The Company of Other Writers

This time of year, the schedule is full of holiday parties. One I don't miss is the RMFW party (and, yes, it has taken place this year). I also try to make my critique group critique-and-party, and that was yesterday. January in critique will be having me taking in the beautiful-art self-care cards that I hand out everywhere (retreats, all my seminars), before we talk about our yearly goals.

For me, these are important gatherings of my tribe.

Now, I am a full time writer, and I am in the company of other writers every day online. But I still cherish the in-person get-togethers and the conversation.

First, because my online writing-sprint group is mostly fantasy writers and we talk about that genre: multi-book story arcs and world-building and suchlike. I like talking about romance, and mystery, and thrillers and how those genres have specific demands that readers expect their authors to fulfill. How they differ – the emphasis of the story, the pacing. I get a broader appreciation for how others in my craft handle their projects.

Second, I am a long-time volunteer with RMFW and I like to talk with old buddies and make new ones.

But I also remember when I was a writer who had little to do with others, who belonged to RMFW but didn't attend the parties. I'd go to some of the seminars and sit in the corner and take notes. I'd be at conference. But the less structured social occasions I'd usually skip.

Until the first RMFW holiday party I was coerced into attending mumbledy-mumble years ago. It was a revelation. The standard questions that people asked then still works. "What do you write?" and "Tell me about your current manuscript." I'd listen and smile at the intensity of my fellow writers and feel like I belonged.

I kept coming. I could talk about problems and get a second, or third, take. Research talk would swirl around like the smoke of inspiration, just waiting for me to use it – or tuck it away to perhaps use some other time. Or, since I do write fantasy, figure out I could twist it and put it in an other-worldly story.

No one thought I was weird if I wanted to talk about herbs or poisons or how long rigor mortis lasts (yes, I often have suspense in my stories, too). Or, of late, how to make a knife out of a person's femur.

Then there's the networking. Priceless. Who's your editor? What's s/he buying? Get self-publishing tips...I've moved over to Scrivener finally after sticking with Word Perfect, it's better on a Mac. Should I get a Mac?

Here in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, we share. You need only ask.

If there's a seminar topic coming up – go. You'll meet people interested in the same thing you are, as well as learn something. If there's a social occasion, go.

Make it a priority to spend time with other writers, in person. So you can see the passion they have about writing, how they gesture, give them an outlet of a person who listens and whose eyes don't glaze over when they talk about character arc. Someone who cares about writing.

Let yourself go and follow your own passion, talk about motivation or dialogue or the research you've been doing.

We'll all be better for the company.

So, as they say in my books: Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again. May next year be your best writing year EVER.

Robin

Yes, Virginia….

Okay, I'm doing something totally out of character for me. It's Wednesday and my post is due up tomorrow. Have I prepared one? No. Hence this impromptu entry which may or may not succeed. If it does, I thank the spirit of Christmas. If it doesn't, well, our intrepid editor, Patricia, will surely let me know.

What's on my mind? I imagine the same things that are on the mind of every RMFW member this time of year. First, the holidays. I think I've finished my shopping, but I always think that two weeks before Christmas and something (or someone) springs to mind and I'm off again. I've shopped online more than I ever have this year. AND I've had packages sent directly to the recipients instead of repacking and shipping them myself. Maybe not so personal, but a time and money saver for sure!

Which brings me to the second topic. Do you spend too much money at Christmas? I'm sure I do. But I wouldn't change it. I love finding the perfect gift for a friend or relative. I shop by item and not price tag. I'm also adding a special touch this year. Since I'm trying to downsize and no longer put up a big tree, I'm giving away ornaments that I've accumulated through the years. My daughter already has our heirloom ornaments, but these are "special moment" ornaments collected on vacations, etc. The recipients won't recognize the significance, I'm sure, but I'm happy to pass them on to good homes.

Next, writing. I have--count'em--four projects going at once. I didn't think I could do more than one book at a time. But let's face it, the publishing world has changed. Readers don't want to wait a year for a book anymore. While the traditional houses seem to think that's still the norm, we who are morphing into "hybrid" authors, know it's not. It's tough, for sure. But I firmly believe to succeed nowadays, AT LEAST two books or novellas or anthologies a year are  not only desirable but necessary. That means settling that butt in the chair for more hours than ever before.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa or the winter solstice, this is the time to reflect on the good things in your life. I love Thanksgiving because it's an excuse to overindulge, but this time of year, friends and family are even more in the forefront of my thoughts. I'm happy that my daughter is happy and settled in her life, that she's found a life partner. I'm happy to have critique and writing partners that I count as friends. I'm happy to have achieved a measure of success, however small, in what is my passion as well as my work. I'm happy to have a family who loves and supports me.

And I'm grateful to RMFW. I know many people say it, but I can testify it's true. I never would have gotten published had it not been for this organization. You who are aspiring writers, took an important first step when you joined. Pat yourself on the back for that, and take advantage of all the gifts RMFW has to offer you.

It's as close to a writing Santa Claus as you're ever going to find!

Happy Holidays!

 

GET YOUR HEAD RIGHT

I struggle most with writing when my head isn't in the right place. What is the right place? For each person it's different. For me, it's when I feel good physically and when I feel good about myself, emotionally. Physically, it's just hard to write when you're not feeling well, when you're coughing or blowing your nose every five minutes, or making frequent trips to the bathroom...nuff said.

Stair MazeBut emotionally is where I'm most fragile. It's very easy for me to get down on myself. A very negative and mentally abusive father, though long dead now, still "lives rent free in my head," as they say. He's in there moving furniture around, leaving fingerprints on the glasses, changing all the presets on the remote. He knows where all my buttons are hidden, where all the worst things I can think about myself are stashed.

In truth, as is always the case, it's really not him, it's me. When alive he convinced me I'm not good enough, and even if I were, I don't deserve any success, because I am only bound to f--k it up eventually anyway. In what I'm told is a common psychological twist I still don't quite understand, after I moved out, instead of leaving all that behind, I've taken up his mantel and now do all those things to myself. That guy in my head is just an avatar of him - it's really me.

I've gotten to the point where I've managed to lock him in a basement room and, for the most part, ignore him. There are even times when I've had the pleasure of going down there and gloating over some success or triumph. Those are the good days. But it also doesn't take much for him to pick the lock and get out, running around up there wreaking havoc yet again.

A careless or off-hand hurtful word from a loved one or even a stranger; a moment of carelessness on my part, hurting someone else and making me ashamed of myself; even putting effort into a project and failing. All of these are the skeleton keys, not only to letting him out of his cell, but giving him access to all the past things I've tried to forget, dragging them out and parading them in front of me, making me feel even lower.

How do I write on days when outside events have shaken my confidence? I have to be honest with you, I haven't found a sure way yet. For me, the only thing that works is just to force myself to write. Sure, the first few paragraphs I put on the page at a moment like this are, in the vernacular of my ancestors, pure shite! But if I can stick with it, sooner or later it smooths out and suddenly I'm in my other world, the world of my making, where I control all outcomes, where the good guys eventually win and the bad guys get paid back for all their evil. I can always go back later, after I'm feeling good again, and fix the bad parts.

Meanwhile, this doesn't just make me feel better while I'm writing. When I come up for air it's with a fresher perspective on all my problems, a realization that no problem is so great it can't me handled, somehow, and compared to some, my life hardly sucks. My writing isn't just a job for me, or even a hobby.

My writing is essential therapy!

Denver Free Program – January 2016

Denver-area monthly programs are free to both members and non-members. They are typically two hours long on a Saturday morning or afternoon. Topics vary. Check our website for up-to-date information. Email questions to denverprograms@rmfw.org.

January Workshop

ColleenOakesExploring YA: Trends, High Concept and You
Presented by Colleen Oakes
Saturday, January 9, 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.
Anythink Wright Farms Library
5877 E. 120th Ave., Thornton, CO 80602
MEMBERS & NON-MEMBERS WELCOME
No RSVP Required

In this class, we will take a look at the current most popular YA books, the upcoming new releases that are garnering interest, and dissect what about these "high concepts" that makes these books so appealing to teens. We will also take a look at how to make your own novel high-concept.

Colleen Oakes is the author of books for both teens and adults, including The Elly in Bloom Series, The Queen of Hearts Saga (Harper Collins 2016) and The Wendy Darling Saga. She lives in North Denver with her husband and son and surrounds herself with the most lovely family and friends imaginable. When not writing or plotting new books, Colleen can be found swimming, traveling, blogging, or totally immersing herself in nerdy pop culture. She currently at work on the final Elly novel and another YA fantasy series.

Interview: Mariko Tatsumoto

Mariko TatsumotoThis month I had the great privilege to interview author Mariko Tatsumoto, author of thelovely and wonderfully heartwarming middle-grade novel Ayumi's Violin.

What made you aspire to be a published writer?

I accidentally took a children’s writing class. I thought I was signing up for a creative writing class. Our “final” was to write a picture book. The instructor praised my work and encouraged me to get it published. I later took a creative writing class from the same instructor.

How long have you been a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers?

About ten years. I learned so much at the Gold Conferences. I always attended a session every hour, I never skipped. I also bought CDs of sessions I couldn’t attend. I relished in listening to stories speakers told. By attending conferences, I made writing friends whom have become vital in my writing life. I joined online critique groups set up by RMFW. The writers in those groups have taught me so much and have given me so much support, I could never thank them enough.

Who are some of your own favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?

Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, J.K. Rowling. I used to own hundreds of books, many of them first editions or signed, but I decided to pare down only to those I really care about. Now I own about a hundred print books. I only have about a dozen ebooks. Some that I could never give away are: Tom Sawyer, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Snow Falling on Cedar, October Sky, The Wave, and all the James Bond books by Ian Fleming because they were my father’s.

What are you currently reading?

Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown

Ayumi's ViolinWhy was it important to you to tell Ayumi’s story?

I think the hardships we endure in our lives never leave us, and we want others to understand what we’ve gone through. Immigrating to a foreign country is a difficult transition. Many people don’t understand how tough it is to make a new life in a new country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand the culture.

In some ways Ayumi’s father is subjected to the same mistrust and racism as Ayumi, and yet his experience with these things differs from Ayumi’s in fundamental ways.

Especially in 1959, being white allowed many privileges, such as traveling unrestricted and not being judged by his looks by strangers. As the book progresses, he learns to stand up for Ayumi more, but he doesn’t carry racism and resentment from his childhood like Ayumi. Father can get another job and speak up for racism.

While to Ayumi the violin represents her connection to her mother, from her death bed mother said, “I will always be in the music.” Not in the violin itself. Why is this distinction important to what happens later?

To Ayumi, when Mother tells her to take care of her violin, the violin embodies her mother. But Ayumi’s mother knew that music is what is important to Ayumi. The violin is only how Ayumi expresses her music. Even when she can't play her violin, wherever there is music, her mother is there.

While Brenda resents sharing her parents with Ayumi, it isn't the same as the racism of those who hate Ayumi but do not know her.

Brenda is jealous of a new sister in the house, not because Ayumi is biracial. Brenda is pretty much color blind, which children are if they are not taught to be racist. Jealously of other siblings is normal and natural, racism is learned.

Diego’s presence in the story is critical to show how his experiences with intolerance differs from Ayumi’s.

People stereotype depending on the race: Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are lazy, Blacks are thieves, Asians are smart. Of course in 1959, Asians were not attributed with any positive stereotyping, but I threw that in to show that not all stereotyping is bad, such as Blacks have rhythm, Blacks are great athletes. Because different races are thought of differently, Diego, being Mexican, is thought of as being dishonest, prone to stealing. Thus, he’s fingered whenever there might be a burglary. Ayumi, on the other hand, isn’t regarded automatically as a thief.

If there is one message you wish families to take away from the story of Ayumi and her violin, what would it be?

Never let go of your passion, it will carry you through your darkest times.

What are some of your own personal writing habits?

I think about my book, such as plot, dialogue, scenery or whatever away from my computer. I think about those things while I’m hiking, driving, or lying in bed. When I’m at my computer, I’m putting words on the screen. I don’t allow myself writer’s block. I don’t have that kind of time to spare. If the next scene isn’t coming or I can’t figure out how C gets to D, I work on something else. Maybe I work on a scene or a dialogue that’s way beyond where I’m currently working on. Maybe I rewrite a previous scene. I keep going, not always chronologically, but that doesn’t matter.

The ages old question for writers: to outline or not to outline?

A flexible outline. If I don’t know where the story is going or don’t know what the theme is, I don’t know what scenes to write, what words to put into characters’ mouths. But if a character says something unexpectedly or a scene twists a different way than planned, I go with it. In those times, the story often takes an unusual curve that turns out to change the book for the better.

What can you tell us about any upcoming writing projects you have in the works?

I have two manuscripts that are ready to publish, which I plan to release in the next 6 -7 months: Accidental Samurai Spy and Kenji's Power. I’m currently working on a book with a working title of The Messanger about twelve-year-old Lilly in an internment camp during World War II.

Thank you so much, Mariko, for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm sure all of our members are grateful to you for sharing your insights into writing with us, as well as some details about Ayumi's Violin. Good luck! Or as they say in Japan, work hard and persevere!

THE POWER OF RMFW

A fellow member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers did not see any immediate impact on the careers of those she witnessed working so hard on our all-volunteer staff, either at the annual Colorado Gold Writers Conference, nor throughout the year on our board and support positions. She asked me if I found participation in RMFW rewarding. Because of the context of the question I knew she wasn't asking whether I found it personally rewarding. What she was really asking was: Did I feel the effort and time I put into volunteering in RMFW translated in any way to book sales, or any other help for my career as a novelist.

Not at all a simple question.

You've heard, I'm sure, the term: You get out of it what you put into it. And I'm sure that's true, as far as it goes. The benefits of participation in RMFW as just an attending member are direct - E=MC2. But are the benefits for volunteering and actually participating in the operation of the organization even measurable in any instant or even short term calculation? I submit that one actually gets back much more than what they put in when actively participating in RMFW.

I post to the RMFW email loop (RMFW@yahoogroups.com) to keep members with whom I’m acquainted, but not necessarily on a direct-email basis, informed of what’s going on with me. I may not get any direct response to my posts, but doing so also helps to keep one's name out there on the loop. Your name also becomes prominent in other areas of RMFW such as the newsletter, volunteering for conference, submitting to the blog, etc. Keeping your name out there in the RMFW community does translate to your publicity, if not directly to sales, and opens doors that may not be open otherwise. Eventually guest publishing professionals – speakers, visiting editors and agents, etc. – will hear/read it. There are a million subtle ways in which this can benefit you. I’ve gotten a lot more attention (followers on Facebook and Twitter, name recognition when introducing myself at workshops and conferences, etc.) since I agreed to become a regular contributor to the RMFW blog, and I love doing it. You never know where this kind of networking might benefit you down the line.

So no, volunteering does not perhaps convert directly to sales, and I suspect that’s why things like the email loop aren't nearly as active these days as they once were. It used to be a very lively forum for discussion and debate, but lately most posters want to sell their books and that’s all. Well I assure you that while most readers of the loop scan over or even ignore ads for your books or promotions for your blog, they are eager to read other news and opinions of current events and hot publishing industry topics. The loop and other methods of keeping your name prominent in RMFW may not translate directly to sales, you never know what it might lead to indirectly down the line.

Likewise attending our free workshops and education events throughout the year. These are not just opportunities to look at an aspect of our profession from another colleague's perspective, something from which you are far more likely to learn than not, you also have the opportunity to network, to meet fellow writers and introduce yourself to them.

conference1The Colorado Gold Writers Conferences, sponsored every Fall by RMFW, is the Grande Dame of all networking opportunities the organization offers. There is no end to the openings you have to make yourself known to the organization at large, not to mention guest professionals from the publishing industry from around the country, and even, sometimes, other countries. From pitching a workshop, if you feel you have something to share with others, to volunteering to moderate workshops. You can volunteer to judge the contest, work the registration table, help in operating the pitch sessions, or just in general as a docent or information source for newcomers and other attendees. One of the best opportunities is to volunteer as a driver, to pick up and transport conference guests between the airport and the venue - here you have a good thirty minutes or more alone with one of the visiting editors, agents, or authors invited to the conference to chat with them and become acquainted. No better networking opportunity in my book.

In short, never pass up an opportunity to volunteer and participate in RMFW and get yourself and your name out there. Doors only open to you if people know who you are. And RMFW is one of the greatest local opportunities you will have to do so.

Oh, and when the doors do open, always be ready and never say no. Even if it doesn’t end up going anywhere, sooner or later one will.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog

The RMFW Spotlight is on Pamela Nowak, President

Now that we have so many new members of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Board of Directors, we'll once again be featuring the RMFW Spotlight on the blog. Our goal is to introduce our board members to all our readers and encourage other RMFW members to offer their time and energy to this energetic and growing community of writers.

This month we've put the spotlight on President Pamela Nowak. Read on and see if you learn anything about Pam you didn't already know.

PamNowak1. Pam, tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I currently serve as President. My official role is to conduct board meetings, manage RMFW business as it comes up between meetings and sign any legal documents. What that actually means is I also serve on a variety of sub-committees including conference, contest and most special committees, I monitor all on-line discussion of the board and manage as needed, I answer questions regarding official policies and procedures, and I look out for the good of the entire organization and its members. When voting or directing action, I must look beyond my personal reaction and see the potential impact on all of RMFW. I am a negotiator, a manager, and a behind the scenes busy-body.

As to why I’m involved…pure and simple, because I believe in and owe so much to RMFW. RMFW supported me in my craft development and nurtured me when I needed it. After years of attending critique group and conference, I moved to Denver and someone (Scott Brendel) asked me to take on an active volunteer role. Of course, one thing led to another.

But being involved has enriched me tremendously on so many levels. It has allowed me to put my non-writing skills (thus keeping them active) to use and to give back to RMFW in a very rewarding way. What makes doing this with RMFW uniquely special, is all the other dedicated and talented writers and volunteers. Everyone gets to contribute, no one takes on the load alone, and everyone recognizes what others do. Few organizations have this quality and thus, I can’t see myself not being involved with RMFW.

2015_Nowak_cover2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

My fourth book, Escaping Yesterday, will be released in September. The book is set in 1905 Elitch Gardens and has deeply conflicted characters with a bit of humor, romance, and a great setting tossed in to lighten their journeys as they cope with trust, incest survival, and PTSD. Thus far, I’ve received three major reviews and they are all positive. I hope to have the book in time for conference but also have several signings set for October including an October 9 launch at Tattered Cover Colfax and an October 24 party at BookBar to raise funds for the historic Elitch Theatre. The book will be available at all Tattered Cover locations, Boulder Books, Who Else Books, BookBar, and several smaller stores as well as via Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

My 2013 release, Changes, was a Colorado Book Award recipient and is available at Who Else Books, Tattered Cover, or Barnes and Noble or can be ordered via Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

3. We've all heard of bucket lists -- you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish-- what's one of yours?

Becoming a NYTimes best-seller, of course! More easily reachable items are continued travel and finding joy within each and every day.

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what's yours?

Allowing myself to take on too many volunteer roles (RMFW and others) and devoting my time to them and not to writing. In other words, NOT writing every day.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

Getting feedback from readers. I love hearing that my stories made someone cry or kept them up until 3:00 a.m. or made them late for work.

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

Don’t resist growth. Learn from critique group, even when it’s painful. Stay on task. Practice, practice, practice.

2015_Nowak_office2015_Nowak_workspace 27. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

My desk is an organized mess. I have stacks of things I am working on (on my desk and on the floor) and reference books on the bookshelves. The stacks look like piles of mish-mash but I can tell you what is in each and every one of them and how far down each item is located. I also have a TO DO list and inspiring quotes. Above my desk, a few items to warm me, such as cards and gifts; nearby, where I can see them—my awards. Two special items are my Angel of Knowledge who holds a book with “writings” and “special words” on its pages and my Angel of Change releasing happiness from her hands. And lots of clutter.

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

I am currently reading The Bootlegger’s Daughter by Lauri Robinson and finished Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee a couple days ago. Since I read two to three books a week, I’ll be on to something else soon!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

2015_Nowak_candidPamela Nowak writes award-winning historical romance. She has a B.A. in history and, prior to becoming a full-time author, she taught history to prison inmates, served as project manager for the Fort Yuma National Historic Site and ran a homeless shelter. Her novel, Changes, received the 2014 Colorado Book Award for genre fiction and a HOLT Medallion Finalist Award. Previous honors include the HOLT Medallion and HOLT Medallion Finalist Award, a WILLA Finalist Award, a listing among the "Top Ten Romance Novels of 2008" by Booklist, and being named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2010 Writer of the Year. Please visit her at her website, friend her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter (@ReadPamelaNowak).

Look What’s Coming from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers!

rmfw-logo"Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) is a non-profit, volunteer-run organization dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and educating writers seeking publication in commercial fiction. To that end, the organization strives to:

  • Provide an environment of support and encouragement among members
  • Stimulate interest in and appreciation for the art of writing
  • Act as a dissemination point for information concerning commercial fiction writing
  • Bring together authors, editors, agents, and other related professionals for the mutual benefit of all"

Free programs, a fall conference, and a spring retreat!  Who could ask for anything more?

Western Slope: Montrose Free Program

Great Beginnings presented by Sharon Mignerey

Saturday, August 15, 9:00 AM to Noon
Hampton Inn Montrose
1980 North Townsend
Montrose, CO

Participants at “Great Beginnings” are encouraged to bring the first chapter of a work in progress, as this hands-on class is designed to help writers–new or old hands–sort through conflicting advice about first chapters, and create compelling opening chapters that draw readers into the story.

Writers hear all kinds of conflicting advice such as: you MUST introduce a compelling character in an inciting incident, but someone else says you MUST show that compelling character in his/her ordinary world; the reader MUST care about the character’s previous life but then again, you MUST avoid backstory; world building that anchors characters and reader is vital but, no, you MUST NOT do anything that stops the forward momentum of the story….it’s enough to make a writer’s head explode when all the writer wants to do is tell the story.

This workshop will help writers do that – tell a story – while also identifying the elements needed for their specific story to keep the reader turning the pages. This is a free workshop presented by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Writer of the Year Panel

Tuesday, August 25, 7:00 PM
Tattered Cover Colfax
2526 East Colfax Avenue
Denver, CO 80206

Western Slope: Grand Junction Free Program

Everything You Need to Know About the Next RMFW Anthology presented by Mario Acevedo

Saturday, September 5, 9:00 AM to 12:30ish (Light breakfast at 9:00 AM.)
Grand Junction Business Incubator Center
2591 Legacy Way
Grand Junction, CO

Mario Acevedo, the new Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer anthology editor will present a talk about the anthology, its history, this year’s theme, and why contributing to the anthology will add to an author’s experience as a writer. Mario will discuss the submission and selection process, and the literary expectations of short fiction versus novel-length fiction.

2015 Colorado Gold Conference

Friday, September 11 - Sunday, September 13
The Westin
Westminster, Colorado

2016 RMFW Writers Retreat

March 10-13, 2016
Franciscan Retreat Center
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Registration Opens October 1, 2015

Join RMFW at the official website "Become a Member" page.

ONE OF THESE THINGS JUST DOESN’T BELONG HERE…

My ruminations today are on the delicate balance between presenting our readers with something they want to read vs. challenging them to read something that is uncomfortable and even Clasicsunpleasant but that might stick with them a little longer. It starts with the photo I've included with this post. While browsing blogs and online news articles about books and literature I came across the ad you see at right, and it struck me as blasphemy that Fifty Shades of Grey should be listed among such classics as Catcher in The Rye, of all things. It is outrageous that a book that, by all accounts, is barely more than poorly written Internet porn should find itself on a shelf, albeit an imaginary online shelf, with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now, being an expert on web design and development I know ads such as these are rarely put together by humans any more. These days there are algorithms smart enough to detect the topic of the article or blog being read and assemble ads automatically that are aimed to draw the attention of a reader with similar interests. It is more likely that this ad was put together by what is called an ad-bot (short for advertisement robot) based on the content of the article I was already reading than by a human being. He doesn't know any better, all he knows is the criteria around which his algorithm was written. Which made me wonder what that criteria might be, that would list a universally panned piece of populist tripe amongst such literary gems. Artificial intelligence is still decades away from being able to program value judgments into computers, so it had to be some mathematically quantifiable metrics on which the ad-bot made the choice to include those particular books in this particular ad.

This got me asking what these books had in common. Emotionally I wanted to reject the notion the Shades could have anything in common with the other three. But I looked at them objectively. Since the article I was reading made reference to Atlas Shrugged, it made sense that it was this book which seeded the initial algorithm, which them searched for other books in common with Shrugged. For one thing, all four books are listed on most retail book sites as General Fiction. I would've though Shades would be Romance, but I looked and before Erotica it is listed on most sites as General. Next, each of these books had a profound impact on our culture when released. Again, a bot cannot make a value distinction as to whether that impact was good or bad, only that there was indeed a measurable sea change as a result of the release of each of these novels. For better or worse, each book was destined to go down in history as a classic, if by no other definition than that it impacted society in some significant way.

This got me to thinking about the books I've read that I enjoyed, and those I did not. Oddly enough, I found that there was a much greater number than I wanted to admit that I found uncomfortable or unpleasant to read but that stuck with me, that I could not shake. These were not necessarily badly written books, in fact most were quite well written, but books that forced me to confront things I usually avoid, or made me see things in ways that made me uncomfortable, or even changed my outlook on life against my will. Books like, for example, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, a very dark look at attraction and rejection that includes the most detailed POV description of a suicide I ever read; or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in which a young man's love of Beethoven is stripped away from him as a casualty of an experimental behavioral modification procedure (read torture); or Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs which I'm still not entirely sure I understood but that contained some of the most disturbing images I've ever read.

What surprises me is, arguably, these books that I profess to dislike have impacted my life to a greater degree than any book I read that I liked. I say arguably because there are some neck and neck.

And that brought me to an assessment of my own writing. Even as a small boy I aspired to write books that people don't just enjoy, but that they cherish and want to keep in their libraries to read again and again. I still go back and read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, and Dune. And you can have my original hardcover copies of the Harry Potter series when you pry them from my cold dead fingers!

But I ask myself, is it better, for my own immortality, to have written a series of dearly beloved books, or to have instead left a legacy of disturbing, uncomfortable, haunt-you-in-your-sleep books that nevertheless impact people in a significant and long enduring way? I waffle on this occasionally. I still have no answer, except that in the end I write whatever I write the best way that I know how, leaving it all on the court, so to speak, and let others decide where my legacy falls. If you, dear reader, have an opinion on the matter, I'd love to read it in comments, below.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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TAKING CRITICISM

By Kevin Paul Tracy

Some of the most respected classical writers throughout history did literary criticism as either a sideline or as a career before they sold their own novels. From Edgar Allen Poe to Oscar Wilde, then great writers would often decimate their peers in papers and writing journals, eviscerating them in public treatments. Today, when two or more people get into heated, venom-laden, often imaginative insult wars in emails loops or chat rooms, we refer to it as a "flame war," but this sort of thing is not new to the journalistic world. Often quite famous writers would go back and forth in periodicals, attacking and counter-attacking each other's works in the most colorful and often personal ways. The public loved it, so it sold a lot of papers, so the editors loved it. Back then, there was a certain poetry to the insults exchanged. Poe once wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he "...belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever — the mystics for mysticism’s sake." Because profanity was much more taboo than it is now, writers had to really challenge themselves to come up with original and imaginative ways to dress each other down that would both make their point and entertain the reader at the same time.

One could make a very convincing point about the lack of efficacy of such frontal assaults, popular as they were to the readers. It stands to reason than our best efforts in any endeavor are going to become intimately intertwined with our ego and self-esteem. This is our attempt to accomplish something intended for public consumption. We are expending effort and strain in its creation, and we want to do it correctly and in good form. We want others to not only read, but to enjoy it. No one sets out to fail, not on purpose. The man who does not care about whether others appreciate his attempts to create is a man better off dead - he is not truly contributing anything to the human condition, but stroking his own ego, little more than public masturbation. We are better off without him. Frankly I submit such men do not exist, or if they do, they are too rare to care about. So understandably we are going to feel attacked on a personal level whenever something we have created is attacked, and when that happens, any truth or lessons to learn from the criticism, however deeply buried under hyperbole and colorful language, is bound to be lost on us. We don't learn much from such criticism.

On the other hand, couching criticism in too much pillowy language to soften the blow often risks obscuring the points one wishes to make, or to blunt their importance so much that a very critical point may be ignored as less important. Saying, for example, "I love your writing. Just one small thing, for what it's worth, when you have a one-page character like the patrolman, who is very colorfully written by the way, discover the blood on the baseboard, no offense but you are not utilizing your protagonist, my favortie character in your book, in the most proactive manner," the point is so well couched in diplomatic rhetoric it could be lost. Ego and self-esteem of the writer aside, the best way to make a point is still the most direct, pointed, even blunt way: "You waste an opportunity to show your protagonist's sleuthing genius by having a minor cut-out character find crucial clues instead. And you do it repeatedly through the book." There can be no mistaking the point being made, and also the importance the critic places on that point.

Crying at The ComputerIn receiving a critique, I prefer the blunt approach to being coddled and swaddled and fed treacle. And still, other writers can get their hackles up and throw a glass of wine in your face for saying it.

There are those whose opinion, no matter how qualified, we as individuals do not respect, for whatever reason. I submit that the level of umbrage we take from a criticism increases exponentially in reverse proportion to the amount of respect we bear the critic: the less we esteem his opinion the greater offense we take at it. For this I'm afraid there is no remedy. As writers, we must merely bite the bullet and take it.

I further submit that to engage a critic on any level is folly. It doesn't matter that you can explain away his point, that you have a greater knowledge of writing craft than he, or that you are right and he is wrong. Engaging him can only make you look bad on a multitude of levels. One, you come off as insecure about your own writing. No matter how well reasoned or skillfully worded your retort, any retort at all smacks of defensiveness and lack of confidence, like you feel you have something to defend. Second, you can come off as petty, especially if anything you say can be interpreted as a personal attack on the critic. Reacting to a critique can sound like you are only reacting to the critique, and any personal opinions you express about the critic were only formed as a result of his critique, not based on any other independent knowledge or observation. Thirdly, you can appear quite arrogant in a retort, as if you consider yourself above any criticism at all, and not just this one critic or critique.

A lot of criticism, especially on the Internet, isn't worthy of response. It is in vogue these days on the Internet to launch attacks on someone who has put themselves forth in the public eye if only because it is so easy to do so. Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James recently underwent just such an ordeal, setting aside time to answer questions from fans on Twitter, only to be attacked by a collection of online thugs who found it funnier to lance and humiliate her publicly than to permit any serious dialog about her books. The only way to protect oneself from such a basting is to maintain some control over those permitted to participate - charge a nominal fee or issue invitations to the event without which one cannot participate. At any rate, the kinds of flaming criticisms to which she was submitted has been quite aptly described by many as appalling and uncalled for. These sorts of attacks aren't even worth a response, they are just ignorant and mean-spirited.

The only effective response to criticism is no response at all. Utter and complete radio science. It can be very difficult, but as I've already said, there is no way to indulge in the alternative with any sort of success at all. It is simply professional suicide to try.

There is a mind set to taking criticism gracefully, and while it isn't easily adopted, with practice it can make hearing harsh criticism much less sharp and damaging to our ego. First, always remind yourself that this person, whatever else they may be, is a reader, just like every other reader out there in the world that you wish to reach. In the end, his reaction is the reaction of a reader, which means out of the millions who potentially might read your book (and let's face it, none of us dream of a small audience) there are those out there who will have the same reactions, thoughts, and objections as him/her. You must decide whether you believe that number to be great or small, but in the end you are not going to be there, reading over their shoulders, ready to defend yourself against their reaction to your novel. So to the degree that they are honest, his criticisms are valid, not matter how they are worded, merely due to the fact that he is first and foremost a reader, your audience.

Second, if the critic is a colleague or fellow writer, be grateful that this particular reader, the critic, has himself writing chops, the skills himself to recognize flaws in prose and story craft, and the language to describe it in such a way that makes it very clear to you where you have gone wrong. Thirdly, especially if the criticism is badly worded, or deliberately worded to be insulting or to get a rise out of you, keep in mind that such personal attacks say much more about the person leveling them than they do the person at whom they are leveled. In such a case, leaving such caustic criticism unanswered tends to bring out in even greater relief and clarity the pettiness and arrogance with which the criticism was written/given.

And lastly, always remember that no matter the criticism, in the end you choose to accept it or not. If the project is still in development, you still get to decide whether to take the criticism and make the requisite changes to your work or to ignore it and leave it as it is. If already published, then you are limited as to what you can do anyway, and so it accomplishes nothing to take such things to heart. Even as you take the criticism of those whom you respect and admire, retain your faith in your own talent and skill. In the end it is your project, ultimately your offering to the world, and it must feel right to you, or you are not being true to yourself.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog