Friday, September 30, 2011

Inspirational Words from Ira Glass

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. For example, you want to make TV because you love TV. There is stuff that you just love.

So you have really good taste. But you get into this thing where there is this gap. For the first couple years you are making stuff… but what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is a disappointment to you. It’s still sorta crappy.

A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. But the thing I would say to you with all my heart: most everyone I know who does interesting, creative work, went through years of this. We knew our work didn’t have this special thing that we wanted it to have. Everybody goes through this.

If you are just starting this phase, still in this phase, getting out of this phase, you gotta know it’s totally normal and the most important, possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you will finish one story. You create the deadline. It’s best if you have someone waiting for the work, even if it’s somebody that doesn’t pay you. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

In my case, I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that.

Ira Glass is host and producer of This American Life.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Content vs. Craft: The Dumbing Down of the Literary World

"The years passed, mankind became stupider at a frightening rate." (Narrator from Idiocracy)
What's a guy of average
intelligence to do
in the dumbed down future?
I have something that has been bugging me lately. I've often wondered if perhaps it's just me, but I don't think so. With many things I read, and most often times conversations in which I happen to get involved, there is a remarkable lack of attention paid to grammar. Now, I know as an English-speaker in the United States that we tend to have a certain pride when it comes to our overall English language. But that's pretty much where our pride stops. Having studied a second language for much of my college career, it didn't take me long to realize that when it comes to grammar, American English speakers, for the most part, couldn't care less. This lack of attention and enthusiasm is reflected in the way literature is being written today. Don't believe me? Well, let's take a look at some recent activity going on in the publishing world.

Let me preface this article by first saying I have nothing against the wonderful industry of e-publishing. I believe the ever-increasing popularity of publishing books in this format is due, largely in part, to the fact that it makes novels more available and easy to access on just about any mobile platform. (Hey, I have a Kindle and I enjoy it!) However, I do take offense with some authors who believe just about anything is publishable and, yeah, anyone should be happy with it and not rip it apart. Those who believe this way, believe the content (i.e. their story, the creative idea behind his/her work, the saturated genre) is fine the way it is, and that the craft (i.e. the wordcraft, the language, the actual plot, the beauty in which one creates the story, the actual prose) isn't all that important. In other words, if the story is dumbed down for the reader, who cares? I care, and so should any serious writer/reader out there.

Why have my hackles been raised? For two reasons:  firstly, celebrity (or celebutante) authors, and secondly, a recent article pertaining to a poorly written e-book series getting snatched up for traditional publication.

The Truth About

by Nicole Richie
Although there are a few who can pull it off (and I'm not talking about autobiographies, I'm talking fiction), for the most part, celebrity authors just don't have what it takes. Ones who make me cringe are those such as Lauren Conrad (according to Lisa Schwarzbaum of -- "Is there anything LC can't do? Well, uh, yes. Write a 'novel.'"), Pamela Anderson (according to, "Pamela Anderson's recent tome is unlikely to toll any bells in the halls of academia,") and Nicole Richie with her "reality fiction" (one commenter at said, "How this was published when real authors are struggling just to get their work read is amazing."). These "authors" lace their plots and storytelling with glitzy, superficial worlds that don't really speak to most readers. These "creations" are mostly "reality fiction," meaning the novel has become a vehicle they use in order to spill the beans about their own lives. These works are wolves in sheep's clothing and rarely do they carry any depth when it comes to crafting a great novel. And rarely do they last more than a few months on book shelves. For some reason, because someone like Snooki has an MTV audience, therefore she must make a great writer (here's an article about her novel A Shore Thing. Classy.). Hmm.

by Amanda Hocking
I think the final straw that broke this camel's back is an article I read in *Entertainment Weekly. Two authors, Minnesota native Amanda Hocking and former insurance salesman John Locke, have been making waves in the self-publishing world. Hocking, who writes supernatural romance, recently signed a $2 million deal with St. Martin's Press, and Locke has moved more than a million downloads with his detective crime series. The quality of the writing is what really hit a nerve. Article writer, Rob Brunner, has this to say about Hocking's writing:
❝Hocking, it's safe to say, is not a stylist. Her work reads like a high school creative-writing assignment, full of typos and misused words and lifeless language. But while wordcraft may not be her thing, Hocking definitely does have something. Despite its faults, the trilogy zips along pleasantly enough, and although the books aren't remotely in the same league as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, they do poke at the same pleasure centers.❞
And as to Locke? This is what Brunner has to say:
❝The latest, Vegas Moon, features characters with forced-funny names like Dr. Phyllis Willis and Fast Eddie Pickles, and a flimsy plot about a lethal computer chip implanted in Creed's brain gets padded out with a weirdly detailed pasta recipe and an impassioned defense of airport baggage handlers.❞
When, as readers, as purchasers of novels, did we start asking for dreck like this to be a proper representation of skill in an industry where almost anything goes nowadays? (After all, Hocking and Locke are at the top of the unrepresented self-published game.) When did we become complacent about shelling out those $3 or less for these e-books? We have a voice, and those of us who enjoy quality literature should use our voices by not throwing away our dollars on junk, because that's about all that some of this "literature" is -- junk. I don't know about you, but I'd rather keep visiting the local library where all my choices are free and I can usually see what I'm getting into.

In the case of Amanda Hocking, as a writer, I would have been excited to hear how oftentimes belittled self-publishing landed her a fantastic deal with St. Martin's (because I truly believe there are some great self-published works out there), but when I continued reading the article I felt disgust more than anything else. I often hear people say, "Why, I should write a book. I'd make soooo much money." I just shake my head. But then a story like this crops up and I think, "Yeah, you should write that book, Mr. I-have-no-idea-how-to-even-do-it. How much worse could your writing possibly be?" After all, if Hocking and Snooki can pull it off, then anybody can pull it off. Right?

In my opinion, anyone who wants to self-publish needs to do the same amount of legwork that one would do if he/she was going the traditional route. Have a critique group and beta readers, know your genre, get all the feedback that's necessary in order to have a finely crafted creation. If you want to be taken seriously, then treat your writing seriously. Then, it would be worth the few extra bucks people would be willing to pay to read something memorable.

What about for you? Are you wasting your dollars on a high caloric diet of literary junk? Do you feel there is an influx of badly crafted work hitting the self-publishing world? Should there be a better way of regulating it now that the so-called gatekeepers (agents) of the industry no longer work as filters? Feel free to point out any grammatical errors in this article!

* The article, "The Hottest Self-Published Books," can be found in the July 29, 2011 issue, #1165.

✿ Also, for an upcoming article I'm looking for anyone who has done work as a ghostwriter. Feel free to e-mail me at!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Congratulations Sister Lorena!

The Sisterhood is happy to announce, and congratulate, our Sister Lorena Hughes for being one of the winners at the recent Annual SouthWest Writers Writing Contest.
Sister Lorena’s novel “The Black Letter “ was awarded First Place in the Historical Novel Category.

May this be the first of many awards!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How To Handle Negative Criticism

Let’s face it. Criticism sucks. None of us want to hear a long list of things we did wrong (especially with something as personal as writing). We don’t always admit it, but what we’re really hoping for when we submit our beloved babies for evaluation is a pat on the back and something along the lines of: “This is a masterpiece like no other. Go ahead and open a bank account for all the profits this book will generate.”

Unfortunately, this never happens. And if it does, the comment probably came from a family member or close friend (aka: people who love you and think you’re awesome, which you probably are, but that is irrelevant here.) More often than not, our “objective” critiquers—colleagues, teachers, agents or editors—will come back to us with a list of grievances the size of Russia. The effects can be devastating. They can range anywhere from shame, frustration, anger, sadness, self-doubt, self-deception, or all of the above. You may also experience a sort of indifference or numbness (if you’ve been exposed to this kind of criticism too many times—in the form of rejection letters, for example—but in my experience, this is a rare occurrence.) The most common emotions after a negative critique are pretty intense. After all, your life-long dreams are being crushed in a matter of minutes. These emotions are normal and I believe happen to all writers at some point in their careers. Some survive this bitter episode, but others may question their writing abilities and give up altogether.

Don’t let this happen to you! Here are some of the techniques that have helped me make the best out of a negative critique.

1. Don’t get defensive

In my own experience with critiquers, defending my work didn’t lead anywhere. The initial impression the writing caused cannot be changed. Even if you change the reader's mind later with an explanation, you cannot change what they thought while they were reading. Knowing what this initial impression was can help you determine if you're coming across how you intend to.

When you get defensive, you're in a position where you're not really listening to suggestions. You're just thinking of how the other person is wrong and you're right. A back and forth between writer and critiquer is not productive for either one. The end results are not the best: either you lose your beta reader or they stop being honest with you to avoid the drama.

2. Give it time

Your first reaction when you get a critique (be it written or verbal) will probably be surprise (after all, if you thought you’d made a mistake, you wouldn’t have done it, right?) The second may be one of the following: frustration (“such-and-such doesn’t get my work”), shame (“how could I have made such a stupid mistake? Must defend my work immediately so critiquer doesn’t think I’m an idiot/bad writer”) or anger (“how dare evil-critiquer judge my work so harshly when he a, b and c in his novel!”)

My advice is to detach yourself as much as humanly possible (for the moment) from your novel/critique and just listen/read the notes without responding (unless you plan to be gracious when you open your mouth/type back.) Thank your critiquer, grab your manuscript and leave the premises immediately before your ego responds prior to having a chance to process the unpleasant information. The longer you take before reacting to your critique (be it by making the suggested changes, ripping your manuscript to pieces or insulting those who dared criticized your protagonist) will make your decision more objective. The time you should wait really depends on the person. It has taken anywhere from days, to weeks, to even months before I could really grasp the criticism without emotion.

3. Go back to your notes

After you’ve cooled down, it’s time to go back to your critiquers’ comments. Reread everything they’ve told you. You will realize this time that either your critiquers were way off with their comments, or they were actually right and their suggestions will make your work stronger. Either way, you will see that whatever they told you wasn’t as inflammatory as you originally thought.

4. Evaluate suggestions and value of critique

Now that you’re back to your charming and reasonable self again, you’re in a position to evaluate whether or not the solution(s) your critiquers offered will make your manuscript better. Make the easy changes first (those suggestions you had no problem with). If you’re not ready to make a big change, DON’T do it. Give it more time, but keep it in the back of your mind.

If you’re comfortable with your critiquer and know this disagreement was temporary, then continue working together, but if the experience left a bitter taste in your mouth, you must evaluate if this person’s style will work for you. (More on this later.)

5. Take more time off and reread work

Now that you’ve implemented the suggestions you agreed with, give your mind a rest for a few days (the longer, the better, especially if the change was a big one.) Work on other projects or other portions of the novel. What you want to achieve with this break is to become as objective as you can be in this subjective endeavor.

Once you’ve created enough distance, read your entire manuscript so you get an overall sense of your story’s progression, and see if the applied changes flow well with the rest of the novel. This is the true test of whether the criticism you received was on target or not.

Final thoughts

At some point in our relationships with critiquers, there needs to be an objective evaluation of whether they’re a positive or a negative influence on our writing (this doesn't mean that a critiquer who always likes your work is necessarily a positive influence, or one that is always pointing out your mistakes is always negative.) What, IMO, determines a good relationship is whether or not after a constructive critique (which, as earlier established, you may not be ready to accept/understand/open your mind to right away) you are still encouraged/enthusiastic about your writing and after implementing the changes your work becomes stronger. (As opposed to having the feeling after every meeting that you're not good and you might as well give up.)

What are your feelings on critiques? Do you think you should only point out the positive about a writer’s work (in order to encourage them to continue writing)? Or do you believe that honesty (as brutal as it may be) will be more helpful to the writer in the long run? Should friends/family members be beta readers? Are peers or industry professionals too harsh/uptight in their critiques?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Love with the Past: The Challenges of Historical Fiction

Judging by the list of Emmy nominations, Americans appear to be in love with the past. 2011   has been a ripe season for popular shows exuding nostalgia for the not-so-perfect Twentieth Century. The recent past is also the favorite setting of present bestselling historical fiction. Why is historical fiction  (and drama) still alive and well when is much more difficult to read  and to create than other genres?

Historical fiction is an umbrella term that shelters several subgenres such as historical mysteries, historical romances (what in my day were known as bodice-rippers), inspirational period pieces, and nostalgia yarns. It even encompasses the fantastic, whether it´s alternative history, historical fantasy, steampunk, time travel stories a la Outlander or paranormal romances. The genre’s possibilities are eternal.

True historical fiction applies to novels dealing with actual historical facts and real people as dramatic personae. Examples of historical fiction are Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, Robert Graves’ I Claudius, and, in terms of current television shows, Emmy winning nominee Boardwalk Empire that deals with a historical person, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his part in the politics and rise of organized crime in Atlantic City.

Then there are those novels set in specific epochs, but telling the adventures of fictional characters such as the New York Times Bestsellers Rules of Civility and Sarah Gruen´s Water for Elephants both set in the Depression Era. Another series in the Emmy list is Downton Abbey, which takes place in the years preceding World War I, and it could be described as a period piece, or as it is known in film’s lingo, a “customer.”

Finally there is nostalgia or vintage, evocations of a recent past, one that is familiar to the reader or to his parents’ generation. The Fifties, Sixties and Seventies are the fashionable vintage area to explore, attested by the success of series like Mad Men and novels like Kathryn Socket´s The Help that takes place in the South, at the onset of The Civil Rights Movement.

Since the past is a rich field for harvesting fiction, it surprised me that thrillers and fantasy have eclipsed historical novels at the New York Time Bestsellers lists.  Taking into consideration that such lists are poor barometers to measure the genre´s popularity, I preferred to check Amazon and Barnes & Nobles’ category lists. 

Going over the top twentieth most popular items in historical fiction, I expected to find historical romance galore and plenty of medieval sagas a la Ken Follet. Surprisingly, the only material of that sort was precisely Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, which still enjoys an enviable enduring popularity.

The Middle-Ages might not be the favorite time period for contemporary novelists, but Twentieth Century is. More than half of those top sellers took place in a recent past and some dealt with the Second World War. About six years, ago when I began my first novel, I was strongly advised not to tackle that era. Expert  voices at sites dispensing advice to novice writers told me that writing about 30’s, 40’s, and particularly about the global conflict that took place in those days, was ill-advised and “unfashionable.”

Now, the three titles within the New York Times List are set in those despised decades. There is The Paris Wife (Paris in the 20’s), Civility Rules (1938 New York), and War and Honor which is an actual World War II novel. Other war novels doing well in category lists are Tatiana de Rosay’s Holocaust fable Sarah’s Key and Amazon Bestseller War Brides. I wonder what changed. Why is it trendy now to write about the first half of the Twentieth Century? Why is recent history much more fascinating than ancient eras? 

As a history buff I would like to see more historical fiction in display, but I can understand why not many would care to tackle the genre. Writing historical fiction demands careful but time-consuming research. Not only do authors have to learn dates, statistics, and proper names, they also have to delve with the daily life their character might experience. What they ate? What did they wear? Most novelists in the field become amateur social historians, and so do their readers. One of the critiques befalling historical novels is that they end up being “disguised textbooks.”

Often, I meet people who shun period pieces with excuses such as “I know so little about that period, I can’t follow the plot” or “I get confused with all the historical details.” Others, like yours truly, thrive in learning historical facts through an entertainment medium. In fact, one of the few reasons why I would throw away a book might be its historical inaccuracy.

Much more difficult that the research process is trying to create characters living in a time alien to us. How did they think? What moved them? What were their values and concerns? And that is where historical fiction and drama tend to fail. Most serious historical fiction authors will run into two ominous characters: Mr. Political Correctness and Madame Modern Sensibility. On encountering them, the author is forced to make a choice on how to portray the past and its inhabitants.

There are three unofficial schools that guide the historical fiction novelist in this quandary. One advises to depict yesteryear as much worse than today, an emphasis on our ancestors’ barbaric ways and primitive mentalities as if to make the reader think he is fortunate to lie in such progressive times like the third Millennium. Then there is nostalgic fondness: to describe days gone by as in Don Quixote’s Golden Age monologue, a lost magical world when everything was better and nicer than today. Finally, is the easiest and most common approach: show the past as a mirror of the present. People have always thought and acted as we do, they just dressed differently and were much more backwards (technologically speaking) than us.

As only a witness could testify of how a historical period really was, all three approaches are legitimate. That doesn’t stop us purists from clenching our teeth when reading hidden current agendas behind a harmless historical tale or glancing through stories that are so anachronistic in language and mentality that characters appear to be attending a costume party.

I have to say that I love research and find tremendous pleasure in reconstructing lost worlds, but is that reason enough to write a historical novel? So I ask those who dare to evoke the past in writing. Why do you do it? What made you select a particular period for your tale’s setting? What is the biggest challenge in writing historical fiction?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

We have received the Liebster Award!

I am honored to be the recipient of the Liebster  Award, but I feel I should share it with my Sisters since this is a  "choral" blog. composed by four musketeers.

I am very grateful to Elizabeth Anne Mitchell for selecting me and for having such a magical blog that I encourage everyone to visit.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Woes of Word Counts

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
  ~William Strunk, Jr.

The dreaded red pen
Being concise is difficult; so difficult many writers won’t do it unless forced. Most of us regard the red pen with fear and loathing. We don’t want to edit, we don’t want to cut. So why do we have to? We love words. Why can’t we write as many of them as we want?

The simplest reason is that the publishing industry clearly demands it. The magic number is 100,000. You can’t go over that word count for a novel without severely hampering your chances of getting published. (In some genres, it’s even less.) To be honest, I don’t really understand why this is. Maybe one of our readers in the publishing industry can explain it. In a recent informal, completely nonscientific survey, the majority of my friends said they prefer long books: the longer, the better. They like getting lost in another world. We can all think of a dozen bestselling exceptions to the 100,000 rule: War & Peace. Pillars of the Earth. Gone with the Wind. Harry Potter. According to this guy, all modern books (all!) are too long. So we may be forgiven for feeling sniffy when agents tell us to keep our submissions short.

Doubles as a doorstop
One thing to keep in mind is that the demand for succinctness seems to apply primarily to unpublished writers. The Deathly Hallows is 759 pages, but The Sorcerer’s Stone is only 309. Rowling was probably forced to be more terse than she wanted with that first novel: once she established herself as a bestselling author, she was allowed to indulge. It is also true that some debut novels are massive: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl’s first novel, is 514 pages long — which translates to about 200,000 words. We look at her, cross our envious arms over our chests, and think, well if she can do it …

But the most salient truth here is this: many literary agents really do reject on word-count alone, and it’s never a good idea for a novice to assume she’s the next Marisha Pessl. Getting published is hard enough. To ignore the word-count guideline is to run a marathon with one leg hobbled.
Not an ideal way to enter a marathon
Another reason to write shorter is that it will force you to write better. “The only art is to omit,” said Robert Louis Stevenson. “If there is anywhere a thing said in two sentences that could have been as clearly and engagingly said in one, then it’s amateur work.” When I write freelance articles, I’m usually required to write no more than 800 words. My notes and interview transcripts run thousands of words, and it all seems important.

This is going to hurt
But I have to be economical: if I don’t slice those words, my editor will, and I’d rather be the one holding the scalpel. This forced concision means I have to think hard about word choice. Not only word by word, but paragraph by paragraph. Some passages, especially descriptive ones, add nothing substantive. They’re decorative, and when you’re on a word budget, decoration is the first thing to go.

Not everyone, of course, is inclined to write long. Last summer I took a writing class with a woman struggling to complete a middle-grade book. She’d been told she needed to add about 2,000 words to get it to the “right” word count for that genre, and she was devastated. “I don’t know if I can do that,” she said, mournfully regarding the pages in her hands. I was puzzled: for one thing, 2,000 words doesn’t seem like that much. For another thing: think of the chances she had to develop character! To wax eloquent with a scene description! To throw in some snappy dialogue! But for some writers, reaching the word-count minimum is the trick. (That magic number, if you’re wondering, is 50K for mainstream adult fiction; 30K for middle-grade.)

What about you? Do you feel hampered by industry’s word-count limits, or do you find the guidelines helpful? Do you wonder, especially with the growing popularity of e-readers, if this limitation is becoming irrelevant? Have you been told by an agent or editor you need to cut — and if so, how did it affect your story?
 Too many notes, Herr Mozart