with the egg, salt, pepper, and a dash of water. Who knows how much…just guess.

Roll dollops of mince mixture into tight balls, and nestle each one in a leaf.

Chop up the tomatoes into chunks and toss them into an oven-proof dish, along with your neat little cabbage parcels.

Pour globs of brown sugar on everything, and sprinkle the juice of a lemon over it all.

(Taste to make sure you haven’t screwed up. You’re going for sweet and sour.)

Oh, and you have to cook/bake them.

Maybe they don’t sound like much, but I guarantee they’ll be a crowd-pleaser.

My mom turns 90 this year, and my daughter and I are traveling to South Africa to celebrate her birthday. I adore my mother, miss and treasure her more than I can capture here. I’m going to tell her how much you all loved her recipes, even if you’re convinced there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Wishing you a Happy Passover and Easter!

The Tussle between Fiction and Nonfiction: The Novel vs the Memoir

At times there’s a struggle between these two mammoths. While there are similarities between the two, they are different, and the writer must carefully consider which will best serve the story s/he has to tell. This isn’t as clear-cut a choice as it might seem. What the novel and the memoir share are distinct qualities of craft and storytelling, and oddly enough, the author’s concept of truth, however slanted, distorted, real or imaginary. World building lies at the heart of the novel and the memoir, together with all its associated facets: conflict, relationships, setting, and challenges that characters take on, succumb to or overcome.

Read the full article on Sandra Carey Cody's BIRTH OF A NOVEL.

 

Hey there Writers, don't be afraid of the dark

On Friday I did some creative writing. I often do, but this day was different because I plowed into my story and didn’t stop. That’s unusual for me. There are lots of distractions about: my cat (who looks like a cow) demands to go out and be let in and be fed and play in the bath and get stroked. The other cat gazes at me and rubs her head on the computer. Fifi sleeps. My daughter texts, I have a client’s edit to get through, a trip to Trader Joe’s looms, taxes, Facebook, Bubble Witch. You know. Photo courtesy of © Kim Baker (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlyfaye/3520321496/)

That’s why Friday was unusual. I invented a character, gave him a name and wrote… and wrote. The name I chose seemed pretty random. It popped into my head, and I went with it. It wasn’t a common name, but I liked it because it sounded authentic, like someone by that name could actually exist.

On Sunday I clicked on a New York Times article about the Malaysian plane that vanished over the Indian Ocean. It was the first piece I’d read that mentioned the names of the passengers… and one of those names was the name I had chosen for my character.

I stared at my laptop. Read the name over and over again, then checked my story. There it was. I had to have seen it somewhere else, I told myself, but I have no conscious recollection of where or whether that’s the only explanation. I thought about the collective unconscious, that vast, mysterious arena where the millions of ideas and thoughts of a billion people swarm and collide. I thought about empathy and energy, clairvoyance and psychic ability. I felt wretched about the real character and will obviously change the name of my invented one, but questions around how this might have happened linger, and I got to thinking about the wealth of untapped potential housed in our DNA and brain cells. I wanted to explore the fathomless deep beyond our physicality, a sense we don’t yet understand but is acknowledged by mystics and spiritual leaders across the board. I believe that tapping into this aspect of ourselves can be a rich source of inspiration and creativity, something we writers can never get too much of.

I also decided to write this without doing any research or preparation. So what you see is what you get, and it may just be rubbish. Fair warning.

  1. The Shadow. Positive can’t exist without negative. Every real aspect of being, from the physical to the metaphysical, emotional to the intellectual, lives in uneasy balance with its counterpart, which deserves as much respect. What separates them is choice, which occurs at the level of awareness, but also at one of those levels we don’t understand. Social conditioning, circumstances, upbringing and genetic disposition all play a part, but once we reach adulthood, we mostly choose whether to be kind or hostile, compassionate or impervious, a curmudgeon or sweetheart. Whether we decide to favor the light or the dark, they do coexist, and the dark doesn’t take orders. Its voice can manifest in a sudden surge of jealousy when our best friend gets published and we don’t; a desire to send our newly married ex 456 takeaway dinners and tell the delivery service he’ll pay for it COD (also that he’s a little hard of hearing, so they’ll need to shout); or a sudden, vicious thrill of delight when we find out fashion models have to get airbrushed to look the way they do. Some of us act on dark impulses, but most of us pretend they don’t exist or squash them. Which doesn’t help, because then all they do is lurk and get us when we least expect them to show up. The shadow has a lot to say, and as writers, its blather is fabulous material for understanding the complex nature of characters. We can enrich our protagonists and antagonists by juggling their dark elements, those that either dominate or hide, for at the heart of the struggle between the two lies conflict. And it’s conflict that makes the novel.
  2. The whispers. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. On Sunday something else happened that made me sit up and take note. My dentist posted an article on Facebook about the dangers of root canalled teeth, and one of my friends took issue with it. It made him mad. It was unscientific and puerile, the research originated in 1922 and flossing and brushing were all we had to do to maintain the luster and safety of our pearly whites. While we were in the midst of our friendly debate, a crown attached to a root canalled tooth FELL OUT of his mouth. Alarmed when he took a closer look at it, he’s now considering having the tooth pulled rather than repeat the process. This article started him on a path that he’ll now investigate more seriously. On top of the name thing, I nearly fell over backwards. He called it a coincidence, but I could tell that part of his mind was blown by the synchronicity. Somewhere between my latching on to the article and his becoming inflamed (no pun intended) about it, something happened that we can’t really explain. I’m not sure what it is, but now he’ll get the tooth checked and maybe pulled. Maybe, just maybe, some kind of urgent message was being conveyed. (To me too, because I can tell you, when I next go to the dentist, my root canalled tooth is coming out.) As writers, exploring these strange, inexplicable coincidences allows our fiction to expand in ways that entertain all sorts of possibilities. Maybe malicious tooth gods are involved. Maybe an ancestor is looking out for my friend. We need to listen to whispers and messages, even the ones that make no rational sense, the ones that come to us in mysterious ways. I don’t say open up to believing debilitating thoughts or insane tooth articles, but the willingness to listen creates a conduit to the sub/unconscious, and trusting things we can’t see allows our creativity to leap out of confinement roaring, not cowering.
  3. The ghosts. Okay, so now you’re really going to think I’m daft. A neighbor told me once that my daughter and I live with a ghost, an unhappy old man who died in our apartment, all alone. Talk about a curmudgeon. She suggested I sage the rooms, and I did so, but now and again, I have a strange sense of not being alone. A couple of nights ago, another neighbor came for dinner, and for the first hour, she felt really uncomfortable. Then as the night wore on, she started to relax. Upon leaving, she turned to me and said, “It’s okay, he likes you and your daughter. You bring him comfort. He feels kind of protective towards you.” In case you’re wondering, yes, we live in San Francisco, a city known to be quirky and creative. I’m okay with that. Now if I wrote that in a memoir, you’d recommend a trip to the mental ward and maybe have a word with the doctor yourself, but in fiction, oh boy, does that old man have a story to tell.

Making peace with demons doesn’t give them the right to enslave us, it just gives us a more expansive view of the universe and its complexities. Too often we choose gray over black or white, the middle over the extremities, the fence rather than a side. I believe that balance can only be found in weighing the opposites, and we can only do that when we look them both in the eyes.

This and more published at Write on Sisters.

 

Honoring Creativity: What My MFA Taught Me, And What It Left Out

Not so long ago, there were a whole lot of good reasons to go to university and earn a degree. This is increasingly up for debate, what with rising tuition costs, spiraling and unforgiving student debt and increasing numbers of graduates who find themselves armed to the teeth with glossy educations, near perfect GPAs, tons of enthusiasm, and little means to channel any of it into life beyond campus. JennGradImprovedI don’t doubt the value of education and learning. If you want to immigrate anywhere, odds are you’ll need either a minimum of one university degree or truckloads of money. Becoming a well-rounded human being necessitates a quest for knowledge and wisdom, but the search can become holy-grailish without a compass, so here are some quick pointers to set you on that elusive path towards becoming a mensch:

  1. Sit under a tree or on a mountain and stare into space until something other than a headache emerges from the fog;
  2. Find someone smarter than you and stalk them;
  3. Apprentice yourself to a master;
  4. Make millions of mistakes and learn how you could have avoided them;
  5. Read books;
  6. Study animal behavior;
  7. Grow a plant;
  8. Go to school.

At various stages in my life I dabbled in all of the above, but for the purposes of this post, let’s focus on school and zoom in on the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. My undergraduate degree was in Anthropology, English and Politics, and since I loved to write and hoped to become a seriously read author, the MFA seemed a logical progression–it suited me and I it. I finished the three year course in two, mainly because I was dangerously close to running out of money, and studying 18 credits a semester seemed preferable to dropping out.

My nest egg (and then some) depleted, I galloped (stumbled) out into the world on my big white horse (a Pekingese called Fifi) and found I had more in common with dear old delusional Don Quixote than I did with Xena the Warrior Princess. Through no fault of my own or my professors, I found myself believing the illusion that, MFA in hand, I was better equipped to navigate a publishing industry that was a cross between a screaming toddler, a suicidal adolescent and a profoundly depressed geriatric. In the (few) years since graduating, I’ve tilted my sturdy (wilting) lance at a sizable windmill, and now look back, not without nostalgia, at what I learned:

  • I read books and studied authors I might never have come across on my own;
  • I joined a group of hungry, curious peers whose minds, like mine, were opening up and sharing a rich, diverse heritage of experience;
  • I learned from professors who were not afraid to explore, experiment, guide and innovate;
  • I delved into the work of aspiring writers and exchanged critiques, guided by principles of growth, expansion, and discovery;
  • I learned a fortune from my correlatives: Teaching Creative Writing and Professional Editing;
  • I drank a lot of coffee, and learned that coffee is as good a sidekick as Sancho Panza.

Historically, artists have made their careers by working, often in poverty, towards recognition, which as we know can take years or decades. Given the costs and challenges of a university education, colleges need to take more cognizance of today’s economic realities. An education shouldn’t be a luxurious indulgence, but rather a realistic step towards equipping students with the means to competently navigate the industries they’ve worked so hard to become part of. I would have liked to learn more about the publishing industry itself:

  • how it works.
  • how it’s changing.
  • how this affects the writer and the career choices s/he will face.

In reality, I learned more about elements of craft, technique, and the commercial aspects of publishing when I became an associate literary agent and subsequently went out on my own as an editor and author. Formal teaching jobs are few and far between, and if writers are to survive, they must develop an entrepreneurial approach to their work–something authors and artists in general skitter away from.

For an education to be holistic, it needs to go beyond exploration and tackle preparation. With so many graduates emerging from universities and facing precarious futures, a lot of talented, hard working writers must carve out a career with tools they should, but don’t have. Business and commercial skills may have been anathema to institutions of higher learning in the past, but now it’s no longer an option to ignore them.

When agents consider query letters, they may read a little more closely when the letters MFA show up, but the benefits of credibility don’t amount to any form of guarantee. Certain programs have more clout than others, but ultimately, the novel itself has to have legs, stamina and appeal in order to survive, let alone thrive.

With clarity of hindsight, would I have chosen to study an MFA? To be honest, I might have gone for a Master’s Degree in Forensic Anthropology instead, but I don’t regret the time and effort spent. I’m proud of what I learned, and covered more intellectual ground than I would ever have attempted on my own.

In essence, the learning never stops, and in many ways, I think of my MFA as one (or two) big step/s along a very curvy, fabulously challenging road.

Honoring Creativity: Giving and Taking Critique

As writers, we love (and hate) feedback. However long it takes us to produce a story or a book, in the end, when we feel ready, we can’t wait to surrender it to someone who’ll point out its flaws and merits. But that in a sense is an editor’s job. The job of a beta reader is to look beyond what needs to be ‘fixed’ and focus on helping the writer imagine and realize her creation more fully. There’s always a degree of anxiety when handing work over to beta readers, workshop peers, agents and the people who we hope will buy our work. A critique can shatter or bolster our confidence, and it can be damaging if we don’t know how to give and take it. GIVING FEEDBACK

The sole purpose of offering up a critique is to help the writer develop her work. Personal likes and dislikes shouldn’t come into it while a project is still in draft form. Comments like, “This is not my kind of book,” or “I don’t like leprechauns, so I couldn’t identify with your leprechaun protagonist,” have the same effect on a writer as a pin on a balloon. It says more about the critic than the writer, and it does nothing for the work. By the time a writer sends a novel off to an agent or publisher, it’s implied that the work is finished, and most of us have received rejections that reflect the kind of personal response that sheds almost no light on our writing or story. Workshop reviews offer a different kind of feedback–we’re working with a writer to improve a work-in-progress and offering input that will illuminate her process. Our objective is to help her gain fresh perspectives, new insight and in the process of engaging with the work, enrich her own original vision. A good place to start is to engage with the author’s intention and what she’s trying to achieve. When in doubt, ask questions.

Consider craft

How are the elements of craft synthesizing, and are there areas that the writer could explore more deeply? Offer suggestions such as off-the-page experiments, which can be incredibly helpful, even cathartic in clarifying foggy spots. For instance, the fact that John sold his mother’s ruby pin when he was three might never appear in the novel, but it will say something about why he goes to jail at twenty for armed robbery.

Consider what’s on the page

We bring ourselves to just about everything we do, so a personal response to a story is inevitable. Try to decide whether your response has to do with all the stuff that makes us who we are. We don’t only bring ourselves to the table but our history, culture, hang-ups, preferences and phobias.

Consider what the writer might do off the page to expand or condense the narrative

If for example, a main character lacks depth, that may be exactly the writer’s intention: to create a character who goes through life without a single thought in his head. If it’s not the writer’s intention, then suggest ways she might experiment off the page by planting random thoughts in that character’s psyche. Again, these may never appear in the novel, or they might, but the exercise will enrich and expand characterization.

RECEIVING FEEDBACK

This is often not easy to do, and we need to be clear about what we want, at least to ourselves. If we’re only after praise, then we’re in for a rude awakening, because readers who are asked to critique something usually do exactly that. They’ll often rummage to find things to ‘fix,’ digging into the story to reveal its shortcomings, (unless they’re Mom or Dad, who think we’re bloody marvelous whatever we do). Sharing a work-in-progress is an act of trust. We believe the reader means us well and wants us to produce the best writing we’re capable of. In an environment where the unspoken rules of workshop etiquette are observed, that trust is appropriate, but a critique can be disempowering if it’s not. One of Caryn’s previous posts takes a closer look at Surviving the Biology of Negative Feedback–tips I for one could definitely use.

Consider the source

Although a peer might mean well and try to offer feedback that focuses entirely on the story, she may cross the line into that shadowy place where personal likes and dislikes, prejudices and frustrations gatecrash the party. She may just be that reader who never reads fantasy and who is now having to grind her teeth through Bing the Dragon’s Adventures in Netherland.

Consider the consensus

If you have more than one person reading, see where their observations converge. If forty people identify an area that could be more richly imagined, odds are it’s an area that could be more richly imagined.

Consider your own verdict

Ultimately, it’s our work and we get to decide what to keep or discard. For that reason, we walk a fine line between humility and authority, and once we consider the points of view of readers who’ve had their say, we need to revisit our work with an altered perception that might open up new dimensions.

In the scramble to assess whether our work is good enough to launch, feedback from a wise, well-meaning, smart reader is priceless. Reading consumes chunks of time, concentration and energy, so hang on to those who’ll be brave enough to do it and give you honest, discerning feedback. You’ll recognize meaningful feedback because it resonates long after all the other judgments have fallen away. And it’s a great way to become a better writer.

 

Trust between Reader and Writer: Hidden Luxuries of Literary Fiction

Trust between Reader and Writer: Hidden Luxuries of Literary Fiction

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We live our lives at dizzying speed. Things pass us by so quickly we miss a whole lot, and we’ve gotten used to this accelerated pace, even come to crave it. I’ve been trying to keep up, but to tell the truth I often feel uncomfortable, as though trying to fit into a too-small wetsuit. Not only do I miss things, they miss me too. Opportunities, surprises, good stuff. Stuff that gives my life its depth and richness.

I’ve always been a scuba diver, not a water skier. Give me my gear and I’ll plumb the dark, bottom of the ocean, take my time doing it and return with treasure, or my notion of it. But prop me up behind a speedboat and I’m likely to do unintentional cartwheels, somersaults and back flips, injuring not only myself but everyone within striking distance.

I’m uncomfortable because lately I’ve been neglecting my oxygen tanks and flippers. Without them, I find it hard to breathe. But what can you do…the surface seems to be the thing; exhilarating speed preferable to slower life underwater, where I get to glide alongside strange creatures, gaze into the eyes of mermen and discover exotic species of coral.

As readers and writers, this frenetic pace has crept into our stories. Books have less audition time than A Chorus Line dancer, and it’s the first sentence, paragraph, page and chapter from which we expect the most. Then the middle steps up and, well, in under a heartbeat, it’s a case of, “NEXT!!!!”

Every word has to fight for its life, which is what I tell my editing clients, and this is as it should be, but sometimes our perception of what words should stay and what should go, is a little off. Quality prose is sacrificed for pace; characterization for plot; description and telling for a trendy, showy voice, and last, but not least, innovation for formula. I don’t get why there has to be any sacrifice. All these elements make for good storytelling, and the trick is to find a balance between them that works. They all have their place.

In part, YA is responsible for this trend. As more readers gravitate towards the genre, more writers adjust to accommodate market trends, until everyone, no matter their age, is reading and writing for adolescents. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adolescent at heart myself and so is my daughter, really, but there are times when it’s fun to be an adult. (No no, don’t ask me when.) Does that mean life is heavier...yes. You know, bills and decisions, grocery shopping and dependents, mortgages and, ugh. Does it mean life is more interesting? YES. Because with responsibility and experience comes choice, and choice is the only real shot we get at freedom.

Lately I’ve been reading more literary fiction, partly because I miss it, and partly because I fear for my brain. I reviewed one of these books last month, and out of curiosity, went in search of other readers’ observations. We all know about trolls, but some of these comments put what a troll might say to shame. Outlandish, spiteful and scornful, they targeted not just the writer, but literary fiction in general and the book specifically.

We’re allowed our opinions and I’m always up for an enthusiastic debate, but why all the rage? I mean I’m really asking the question. I don’t get it. If a book annoys me, I can toss it aside, maybe huff and puff a bit, but a hissy fit? Makes no sense.

It’s true that literary fiction often raises more questions than it answers, leaving us doubting, wondering, confused or mystified. Maybe its demands–that we approach a text with more agility and curiosity—do take up more of our time and focus. Sometimes it’s just plain hard work, a quest presenting little or no hope of redemption. You know, a bit like life sometimes, and heavens, we get enough of that from living.

What literary fiction asks us to do is slow down and scuba dive. In trying to understand why the genre seems to annoy people so much, I wondered if it had to do with laziness, incomprehension or something else. I find lots of reasons I may not enjoy a book:

  • It’s one long self-indulgent yawn on the part of the writer;
  • It’s overstuffed and flabby (closely related to self-indulgent yawn);
  • It deals with subject matter I just can’t get my head around, although if it’s strongly written, I may venture there;
  • I can’t find any reason to care about the characters or what happens to them.

Odds are I’ll give the writer a chance, and not expect World War III to be fought and won in the Prologue. I’ll trust that it takes time to become acquainted with a book’s characters, to get to know them. Literary fiction allows readers intimate access to its characters. We do get to sink to the bottom of the ocean and gaze into the eyes of mermen. Maybe our first thought is, who could love a fish, but when we feel that tail hum against our skin and he invites us to explore his odd, irrational urges, maybe we can stop and smell the seaweed.

Words are more than just communication vehicles. They can be playmates too. They can tease and infuriate us and encourage us to stop and pick daisies. To some extent this involves trust on the part of both the writer and reader. The reader trusts the writer to take her on a journey that will be anything from entertaining to deep and meaningful, and maybe everything all rolled into one, and that may need a bit of patience. The writer trusts the reader to give her story and characters space and time to grow. Words demand of writers recklessness and authority. Insecurity inhibits both, without that leap of faith a generous reader is prepared to make.

It’s okay for us to slow down from time to time, to not understand something, to grapple with meaning. The book isn’t going anywhere, but there’s always a chance that we are, and a better than good chance it’s somewhere we’ve never been before.

 

Honoring Creativity: The Angels And Demons Of Writing Advice

I’ve spent the past five years exploring the publishing industry from different angles: as an MFA student, as an associate literary agent, as an editor. I’ve been a writer for a lot longer than that, and my first book, Breathing through Buttonholes, was published in 2003. But the writer I was back then looks nothing like the writer I am today. Although this implies growth and learning, in some senses there’s been a shrinking too. I often feel as though the ground beneath my feet is moving, and not just because I live in San Francisco. Some of this instability has to do with the big shifts that I’ve made between countries (South Africa and the US) and the resulting crises of voice and expression; between arenas (academic and commercial); and between being the writer I’m inclined to be, and the writer who must survive. I struggle to compromise between following my own path and instinct, and pandering to a set of formulaic rules that are becoming more and more intrinsic to the publishing scene. We have unlimited access to articles on craft, many of them written by industry professionals: agents and editors who read hundreds of pitches and other paraphernalia attached to submissions. A lot of this advice is sound, but when we become sheep, applying standards that don’t allow for fresh interpretation, innovation and experimentation, we compromise our creativity and narrow the reader’s experience. Not just the reader’s experience, but his/her standards and expectations.

With less time on our hands and a barrage of digital information so easily accessible, intense focus seems to be a rare commodity. There are too many books, movies, games, apps, networking sites, articles and videos competing for our attention, and there’s a burgeoning need for things to be easy. If it isn’t, we move on. That’s understandable–life can be hard, and many, if not most of us are frequently overwhelmed by the roles we play, the jobs we hold, the crushing expectations and demands of our swiftly moving realities. But in an effort to please everyone other than ourselves, something is lost, and I can’t help wondering whether the cost of following rather than leading isn’t too high.

At some point, good advice can turn bad. Rules offered as guidelines become the noose that strangles the life out of our creativity. In an effort to become ‘better’ writers, we become the same writers, churning out production lines of derivative material that offers little in the way of expansion. Here are a few of the angels that can just as easily turn into demons if we don’t honor our creativity.

  • RULES OF GENRE: Now a book must fit somewhere, and the snugger the fit, the better.

What’s good about this: As readers, we know where to go looking if we want to read a thriller/ romance/ mystery/ whatever. This is especially helpful in a bookstore, whether virtual or brick and mortar. As writers, we know what’s expected of us, as each genre is very specific about its demands. Since readers get pissed off when a book doesn’t live up to its classification, we make sure we know what’s expected, and deliver. The terms of the contract are easy enough to follow.

What’s bad about this: We sometimes forget that telling a story embraces more facets than one genre might accommodate. As the pool of discerning, patient readers shrinks, writers become more desperate to accommodate broad expectations: conform as much as possible, and you’ll sell more books. That seems obvious. It’s definitely easier than setting a trend, becoming a leader, being exceptional. Because really, we need courage and stamina to fly our freak flags, and there may be months, even years of market resistance to our risky, hybrid endeavors. And this may lead us to perceive our efforts as failure.

(Here’s something to think about: there’s nothing wrong with failure. It’s a perception, it’s relative, and every person who’s ever dreamed, or hoped, or reached for things beyond his/her immediate grasp, has failed. Heads up–failure cannot exist without its counterpart. It offers a sometimes steep learning curve, but as long as it pushes us forward, it can stop haunting us.)

  • RULES OF CRAFT: Not only do we have to contend with traditional rules of language and craft, we now have to consider opinions. When opinion becomes consensus, we wedge our creativity into the margins that accommodate it. Don’t use modifiers–adjectives and adverbs are bad. Too much description is bad. Don’t delve into flashback until page 50. Get rid of the passive voice. Count how many times you use the word ‘was’ and then set about eliminating them. Show, don’t tell. There are any number of writing coaches who’ll apply these blanket rules to the advice they dish out, and because we hope to get published, we absorb them in the belief that our careers depend on it.

What’s good about this: We often get sentimental and verbose when we write, and this can spill over into overwriting or taking the easy way out. Some adjectives are lazy, many of them unnecessary. The passive voice can obscure meaning. Spare, powerful prose is the hardest to write, and good writing isn’t about quantity. Poets know this. Every word has to do its work, and if it doesn’t, it must go. The truth is, maybe we do need to know all this stuff, because that knowledge empowers us to make our own choices.

What’s bad about this: A master surgeon knows what to remove and what to leave behind. He’s not going to amputate your foot if only your pinkie toe is throbbing. Here I quote one of my favorite pieces of writing, which I do every chance I get:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

(You can’t take a scalpel to that. I think Dylan Thomas just said it all for me in Under Milk Wood.)

  • RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: Power is a funny thing. It can be abused, and too much power can addle a person’s brain if it’s not diluted with a little humility. Because we think we depend on the captains of our industry, we’ll do anything to please them. Agents and editors will reject a submission because they don’t love the protagonist, because they don’t like magic realism, because they don’t loooooove the novel.

What’s bad about this: Everything, unless you have a special connection to Luck and there’s a flare of chemistry when your agent opens your email, or you know something I don’t.

What’s good about this: Nothing. Captains of industry serve the reader, and as Morticia Addams would say, “What’s normal for the spider, is chaos for the fly.”

(Don’t try to teach your goldfish to ride a bicycle, then when he can’t, modify it with flippers, then when that doesn’t work, buy him one with a snorkel. I have a goldfish fully equipped with all of these; he’s been trying for years, and he still can’t ride his bicycle. Time to let him do what he’s best at: swimming.)

Now reading this over, I have more metaphors than any self-respecting writer would toss into a thousand word blog post. But hey, I’ll live.

Keep asking questions. Keep reading. Keep finding and trusting your voice. Whatever you do, keep writing. I truly believe that as much as we need to trust our art, it needs to trust us too.

Post published at Write On Sisters.

 

Writing Sex

Today's post at Write On Sisters: For a few heart-stopping moments, I considered leaving this post blank because writing sex is difficult. Seasoned writers I know avoid it like the plague. I thought maybe I’d toss in a few photos instead: one of Bigfoot and/or the Yeti; possibly a couple of anatomical drawings from a medical textbook; a quote or two from D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Georges Bataille. Pass the buck, so to speak.

But then I got all responsible, and Robin reminded me that it’s Valentine’s Day on Friday, so I stopped wringing my hands and stared the beast down. It’s simple really: some things are harder to write well than others. Comedy, for one, relies on timing and a host of other factors to avoid falling flat. Horror can also be tough to do well because badly paced blood and gore will achieve the opposite of the writer’s intention: a roll of the eyes rather than a shiver; a giggle instead of a shriek. Badly written sex will make both writer and reader cringe, and while it’s possible to track down and burn all copies of your embarrassing book three years after it hits the stores, the World Wide Web holds onto everything with a death grip.

Let’s ask the question–what’s a book without a good romp between its covers? (Possibly better, but that’s not what this is about. No. This is about sex, something we all do, have done or hope to do, and ignoring it is almost as bad as telling our children that some long-beaked bird or the UPS dropped them off on the welcome mat.)

Sex can be many things: gratuitous, pornographic, sensual, hysterical, mean and dirty, shameful, erotic…it’s endless, all the adjectives I can think of…and it’s often the biggest elephant in the room. Why? We aren’t nearly as shy when we write about food, a close friend of sex.

I have a couple of theories.

  1. Because sex has to lug around a legacy of shame, like pooping, farting, and burping, only worse. It’s messy and what, you’re going to argue with me?
  2. Because a lot of the time when we have sex, we’re naked, and naked=vulnerable. Vulnerable=assailable and assailable=dead. Understandably, we don’t want to be dead.
  3. Too much pleasure is bad for the soul. Yes, well, tell that to the Romans–look what happened to them. Imagine how uncontrollable we’d be if we all just went out and had sex all the time. No one would do any work. Nature has found ways to deal with this: dogs come into heat, elephants musth, fish…whatever. Human beings are another story, and the only way to control our urges is to weigh them down with morality–all the stuff that makes us fearful and guilty and ashamed. And here we arrive back at #1.

We must grapple with and overcome all that if we’re to write about sex. Here are a few approaches that just might do the trick:

  • Consider your language. The words we associate with sex are often the first stumbling block. Personally, I always thought that a penis sounded like something bred in a Petri dish. You had to handle it with care and pick it up with tweezers. Vagina isn’t much better, having connotations of some kind of saw toothed animal trap. Unfortunate imagery doesn’t make for a salivating tingle, unless you’re Freddy or Jason. But it’s not all bad news. There are any number of synonyms, sadly, many of them almost as icky. It’s hard to take a va-jay-jay seriously (although it’s a lot friendlier), or a dong. Cocks are meant to crow and sometimes it’s a stretch to imagine they’re good at anything else. (If you’re cringing, imagine how I feel.) There are better ones, but I’ve about reached my sharing limit. Here’s an exercise: Find as many crude, rude and disgusting words as you can–nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs–and write them down, over and over again, then read them, over and over again. Somewhere along the line, they’ll lose their connotations and become just words, and as writers we’re wordsmiths. We understand things like context, character, voice, and tone, and once we strip our words of their baggage, we can use them with the deftness our readers expect of us.
  • Consider your reader. Say what you like, scold and berate me if you must, but men and women are different. Most online porn targets males, and heaven help a young girl whose first boyfriend is raised on it. Since I’m not going to turn this into a rant at how porn objectifies and subjugates women (and men too), let me just say that most often the hammer and nail approach is not your best option. I’m a fan of subtlety, and I trust my reader’s imagination. Stimulation doesn’t have to be ‘in your face.’ There can be more sex and eroticism in what is inferred than what is stipulated. I don’t mean an embarrassed shuffle around something you’re trying to avoid, because readers will pick that up too. I mean creative use of imagery and language. Sex is everywhere. It’s in the way a honeybee approaches a group of petals, and the way they open up for him, in the way a cat rubs up against a sleek pair of ankles, and in the contact between the palm of a hand and a hip. One of the sexiest scenes I ever saw was in Mountains of the Moon, when Patrick Bergen inhales cigar smoke, blows it through his mouth into a glass of cognac, and inhales it again through his nostrils. (Okay, so each to her own.) Tenderness is sexy. Look for it in strange, unlikely places. Just don’t forget to work.
  • Consider your characters. They may know nothing or everything about sex. They may need it hard and quick, or slow and shy.They may struggle to come to terms with it. Don’t take them somewhere they don’t want to go, unless that’s your specific intention as a writer, and odds are, that will be painful. Gratuitous sex in a novel is worse that a bad joke.

When crafting sex, the writer’s challenge lies in his/her ability to create mood. Sex should show up if it must, and if it’s as integral to a character’s development as all the other elements and experiences the author considers in crafting a novel. Erotic writers have more of a platform than ever before, thanks to the pioneering efforts of those who refuse to flinch or turn away, including the greats I’ve mentioned above. And the numbers indicate that readers are ready for it. Be brave, be strong, experiment. Be sexy.

Writing Contests And Awards: Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award

A while ago I wrote about today's saturated book market and the challenges writers face: getting work noticed and read; earning a living; building a platform so our work can get noticed and read and we can earn a living. It's kind of a circuitous dance of codependent steps that does this sad shuffle or frenzied spin--the music is often discordant and the steps out of sync. How do we synchronize the music and steps so we're moving to a rhythm that gathers its own momentum? The key lies in generating work and getting it out there through more avenues available to writers than ever before. Entering contests is one of those avenues, and while the odds of winning or even getting placed often feel as remote as the lottery, no different from finding an agent or landing a contract with a publishing house, the only people who ever win the lottery are those who buy a ticket.

Thousands of writers on every continent are gearing up to enter ABNA, Amazon's 2014 Breakthrough Novel Award, which opens on February 16th, 2014 at 12.01 a.m. US Eastern Standard Time. The contest closes March 2nd at 11.59 p.m., or once 10,000 entries have been received, whichever occurs first. It's open to unpublished and self-published novels in five categories: General Fiction; Mystery/Thriller; Young Adult; SciFi/Fantasy/Horror; and Romance. Entry is free, and the prizes are spectacular. One grand prize winner will receive $50,000 and five first prize winners, one from each category, will earn $15,000--nothing to be sneezed at. All the winners will receive a full publishing contract with Amazon. Now that Penguin no longer sponsors the competition, it's entirely Amazon's baby, and there's no shortage of controversy around its pros and cons.

Honestly, I can't see many cons that make a lot of sense, but it's worth looking at most things from multiple angles, so we do what we do: our research, and then make our own informed decisions. One hurdle seems to be how much depends on luck: who the judges are until Amazon readers step in, what the commercial flavor of the month is, and whether our stars are aligned: elements we have no control over, but if we consider luck as the convergence of preparation and opportunity, we do have some influence over our chances.

Entries are assessed through various stages and criteria, and detailed official rules can be found here. The three components that are judged are:

  • THE PITCH. Even before the contest dates were announced (and there was some doubt expressed as to whether it would take place at all), writers began connecting on Amazon's boards to share and receive feedback on their pitches, building a sense of community as they gear up for the first round. 400 of the best pitches are chosen from each category and given up to 5 star ratings according to originality of idea, quality of writing, and overall strength of the pitch. The pitch, as opposed to the synopsis or summary, needs to have a few components that make it stand out. It's critical to know who your ideal reader is. Once you have the broad genre down, which isn't always as easy as it sounds because your novel may be a hybrid or have cross-over appeal, then within that genre, ask yourself what more specific features your novel has that will appeal to a targeted readership. Amazon is all about classification and comparables, in much the same way that brick and mortar bookstores are--the more you know about your reader, the better your chances of accessing him/her, especially if your novel fits into a niche. Your pitch needs to have:
  1. A named protagonist. This may seem obvious, but what if you have more than one protagonist? It's advisable to choose the most compelling character who best reflects the overall arc of the story. Because one of the pitch's main objectives is clarity, you want to convey in 300 words (preferably less) that there's a character readers will connect with and care about, whose conflicts and crises will intrigue and hold interest for the duration of the novel. By all means, bring in other characters, but don't name more than three. And as you consider the excerpt, you'll realize that it's not ideal to have a protagonist who only appears on page 100 of the novel as your main character. Distill the aspects of your protagonist into what makes her unique, what event propels her into crisis, and the risks she faces. In other words: character, conflict and stakes.
  2. An indication of setting, atmosphere and voice. While it's hard to capture the voice of your narrator in a pitch, because the pitch is delivered by the author and incorporates a broader, more distant overview, you still want to capture the book's tone and framework. There's no space or need to go into detail, but setting is part of that framework. Atmosphere and voice come into play where the novel's tone is concerned: is it spooky, comic, light-hearted, dark? Consider all these aspects in the way you write the pitch.
  3. The driving force behind the narrative. In essence, what is the story about? Consider your plot points, and odds are you'll be able to find the major one that sets the narrative in motion: a death in the family, a crime, an alien invasion, a declaration of war, a chance meeting. The main event will propel the protagonist into some kind of crisis that lies at the heart of the novel, and it's that very crisis that needs to be grappled with and overcome.
  • THE EXCERPT, or the first 3,000 to 5,000 words of your novel. It needs to reinforce the pitch, which is why the selection of point of view and protagonist is so important in your pitch. You don't want to appear to be writing a different novel from the one you've promised the reader. You may have a bit of leeway here if the first few pages are written from a point of view other than your protagonist's, but the main character must appear fairly early on to avoid the perception that the story takes too long to get going. The excerpt needs to be strong, take hold and have the reader clamoring to find out what happens after page 12.
  • THE NOVEL. The novel needs to capture and satisfy your targeted readers. You've spent months writing it, it reflects your best efforts at writing and holding a story together, and it measures up to the pitch. A promise fulfilled. Here all your prowess as an author gets its moment in the sun; your grasp of craft, storytelling skills and writing strength come together to provide exactly what your readers are looking for.

If you're lucky, you'll sail through each round and find yourself reading all the blogs about whether you should sign the winning contract or not. That's not a bad position to be in. But whether or not you make it past the pitch, try to think of the whole process as another step on the road to sure publication. With the stakes so high, remember that you're dealing with 1 in 10,000 odds, and make it about congratulating yourself for the very act of entering. Some people are trying out for the third year running, some more. Do your best, enter, release the novel to the cosmos and move on to a new project. New contests and vistas. New possibilities. There are many, and over time, we'll take a look at some of these together.

We'd love to hear from you. Any thoughts on ABNA or contests in general? Are you entering this year, and if you are, we wish you the very best of luck.

This post was also published at Write On Sisters.

The Fiction Writer's Taboos: Are There Any?

Departing for a while from my posts on Cross Training for Writers, I set out to explore the barriers fiction writers must navigate if we’re to tell stories other than our own. So this is less a post about finding solutions than it is about raising questions, the answers to which will be different for every writer. IncaTribalImageThe concept Write from Truth infers that we write better when we’re inside a particular reality that we know well. This familiarity gives us carte blanche to explore with authority contentious subject matter in arenas that are fortresses of political correctness and/or controversy, for example religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, politics and culture.

Assailing these fortresses from the outside is a whole different matter. But at some point we need to move beyond our own experience and venture into the unknown, the foreign, the imaginary, where any number of experts might easily find irredeemable flaws in our work. For me this raises not only technical, but also moral questions. What right do I have to tell a story about the Holocaust through a first person protagonist? How can a twenty-five year old man presume to write from the perspective of a teenage girl who’s about to make love for the first time? When we’ve never been inside the skin of our characters, how can we legitimately give them life without being presumptuous or offensive?

The more questions I ask, the more present themselves. What kind of writers can we be if we have only our limited experience to draw from? There’s an easy answer to that: narcissistic, insular and incredibly boring. But in wanting to be expansive, how much do we risk?

I have no reservations about writing from a base of thorough research, and imagining realities that were never mine. The mere act of reading takes us beyond our own realities. Historical/sci fi/fantasy/horror, in fact most genre fiction demands that writers become explorers.

So what am I going on about? My reluctance has to do with struggle, poverty and the hurt people feel. It’s here that I’m unwilling to be presumptuous. Yet it’s here, in the arena of hurt, that much of my own work takes root. I have been poor, but I don’t know poverty. I’ve seen it. I’ve gotten up close and personal, but I’ve never lived in a shack or had to steal to put food on the table. I lived in a society that violated human rights as a matter of policy, but I wouldn’t dream of presuming to know what it felt like to be an AIDS orphan living in an informal settlement.

We’re possessive and protective of our pain. We flinch when someone approaches it. We retain the copyright to the secrets and horrors that shaped us, and a stranger who messes with these is a thief or a usurper.

In my novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, I became that thief. I set the narrative in a part of the world I knew nothing about, and wrote my protagonist as a Latino doctor in his early forties. I did enough research to fill a travelogue and explored controversial rituals from both insider and outsider points of view. And I found that once my first draft was done, I couldn’t live with some of my choices.

My solution was to uproot everything and replant my story in a fictitious setting, close to its real origins, but far enough away for me to legitimately impose my own sensibilities, knowledge and experience in such a way as to develop a unique composite I could live with. It was basically an exercise in Fantasy Writing 101: world-building. In fiction I could stretch the truth, reinvent it, as long as I maintained a fine balance between arrogance and humility, remained respectful of cultures and realities other than my own, and was able to lose myself in the characters I wrote. There was irony in this approach, as it was my own authorial judgment and sense of injustice that lay at the heart of the novel in the first place.

I have to be a writer who’s at peace with my voices, even those that belong to my antagonists. I get to know my characters as well as I can. It’s a personal choice that has to do with a sense of responsibility and intention. It also has to do with individual powers of observation and empathy that are unique to each of us. Ultimately, I would never have had the courage to venture so far away from my own reality if I didn’t believe in the world and the people I created.

One of the best things about being an explorer in fiction is that whatever constraints or taboos we have to grapple with, there are few limits. We can explore madness, cruelty, happiness, any state of being we choose; we can go anywhere we want, including places no one has ever been before; conjure creatures, catastrophes and miracles, if we find a way to inhabit, if fleetingly, our own stories.

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