Monday, October 20, 2014

The one marketing ploy authors need to walk away from*

*Yes, I KNOW the correct grammar for that sentence. But if I used it, I’d sound like a stuffy elitist dinosaur. So if you hopped onto this page to correct me, I hope you’ll read on.

All kinds of crazy

There’s all kinds of crazy going on in the book world right now. Huge corporations engaged in battles with other huge corporations about who controls book prices. Publishers suing book bloggers. Mud-slinging of all kinds between authors of different stripes who have a problem with authors whose stripes go the other way. Frenzied accusations of bullying. All these kerfuffles lead to avalanches of tweets and forum posts where the argument gets increasingly off-topic, people get increasingly upset and very few people seem to understand either the original issue or what the last poster just said.

I don’t generally talk about specific instances of kerfuffling, a) because I want to be a writer not a campaigner, b) because in order to deliver a considered opinion I’d have to get the facts right and facts tend to get a bit slippery during a media storm, and c) because all of these matters are generally trivial and icky when you sit down and think about them. But I do note them and occasionally chat about them online with a friend or two, until I reach the point where I start having half-baked opinions of my own and then I try to shut myself up.

Some crazy is more deliberate than other crazy

BUT this week I want to talk about some specific instances that might be evidence of a growing trend. They are, in chronological (I think) order:

  • The Anne Rice petition crazy (multi-published author about to launch her latest book—the first in some time—lends very well-publicized support to a petition asking Amazon to ban book reviewers from using pseudonyms)
  • The Margo Howard crazy (multi-published author complains that Amazon Vine reviewers sabotaged her latest book which, by the way, was just published)
  • The Kathleen Hale crazy (debut author with first book launched this year writes at length about her reaction to a one-star review, which included obsessive tracking of the reviewer both online and in real life)

I deliberately haven’t inserted any links in the above, because frankly, most of you who are going to go on and read this article know what I’m talking about. I would advise the rest of you not to go there, but if you do, try and read several posts/articles/roundups to get a balanced view. If that’s possible.

What I want you to notice is the fact that all of these authors are published by major traditional publishing houses, and all of them have a new book out.

Not all train wrecks are accidents

This is a different kind of crazy from the typical self-publisher/minor traditional author crazy, which usually starts with an author doing some dumb thing like suggesting a review ring or rigged voting in a forum or on Facebook, leaving nasty comments on a review, or having a good whine on his/her blog or a Facebook page. In those cases, a rookie (usually) mistake from which the author could have easily recovered by backing down and apologizing turns into a big mess of recriminations and denial because the author won’t back down, and usually ends with the author becoming an adherent of a certain discredited website.

In some ways I’m a little more sympathetic to this frequently reenacted scenario, because it stems from an ignorance of basic business principles, an uncertain grasp of ethics and a culture that regards humility and backing down from an asserted position as weakness.

The pattern I’m seeing above is more disturbing. This is not the case of an author putting her foot in her mouth in a spur-of-the-moment blog post or comment. The Howard and Hale articles were published on major media sites, New Republic in Howard’s case and The Guardian in Hale’s. Rice’s petition effort and the articles it generated received widespread coverage.

In Rice’s case, the coverage didn’t just happen—it would have been the result of a press release written by the author or her publicist or assistant, and brought to the attention of the right editors. In Howard’s and Hale’s case, the articles would have been pitched to an editor and a date chosen for their release—I’m not altogether familiar with the process, but I’m guessing a substantial exchange of emails would have taken place over, say, two weeks.

And—worse still—my guess (and, remember, it’s only a guess) is that this wasn’t a case of either Howard or Hale going rogue and agreeing to those articles behind their agents’ or publishers’ backs. (In Rice’s case, who knows—the Queen of the Vampires doesn't seem to mind what anybody else thinks.)

You want visibility? Get the bait out

As all authors know, writing the book is one thing and getting people to notice it is another. Visibility is the key to success, particularly online—with co-op space in bookstores shrinking, achieving that all-important initial burst of sales through online marketing could be what propels a book into the sweet spot in terms of Amazon algorithms and bestseller lists. Marketing ploys for authors around the time of their book launch include author interviews (yawn), giveaways (overdone), blog tours (uh-huh) and heck, if you have a great story to tell about yourself, now’s the time to pitch it to a features editor or two.

And if you REALLY want to get your name around, attack the book blogging/reviewing community. There’s a culture of loyalty among book bloggers and top reviewers that pretty much guarantees a nice fizzy reaction to any post that directly attempt to discredit or demean any one of them. The right of reviewers to anonymity is a hot-button issue, as is their right to state a negative opinion about a book (I support both rights, incidentally, as long as the underlying purpose is to provide an honest review.) Push those buttons, and you get a reaction that spreads like a wildfire in the community of avid readers most likely to influence other readers. Visibility problem? Solved.

I'm a media what?

But who wants that kind of publicity? I hear you ask. Who wants a reputation as one of THOSE authors? Well, I certainly don’t—I don’t necessarily need people to love ME rather than my writing, but I’d rather my writing came with a reputation for professionalism attached to it. And yet in terms of sales, visibility trumps professionalism. Completely hypothetically, let’s say you wrote a book you might expect 1,000 people (bloggers, media reviewers, etc.) to notice. If you can create a kerfuffle that gets your name, and your book’s, before 100,000 people instead, perhaps 70% or 70,000 might be turned off by your behavior and swear off ever reading any of your books ever again. But the other 30% or 30,000 who feel neutral or favorable toward you will boost your visibility immensely and could result in sales that will kick your books up the Amazon charts and the bestseller lists.

From a purely business viewpoint, it’s hard to argue against the power of any publicity that’ll get you into major media outlets. Furthermore, both Howard and Hale had an ‘angle’ that makes them more attractive to the news media than the average author—Howard is the daughter of Chicago advice columnist legend Ann Landers, while Hale has had success documenting some pretty bizarre episodes in her personal life. Anne Rice is, well, Anne Rice. Do I need to elaborate?

Their edge makes it easier for all three of these ladies to get a story into the news media than it would be for most writers, as most writers are pretty boring. Ergo, this is a marketing ploy that looks like a slam dunk in the short term for any one of them. It may not work as well for all authors.

Hard to ignore, aren't they?

My original title for this post was going to be something like Walk Away From The Crazy, and I was going to attempt to persuade the book-loving community to ignore the next author who goes on the attack in an attempt to drag their name (and their latest book) into the spotlight. But I don’t think I’ve got a snowball’s chance of achieving that, especially when said authors launch their missiles from highly respected media outlets with a large circulation. Instead, I’m going to end by asking those authors and readers who’ve supported Rice, Howard and Hale to think, really think, about who benefits from this kind of media kerfuffle, and analyze exactly what these authors—and, possibly, their publishers—are doing.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The best apps for productive writers

I have a firm conviction that if only I could find the right app for every occasion and link them all together, all I’d ever have to do is write and the productivity would take care of itself. I’m not there yet, but here’s a quick run-down of the the apps I always go back to in order to make my writing life and writing business run more smoothly, plus a couple of newbies that I have great hopes for. All of my suggestions are for the Mac, but Windows versions are often available or you can google “Windows substitute for——“ to find the closest counterpart in the Microsoft universe. I include the platform I use the apps on.

The old faithfuls (capital letters denote major software that has satellite softwares)

SCRIVENER (Macbook): It’s where I write. Once I got past the initial learning curve, Scrivener’s flexibility and writer-oriented mindset had me hooked. I particularly appreciate the fact that it autosaves, that I can rearrange folders and documents or move them from one Scrivener file to another so easily, that I can collect odd bits of research there, and that it’s so easy to output into just about any file format I wish. When the long-awaited mobile version comes out my life will be complete.

Aeon Timeline (Macbook): syncs with Scrivener. I’m a big fan of timelines in fiction writing, because even a vague timeline helps keep your story on track and gives your fiction a more grounded feel. And since I write historical fiction, I need to plug in actual historical events so I don’t miss anything major that my characters should know about. Aeon is the best timeline software I’ve found, and has useful features like telling you how old your characters are at the time of an event and making it easy to measure the time between two events. Once you’ve settled on your timeline you can import it into Scrivener as index cards, and voilà! You have a plot outline.

Index Card (iPad): syncs with Scrivener. Once the Scrivener iPad app comes out this one might not be necessary, but in the meanwhile it’s a great way of writing and rearranging index cards to work out a plot without the actual paper.

Scapple (Macbook): syncs with Scrivener. I love using mind maps to brainstorm ideas, and Scapple is a very simple, free-form mindmapping software. You can import your mind map into Scrivener in the form of index cards.

EVERNOTE (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): this is a bit like an electronic filing cabinet where I store articles I find on the internet, and sometimes photos I take or items I scan in. It’s a massively powerful, flexible app that can search for text (even handwritten), lets you organize your stuff into notebooks, and you can even share or publish notebooks if you wish. I swear I’ve saved about 1,000 trees by using Evernote rather than printing stuff out.

Penultimate (iPad): syncs with Evernote. When I go to meetings, I scribble my notes directly on Penultimate using my stylus, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be stored in Evernote where I can find them easily. No more meeting notes littering my desk! Penultimate is very useful for taking notes at writing conferences - I will also take a snap of the workshop presenters so I can remember them at the next conference, and paste it (virtually) into the notebook.

Skitch (Macbook): syncs with Evernote. I use Skitch mostly to take screenshots, although you can also add arrows, lines, words etc. so it’s a quick way to produce an annotated picture. And it saves in Evernote, so it doesn’t lose anything. Not a hugely important app, but I do find myself using it quite often.

Feedly (Macbook, iPad): my blog reader. I find it much nicer to sit in my armchair to read blogs, although I do use the online version on my Macbook sometimes. Feedly’s got some nice features, such as swiping between posts, sharing post links, bookmarking, etc. The Pro version saves directly into Evernote.

Flipboard (iPad): a great tool for flipping through all of those social networks I don't use constantly, just to see what's going on. I don't use it enough and haven't explored its ability to collect saved posts into a "magazine" yet, but I can definitely recommend it as a time-saver (or time-waster, depending on your point of view!)

GoodNotes (iPad): Can be used as a notebook, but I prefer Penultimate because of the Evernote syncing. I use Goodnotes to scribble on PDFs—books sent for review in PDF format, drafts from writer friends, etc. I prefer to annotate documents this way, as long as the author specifically doesn’t want me to use Track Changes in Word.

Moleskine (iPad): another notebook, but this time I use it for research (it’s based on the famed Moleskine notebook). It’s not the easiest app I have and can be a bit bug-ridden, but I love the fact that I can write, highlight, type or pull in pictures onto the page. I can also clip text from websites and paste it in. It suits the way I research, which is messy and disorganized.

Self-Control (Macbook): I use this app to disable certain distracting sites (Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I’m looking at you!) for a set time (usually an hour) while I’m writing or otherwise working. It leaves the rest of my internet connection open so I can still do research. And then I turn my phone face-down so I can’t see what I’m missing. I’m red-faced about the number of times I go to check social media when I’m working—I know SelfControl is helping me cut down on that insidious habit.

A couple of apps I don't use much, but you might:

WritingJournal (iPad): This was until recently known as WordTracker, and that's how I found it on Google. It's a very basic app that keeps track of your word counts and writing rates, but it depends on me remembering to stop and start it and I have trouble with that. In my opinion it's high time Scrivener incorporated more efficient word count tracking, with daily word counts, project word counts, words per hour and so on. Because we nerdy writers NEED TO KNOW.

MagicalPad HD (iPad): Another app I haven’t used a lot so far, but it’s a highly powerful app for organizing your thoughts and materials and I suspect I may use it more in the future. They just released a version for the Mac OS. The drawback is that it's relatively costly (I got my iPad version during a free promo period) so I hang back from going all in on it until I'm sure I need it. Might be just the thing for you, though.

Two new-to-me apps I think may have great potential:

Toggl (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): My new favorite toy. It’s a time tracker, and surprisingly sophisticated and feature-rich for a free app. It’s helping me see where my day goes, and makes me more productive by making me more aware of how I spend my time.

Trello (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): a flexible project management system. With four WIPs needing to be written, edited, produced, published, curated and marketed, I’m trying to find a way to keep track of what has to be done. Trello seems like a fast and flexible way to come up with the big-picture overview of the tasks that lie before me, and to keep track of what I’m doing.

Last but not least, I get surprising value out of good old Microsoft Excel. I have Microsoft Office on my Mac simply for compatibility with my Windows-based friends, but I find I use Excel for tracking all sorts of things: word counts, income, book publishing, etc.. It’s a hugely powerful piece of software that’s designed for analysis, and once you start taking writing seriously as a business, analysis goes hand in hand with planning.

There are hundreds of apps out there, and I recommend experimenting with as many as possible to see what works for you. I’ve tried and discarded at least as many apps as I currently use, probably a lot more, and watched two of them (Scrivener and Evernote) grow from newbies to giants in the writing world. Most of the apps I list above are low-cost; some are free, often with a Pro version that costs money. The trickiest commitments are the ones that charge a monthly subscription fee for the pro version—this is happening more and more with social media apps, but therein lies a whole new subject.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Historical Novel Society's 2014 Conference

London . . . rooms full of writers of historical fiction . . . wall-to-wall book chat . . . are you envious yet? I just got back from the Historical Novel Society’s London conference bursting with enthusiasm for my favorite genre and not quite sure how I’m going to encapsulate the whole weekend in one blog post. But I’m willing to give it a try.

The above was the view from my window in the University of Westminster’s central dorm building—the line of skyscrapers pretty much follows the River Thames, and the very prominent tower is the BT Tower, one of the world’s more glamorous arrays of satellite dishes and radio antennae. Below me was street after street of Victorian red-brick buildings—the University is sited opposite Madame Tussaud’s waxworks and just around the corner from Baker Street, hopping with tourists and busy people in general.

I should explain that the HNS holds its conference in London every two years, the alternate years being an American event (although the first Australasian conference is also going to happen in March 2015—sooooo tempting). The London conference tends to be a more back-to-basics event than the American one and this conference was even more spartan than the last, but it’s also one of the cheaper writer’s conferences around and well supported by a number of movers and shakers in the genre so great value for money.

No Diana Gabaldon this year since her schedule appears to be pretty much owned by TV right now, but Margaret George, Conn Iggulden and Elizabeth Chadwick were in attendance—Margaret and Elizabeth are huge supporters of the HNS and attended every session and coffee break. I heard from Margaret George that she’s writing a novel about the Roman emperor Nero (known for his patronage of the arts and a tendency to slay Christians) and from Elizabeth Chadwick that next year marks the 25th year in print of her first novel—I’m hoping there’ll be an anniversary edition to mark the occasion. I was delighted to see Lindsey Davis there—she’s a big name in the UK (although less well known in the States) and is known for her wit and strong opinions so she’s always fun to listen to.

A couple of newer authors caught my eye—I swiped Laura Purcell’s only copy of her novel Queen of Bedlam (only to find it was already on my want list!) because, Mad George III and his six daughters who weren’t allowed to marry, what’s not to like? And then I found myself sitting next to James Aitcheson, who piqued my interest not just because he’s a young male author amid a sea of women but also because he writes about the Anglo-Saxon resistance after the Battle of Hastings, and with three books out already is evidently going to be one of historical fiction’s powerhouse producers. A few minutes spent chatting with him convinced me that his books might be worth a try.

These two younger authors represent, to me, two exciting less-explored eras that may be the next big reader obsession. The Hanoverians, particularly Georges I through IV, were every bit as opulent and weird and dysfunctional as the Tudors or Plantagenets and take us nicely from the Enlightenment through to the dawn of the Victorian era so they could be set to provide plenty of soap-opera material once the earlier dynasties are played out. And there’s definitely more interest in guys in armor because of Game of Thrones (as confirmed by the publishing industry panel when I asked that question) and I can see fans getting pulled in by the theme of resistance to an invading army and the clash of language and culture brought about by the Norman conquest. TV producers take note...

One thing you notice at the English HNS conference is that the Romans are HUGE in the UK—in fact there were way more Romans than Tudors (in terms of books, I mean) this time round, a sign perhaps that the Tudor goldmine is beginning to peter out. If you’re a writer looking for an era to write about, by the way, my advice is to get out there and create your own niche because all the industry people said they were looking for fresh and exciting ideas WITH A GREAT COVER (heavily emphasized!) Perusing the Waterstones book tables, I noticed a predominance of very bright colors with far fewer headless women than in years past and a heavier emphasis on graphic design using silhouettes, patterns and symbols rather than photography.

Alas, self-published authors were barely, if at all, represented on the panels but the indie table was getting a fair amount of attention, with the HNS’s indie advisor Helen Hollick doing a great job representing self-publishing and Silverwood Books, which seems to be one of the more solid assisted self-publishing companies out there, well in evidence. Several attendees (including yours truly) were also members of the Alliance of Independent Authors, and I felt I was part of a community of savvy and dedicated historical fiction writers who had a lot to say about the genre and their own ideas about self-publishing.

Self-publishers got their big moment right at the start of the conference, when Elizabeth Chadwick awarded the prize for the indie novel of the year. Elizabeth blogged her speech if you’re interested in seeing what criteria she used for judging, and the winner was Virginia Cox for The Subtlest Soul. It was pretty interesting to look at the covers of the final selection of novels, which ranged from good (meaning perfectly acceptable to the average reader) to on a par with those from traditional imprints. It’ll be interesting to see where indie covers go as the industry matures.

The other prize was the HNS Short Story Award, won by Lorna Fergusson for Salt. This one came with a substantial money prize attached, while I’m not sure if this was the case for the indie award—a shame, because self-publishers are always in need of bucks to finance the next book! Although Lorna IS a self-published writer, so hey...isn't it great that the indies are doing so well in this genre?

Another feature of this conference was a strong presence of academics, some of whom were also historical novelists. I find it pretty interesting that historical fiction is a genre that really blends well with academia, as many historical novelists start out as historians—either that or the process happens in reverse, with novelists who have written repeatedly on a particular era becoming more knowledgeable about their subject than most professional historians. And any gathering of historical novelists will inevitably lead to discussions of history—the mere mention of Richard III during one panel sent a ripple of emotion around the auditorium, and panel members were frequently interrupted, or corrected, by knowledgeable audience members.

One of the academics I met there was Dr. Jerome de Groot, who writes for the UK magazine History Today and described himself as an anthropologist of historical novelists.

One of my favorite discussions (in a breakout session) was that of the notion of the feisty heroine—did you know that “feisty” originally came from a German word meaning to break wind, and passed through the meaning of dog or bitch before it came to be applied to characters in novels? I’d never really thought about how gendered such a word is until Professor Diana Wallace talked about it. And the other word often applied to heroines in novels, sassy, may be even worse as it apparently has racist overtones. I guess it’s true that nobody ever points out that the male characters in novels are strong, but people are always talking about a novelist’s use of strong female characters. I resolve never to call a heroine feisty again. I was interested in some of the things Jessie Burton said about her portrayal of women in late 17th-century Amsterdam: her novel, The Miniaturist, caught my eye but I was determined to keep to my BUY ONE BOOK rule (because the size of my TBR pile and my reviewing commitments are a heavy burden to bear) and had already gotten Laura Purcell's.

One last mention—I’d never heard of the online historical fiction magazine The Historical Fictionist, but it’s free and looks interesting so go ahead and subscribe if HF is your favorite genre. I did, after they hosted a hilarious quiz battle between the audience and the panel (the audience won).

I’m helping to organize next year’s conference, which will be held in Denver, CO so if that’s a possibility for you, look out for more details on the conference website (where you can sign up for the email alerts). There was a feeling around the conference that we may be heading for a golden age of historical fiction with some very strong writers entering the field, and if you’re a writer or avid reader of HF you could do worse than join the Society and/or come to future conferences. As you can tell, the HNS is all about good books first and foremost and if I sum up the kind of person I found there, I’d say “serious enthusiast” or possibly “glowing-eyed fanatic with more knowledge of history—and books—than is possibly good for them.”

One thing I disagreed with was when someone said you don't fall into writing historical fiction by accident. I did−I started out with a location from the past, a story formed in my brain about it and the next thing I knew I was writing a historical fiction series. And while I'm talking about me, paperback copies of The House of Closed Doors are up for grabs in Goodreads and LibraryThing giveaways, so go get some free books!

Monday, September 1, 2014

A bit more on ethics, from other people (mostly)

My two posts on author ethics (for the Alliance of Independent Authors—ALLi—and on this blog) seem to have hit one of those waves that sometimes happen to writers, and I've spent much of the last couple of weeks meeting like-minded people online, dealing with the comments from people who don't agree with me, and feeling like I'm all over the internet like a rash (although in truth I've probably just reached a few thousand more people than usual--hardly a full-on double rainbow viral moment).

It was a fun fifteen minutes of very limited fame, but the best thing about it was becoming part of a wider dialogue—which was the whole point of the posts in the first place. Other writers either wrote their own posts or linked to a recent one. So I thought that for completeness’ sake I had better write one more post on the subject to let you know what people have been saying.

Panda-obsessed artist and writer Anne Belov wrote about how she marketed her panda cartoons one reader at a time and how well this strategy worked for her. She opined that the “ick-factor detector” should come into play when you’re trying to increase your readership:
I think we must continually ask ourselves how we respond to marketing appeals by others as we try to figure out how to sell our work. Everyone has different threshold levels of what is offensive or annoying, but if it offends me, why would I do it? I’m still trying to figure it all out, and if I listen to my gut and avoid doing things that make me uncomfortable in the marketing of others, I think I am on the right track. 
The sands that publishing is built on are shifting. As more people publish their work independently, we have to figure out how to be ethical, not only in the actual writing, but in how we tell the world about it. We are all on our own, trying to figure out just how we going to continue paying the mortgage, but we are also in it together.
I agree: I’ve unfriended more people on Goodreads and Twitter than I can count for spamming me, and knowing how I feel about book spam as a reader is a great guideline to author etiquette.

Henry Martin focuses on the thorny problem of paid reviews:
The e-book revolution brought with it a new industry - an industry catering to authors. There are now companies that offer paid reviews, as well as companies that manipulate sales ranks. This, as one poster recently mentioned, prompts the question: Is there anything real anymore? 
In an era where an author with a few hundred dollars to spend has the ability to manipulate the sales rank of their title AND purchase dozens of five-star reviews, where does that leave the reader?  
Personally, I have absolutely no respect for any author who engages in any such activity. 
But Martin has found many authors who act ethically:
There are authors who, although self-published, take their craft seriously. There are authors who take pride in what they do. They may not have high sales ranking, may only have a handful of reviews, and not sell a lot of books. But I can almost guarantee you that they sleep well at night.
Of course once you start talking about ethics online, you quickly run into people who think the authors who sleep well at night are naive idiots with no sense of entrepreneurship. Why shouldn’t you pay for a review, they cry? Traditional publishers do. And they don’t see that the two activities just aren’t comparable for the most part. When Random House starts paying fiverr reviewers for votes and pre-written reviews instead of exploiting their clout with the editors of literary journals, THEN we’ll be acting just like the Big Five.

Australian writer and top reviewer Iola Goulton has some practical advice for authors trying to find their feet when giving and receiving reviews. She points out the differences in site culture that you have to take into account:
  • Retail sites (e.g. Amazon): don’t interact with reviewers
  • Reader sites (e.g. Goodreads): you can thank reviewers, but don’t criticise reviews
  • Reader blogs: it’s nice to receive a comment from the author on a review, and I think readers like the interaction . . . authors should absolutely visit and comment if they have requested the review or been interviewed. 
  • Social Networks (e.g. Facebook or Twitter): it’s fine to like or retweet positive comments or reviews, but best not to mention critical reviews.
Iola’s article is worth checking into just for the links she includes.

The liveliest reactions came when respected industry observer Porter Anderson picked up and retweeted many points from my two posts, and then asked me to send him a few points about which areas I’d like a discussion of author ethics to cover. He did a great job summing up the problem, and noted that
Steen knows that the old stigma against self-publishing authors can’t be fully lifted until practice, not just product, is seen to have been professionalized.
Anderson’s article went out on Thought Catalog (a lively site if there ever was one) and drew some attention, and since then the subject of ethics and its relationship with quality has popped up a couple of times on the ALLi Facebook group (which is, alas, members-only) and on its blog (which is open to the public).

I feel like I’m riding this wave right now because this is a discussion authors have been waiting to have. I’ve seen many isolated posts about ethics in general or specific examples of unethical behavior, but what we’re lacking is an industry-wide consensus about what exactly constitutes ethical behavior in this brave new world of self-publishing. As our “industry” is composed of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of individuals from different cultures and with varying degrees of business or legal or ethical knowledge, pinning down any kind of consensus is going to be a herding-cats exercise.

But in my opinion it’s worth trying. If you’ve got thoughts on the subject of what is ethical behavior and what’s not, or on the value of ethics in our diverse and complicated business (pro or con), I urge you to get on your own blog or other platform and express those thoughts. I’d really like one of the many authors I encounter who object to other authors telling them to be ethical to come up with a compelling argument as to why their ethics—or lack thereof—are none of my business. I'd like to see more pushback like this article, to help me and others define their positions. I’d like to hear from some of the massively successful self-publishers out there (I define massively successful as paid unit sales in excess of 5,000/month) about how they walk the line between marketing and spam, because these people are generally incredibly good at self-promotion and I feel that many of the self-publishers who cross the line into spam are simply imitating these role models but getting it wrong somehow.

Over to you...

Monday, August 25, 2014

SelfControl and toggl: mastering my time

Photo credit: Ducks in a Row by whitepines on

Every so often I go on a productivity bender, where I start obsessing about how unproductive I am and how I Need To Do Better. This inevitably results in the acquisition of apps, because in my nerdy brain nothing helps creativity more than surrounding yourself with time-wasting technology. I’m beginning to wonder whether my productivity benders are in fact a magnificently twisted form of procrastination, invented by a brain that has decided to work against its owner’s best interests for reasons best known to itself.

And yet I keep trying, because every so often one of my productivity ideas sticks and becomes a valuable part of my life process. Like the 365K challenge, which has led to me writing over 256,000 words so far this year, mostly in the form of fiction, reviews and blog posts that will actually be used as the basis for future output (I’m going to analyze what I wrote at the end of the year and give predictions on how much of it will be worth publishing).

I’ve tried the Pomodoro Technique and similar time-chunking methods, like my critique partner’s 10 Minute Writing method where you do your writing in ten-minute bursts, followed by ten minutes of chores. These techniques work very well for me when I have a deadline and MUST work on one particular project for most of the day, for example. But most of the time I prefer a slightly more organic, or perhaps I should say holistic, approach to time management.

Time-chunking techniques work by imposing order and structure on an otherwise chaotic day: in a sense, you take control of yourself by issuing commands to yourself about how much work you’re going to do. And that works for me for a while, but then failure starts to creep in and I abandon the method until the next time I decide to give it a try.

So I started thinking about the causes of that failure, and realized that they had to do with the way my life works. My schedule just isn’t all that predictable—it may jog along in a fairly routine pattern for a couple of weeks, but then I’ll get a week crowded with meetings or one of my commitments will need extra attention and all my carefully structured time-chunking routines go to pot. Not to mention the fact that I spend a lot of time in England these days. Given that it can take longer than a month to form a habit, what’s a writer to do when her schedule refuses to stay constant for longer than about two weeks?

So I decided to tackle the problem the other way around, by observing the ways in which my life uses up my time. On my bad days I’m known to whine to my family that I spend way more time doing stuff I don’t want to do (meaning for their benefit) than I spend doing the things I actually WANT to do, i.e. writing and doing writerly things. How true is this, I wondered? Also, I’m nastily aware of the fact that I don’t spend much time building up my writing business, which as a self-publisher I MUST do if I’m ever going to achieve my very modest income goals. I realized I needed to do the following:

  • Track the time I spend doing house/family-related tasks vs. time spent on my own pursuits
  • Find ways I can increase time to work on my business
  • Monitor how much time I spend on social media and work out just how productive that is

The last item, of course, is a very vexing one for many writers. Yes, you need an online presence and platform. You also need to be real and authentic when online, because if you only go on social media to ask people to buy your book, their reaction will be to ignore you or block you. So a certain amount of posting cat photos (or your personal equivalent—mine rarely involve cats) is necessary. How much time is productive for ME, i.e. beyond how much time spent on social media am I no longer productive? Where can I find balance?

So I decided I needed a way to track my time both on and off the computer, and then fortunately someone mentioned toggl in a blog post. I like the fact that it syncs across my phone, iPad and Macbook, so I can track offline activities via the phone (it will accept entries when offline and sync them later, if necessary, so you can use it with a wireless-only device, which is what my iPhone becomes when I’m in England).

After the initial learning curve, which was short, I realized that I could track individual tasks separately and use color-coding to see where my time went. I’ve grouped the activities I record into broad categories: writing production, writing business, family & house (tasks that involve doing things for other people) and me time (exercise, reading for fun, lunch with a friend). I don’t tend to track things like eating dinner and watching TV, because my purpose is to concentrate on how I use what I regard as my working day. Each broad category has a color code—social media is a separate category, colored red, as I’m targeting that for possible reduction.

At the same time, I’ve recently started using the SelfControl app (Mac only; there are Windows alternatives) to cut down on my jumps into social media when I’m working on something. I put Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter on my blacklist, and set it for an hour at a time—my concentration wanes sharply after about 40 minutes, so more than an hour would be counter-productive. When I turn on SelfControl, I also turn my phone face-down so I can’t see those notifications and be tempted to continue the conversation on a mobile medium. Knowing it’s only for an hour is a big help, because seriously, I can wait THAT long before rejoining a conversation.

I’ve been using these methods for about a month now, and have confirmed that my estimation of how much time I needed to run this house and be Orangina’s executive assistant is fairly accurate. I’ve greatly improved my grip on my to-do list over this last month, too, and the combination of toggl, SelfControl and efficient lists are helping me to reduce the number of procrastinated tasks in the “urgent” categories. My ultimate goal is to move away from a to-do list, which is reactive, toward a planning list, which is proactive.

So the next step is to carve more time out of my day for the “not urgent but important” tasks, which is pretty much where all of my writing business tasks lie. I am, toggl shows, spending less than two hours a week on business tasks, and that’s way too low. So that’s the habit I have to work on next! And I have an app for that…

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ethics: self-publishing's elephant in the room

Image credit: Banksy art exhibit "Barely Legal" in Los Angeles, 16 September 2006.
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Instead of posting on my usual Monday slot, I waited a while to see the outcome of this post I wrote for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). The short version is that I believe self-publishers need to talk about ethics as often as they talk about the quality of their writing, editing, and production standards.

Self-publishing has a terrible reputation

For many influencers on the publishing scene—book bloggers, for example, or high-profile reviewers on sites like Goodreads—self-publishers have a reputation for being unethical jerks who produce badly written books full of typos and with terrible covers. According to this reputation, you can’t trust any of the good reviews of their books because they’ve been bought or obtained via a reviewing ring. If you do decide to read a self-published book and have the presumption to leave a less than glowing review, well—watch out because the author’s going to harrass you! You don’t want to accept a friend request from a self-published author either, because the next thing you know they’ll be spamming you with BUY MY BOOK messages. And they’ll vote their own books onto the lists you’ve created, and crash their way into groups just so they can promote their books there.

And yet most self-publishers care about ethics...

I hope, if you’re a self-published author, you’ll be yelling “I DON’T DO THAT!” by this point. Because an awful lot of us don’t behave that way. Certainly I believe that ALLi members are, as a rule, writers who care about the quality of their work and who are too smart to jeopardize their own brand by engaging in obnoxious behavior toward their readers.

But those of us who care seem to be outnumbered by those who don’t. Often, in fact, the offenders are simply naive—new writers or writers who simply have little business experience and make bad decisions based on emotions and an eagerness to grab a piece of the (perceived) pie. The “who dares wins” attitude of American-style capitalism, which praises entrepreneurship and is still—nearly thirty years on from the Wall Street movie—telling us that greed is good, blinds new authors to the long-term implications of today’s bright idea.

So what do we do about the problem?

I wrote my blog post for ALLi as an opinion piece, a temperature-taking exercise. I got pretty much the result I expected—some pushback from authors with a highly individualist approach to self-publishing, but on the whole agreement that ethics are important.

So then what?

Well, I suppose I got a few people to acknowledge that there’s an elephant in the room, and that’s a start. But the trouble with ethics is that it’s a very LARGE elephant—a problem so vast and risky to tackle that most of us stand around for a while scratching our heads and looking at the thing, before deciding to get back to our own work and worry about our own ethics rather than other people’s. That, I think, is why there’s plenty of talk in self-publishing circles about printing options and editing and storycraft and assisted self-publishing and marketing and social media and graphic design and formatting and any number of other concerns, but very little about what we can do, as self-publishers, to improve the overall image of self-publishing as an endeavor.

Traditional publishing is the BMW showroom to our used-car lot

The traditional publishing industry sorted these things out long ago. Publishers learned how to affect reader choices and even opinions by carefully thought out marketing ploys that control everything from where a book is placed in a store to its position on bestseller lists. An industry grew up around publishing’s needs: there are publicists, distribution agreements, genre magazines, conferences, advertising options and review opportunities galore, and those entering the publishing world (including authors, through their agents) are trained in how to interact with these resources to produce the best result. The system’s been dented in recent years by the upheavals in the publishing world, including those caused by the boom in self-publishing, but it’s been around for a long time and isn’t going to disappear overnight.

But these options are not generally open to self-publishers. Publicists won’t handle us even if we can afford them; bookstores and libraries often don’t want to know; magazines, conferences and review journals are geared toward the traditional path and probably still will be for the next five years or so until enough despairing midlist authors have jumped ship and self-publishing is the norm for most writers. We don’t have the opportunities, and even if an opportunity is open to us, we often don’t have the budget.

Hence the rise of the cheap and shady option. The reviewing ring, the voting consortium, the sock puppet account, the people on fiverr who’ll vote your books onto a list or post a review you wrote yourself. The second- or third-tier ecosystem that bears about the same relationship to traditional publishing’s marketing options as a tacky used-car lot does to a BMW showroom.

And that has pretty much the same reputation as Uncle Joe's Great Cars.

I need you to help me carry this conversation forward

The only way we’re going to rise above the image projected by that ecosystem and those who use it is to stop ignoring self-publishing’s elephant in the room—ethics—and start writing about it. If you have a blog or website, or are a regular contributor to a publishing forum of any kind, I have a request for you:

Write about ethics. If a response to my words is forming in your mind as you read this, don’t just leave a comment and pass on. Give what I’ve said some thought, and make your views available to your readers in some way. If you’re a speaker on the conference circuit, plan a workshop on ethics. If you have a podcast, talk about ethical issues.

I've told you guys that I don't want to be a crusader for any one cause. But when there's an elephant in the room and it's messing up the carpet, I can at least try to light a fire under it. If enough of us fan the flames, perhaps we can get the beast moving.

We've already seen the consequences of keeping quiet, and they stink

The alternative is to keep quiet, as authors generally do. One of the commenters in one of the conversations I’ve been having about my blog post said (I’m paraphrasing) that self-publishers don’t talk about ethics and that makes her think it’s because they themselves are not behaving ethically. So what have you got to lose by listing the behaviors that you refuse to indulge in? Mentioning your distaste for fake reviews? Talking about the latest plagiarism scandal? Take the risk of approaching the elephant in the room and acknowledging its presence. We may not make much impact right now, but the price of keeping quiet so far has been the tarnishing of the best opportunity writers have ever had to build a career doing what they love. It’s time we spoke up.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The House of Closed Doors Giveaway

It’s here at last . . . and it’s been a long time coming. It’s taken me way longer than I intended to get a print edition of The House of Closed Doors up and running, but the buy links are finally populating their way through the internet. The paperback is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble so far on the US market, on Amazon UK and Waterstones in the UK, and on Fishpond in Australia, with faster delivery, apparently, than in the UK. I’m watching this slow propogation with a certain fascination—I used Ingram as my printer/distributor and they promise 29,000 distribution channels, but I have no idea what they are! And I think the time of delivery is determined by whether Ingram has a local POD (print on demand) facility. Some of those 29,000 outlets should, logically, include your local bookstore, into which you can theoretically march and request that a copy be ordered.

You’ve probably gathered that this whole process is not under my control. Indeed, I’m still wondering what payment from Ingram is going to look like (their service geared specifically to self-publishers, IngramSpark, is fairly new and I haven’t seen examples anywhere on the internet, PLUS it apparently takes 90 days to work your way into their lists so I won’t be seeing any money for a while). I’m planning to do a big post on getting paid, comparing and contrasting different media, once I get my first IS statement and can produce images for you.

Be that as it may, I now have two cartons of books in my office, 25 of which are reserved for Goodreads and LibraryThing giveaways starting September 1 (I’m a little less confident about the LT giveaway actually happening for reasons I won’t bore you with, but am pretty sure about Goodreads).

And in the meanwhile . . . . 

Drumroll . . . .

Here is The House of Closed Doors Super Giveaway, consisting of:
  • A paperback copy of the novel, signed in any way you wish (or left unsigned, I’m easy)
  • A beaded reticule, for that nineteenth-century touch
  • A pendant key-shaped watch, in the hope that you find a lock to fit it into
  • A special super secret prize or two

How do you win?

I know that some people have huge problems commenting on this blog, so I’m going to take advantage of the fact that Facebook now allows me to run a contest through a simple post on my Facebook page. Yay! Here’s the link. And here are the rules:

1. The contest will run from today (August 11, 2014) to 9 a.m. CDT next Monday (August 18, 2014). All entries received after 9 a.m. CDT on 8/18/14 will be disregarded.
2. You must be 13 or older to enter. The House of Closed Doors would probably rate about a PG-13, but standards vary so check the reviews if you’re unsure about its suitability.
3. To enter, you must Like and comment on the post. Your comment should answer the question: What is your favorite kind of book? and be in the form of a complete sentence.
4. The reason why I require a comment is to weed out obvious spammers. If you include a link to anything in your comment or anything about your comment looks fishy, it’s going to get deleted. It’s my Facebook page and I reserve the right to delete comments, plus I really want the prize to be won by someone who actually reads books.
5. The contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed, approved or administered by, or associated with, Facebook, and you can’t hold Facebook responsible for anything connected with the contest. I have to say that under Facebook’s rules.
6. You’re going to have to supply me with a residential address if you win the contest—no post boxes or business addresses. I won’t share your address in any way.
7. I will tag you in the comments if you win, or you can check back on this page after 8/18/14.
8. The contest is worldwide, but be warned, I’m going to use the cheapest shipping method possible.
9. Under Facebook’s rules I’m not allowed to require you to Share the post to win, but you’re free to Share it with book-loving friends.
10. I’ll pick the winner via a random number generator.
11. I won’t be sharing or using names or any kind of data that comes my way as a result of this contest, except to count how many people join in. I’m holding this contest for fun and in celebration of making it into print at last, although I’ll admit there’s always a “soft marketing” aspect to things like this.

So there you have it. I hope the contest works OK—first time I’ve tried doing a contest via Facebook! And I’d love to hear from any of you who decide to buy the paperback about the purchasing experience, especially if you’ve tried to purchase via a bookstore. I try my best to make the book as widely available as possible in as many forms as possible, at the most consistent pricing possible, but this is turning out to be an unpredictable journey. A couple of friends on Goodreads have said they’ve asked their local libraries to purchase a copy—this is definitely a win for me, as it still represents a book purchase AND possibly gets my name and writing in front of a few more people.

One more thing—not only does Blogger (or Google) make it hard to post comments on this blog, it doesn’t tell me when comments are posted. It’s beyond me how I can fix this. You’re probably better off visiting my Facebook page or even my personal Facebook profile (which is public) if you want to engage with me over anything I say in this blog. I’m a chatty person, as you probably noticed, and I love having intelligent discussions, so if I don’t reply it’s simply because I haven’t seen you. Alas, Google.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Why I love Mondays

Who am I kidding? I don’t particularly like Monday mornings any more than anyone else does. But as a writer who’s entirely responsible for her own career, starting a whole new week is another chance to improve over the week before. I’ve realized that the best thing I can do for myself is to make sure that every week brings an incremental change for the better, a constant forward movement even if it’s a small one.

Less than a year ago, my writing life was kind of flagging. I’d had a blast writing and publishing The House of Closed Doors, which wasn’t the first novel I’d written but the first one I felt was a story other people would enjoy reading. Go back a little farther into 2011, when the novel had been written and edited, and I’d taken the decision that was to shape my writing life—I had resolved to self-publish, as a career choice rather than as a last resort, at a time when that choice was still seen by many writers as foolish hubris. It’s hard to imagine that now, with top self-publishers enjoying steady, high incomes, but yes, back in 2011 telling people you’d decided to self-publish would still earn you looks of pity.

Of course, like most self-publishers I’ve learned that the big rewards take time to come. Unless you’re a 24/7 self-promoter with a skin like rhinoceros hide, strike it incredibly lucky or start your self-publishing career with a well-established fan base from a traditional career, building an audience for your work is tough for any new author, self-published or otherwise. After the heady days of learning the ropes of putting a book together and actually doing it, launching The House of Closed Doors and enjoying an incredibly good freebie promotion when over 40,000 people downloaded the book, and then reaping the rewards of that good luck in the form of a small avalanche of sales, things settled down and it took me a while to get used to the idea that I wasn’t going to be an overnight success. Combined with a slew of issues in my personal life and my struggles with the draft of the sequel to The House of Closed Doors, which I’d written quickly enough but which was proving unsatisfactory on many counts, my Monday mornings were becoming sloughs of resigned calm rather than invigorating bounces into the week.

But I never wanted to give up writing and self-publishing. Maybe one day I will, but that day has definitely not come yet. I did, however, largely withdraw from blogging and social media, tired of the relentless effort of trying to grow my Twitter numbers and Klout score and the difficulty of coming up with new things to say on my blog. And I’m not sorry I took that break. I needed time to deal with the changes that were happening at home, none of which were life-shattering events but which did consume a lot of time and energy. And I needed time to think about my commitment to what I was doing, and figure out where my priorities lay.

Now, I’m starting to look forward to Mondays again. During my quiet year I made the decision to rewrite my sequel, and got some affirmation of my writing skills in the form of many positive reviews and a BRAG Medallion for The House of Closed Doors. I very slowly pursued my dream of putting out a high-quality print edition that would most definitely not say “self-publisher,” and I kept in touch with what was happening in the self-publishing world, watching opportunities expand and new services appear.

The turning point really came around November of 2013, when I took the plunge into National Novel Writing Month, not, this time, with the gung-ho expectation that I could write an entire draft, but with a quiet resolve simply to write consistently and add 50,000 words to the rewrite I had already started. I succeeded, and best of all, I didn’t stop writing every day. I started logging my writing, which led to the determination to write 365,000 words in 2014 and the creation of a new habit.

This is why I’m sitting here writing on what is technically Monday morning but still feels like late Sunday night. I didn’t write on Saturday because my day took an unexpected turn and I found myself on a yarn crawl with the Blond Knitter. Today, or rather yesterday, was similarly fibrous as after church Orangina wanted to go to a local fiber and craft fair. So we came dangerously close to acquiring an angora bunny (oh help me, they now make them in miniature), I bought more yarn than I should have given my resolve not to add to my stash in 2014, and by the time I’d wound my purchases into balls it was time for dinner and . . . still no writing done.

But Monday mornings in August 2014 are different from Monday mornings in 2013. Now I have a commitment driving me on. I share a spreadsheet with my critique partner the 10 Minute Writer, and I would be downright ashamed to enter two zeros in a row simply on the basis of a weekend’s shopping. So here I sit with my eyelids drooping and my fingers flying over the keyboard, my brain half-dead and my butt in the chair regardless.

And since it’s Monday morning and by the time most of you read this your own week will be off to a new start (even if not a good one) I will lead off my week with a bit of promotion. I went onto the Amazon website to see if my new print edition of The House of Closed Doors had gone on sale yet (it hadn’t) and realized that the audiobook version had been accepted into the Whispersync for Voice program, whereby you can pair the audiobook and Kindle book and have the narration read to you while the words are highlighted in your Kindle. Orangina uses this feature all the time as it helps her reading comprehension, so I’m pretty keen on the program and had asked ACX (the production arm of Audible) how I could get on it. They gave me instructions for submitting the book, I complied and I hadn’t heard from them since, so I figured it hadn’t been approved yet.

It was a lovely surprise to see it had—and, in addition, for reasons best known to itself, Audible has cut the price of the book to a crazy low $1.99—for nine hours of listening! (I should explain that I can set the price of an ebook with reasonable assurance that retailers will stick to it, set a retail price for a print edition, but have absolutely no control over audiobook prices—go figure.) So this means very little in the way of earnings for me but a huge boon to you, the reader, so I’d advise you to get out there and grab the audiobook before they put the price up again.

And there I am in my selfie with a print edition AT LAST, and I’m very pleased by the way the book looks and feels and can’t wait till it populates through to websites and other retail outlets. I published through Ingram, so theoretically you should soon be able to walk into bookstores worldwide and order a copy, since Ingram boasts of 29,000 distribution channels across the globe.

And I’ve been making some new efforts to improve productivity, with the eventual aim of spending more time writing and devoting at least as many hours per day to my book business—production, curation and marketing. It’s not easy carving out a business as a writer of fiction, but every step I take toward creating the writer life I want is making Monday mornings more exciting for me.

And now I’m going to publish this post and go to bed. Happy Monday, everyone!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Life's (messy) joys

Some of you may know that I have two daughters. I codename them Orangina and Wasabi on this blog, out of respect for their privacy, and I don’t tend to post about them a whole lot nowadays. That’s partly because the focus of my blog gradually shifted from writing about life in general to writing about the writing life in particular.

But it’s also partly because I feel I never post about my family except to whine about them! Admittedly, I started this blog back in 2009 when my kids were teenagers and my mindset was pretty much stuck on GET ME OUT OF HERE. I’m one of those people (and I think we are legion, if we’re going to be honest about it) who had the biological urges to have kids without the patience, forebearance, fun-lovingness and playfulness to make a particularly great mother. I possibly wasn’t as bad as I recall (OK I HEAR THAT CHORUS OF ‘YES YOU WERE,’ DON’T THINK I DIDN’T) except for the dollhouse incident, which is legend in our family. One day I’ll write about it.

Writers have many challenges in our lives, and for many of us the biggest obstacle to creative peace are those people who share our living space. Virginia Woolf hit it right on the head when she said, in the appropriately titled A Room of One’s Own, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I was sitting at a conference once when prolific historical novelist Lindsey Davis was giving the keynote speech, and during the Q&A session afterwards one of the attendees asked her how she got so much writing done. Her answer shocked us all into silence for a moment: “I’m a childless widow.”

Yep, the freedom to do exactly what you want, when you want (including writing) is vouchsafed to very few of us. And for some writers who ARE solitary, this is not their choice and their aloneness weighs on them and interferes with their creative process. But for the non-solitary majority, the challenges are many and different.

But the odd thing is, it’s sometimes those very challenges that provide the creative spark that sets us on a lifetime course. I started writing fiction because a story wouldn’t leave me alone, and it was a story and a world that simply never would have touched me if I hadn’t given birth to a child with cognitive and developmental disabilities.* Writers tend to use the environment around them—whether it’s aloneness or our ridiculously over-scheduled executive+soccer dad+writer life—as a kind of manure in which to grow their roses. It’s muck, it stinks, and it produces some very nice specimens.

I see I’ve drifted away from my daughters and back into writing, which is fairly typical of me. It’s a characteristic of writers (and other creative people) to link up every thought that comes into their head with another thought—manure again!—and, according to a recent article mouthwateringly called The Neurological Similarities Between Successful Writers And The Mentally Ill (oh yes, it all makes so much sense now), we can’t stop this from happening. The author tells us that
the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off…
But what I’m TRYING to get round to saying, and perhaps all the above blathering is a form of avoidance, is that having a disabled child made a huge impact on me, both emotionally and in practical terms. The challenges changed over the years, starting with her physical disabilities (now relatively insignificant), moving on to speech and language acquisition, through social and learning challenges at school, through behavioral issues which crested at around 14 when we FINALLY got both the diagnosis and the meds right, to my current challenge of having an adult child who can never live by herself, who will never drive and who will always need a certain amount of supervision and support. The emotional stress brought about by these overlapping issues, and the strains on our family dynamics that they caused, occasioned many times when I felt like my creative brain had been removed and replaced by an inert substance. Learning to use writing to relieve the stress, rather than allowing the stress to block the writing, has taken five solid years and I’m still not sure if I’ve mastered that skill.

But you know what’s weird? I’m now in the lifetime, all-day phase of caregiving (viable alternatives not being available in Illinois) and instead of finding it a hinderance, I’m enjoying it tremendously. Having Orangina with me at home has turned out to be a joy, now that we’re free of the stresses and demands of education and have been able to settle down into a way of living together. I tend to view myself as her Executive Assistant rather than her caregiver, as the help she needs is all about providing transportation, managing her calendar, ensuring she makes good nutritional choices, keeping tabs on her health habits and liaising with medical professionals, and dealing with the alarming amount of paperwork and financial tracking that has to be carried out when you receive benefits (which she MUST receive in order to stay on the waiting list for services she’ll need later in life, it’s a very skewed system).

And at the same time, Orangina’s MY Executive Assistant in all things household. She’s accepted her role as an adult member of the family team and (fairly) willingly pitches in with household projects and yardwork, which I no longer tackle alone as I’m simply running out of time to do it all. I find I’m involving her more and more in planning and organizing, which her OCD finds hugely satisfying. And we’ve begun walking together, which is not only good for our health but allows us an extended period of time to talk. This all works, of course, because she is a willing participant in the process—for many people with disabled adults, the picture is nowhere near as happy and I’m grateful for the blessing I’m getting right now.

I've never wanted the fate of many writers with disabled children, which is to use my writing to advocate for them. It's just not in me, although I try to pay back in other ways. But the awareness of difference and the amount of time I've spent with people who have to try harder is fertile ground for a writer. I may sometimes moan and groan about the interruptions to my writing day, but I suspect that when I look back over my lifetime, I'm going to see the muck of my life as valuable enrichment for all those little buds of ideas.

*That novel’s still waiting to be rewritten. It was the first one I wrote, and as soon as I began editing it, I realized I had to learn a whole lot more about the craft of writing before I proceeded. But the act of writing it downloaded it out of my head and allowed a whole slew of other ideas to rush in. It’s ironic that for many novelists, the first novel has a biographical side to it and is about some aspect of our past that has deeply affected us.  That first novel is in the wrong place—it should really be our last, when we’ve become a good writer through practice and really processed all the events and emotions it covers. It’s often an author’s strongest novel, because the author truly cares about it, and that’s one of the reasons why sometimes it’s so hard to write that second book. We purged ourselves of the emotional wave that carried us through our first act of novel writing, and we’re left, for a while, high and dry as we search for what we’re supposed to say next.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The dumbest writing advice I've ever heard

Let's face it, some of the writing advice that floats around the internet is pretty dumb. Here's the one that really gets my knickers in a twist:

Don’t read other people’s work when you’re writing, because it will influence your voice.

Whoever thought that one up was an egomaniac, not a writer. I will concede that there are very special people out there who have wholly unique voices, are deep and dedicated thinkers, and are probably best left alone with nature and God because the rest of us are, compared to them, a bunch of ants. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he who wrote The Little Prince, is reputed to have only been interested in reading two books (Pascal’s Pensées and Plutarch’s Lives), but I bet he read them ALL THE TIME and pondered them deeply, as well as observing the world around him at a level most of us don’t achieve.

No, it’s not those people that I’m talking about. It’s the rest of us. Since I write every day, if I didn’t read while I was writing I’d never read. If I thought that meant I’d become a profound thinker, I might be prepared to make that deal—but if I’m honest with myself, if I didn’t read my thoughts would probably become increasingly repetitive and trivial and I’d start watching Fox News.

Writers need other people’s stories (and in this I include non-fiction, as good non-fiction always tells a story). It’s like a big conversation that started thousands of years ago, and that with luck will go on for another few thousand. Who are your influences? Goodreads asked me when I set up my author page, because a writer usually doesn’t become a writer out of nowhere. We are readers first, and while most books are forgettable, some make an indelible impression on us that make us want to put down the book and pick up the pen. If you’re not reading, you’re not part of the conversation—you’re talking to yourself.

My counter-advice: read all the time, and let other people’s work soak into your brain and spill over into your writing. But learn to develop a critical eye when it comes to your own writing, and observe where the fine line lies between writing that’s informed and infused by all that you’ve learned from other people, and writing that’s derivative. (And even derivative writing has its place—just as art students learn by copying the work of the great masters, a writer can learn a lot by trying to write in the style of a favorite author. Usually, what you learn is how difficult it is.)

More useless writing advice:

Write what you know.

It’s absolutely true that when a writer intimately understands a place, or time, or profession, or issue, their writing can be that much deeper and richer than it might otherwise be. Angela’s Ashes wouldn’t be as powerful a book as it is if Frank McCourt hadn’t lived that childhood. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, began the novel by writing pieces in the voice of her family’s maid. So yes, writing what you know can be an effective way to give your writing depth.

My problem with this piece of advice is that people quote it all the time as if it’s the only way to write well. It’s not. There are two great tools that can come to the writer’s aid in any situation: research and imagination. You can project your writer’s mind into just about any character’s if you take the time, do your homework and stretch that imagination till it hurts. For many of us, trying to write what we know would just result in a whole bunch of whiny trash about the hardships of suburban life*, and although there are a few people who do that well, most of us don’t.

My counter-advice: Write what appeals to you. If you don’t know much about it, research. If you can’t find facts, make bits up. If you’ve made stuff up about a real person or situation or place, be honest about this in your Author’s Note.

I’m on a roll now. Here are two more bits of dumb writing advice:

Read books about writing.


Don’t read books about writing.

Yes, I really did just contradict myself, but bear with me. I think there’s a point in most writers’ lives when a writing craft book or two can come in handy, but I’m against dogmatic pronouncements about whether you should read craft books, and especially against pronoucements as to which books you should read. Aside from owning (and using) a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and a style manual and/or punctuation/grammar reference, I believe that most writers should take their time in building up their writing advice library. The most important step toward becoming a writer is to write, edit, and put your work in front of some critical readers. If you’ve also read a lot of books (see above), you’ll soon start spotting the flaws in your own writing at the editing stage. If you’re courageous about putting your work in front of other people—and if you’re writing with a view to eventual publication, NOT putting it in front of people doesn’t make sense—you’ll get feedback that will guide you to where you need to be.

Frankly, a lot of books about writing won’t tell you what you need to know right now. Some of them (quite a few of them) really aren’t all that good. You’ll encounter a lot of examples from novels that you’ve never heard of (yes at least I TRIED with Angela’s Ashes and The Help, hey they both got made into movies) and a whole lot more neurotic navel-gazing or accounts of how much neurotic navel-gazing you’re going to be doing now that You are a Writer.

So, be cautious in picking up these tomes, read all of their reviews first, and if you feel you must validate your existence as a writer by reading craft books, try to make sure they apply to your specific circumstances. And take everything they say with a pinch of salt, because they might just be wrong.

And here’s my last piece of dumb writing advice:

Read writing advice posts like this instead of writing. 


What’s the dumbest piece of writing advice you ever received?

*Most of us have never known real hardship. And are rich beyond the dreams of a large percentage of the world's population.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Writing with an English accent

This post on the Alliance of Independent Authors blog fascinated me to the point where, instead of leaving a ridiculously long comment, I decided to blog about it instead.

And that led me to the conviction that I’ve blogged about my Englishness before. And that led me to the back end of this website where I searched for the post and failed to find it. And that led me to read a couple of my old posts and think “hey, I should reblog this”. And so on. I’ll admit to being easily distracted. All this to say, if this sounds familiar then please find the original post and hit me on the head with it.

I’m a British writer living in America, but there’s more to it than that. The 54 years of my life have been geographically located thus:

21 years in England
16 years in Belgium
17 years in the United States

From which the mathematically inclined among you will note that I’ve spent far more time out of my home country than in. And yet I still sound British! Apparently.

And it gets more nuanced than that. Most of my first 21 years were spent in the south of England, to be more precise the Home Counties (those close to London). BUT I spent four years or so in the Midlands, north of the linguistic divide, and during that time my sisters and I all switched our accents because we were children and the other children teased us for sounding posh. And then when we returned to the London area (partly, I’m convinced, because my mother couldn’t stand our Nottingham dialect) we switched back again because we were teased for talking funny. So I’d describe my accent now as London-ish, with a certain veneer from years of education but not, in English terms, a posh accent. And having lived ‘oop north’, I don’t have the southerner’s disdain for vowels originating north of Luton.

And then I went to Belgium where, in addition to speaking French on a daily basis, I hung out with and worked for Americans and Brits. In my working life I estimate that I had to use American spelling 70 percent of the time, British spelling the other 30 percent—when I was writing in English. When writing in French, ho ho, even the punctuation was different. To confuse things further, many of my British friends were long-term expats who spoke franglais fluently—I still tend to throw in French phrases when talking with Felsted, who is American but went to British schools and lived in Belgium for 33 years.

By the time I left Belgium I was accustomed to American spelling, although I didn’t entirely accept it. During my tenure as an editor in a Belgian law firm I recall writing a long and pompous memo on why we should switch from the American habit of putting a period after the abbreviations Mr. and Mrs. to the more correct British version, Mr and Mrs (because they are contractions and not abbreviations—look it up). I didn’t win that argument, and nor should I have, since we were mostly catering to American clients. But I was young and still linguistically opinionated.

And then Felsted wanted to move back to the land of his birth and we ended up in Chicagoland. Now, Chicago itself—at least the South Side—has an accent, but on the whole the suburbanites speak a sort of standard American that doesn’t mark them out as being from any particular part of the USA. At some point soon after we moved here I made a conscious decision to adopt American spelling in all written forms of communication, since obviously I was going to have to use it at work and the children were going to be taught in American, so getting into arguments about spelling would be fairly counterproductive.

But I didn’t make any effort to SPEAK in American, other than using American words when I knew them rather than the British equivalents or in situations where saying things in American was necessary. So, for example, I say truck instead of lorry, sidewalk instead of pavement, and when ordering in restaurants try to use the American pronunciation because the poor server has enough trouble hearing amid the background noise. I have been told on many occasions by my children that I can’t say certain words properly, and admit to a total inability to pronounce ‘water’ in any way that restaurant personnel can understand, so I don’t order water much. When in a certain coffee shop, an order of a TALL latte can result in the production of TWO lattes unless I’m very careful to spot the misunderstanding early.

Hanging on to a British accent is interesting in two ways when you live in the States. For one thing, it makes me stand out. If I had a buck for every time people have told me how much they love my accent…Do you remember the TV show The Nanny? The boss and the butler are both British (well, they’re doing British accents, don’t get me started) and at one point one of them says “everything we say sounds like Shakespeare” and they laugh maniacally. BUT IT’S TRUE! I’ve been told more times than I can count that when I’m talking I sound intelligent because of the accent. It’s also very handy at writer events, because people tend to remember me.

And secondly, I sound posher than I am. Remember I told you that in England my accent’s not all that posh? BWAHAHAHAHAHA it is over here. Not that I bother to go to many social calendar-type events, but let me tell you it’s social gold dust. Of course that only works until the point where you’re introduced to another Brit (they’re all over this area like a rash) and they’re posher than you, and when your mutual American friend tells you that you both sound the same you LOOK at each other…

So how does this translate into writing? Well, since my current series is set in America, the American spelling and knowledge of its idioms helps. I set up some linguistic insurance by giving my heroine an English background, and besides this is the Midwest in the 1870s when the majority of the inhabitants were not born in the region. And my American beta readers and writing buddies are quick to put me right when I write something English enough to sound jarring in the context. But I have had reviews that remark on a certain Englishness, so I’m not fooling everyone.

On the other hand, I’m also working on some ideas set in England, and that IS a problem. Since my home market is American, I feel like I need to use American spelling and some American idioms in descriptive passages, but do I want to make my characters sound American? I don’t think so. Furthermore, when these projects approach production stage, I think I’m going to have to find readers and editors based in the UK, because I’ve been away so long that I might inadvertently make my characters say American things even if I’m trying not to.

And if you read the comments on the ALLi article mentioned in the first paragraph, you’ll see that my dilemma isn’t an uncommon one. The world has gone global, but we haven’t caught up linguistically. Many writers who write in English no longer live in English-speaking countries, or live in a country where a different English is spoken from their original one. And what about, to give a very common example, countries like India where standard English is taught but local variations are common?

All these variants would be OK if we were all tolerant of them, but we’re not. Readers can get quite unbelievably hot under the collar about word usage, the more so if they’re writers themselves. Skirmishes between writers about words are rife on Facebook groups and blogs, and I’ve lost stars on reviews for using a word a reader didn’t think was quite nineteenth-century enough. ONE WORD.

You think writing is easy? It’s a bloody minefield, mate. Pardon my English.