Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Importance of Support

Writers talk all the time about the importance of having a network of other writers to share the journey. Unlike other professions, this one has some oddities that people on the outside don’t readily understand. It helps to have a support system to share resources with, learn from, and encourage us... and vice versa.

Honestly, trying to explain what you’re doing to non-writers is a challenge. You have some major milestone, like getting a full request, or *choir of angels sing* landing that perfect agent who believes in your work. Telling your writer friends means there’s someone to share the excitement and joy. Telling your non-writer friends means a blank stare or worse, a placating smile. Saying things like, “I finished my novel!” is greeted with something like, “Oh, that’s nice. When will it be published?” Which kind of makes you forget you accomplished anything. And frankly, this is a rough business. We owe it to ourselves to be able to bask in the accomplishments along the way, even if they’re not the ones that end in a paycheck.

I think this is why so many writers hide what they do. They don’t tell people in their everyday about their writing, because they’re so often subjected to incredulity. It’s hard to keep going when everyone around you thinks you’re delusional. So, we wait until there’s some major milestone. If we make the mistake of telling people our work is out on submission or *yay* full requests, we then have to tell them, “No, umn, didn’t find a publisher yet” weak smile, every time we run into them... If we tell them we found an agent, they don’t get the significance.... thinking of an agent like a real estate agent you’d hire out of a phone book and not realizing how hard it is to actually get to that point.

Publishing has its own rules. Even writers have a hard time learning them all and it takes a long time of study, trial and error before finally getting over some of the mistakes that scream, “Amateur!!!” Lately there’s been a lot of talk of all the queries bombarding agents and editors. The general consensus is that there are a lot of people recently unemployed and they’re trying their hand at writing. I think there was an immediate urge to say, WTF, do you really think it’s that easy? At least for me... but then I thought, well, damn, go for it. They’ll either learn about their craft and the business, or they’ll get frustrated and stop trying... but the fact that they just now got time to try it in earnest doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not real writers. You have to pay bills. I wonder how many have been writing in their spare time, hiding it from friends and colleagues for the same reason we all hate discussing it with non-writers.

So I say, welcome to the fold. Maybe someone out there is destined to be the next great voice of our time... but they never would have spoken if not for a stroke of bad luck and a worse economy.

How about you guys? What do you think of the influx of new writers? Any stories about your own writing and how your non-writing friends react to it?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Where Have I Been?

The Blog-O-Sphere seems to be growing increasingly quiet. My favorite editors and agents have all been less active than usual because there is a great disturbance in the publishing force – namely an onslaught of new queriers during a time when houses are taking even fewer titles. The general consensus is that many of the newly unemployed are taking the opportunity to write the books they’ve always wanted to write... good luck to them. They picked a rough time to be an author, but then, any time is a rough time for this profession.

Some of my favorite blogging writers have ceased blogging – the latest announcement was posted by Stephen Parrish, who I love and will miss. But I get it. Sometimes you need a step back; sometimes your energy needs to be spent elsewhere. Hopefully, he’ll come blazing back with announcements of a book deal. In the last year, I’ve lost many of my close knit blogging circle – Josie is on hiatus and may or may not step back into blogging. Precie’s lovely presence is gone, and many others have cut down or are absolutely silent.

Hats off to you guys. I hope you’re using the time to make amazing strides in your professional and personal life... or just to enjoy yourself a little more. Thanks for the time you spent around these parts. I’ve learned a lot from you, and enjoyed it immensely.

I, myself, have been less active in blogging and commenting. I’ve been diverted by a few things, besides writing, lately. First, I am on the great employment search... which is almost as hard as finding an agent. I could do a full post about that, and maybe I will soon.

I’m also working on some artwork... my friend, Dina asked me to do the cover for her soon to be released poetry book!!! We’ve gone over various ideas and photos and I’m currently working out a detailed portrait. It’s fun, I have to say, to have my hands full of charcoal again. Different from writing, it’s just a completely separate sensation from any other creative work. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I picked up the pencil.

On the writing front, I’m getting very little done right this second. I know, double damn. Though, I’ve been thinking through the motion of the story while I’m drawing, which usually for me translates to a very productive period once I sit back down at the keyboard to get to work.

I did, however, stumble on a blog I didn’t know about. Miss Snark’s First Victim is a blog run by the lucky writer who was the first author ripped apart by Miss Snark. She set it up a year ago, and hosts writing critiques and blind agent contests... meaning an agent is judging the entries and critiquing them, but you don’t know who the agent is until after the contest... I think the last winner’s prize was a request for a full from that agent – which is pretty flippin’ cool.

Anyway, she’s hosting another game right now, though the entries are closed. (This one is just an open critique - no prizes other than feedback and no agents playing) She asked for chapter endings – any chapter in a current or past wip, the last 250 words... the objective is to see if it makes you want to start the next chapter or not... should be fun... if you’d like to read and critique along, she’ll be posting the entries with her critique tomorrow... mine’s #27.

How about you guys... what’s been keeping you busy lately? Are you missing any friends from the blog-o-sphere?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

History Repeats.... picking the bestsellers of tomorrow

History Repeats

Much has been made lately of the economy and the future of book publishing. You can’t possibly be a writer, or even an aspiring writer, and miss it. But then, you can’t be alive and miss what’s going on currently in the economy.

What I notice in writing circles is that you have two brands of people and thoughts. Optimist and pessimist. I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about the sky falling and just as much, “hey, people have always needed stories!” I tend to fall into the camp that thinks people will always need stories – but I’m aware that the times are changing which means that there is a need for new and different skills in getting where you’re going.

Taking the current economy out of the equation for a minute: writers have a habit of wanting to stay on top of the trends. There is a lot of wisdom in staying up to date on current selling authors in your genre, and in the literary world in general. First, we tend to like to read anyway. But in researching our markets, a smart author is aware that their art is also their product, and it helps to stay abreast of the current trends in reader needs and wants.

On the other hand, though, the trend this second will change. Looking at the current best seller’s list will not tell you what readers will want in two years (which is about how long it’ll take a novel to get to the shelves AFTER it’s picked up... and you should be including writing and editing and querying time, which might make it more like four years). Even if you pass all of those hurdles, how many books riding that trend will be published between the time it starts and the time yours hits shelves, and how ‘over it’ will your prospective audience be by that time?

So, general wisdom today is to be aware of what’s selling, but write what you feel is strong rather than relying solely on a gimmick to carry your tome. Especially since world events can change rather quickly, which might make readers’ sensibilities and wants change as well.

So I started thinking about how to see into that crystal ball and judge what the better sellers might be in the coming years. You can’t really do this, I know. There’s only so much you can know about how a work is going to be received before it happens. I’ve heard a lot of authors say that they think fantasy will top all of the best sellers’ lists, because in troubled times people want an escape. I should note that most of those guesses were ventured by fantasy writers.

On a whim, I decided to look back at our historical landscape and see what times most closely resembled this one. Everyone automatically thinks of the Great Depression... most people who lived through the Great Depression would likely want to slap us silly in our pampered crepe hanging. They were forced out of homes, without food, often shoeless and with little clothing... now some of us are worried about serious financial issues, but few of us are in the state of standing around shipping yards with hundreds of other men in the hopes of getting one of three jobs offered for the day.

By the way, the economy hits recession status about every 7 to 20 years. I chose not to look at anything before the 1930’s because the book buying market was so vastly different in the late 1800’s. Considering that most middle to low income families only owned a bible, if that, the book buyers were largely relegated to the wealthy class for most of our publishing history prior to the last hundred years or so... So what I did was look through the best sellers from the 1930’s and then in a more recent recession, 1980-1982 (which was pretty similar to our current economic climate with heavy job cuts, though much higher interest rates and inflation).

Best Sellers of the 1930’s

Cimarron by Edna Ferber (1930)
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931 – 1932)
Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen (1933 – 1934)
Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas (1935)
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936 – 1937)
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Of these 7 books:
4 are historical
5 can be considered sweeping epics, usually family epics.
The theme of the importance of the earth or property repeats in 5 of them
The Yearling is the only one that can be classified as YA or coming of age – and there was no YA category of that time, so perhaps the example there is that there is always room for a new genre or perspective.
Repetitive themes in every single book – survival against great odds.

What I got from each of these, and most of them were historical, but not all. Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 and set during the dustbowl of the thirties. But what kept coming up is that each of them mirrored the climate of the day. The main characters’ grit and determination was something spectacular through harsh times.

With the exception of The Yearling, each novel dealt directly with fortune. Losing fortunes, but learning that there are more important things than money. Making fortunes during terrible times. The characters you root for come out on top financially, or the characters with money are pitiful and eventually fail. But fortunes, and vast fortunes, are a recurrent theme in most of the literature of the time; probably because it was so on everyone’s mind.

Best Sellers 1980 – 1982

The Covenant by James Michener (1980)
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)
Rage of Angels by Sidney Sheldon (1980)
Noble House by James Clavell (1981)
The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving (1981)
Cujo by Stephen King (1981)
ET – The Extra Terrestrial Storybook (1982)
Space by James Michener (1982)
The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum (1982)
Of these 9 best sellers:

5 can be classified as epic sagas
2 are historicals (Covenenant spans 500 years)
1 is horror
1 is a book based on the blockbuster movie (ET)
6 deal with political or international intrigue

When reading through the full lists for each year, I noticed a lot of spy novels and novels that deal either directly or indirectly with the Soviet Union... if you remember the climate in the 1980’s you’ll note that the authors were able to utilize a common concern in the American mindset for their fiction.

What’s different from this list than the original one in the 1930’s is that many of them are completely commercial and faster paced. Plot that moves was more noted than literary meandering. The lists of the 1930’s were full of Pulitzer Prize winners... not so much the best selling fiction of the 1980’s. There was more genre in this list than in the previous one, as well.

Still, family saga, epics, and historical epics are plentiful on this list. Spy and intrigue, action filled fiction, takes the place of some of the old historicals... though the theme of surviving against all odds replays... yet again.

What’s my verdict?

I don’t think human themes change. The running themes in well-placed novels will be ones that resonate with the current climate. Socio-economic equality, I think will be a critical, if not commercial success as far as themes go in the near future. Dealing with fortunes, whether showing characters of great wealth lose out to better caliber of characters without, or a character finding his/her fortune against great odds is likely to repeat.

I’m not picking a genre, people. What’s common in all of these novels is that they are well –written and they mirror the current mindset. I think mirroring your setting with what’s going on in the reader’s world is a great thing all around, but perhaps more so in times of great stress. I think readers love a good read that will make them forget their lives for a day or two... but they remember the ones that feel like they’re part of them, the works that make them feel like they can succeed or prosper.... the characters that feel like they’ve been fighting in the same foxhole together.... those are the ones they’ll remember.

That’s my two cents... What’s your prediction?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Finding Beauty

I’ve never been to South Carolina, or even seen an ocean yet – but I can smell the sea salt air and feel the sun dancing across my bare shoulders. I hear waves lapping against the shore as the sand wedges into the grooves between my toes. In my mind’s eye, I have a vivid feel for this place that I’ve never seen.... weather worn wooden furniture on oversized porches.... comfortable old pillows and blooming flowers... the soft lilt in the words of the people who populate this world. I’ve seen it because I’ve been there in books.

I’ve been a lot of places in books. Ireland and Italy, most of Europe, a good deal of Asia, and about every State in America I can think of... some of them sing more than others. Some of their authors, though, they paint the world so vividly that you, never having been there, still have a feel for the place. A feeling, sights, smells, contentment, excitement – something pops into your mind the second the place is mentioned.

A great writer can make me long for the sight of their favorite forest, make me want to soak in the smells of a meadow the feel of the leaves on the overhanging trees... basking in the sound of the rushing water from a nearby creek. In reality, I hate the outdoors. I hate bugs, I’m not a nature person, I know this. But in the right hands, the author’s love of these things comes through so thoroughly that I forget it’s not my beauty, not my ideal... not my home.

This isn’t every author. Some writers are more sparse than others – nothing wrong with that, it’s a stylistic choice more than anything. With some, it comes through in their voice alone. Not in the description so much as the way they phrase their words... you can hear the accent. Not dialect, phrasing... I LOVE THAT....

For me, it’s got to be in there. I can cut out the extraneous, but man, I want you to taste it and smell it, and get where they come from – my characters. And my beauty can come from the oddest places, a rainbow in the sewer grate. I think for me the descriptive parts come in the least expected ways, because they’re new to you and something to revel in for me.... some of it gets cut because it’s more writerly masturbation than story progression, but still, a bit of a feel for the place is important to me.

How about you? How much does it matter in your reading? Does the setting have to evoke a feel for the story for you? Is it foreshadowing or just description? How about in your writing?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Getting Back on the Horse

When I was in eighth grade, my mother decided it would be a great idea to take me horse back riding. You know, fun mother-daughter type bonding.... we found out much later that we bond better over coffee and occasionally booze, but that’s another story.

Now, of course, my mother thought this would be fun, with a capitol “F”. I could think of another word with that letter...

See, here’s the difference, or one of them. My mom grew up in Michigan. She spent weekends at their cottage on a lake and summers at her grandparents’ farm, where she sicked a grouchy billy goat on her sister and rode the field horses bareback for amusement. She spent her childhood picking blackberries and all sorts of nature-like crap. No offense to the nature lovers, I’m just not one of you.

See, I, on the other hand, grew up in Cicero. I never rode a horse growing up... I never even saw a horse unless you count the stuffed pony they put me on to take one of those stupid cowboy pictures when I was three. We didn’t have horses or goats and the only lamb I ever saw was the one we served on Easter. I got a pair of ice skates one year for Christmas and laced the suckers up and tried ice skating on the pool in the backyard.... it was their own fault, I’d never been to an ice rink in my life and the stuff in the alley wasn’t nearly smooth enough to skate on. None of the kids in my neighborhood rode horses. We sledded off garage roofs, the really insane tried riding bikes off of them... and then they rode in ambulances... but no horses.

Does this lead up tell you how good my first time riding went?

My mom found this place to ride horses, but it was pretty apparent when we got there that this wasn’t just a nice simple ride, it was a riding lesson. To borrow from Erica’s Demon Baby, craptastic!

I don’t remember much about the lesson as a whole. There were a good many other riders, most of whom owned their horses and were (gee, ya think?) far more skilled than I. I remember the girl on the horse in front of mine, because she had full riding gear, the horse was her own, and she was more than a little on the snotty side. I, on the other hand, was wearing jeans, converse and a CYO jacket (Catholic Youth Organization – gee, could I have advertised my lack of wasp-y-ness any better?)

Oh yeah, and I remember that girl’s horse kicking my horse... and flying... oh, and landing...ya, boy, I remember landing.

Here’s the funny thing, okay, the flying and landing bit was probably funny too. The instructor’s panicked voice was only a dim hum, somewhere in the background of my head. By the time she’d finished saying something about coming back to the office to sit out the lesson and get checked out, I was already back on the horse. I don’t even know how the hell I got on the horse, because I was short enough that I needed to use a little stool to get on the first time.

So why the hell did I do that? I’d like to say it was to show the smug girl (who by the way, didn’t look so smug after that... in retrospect, she was probably horrified that her horse kicked mine). But that’s not why. I remember why – I wasn’t friggin’ finished.

I have to tell you, the horse listened better to me, too – though maybe he just felt bad for me, because I was so clearly out of my depth.

I’ve been horseback riding a number of times since then – my favorite was the time we went in Sedona... though someone should have told me that horses like to roll on their backs after getting wet, you know, before we rode through a river... Still, the view was worth a very bruised leg.

Obviously, the moral of the story is that I have bad luck around horses... but it’s not.

In writing, you hear a lot about perseverance. We talk about how the writers who make it to publication are the ones who won’t give up, keep knocking on doors and improving. That’s all true. You hear about the random authors who get a deal on their first query, but mostly it’s the ones plugging away, with two or three books under the bed and many years at it. Two or three out of print when they find a following... it’s the long haul writers who make it where they’re going... just like anything else in life – determination and stick-to-it-iveness.

Lately, I’ve been hitting that wall – you guys know the one, most of you have hit it at one time or another. Nothing’s popping. I can see improvements, don’t get me wrong, but.... eh... improvements aren’t the same as successes. And I wondered, for about a second, why I’m still going.

Because I’m not flippin’ finished yet.

I don’t think I know who I’d be without it.

How about you guys? Who would you be if you weren’t a writer? What’s your second favorite dream? How’d you get over the wall?

Monday, February 02, 2009

New Purchases for a Growing Family

Anyone out there who’s so much as gone on a long excursion, knows the value of good luggage sets. With a family, you can multiply that by the number of people in your brood. Generally, we go camping once or twice a summer, that’s about all the budget will allow most years. But still, that’s two or three days out in the woods, with need of changes of clothes twice a day and the extra set in case the elements aren’t exactly what the weather forecaster claimed – and let’s face it, how often is he right?

So far this has been pretty simple. We let the kids use their previous years’ school backpacks, instead of worrying over a good set of luggage for each of them. Then mom and dad’s clothes, or just dad’s clothes when he takes the kids on his own (no offense to the kiddie brood, but I loooooove those weekends – and they need the one on one dad time, too) – anyway, our clothes usually get packed together in actual travel luggage.

Now, though, my eleven year old is almost as tall as I am – I exaggerate, but only slightly... she’s over five feet tall and she can wear my shoes! Oldest son is quickly catching up – he’s already in a boys’ ten... I know this doesn’t seem like much, but the bigger the size, the less you can fit in a backpack... With the economy the way it is, luggage isn’t the first priority... but it’s on the list there... then again, with the economy the way it is, maybe now’s a good time to get a deal.

How about you guys? Has your family’s changing dynamic and ages caused you to think about purchases that you hadn’t considered before? What are some of yours?