Tag Archives: tips

Guest Post by Chris Pitchford: Dream jobs. Sometimes it’s not enough to have just one

By Chris Pitchford

Benny had two of my all-time favorite jobs. He was a writer and he commanded a space station. Actually, he was a character played by Avery Brooks in one of my favorite television shows. In one memorable episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Benny’s original writing was attacked by hostile indifference. The publisher pulped an entire run, destroying the magazine’s complete monthly edition, rather than let a story featuring a prominent person of color see the light of day. Benny’s remaining options were few. When it was suggested that he publish his story himself, he said, “More people would read it if I wrote it in chalk on the sidewalk!”

That idea has stayed with me ever since, and I’ve misquoted it regularly. So why am I self-publishing my new novel, The Agility of Clouds? (“The what of what?” my mother might have said—our memories will surely differ on this account. “Clouds can’t be agile…” She is one of my toughest critics. Naturally, I dedicated the work to her. I suspect this pleases her yet simultaneously drives her nuts). The Agility of Clouds is part Jane Austen, part James Bond; but more than that, it is a story of a woman who questions what it means to be a woman and what it means to be flawed but moral. As I am none of those things, I had plenty of questions to work with.

But when it comes to the question regarding whether to self-publish, the answer is much different today than it was in the nineties when DS9 originally aired. And that decade had more in common with the Golden Age of Science Fiction when the story was set than today. (As a self-published author, I can truthfully attest that more people have read my novel, Sonata: A Fantasy in One Movement, than read what my kids and I wrote on my sidewalk). While the market for short genre fiction is still strong, it’s not nearly the same today as it was seventy years ago. Being published in periodicals was how some of my favorite authors of the last century, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury among others, cut their teeth as professional writers. Unfortunately, being a novelist means that my work isn’t well suited to periodicals. I love reading Analog, Locus, Strange Horizons and others. But the self-contained book is the definitive text for me, so what could I do?

Traditional publishing then and now is going strong. According to John DeNardo (SF Signal) http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/author/john/, over 300 titles are scheduled to be published on genre-related topics in the month of August alone. It is apparently a very crowded field. So crowded, tossing one’s novel over a virtual transom in hopes of it landing upon a suitable editor’s desk is surely the height of fantasy. Also, successfully pitching one’s work to hungry but savvy agents is also a dream come true for only a few. Did I mention how crowded the field is? And the demands of publishing all those titles mean that control passes largely from the creator to the producer. Like Benny, an author can do all that a creative type can but the final say is ultimately in someone else’s hands.

The alternative, being self-published, is almost a misnomer, as many, many people can still be very much involved. Getting early feedback from readers was critical—but also inspiring—for the work on The Agility of Clouds. Littleton Writers and RMFW were almost as tough and as supportive as ‘me own mudder.’ Once the novel was written, getting a real, honest-to-goodness, hard-as-tacks editor was next on the list. And Karen Conlin of grammargeddon.com was just the independent wordsmith with a background in fantasy (having worked at TSR, once the home of Dungeons and Dragons) that this project needed. Also, a brilliant illustrator was one of the early readers who inspired me, and so my main character, Seramis Helleborine, took visual form under the pen of Marjorie Schott, http://www.facebook.com/WaterstriderDesign.

I’m not getting any younger (thankfully, as I never want to see the inside of a Junior High classroom as a detainee ever again), so it turns out to be a good thing that self-publishing is much quicker than traditional publishing. But a publisher can’t rush some things. And a publisher also has to make decisions using vastly different criteria. As a writer, I wanted to see the cover of the book sport a fully realized airship, an eighteenth-century caravel soaring through the skies. But as a publisher, I looked at what covers of books that sold looked like and saw that main characters were featured more often than the gee-whiz cool things. Gone are the days of the DAW edition of The Gods of Mars by ERB featuring two almost indistinct warriors battling upon a flying ship on the cover. Fortunately, working with an illustrator and a cover artist meant that I could do both. The cover presentation would be designed to sell books (and somehow be legible at postage-stamp sizes on Amazon), and the content would cater to the dreams and hopes I’ve had since I was a child for action/fantasy with a strong female lead character.

Speaking of Amazon (and selling books in the same sentence—coincidence? I think not), their options for self-publishing allow for a great deal of freedom and control. From CreateSpace to Kindle Direct Publishing, the publishing options start at free so the price is right for someone just starting out. Benny would have rather enjoyed the empowerment, I think. Of course, while it remains doubtful that I will have the opportunity to share with Benny the two dream jobs of writer and space station commander, at least one of those jobs is possible with the addition of adding one more to my curriculum vitae: that of self-publisher.

http://chrispitchford.com

After the Critique: Sorting the Good Advice from the Bad

by Lori DeBoer

You’ve done the drafts and decided to test the publishing waters by sharing your writing with your inner circle.  Or maybe you’ve signed up for a slot with a local or online critique group.  While your manuscript is out and you are waiting for feedback, it’s a good time to calm your Beta reader jitters by developing an action plan.

To wit: How are you going sift through all that feedback?

A plan will help you keep your post-critique bearings. You want to emerge with a good dose of confidence and clarity about how you’ll tackle your revisions.

Here are some strategies for sorting the good advice from the bad:

Consider the Source
This advice comes straight from my mom, who doled it out when I took an unkind comment to heart from folks I shouldn’t have been listening to, anyway. Granted, her advice didn’t make much sense when I was a kid, but I’ve grown to appreciate her message.  So, does your oldest arch rival find your most recent short story “trite”?  Does your mom think your memoir shouldn’t go on and on about Great Aunt Vivian? Does your boyfriend cringe at the sex scenes in your romance novel? Does your boss’s nephew who recently graduated from college really know if zombie novels are passé?  Consider the source.  Bonus tip:  Don’t give your memoir-in-progress to anybody in your family, or even tell them you are writing about the family. . . for at least a year. Trust me on this.

Be Realistic
If you are a total beginner, it’s likely you have a lot to learn. Even seasoned professionals work hard at their craft. Nobody expects to play a professional sport or become a professional musician or actor without years of study, practice and paying those proverbial dues.  If you have just started out and are getting consistent suggestions that you might want to dump your prologue or that your characters are flat, you might want to entertain that feedback.  Remember to say “thank you.”

Set Some Benchmarks
Writers who are successful read like writers. That is, first they read in their genre for pleasure. That out of the way, they reread their favorite and least favorite books in said genre with a (metaphorical) scalpel. They break those books down into what works and what doesn’t and dissect their disparate parts until they can put them back together. Once you do that, you can figure out who critiques your stuff with an insider’s knowledge, who recognizes what you are trying to do and can help you get there.

Avoid Extremes
Did the comments you received make you feel like you were walking on sunshine, on top of the world or in seventh heaven? Or did the comments make you feel like crawling into a hole, under the covers or back into the hell that you were spawned from?  Either extreme should give you a tip-off that this is not the critique partner/group/forum for you.  Even if the folks giving you comments are wildly published, you should find the nearest exit and run.

Get a Second Opinion (Or More)
When I was pregnant with my son, I was diagnosed with a fatal disease and thought I would die in childbirth. Turns out I should have gotten a second opinion.  I was tired and didn’t, but that’s another story.  Unless you are in the throes of a high-risk writing pregnancy or some other sort of extreme author illness, buck up and get a second or third opinion. And while you are at it, check that person’s credentials. Some opinions are more informed than others.

Ask for Specifics
If a reader claims that your writing sucks, is insipid, flat, filled with cliches or, God forbid, “sentimental,” ask for specific examples.  Ask politely. Even if the critique is spot on, it’s difficult to get a feel for what’s not working in a piece when you are handed vague and pointless remarks like “it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Likewise, if a reader professes to “love” a piece, resist the urge to leave it at that. Ask him or her to point out moments or passages in your writing that evoke these feelings of “love.” The most recent research on motivation shows that we learn more from specific feedback about what’s working more than barbed remarks about what we are doing wrong. That said, gratuitous praise helps no one.  In fact, no one really believes overinflated, vague praise. Not even kindergartners.

Challenge Your Resistance
If some feedback or suggestions really makes you angry or upset, you may want to take a look at why you threw a tizzy fit in response, even if you threw it quietly. The feedback could be truly terrible. Or it could be that the advice you received is spot on and you subconsciously (or consciously) just don’t want to deal with the ramifications  Because revising is a lot of hard work, like hauling rock, only with your bare-naked brain instead of your bloody hands, and who wants to do that?  So, feel like pushing back?  Try pushing on in your revisions.

Know Thyself
What are the secret, dark and dishonorable impulses that might be motivating you to write? Is your memoir a thinly veiled attempt to tell the world about how your mom/father/ex/teacher/fill-in-the-blank treated you? Are you seeking revenge for all your past hurts in the form of a novel about time-traveling werewolves? Are you writing schlock because it seems like easy money and you have allowed yourself to become a bitter person? Do you dream of instant author popularity at your 20th class reunion?  If any of this resonates with you, it could be that your personal baggage is getting in the way of you reaching your personal writing best. Figure out a better way to schlep that stuff around, or dump some if it altogether, and chances are your writing issues will also resolve.

Be Willing to Experiment
Not sure what to do with a piece of advice?  Try it out! At the advice of others, I’ve overcome my tendency toward being stubborn (I am the youngest child) and overhauled my stories. In one case, I changed the age of a character, in another, I changed the setting and point in time, in a few other stories, I’ve changed the point of view.  Sure, these revisions have taken time and I’ve groused about them, but I’ve always learned something from these experiments. If you feel petulant about undertaking revisions, remember that you aren’t working on a typewriter for Pete’s sake, so no hardships there, and this is what writers do. So just get it over with and see what cool scenes you come up with.

Let it Simmer
Take enough notes so that the feedback you receive makes sense, and then stick that writing in a drawer and let it simmer for a couple of weeks. After you are no longer in the thick of producing that story, you’ll be able to look at your work and the advice you received with a more impartial eye.

Ultimately, what you do with the feedback you receive on your writing is up to you. At some point, you’ll find a reader or two who really understand what you are trying to do with your work and can help you bring it to a level that will earn you legions of fans. My advice?  Those kinds of readers are keepers. Feed them chocolate and and gratitude.

When it comes to revising your writing, how do you sort out good advice from bad?  Please weigh in!

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.