Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Rowling, Pseudonyms, and Writing in Multiple Genres

The recent buzz in the literary world is all about a detective novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling and its author, Robert Galbraith-- or, as has recently been revealed, J. K. Rowling. The novel was apparently well-received critically before anyone knew that the beloved Harry Potter author was behind it, and now that she has come clean, the book is flying off the shelves. For more on the story, check out this article or this review.

Pseudonyms are nothing new, of course. But what makes an author choose to use one? In Rowling’s case, it seems to have been a desire for reviews and reactions that were not constantly comparing her new work to the Harry Potter series. I can understand wishing to avoid that pressure. Other authors use pseudonyms in order to protect their own or their family’s privacy, to avoid connections to other famed authors (like Joe Hill, son of Stephen King), or just because they don’t feel that their own name is appropriate or interesting.

Personally, I sort of fall into that last category. When I submit work or do anything else in my "professional writer" capacity, I always use “K. J.” Neal instead of Kiley Neal. It’s not because I’m seeking anonymity or because I’m trying to mask my gender (which I always fear I’ll be accused of), but because I think “Kiley” sounds like a little girl’s name. Is that just me? Maybe. But ever since I decided to be a writer around age 15 or 16, I’ve always intended to be published under K. J.

I’ve been following the conversations about Rowling/Galbraith on Twitter, and someone mentioned that it was no big deal: Popular authors use pseudonyms all the time when they want to write in a different genre. They do this because people expect a certain type of writing from them, and are likely to be overly critical when they go a new direction. (I think we saw this with Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which is probably why Galbraith was born.) This got me thinking about myself and my own work. I’m currently editing a light sci-fi manuscript, but my heart-- and virtually ALL the other writing I’ve ever done-- lies in the fantasy genre. Does that mean I should use two names if I’m ever published in both genres? I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but it’s interesting to think about. 

What about you? Do you/would you use a pseudonym or abbreviated version of your name? Do you write in multiple genres? And while you’re at it, do you think Kiley sounds like a little girl, too?

Comment below!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Not All Heroines Are Katniss Clones

It has come to my attention that I was very, very lucky growing up. In my middle school library-- a place I escaped to often in those years-- there was no shortage of heroine-centric fantasy novels. It was there that I was introduced to Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, who are my idols and favorite authors to this day, as well as writers in various genres who were not afraid to make strong women and girls their protagonists. It was not until later-- much later-- that I found out strong female characters (SFCs) are not the norm, so much later that I had already written several manuscript drafts about them. 

I just found this sweet old-school copy of The Woman
Who Rides Like a Man
 by Tamora Pierce at a used bookstore. Alanna
is DEFINITELY a strong heroine! 

Lately, we’ve seen a surge of interest in kickass girls, in large part because of the popularity of The Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen. And, no doubt about it, Katniss does kick ass, and she’s an interesting, flawed character. But I think it’s important for us all to remember that our SFCs don’t have to hit quite Katniss’s level of badassery (although it’s always cool if they do). Strong Girl shouldn't be some type of cookie-cutter designation: being “strong” doesn’t automatically equal physical toughness, aggressive/abrasive personality, and skill with deadly weapons. Smart girls are strong (Hermione!). Hardworking girls are strong. Opinionated girls are strong. Independent girls are strong. Determined girls are strong. There should be no absolute dichotomy between the Katniss Everdeens (or Xenas or Lara Crofts) and the empty-headed, helpless, sexualized princess-- instead, there are shades of gray in between, and there are countless ways to fall on the Katniss end of the spectrum.

Although this is good too.
So before you strap a sword onto your heroine’s hip, think about her as a character and about the story you’re trying to tell, and make sure you’re not doing it just to make her seem strong. FYI-- it’s not about the sword, or the bow, or the boxing gloves, or whatever. It’s about who she is as a person: her convictions, her attitudes, her experiences, her choices. If she’s a sword-swinger, fine, but if not, don’t despair. Every woman has different strengths and weaknesses, and every character should, too!

How do you create SFCs, then? Making sure they are three-dimensional, interesting, and realistic is a good start. The Bechdel test is also helpful. Read this cool Kate Beaton comic lampooning some common attempts at SFCs. And share your own tips and thoughts below!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Novel Ideas: When Should You Start?

Today I’m going to do something a little different: Instead of talking at you, I’m going to humbly ask for your advice, anecdotes, and similar worries. Here’s the thing. One aspect of being a writer that I have never had trouble with is making up fun and interesting ideas for novels. I always have several rattling around in my brain at any one time. Right now, despite the fact that I’m working on two novels already, I have three others planned for the future, not to mention the sequels to the draft I just finished and the one I’m 25,000 words into right now. That’s a lot of mind-clutter.

I never bite off more than I can chew. Two works-in-progress is enough (if not more than enough) to keep me occupied. But I do think about the other ideas. I can't help it. I imagine scenes, fashion dialogue, lay out plot points, etc., and I write these things down and save them until I finish my current project. As a result, by the time I begin working on a novel, I’ve usually already been mulling it over for several years.

My question is this: Is that a bad thing? Would it be better for the work if I just sat down and started writing the moment the lightbulb appeared over my head? Sometimes I become bored with whatever I’m working on, and I worry that this is because I’ve already spent so long with those characters and that story. Then again, I firmly believe in the value of long-term plot planning and getting under your characters’ skins before you do much writing about them. 

Are you a plotter (someone who plans things out, like me) or a pantser (someone who just goes with the flow)? Check out this post about it if you’re not sure. More importantly, to me at least, how long do you let an idea simmer before you tackle it? Is it better to jump right in while the idea is fresh and shiny, or to break it in a little, like a new pair of shoes? Maybe it's one of those things that varies from writer to writer, but still, I'd really appreciate your thoughts!

Friday, June 14, 2013

What Makes Your Work Unique?

Standing out in the slush pile is easier said than done. What makes your work fresh and one-of-a-kind? If you’re searching for a way to spice up your writing, I’ve found it’s helpful to think about what makes you unique. Are you an ambulance driver? Do you have a huge family? Have you battled a rare disease? Are you left-handed? Whether it’s big or little, anything that makes you extraordinary can hook your reader, because it provides a window into an unfamiliar world. A trait or experience that seems insignificant to you could be intriguing to someone else (consider reality shows, if you don't believe me). This may sound like more of a nonfiction trick, but oftentimes, our fictional characters carry little pieces of ourselves as well. Here are some basic categories to get you thinking:

Personal Experiences
Write down all the jobs you’ve had or the places you’ve visited or the things you’ve crossed off your bucket list. There’s probably something that other people would like to hear about! Your memories are a cornucopia of great material. For example, when I was 18, I was a passenger in a car accident. The Neon we were in flipped 3-4 times-- very scary! But now I feel as though I can write about the fear and chaos and physical effects of an accident authentically, and I had a fun time including one in my most recent manuscript. Even something as commonplace as a car wreck can really add depth to your work when you are writing from personal experience.

H.C.'s good old Carnegie library, a place where I
spent much of my youth.
Think about your family, your hometown, your childhood friends, or the places you frequented, like a church or school or restaurant. What makes your history different from someone else's? Is there anything about your growing-up years that was particularly significant or uncommon? I can dig around here quite a bit. I grew up poor in the country outside a small midwestern town, an only child, bookish and nerdy in a family that was anything but, and those are just the “big picture” facts. No one has a story like yours-- don’t be afraid to tell it!

Physical Characteristics
This might seem like a strange one, but the way we look and the condition of our bodies has a definite effect on how we live our lives and how we are treated by those around us. What do people notice when they first meet you? What makes you stand out? It can be something obvious or not-so-obvious. Me, I think I’m pretty average-looking in every way except one: I’m a 6’ tall woman. My height has affected everything from who I choose to date to what clothes I’m able to wear. If you give your character an unusual trait like that, making note of how it colors their experiences will add a layer of believability to your work.

Personality Traits
How do you act? What’s your Myers-Briggs type? (ISTJ FTW!) What do people say they like or dislike about you? Inject your vices and virtues into characters. Whether you’re hot-tempered or softhearted or a party animal, adding those traits to characters in your work helps round them out. And since you already know all about it, it’s not even hard! As for me, I have a tendency to write quiet/shy protagonists, because that’s how I am. On the other hand, one of my earliest characters was a girl who was exceedingly outgoing and charming, which was a great exercise as well!

Have you used your personal experiences and attributes in your writing? What makes you (and your work) unique? 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Attack of the Vlog!

Am I the only one who thinks "vlog" sounds like either a B-movie monster (“Beware the wrath of Vlog!”) or something socially unacceptable (“Oh my God, who vlogged?!”)? Anyway, here’s my first clumsy-but-fun attempt at a vlog, in which I talk about my internship at the Midwest Writers Workshop and the agent I'll be assisting, Brooks Sherman of FinePrint Literary. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Evolving as a Writer

No question about it: Young adult fantasy fiction made me a writer. It drew me in, kept me hooked, and provided a much-needed escape from the angsty woes of middle and high school. Adding my voice to that particular genre seemed like the natural next step, and for about the last eight years, I assumed that I would be a YA writer forever. 

And then I grew up.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t or won’t write YA or that I have stopped reading it. That’s definitely not the case. But lately I find myself wandering this strange borderland in my writing, wherein I want to use YA style choices and young characters, but I also want to talk about complex issues, adult situations, sex and sexuality, etc., and I want adults to read it, too. I’m certainly not underestimating teens’ ability to deal with that kind of subject matter, but when does a novel cross the line from being for teens to being for adults? That line seems blurry at best, and I’m constantly flirting with it.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the emerging “New Adult” genre, and since no one seems completely sure what that is, maybe that’s where I am. However, much of the work dubbed NA seems to focus largely on college party culture and sexy times (with covers resembling Harlequin romances), which isn’t really what I’m trying to do. This conundrum is starting to worry me because I’m approaching the end of my current project’s first draft and have begun to wonder how I’ll label it when I query agents. 

“This light sci-fi novel is targeted toward-- um-- people, I guess.”

And all the agents go...

I’m coming to terms with the fact that my writing is constantly evolving and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life. We all have to be open to whatever new creative ideas pop into our heads, even if they mark a departure from what we’ve produced in the past. All I know for certain is that I’m an SFF writer, and I doubt that will ever change-- but then again, who knows?

Has your writing evolved and changed over the years?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Stand Up to Live

What do you love, aside from writing? What else are you passionate about? What makes you geek out? For me, there are several things-- as I may have mentioned before, I have so many interests that I just about drive myself crazy keeping up with them all. But numero dos on my list is definitely fitness. 

One of these things is not like the other.

“Wait, wait, wait,” you’re saying. “I thought you were a nerd! Nerds don’t eat right or go to the gym! They snarf Doritos and Mountain Dew and sit in front of the computer for hours on end!”

Well, some nerds do, and that’s cool. I used to be one of those. But I decided that if I’m going to stay on this earth being awesome for as long as possible, I’ll need a healthy vehicle for my genius *wink*. The more active I became, the more I grew to love it, and the more I wished I had been fit all my life instead of just the past few years. I could talk about working out and eating clean for a REALLY long time, but that’s not what you came for.

My writing will always, always, always come first. If I’ve planned a workout and I happen to find myself in that burning, blissful, I-must-get-these-words-out-of-my-head mood, then the workout gets postponed. That said, I think it’s important for all of us to have other things going on in our lives. Walk away from the keyboard once in awhile and do something else you love. Plant some flowers. Play catch with your kid. Ride a horse. Go see a movie. Paint. Dance. Knit. Run. Call your mom.

As Thoreau said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” Our experiences out in the world add color, depth, and wisdom to our work. While dedication is crucial for a writer, that doesn’t mean we should spend every waking moment typing furiously or feel guilty for spending a night out with friends. If you love making papier-mâché kittens, do it, then watch it inevitably wind itself back into your writing. All the things that fitness has inspired in me-- willpower, determination, confidence, pride, courage, inner and outer strength, and yes, joy-- make me a better writer in one way or another. Plus, we all know that walking away from a piece and coming back with fresh eyes and a rejuvenated mind is always a great idea.

What do you do when you’re not wordsmithing? How has it affected you as a writer?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Graduating is Cool, I Guess

See my magna cum laude medal? It's shiny.
I like shiny.
So, I graduated from Ball State on Saturday. Whoa, right? Go me! I was a first-generation college student and I made it out in four years with a 3.86 GPA. I should be proud. I am proud. My mom is prouder.

But the day before I graduated, my manager at work took me aside to warn me that corporate had decided to cap all part-timers’ hours at 28. She knew I had planned to work as close to full time as they would let me after graduation, and she didn’t want me to count on that happening. I nodded, said “Ok, thanks for telling me,” then locked myself in the back room and bawled. When I got off work, I went straight to bed and bawled some more.

I love my job. LOVE it. I was looking forward to living off of it while I continued to write, at least for awhile. Thanks to the 21st Century Scholars program, I’m one of those rare college grads entering the world debt-free-- and because I came from a low-income household, I know what it’s like to be crushed under your bills. That’s a thing I’m terrified of, and a thing I swore would never happen to me.

So here I am, with an English degree and a part-time job in Muncie, Indiana, and I’m scared. I took a huge risk when I chose to get an education in Creative Writing; I know that. But life has always sort of worked itself out for me and I assumed that my luck would continue. Now I don’t know what’s ahead. Will I have to leave to find a decent job? Do I even want to stay? What will I have to give up in order to support myself? Where will I be in five years? Ten? Will I still be happy?

Today I bumped into one of my old teachers, who still tells the story of how I corrected her spelling of Lamborghini in first grade. She’s one of dozens, if not hundreds, of people in my life who always assumed that I would go far. Until now, it never occurred to me that I might let them down.

Okay, pity party over! I try to remind myself that I’m a lot better off than many people my age, but I think I’m still allowed a little worry now and then. Seriously though, is adulthood the scariest thing ever or what? 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

I picked up Ash for several reasons: I hadn’t read a good YA fantasy in a while, I hadn’t read anything with a lesbian/gay main character in a LONG while (like, Tamora Pierce’s Daja, I think), the Amazon page promised strong female characters, and it’s a retelling of Cinderella, and I’m a sucker for new spins on old tales. This was my first experience with author Malinda Lo, but I can guarantee it won’t be my last.

Ash by Malinda Lo
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers,
It sounds like a familiar story: Aisling, nicknamed Ash, loses first her mother, then her father, and is forced to live as a servant in the home of her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. There’s a fairy, a prince, a ball, a midnight flight. 

Fortunately, there’s also a Huntress, Kaisa, who befriends Ash and reminds her what it is like to be cared for after so many years of abuse. The fairy is a man-- a scary, alluring, mysterious man who grants Ash’s wishes but demands a price in return. The prince is a distant background figure, an object of desire for Ash’s stepsisters, but of no interest to her. And the stepmother-- well, yes, she’s as wicked as it gets. In the end, Ash learns the meaning of true love and the sacrifices it so often requires.

One of the most beautiful things about this book is Ash’s development from a frightened girl who dreams of being whisked away by fairies to a young woman with the confidence to love and be loved. It’s very gradual, very delicate. Ash learns, in part because of Kaisa, to deal with the circumstances of her life and take chances in order to improve them. (My only gripe is that neither she nor Kaisa ever punched the stepmother’s lights out. Granted, it would have been out of character for them, but someone needed to!)

I also loved the vivid and realistic personalities of the other characters, particularly the dark magnetism of the fairy Sidhean and the gentle, open sweetness of Kaisa. When asked why she is spending time with Ash, a mere servant, Kaisa answers: “I suppose it seemed as though you were being placed in my path time and time again. I wanted to find out why.“ All the characters were carefully crafted, flawed but sympathetic, and interesting to read about. The stepmother was pretty unrelentingly evil, but she’s still the kind of person I try to feel sorry for in real life: someone whose cruelty is so absolute that it must come from a place of misery.

I don’t want to spoil the romance by saying too much, but it was of the type which had me wanting to scream, “KISS ALREADY!”; i.e., I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ll just share this quote, which is one of the more accurate and lovely descriptions of falling in love I’ve heard: “...Ash felt a surge of happiness within herself, as if she were unwrapping an unexpected gift, and the realization of it sent a blush of pink across her cheeks.”

If you like YA, fantasy, fairytales, romance, or (like me) any combination thereof, pick up Ash. As a reader, you’ll be in good hands with Lo, who never lets the tale spin out of control. I highly recommend Ash, and when I read more of Lo’s books, I’ll be sure to tell you about them as well!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Friends in the (Writing) Biz

A few posts ago, I talked about all the awesome stuff I learned at Ball State’s In Print Festival of First Books. What I didn’t talk about was my role in the event: I served on a team of literary citizens whose job was to publicize the festival, and in particular, try to shepherd in people from the Muncie, IN community who weren’t students or staff at BSU. This was an interesting challenge for us. Who in Muncie would be interested in this type of event? Where and how could we reach them? 

We met a few times and tossed around lots of ideas. The In Print Festival is primarily of interest to writers, but also to readers who might enjoy meeting and listening to new authors. And where do the cool people (i.e., readers and writers, of course) of Muncie hang out and do their shopping? Downtown! We decided to hang the official posters up all over the downtown area in the hopes of reaching non-college-affiliated eyes.

A few of us battled Indiana’s notorious winter weather and made one scouting trip before actually setting out with the posters. The various small and not-so-small business owners were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about not only helping our group but forging a new connection between the campus and the rest of town. We were able to hang posters everywhere from tattoo parlors and bars to craft stores and organic groceries. We made sure that Muncie’s eyes would be on those posters. 

In order to further promote the event and also give anyone interested in the posters a place to find more information online, one of our team members wrote a piece for the Muncie Voice, an online newspaper, describing the schedule and the authors who would participate.

Those are the nuts and bolts of what we did. It’s hard to say how successful we were in pulling in the Muncie community, but either way, the In Print crowd was sizable. For me, the actual tasks and results were not the most important thing. While I did learn something about being a literary citizen by helping to promote other writers, what really came home to me was how important it is to spend time in the company of writers, especially those who are at the same level as you and understand both the struggles and the joys. This is something I wish I had realized a long time ago instead of my senior year in college. If you’re in college or have some other special access to fellow writers, don’t waste it! Not only are they great for talking shop, they’re also, in my experience, some of the coolest (read: most nerdtastic) people in the world. Even though writing itself is a solitary activity, you’re going to need to crawl out of whatever dark space you’re holed up in every once in awhile and talk to real, live people. Writers will get you in a way that others don’t. 

I had a great time getting to know my team members and I look forward to following their success as writers. My advice: if you have the chance, get involved in the organization of a literary event! It’s a great way to meet people who love books as much as you do. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fake Your Way Through Writer's Block

Real talk: I like to pretend I don’t get writer’s block. I do this by staring at the screen for a few minutes, maybe typing a line or two, then going off and doing something “important” and complaining about how I have no time to write.

I’ve heard all the tips and tricks for overcoming writer’s block. I’ve heard people claim that writer’s block is not a real thing, it’s just laziness or fear or an excuse. Personally, I don’t think there’s any magical wall built up in my brain that just prevents me from writing every now and then, or some goblin that comes and steals all my ideas in the night. I think it’s a mood, like any other. You’re either in the mood to write or not. And, like any mood, you can pretend you don’t have it.

You know how when you see that one person that you don’t really like but have to get along with because you see them every day, so you smile and go, “How are you?” and all that? Or when you’re feeling really down but you show up at a party and act like everything is hunky-dory? It’s all about misleading others into believing that you’re feeling a certain way when you’re not. If you’re good, you can even fool yourself.

If Severus Snape can fake being evil for years, you can
fake your way through a few pages.

That’s usually unhealthy. But I think that in the case of writers, we sometimes have to fool ourselves if we want to get anything done. If you’re having one of those stare-blankly-at-the-page days, don’t say, “Damn that writer’s block” and turn on the tube. Write through it. Do what I did to get this blog started and type nonsense until an idea hits. Pretend you’re writing and that you’re excited about it. Fool your brain. Or at least make it so annoyed with you that it agrees to cooperate. It’s effective. You may not crank out your best work ever, but crappy pages are better than no pages. 

This method may not work for everyone, but it works for me. Do you believe in writer’s block? How do you deal with off days?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Role of Music in the Writing Process

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, I’ll fill you in: Fall Out Boy is back with the intention of saving rock and roll. I have my opinions on this album (“The Phoenix” is probably my favorite track, Patrick Stump’s voice is still what all my golden dreams are made of, BUT this is my least favorite of all the FOB albums), but in general, I’m really glad they’re back. I don’t think most of us really believed that “on hiatus” business, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see one of the bands I grew up with making music again. 

I have another reason to celebrate the return of Fall Out Boy: one of the major characters in my current novel project is obsessed with them. He quotes them, wears their t-shirts, covers his walls in posters of them. He takes their music very seriously and is offended when others don’t. It’s funny. It was funnier when they were out of the picture and being slowly forgotten by the industry, but now it’s interesting, and I don’t yet know what to do with their sudden reappearance.

Even though they're not one of my top favorite bands, I’ve listened to hours upon hours of Fall Out Boy in the past 7 months or so. Because their music is so intimately connected with the work (and because I’m so familiar with the songs at this point), I’ve found I can listen to them while I’m writing, even though I usually can’t listen to anything with words because it distracts and confuses me. I mostly listen to Infinity on High, but the rest too. I also listen to them while walking to class, in the car, at the gym, wherever I can, and it never fails to get me in the writing mood.

Oddly enough, many of the characters in this WIP were inspired by a different band altogether-- My Chemical Romance and their latest concept album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. (I won’t talk about the end of MCR. Suffice it to say I haven’t been able to listen to them since because I hate crying. In the meantime, here’s a great post on the topic by fellow literary citizen Sarah Hollowell). The Killjoy characters and the associated music videos fascinated me, and they had a light but definite impact on my work.

Music is art and writing is art, so it shouldn’t surprise us when they end up woven together. Personally, I embrace music as fuel for my writing. It inspires me, it opens up new avenues for exploring characters, and it keeps me focused even when I’m away from the keyboard. 

I have this fun little habit that I think is actually helpful to the writing process: character theme songs. Do any of you do this? I often assign my major characters a theme song. Sometimes it takes me awhile to find the right one, but when I do, it usually helps me understand the character even more deeply. At minimum, hearing the song will get me pumped to write! 

There's a screenshot of my writing playlist below. It has mostly character theme songs from my two WIPs, but also just some that are generally inspiring. Got a writing playlist of your own? Do you assign your characters theme songs or speculate on their music tastes?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Literary vs. Genre, or Why I Find This Distinction Problematic

Hermann Hesse, you classy mofo you.

As a teenager, I began to think that reading thick, dusty books by dead white guys (and a few dead white women) was how one became Literary. I struggled valiantly through them. These were dark times. That’s not to say that I found nothing I liked-- I adore Hermann Hesse, Jude the Obscure is one of my favorite books, I cite Jane Austen among my influences as a writer-- but much of it felt like homework. I interspersed these with what I called “fun” books (fantasy, horror, sci-fi) just to give myself a break, never realizing that I was looking at the whole situation the wrong way.

Here’s what I mean. I’m not a literary writer in the accepted sense, and only occasionally a literary reader. There is no set definition for literary, of course (and it’s certainly not my teenage definition), though many have tried to tackle the differences between literary and commercial or genre fiction. More and more are admitting that the boundaries have become blurred, which is good. Read Julianna Baggott’s Pure and Fuse, if you need proof. Or King’s Hearts in Atlantis. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. Virtually anything by Ursula K. LeGuin

In general, I prefer not to read or write traditional literary fiction. As a Creative Writing major, I have had this preference repeatedly trod on. No professor says you can’t write YA fantasy. A few even encourage students to write whatever they want. But when the examples given of great writing that we should emulate are 95% high-minded literary fiction, what message are we supposed to get? There are, of course, exceptions-- I was introduced to Baggott’s Pure in a fiction class, and fell in love with the original Frankenstein in a lit course. But on the whole, work that is presented to students as what they should strive to emulate is usually unequivocally on the literary end of the spectrum. And to make matters worse, while there is a small but passionate group of spec-fic aficionados in probably every CW program, one cannot help but look to the indie-lit hipsters and feel that one is doing something wrong or inferior. And, of course, there’s the added challenge of trying to find outlets for our work. Literary magazines are just that: literary.

A small section of my bookshelf, with representatives of much that
I love: Doyle, Gaiman, Hardy, Hesse, Hiaasen, Hill, King...

I’m not trying to throw a pity party here. Speculative fiction is thriving right now, and genre in general will likely never die (also, if you think "literary" is not a genre itself, albeit a wide one, I think you're bananas). And I want to stress that I think it’s important to learn from the literary giants. If not for my writing classes, I might never have had the chance to be dazzled by David Foster Wallace or Sherman Alexie, and might never have realized that "literary” doesn’t necessarily mean dead, white, male, and famous. But I also think that we need to abandon the prevailing notion that commercial or genre fiction lacks depth and is more about explosions and aliens and dragons than character development and the exploration of big issues like morality and human nature. Truth is, these boundaries are not necessary, and many writers and readers are purposely seeking to circumvent them. Genre readers are demanding more complexity, while literary readers are becoming more open to genre elements. As Michael Kardos illustrates, it’s not a dichotomy, it’s a continuum.

Do you think professors should be more open to teaching genre fiction? Have more examples of books that blur the lines? Share!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dispelling the Glamour of Publishing

glam·our \ˈgla-mər\
1 : a magic spell
2 : an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness

The thought of being published is one that sends many budding writers into glassy-eyed euphoria. It seems like the ultimate goal, the pinnacle, the achievement that finally makes us “real” authors. The publishing dream holds us in thrall until finally, ecstatically, it happens-- and then the glamour often evaporates, leaving authors confused, bitter, and less confident than they were before. 

It’s crucial that, as writers, we take a careful, realistic look at the publishing world and adjust our expectations to fit. This week I read a lot about publishing, and even though I’ve been a writer for quite some time, I’ve never given much thought to the other side. I almost prefer not to know how editors and agents do their work. I just want to send my work off into the ether, where some disembodied hands will accept it in silence and I can go on about my life not thinking about the real people in NYC or wherever who are reading my novel and judging it with their shrewd, cool, jaded eyes. Yet it’s important to understand the publishing process from the moment the manuscript leaves you to the day it appears on a bookstore shelf. Below are some of the more interesting things I learned.

“Four months after your book is published, it’s dead.” -Carolyn See. No, seriously. The bookstore will take down unsold copies of your book and ship them back. This blew my mind. You have to do everything in your power before and during those four months to make sure that people get it while it’s hot.

Editors are nearly as angsty as writers. In Betsy Lerner’s piece “What Editors Want,” she gives a revealing account of what it’s actually like for editors on the other side of what I always imagine are big, imposing, mahogany desks. They become hopeless when the good submissions dry up, they get totally jazzed about projects only to be shot down in meetings, they get criticized for the bad novels they edit but get no praise for the good ones, and they have to deal with authors at their worst: “needy..., egomaniacal, delusional, paranoid, insecure, and arrogant.” This makes me want to be kind to any future editors of mine and maybe bake them some cookies.

Self-publishing is... complicated. I have no desire to self-pub, despite the urgings of (not-so-literary) friends and family. I also have no desire to read self-pubbed work. To me-- and this is probably unfair-- it screams, “I am too impatient, too arrogant, or just too crappy of a writer to do it the hard way.” There are, of course, great self-pubbing authors and there have been numerous success stories, like this one. But for every Cinderella, there seem to be hundreds of ugly stepsisters. Further, as Jackie Mitchard notes, self-publishing usually robs you of feedback from editors and agents who could make the difference between your work being a dud or a bestseller. In Jane Friedman’s blog post on how to get published, she uses the phrase “meaningfully published,” which to me sums up the difference between self-pubbing and traditional publishing.

So what do editors want? In Editors on Editing, Gerald Gross gives his standard reply when someone asks him this question: “Something I haven’t seen before.” Originality goes a long way in getting the attention of agents and editors. Good writing and professionalism are key, of course, but pitching a surprising and intriguing idea can be the best way to get your foot in the door.

The Jehovah’s Witness approach. Should you pack up and go visit editors in NYC with a new pair of heels on and a list of ideas in your hand? Carolyn See says yes-- in fact, she devotes a chapter to how you should go about it in Making a Literary Life. She thinks you should let them know you’re coming and preferably have already sent them some nice notes about their work over the years, but you should definitely go. Jane Friedman dismisses the idea immediately, suggesting that aspiring authors seeking connections go to a writer’s conference instead. Who’s right? I hope Friedman is. The idea of showing up on an editor’s doorstep like a sweeper salesman is horrifying to me (though the whole trip to NYC thing sounds all right...). I feel like I would be falling all over myself with nerves in that situation. Agents and editors at conferences are often there for new clients, so it doesn’t seem like such an imposition, but it also limits the number of professionals you have access to. Still not sure about this one.

It’s not likely your first attempt will get published. It will likely be your second, third, or fourth attempt.” -Jane Friedman. Okay, I already knew this. I mean, I’m living it. But it’s still nice to hear that I’m normal.

Your book is your baby. You think you can just pop out a baby and hand it to someone else and say, “Here, make this kid a star,” outside of some silly novel (which yours had better not be)? - Carolyn See (in, you know, more professional phrasing). I’ll end with another thought from See. After your book is sold, you don’t get to rest on your laurels-- you don’t even have any laurels yet, really. Your job isn’t over. As the author, you should be proactive about marketing your book. The publisher will only do so much, especially if yours isn’t one of the handful of new releases they have decided to really push that season. Make contacts whenever you can, and when your book is about to come out, flip through the Rolodex and use whatever means are at your disposal to get people interested. It may not be glamorous, but you’ll probably never get to the truly glamorous parts if you don’t put in extra effort from the beginning.

Have any tips on publishing? Any thoughts on self-pubbing, the role of editors, or that contentious NYC trip? Share below!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Lessons from First Book Authors and Grad School Survivors

Every year for the past eight, Ball State's English Department has held the “In Print Festival of First Books,” a two-day event in which authors who have recently published their first book come to read, speak, and answer questions. This week I went to my first In Print Festival. This is a shameful confession for me, because I’ve been at BSU for three years and I’ve never taken advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to meet and learn from talented, published writers. Honestly, I’d heard of it before, but never realized what a fun and enlightening experience it could be.

This year’s writers were Elena Passarello (author of the nonfiction essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat), Eugene Cross (author of story collection Fires of Our Choosing), Marcus Wicker (author of poetry collection Maybe the Saddest Thing), and Sarah Wells (managing editor for River Teeth and Ashland Poetry Press, as well as a poet and nonfiction writer). Each of them brought unique and helpful advice to the table.

Another recent event at BSU was the Graduate School for Creative Writers Panel featuring professors who had MFAs or doctorates in Creative Writing. I’ll be honest, I mostly went because it was required for my class-- I have almost zero interest in grad school. I don’t want to teach and I don’t need deadlines to keep me writing, so the only benefit would be the possibility of learning more about the craft. While that’s nothing to set aside lightly, I’m content with my B.A., at least for now. Still, I learned a lot about grad school that I didn’t know before.

Here are a few of this week’s lessons that were most valuable to me:

1. Bust out the red pen. Elena, Marcus, and Eugene all agreed that their finished pieces barely even resemble their first drafts. Marcus Wicker said that revision is all about time, distance, and being ruthless with your work. I feel like revision is the broken hammer in my writing toolbox, so I soak up any tips on it like a sponge.

2. Hit the books. Elena Passarello spoke of the months of research that went into each of her pop-culture laden essays. This was encouraging to me because I’ve always envied non-fiction authors who (I thought) were able to just spout off about celebrities and movies and songs and famous events. Now I know that, at least for some, this knowledge isn’t just lying around in their brains, it’s the result of hard work and digging. I can do that!

3. Make time for your writing. Even these four published authors face the distractions that plague me (and probably you): TV, the internet, family and friends. But they approach writing like a job, a responsibility, which I like. If you’re approaching it like a hobby, it will end up taking second place to a lot of other things in your life. Sarah Wells, who is married with two kids and has an ungodly demanding job, still finds time to be productive-- so can I.

4. Never give up. Eugene Cross shared how he was rejected time and again, felt uncertain and inadequate, and even moved back home to live with his mother. Of course, his story has a happy ending (or rather, a happy new beginning). The reason he’s now a published author? Perseverance, of course: not just submitting over and over, but continuing to polish his old work and create more.

5. Only fools rush in. If you are considering grad school, be aware of your reasons and be certain they make sense. Don’t go because not being in school scares you or because you don’t know what to do next. Don’t go because you need someone looking over your shoulder in order to stay on track-- do you really think you’ll be any different with an MFA under your belt? It’s often better to take a few years off and figure yourself out than to leap directly into grad school after college.

6. Find writers you trust. Marcus talked a lot about sending his poems to writer friends for feedback or calling one of them up when he’s in a rut in order to get some fresh inspiration. Having a circle of writers who will be honest and encouraging is essential. Sarah mentioned a more experienced writer who took her under his wing. Mentors are also extremely important-- harder to find and keep, but worth the effort.

7. Don't hold back. Eugene, whose stories are often very sad, fielded a question about how dark he was willing to go. He stressed that the most important thing is to be true to the characters and the work, no matter how you think other people will react to it. I like this because my short stories almost always have someone dying or in crisis. As Janet Burroway says, “Only trouble is interesting.”

8. Challenge yourself. Experiment. Marcus is currently working on a set of sonnets, a big change from his more freeform work in Maybe the Saddest Thing. Elena is departing from the theme of her first collection, the human voice, and writing essays about those who can’t speak: animals. Both feel that they are growing as writers because of the new parameters they have set for themselves. Don’t be a one-trick pony.

9. Read using Eugene’s “spiderweb” method: Find a book (or essay/poem/story, whatever) that you love, and look at who the author thanks, the name of the publisher, etc. Seek out the other authors related to that book, read their work, and find related writers, ad infinitum. 

10. It’s not easy for anyone. We all have dreams and goals for ourselves as writers, but we have to be flexible with the timeframe and not despair when we fail. Being willing to accept where you are in your career and use the time and tools at your disposal is key to getting ahead.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Talismans, Amulets, and Other Enchanted Things

I have a very nerdy confession to make: I own a necklace of the sword Tetsusaiga from the manga/anime series InuYasha. And I wear it (usually under my shirt, so as not to freak people out-- I’m not ashamed of the nerdy aspect, but when people see a 2-inch sword hanging from your neck, they tend to get the wrong idea). It’s not exactly in line with my usual style, but it does something for me that most of my other jewelry doesn’t by reminding me of the series and its strong, brave characters-- which makes me feel brave as well. I often wear the Tetsusaiga when I have a class presentation, an important meeting, a tough workout, or a dentist appointment. Not exactly challenges that would make InuYasha and Kagome break a sweat, but we can’t all be heroes!

I think of the Tetsusaiga as my talisman. Even though I know it’s not magic, it has an effect on my mood that is undeniable. In fantasy, there are countless examples of necklaces, charms, rings, crowns, books, stones, statuettes, staffs, weapons, and other inanimate objects that are imbued with magic, designed to protect and empower or curse and destroy. Often, the magic of these objects is less effective than the character’s belief in and relationship to them. Think of the sword of Godric Gryffindor, which can appear to any true Gryffindor: it doesn’t create courage out of nothing, it lends strength to courage that is already there. Or, to return to InuYasha, consider Tenseiga, the sword of InuYasha’s bloodthirsty half-brother, Sesshomaru. It brings back the recently dead, a quality that over time helps Sesshomaru reveal his more sympathetic side. 

These objects serve many purposes for authors. They can be used to represent a character’s struggle, to exemplify a flaw or virtue, or to inspire a character who might otherwise chicken out. The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy-- arguably the greatest work of fantasy in existence-- is centered around the One Ring and its dark influence. It tempts Galadriel, it twists Boromir’s mind, it turned Gollum into a nightmarish creature, and it nearly destroys Frodo. It breeds treachery, envy, hatred, and madness, but it often does so by bringing forth the deep secrets and vices in a person’s heart. 

There are a thousand others to be named: Horcruxes, the light of Eärendil, the Hero’s Crown, the various Zanpakutō, the sköldpadda, the Abhorsen’s bells, the Holy Grail-- and all of them serve to develop character in some way. Enchanted objects are very useful for fantasy writers as long as we don’t lose sight of their purpose. They’re unimportant in and of themselves. It’s how our characters relate to, use, and are changed by them that matters.
Got a favorite enchanted object? See another use for them in writing? Share your thoughts!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

For the Love of Books: Why You Should Write Reviews

As I sat down to research and write this blog about book reviewing, I caught myself thinking, “Ugh, I don’t really care about this.” I haven’t written a book review since middle school (Shade’s Children by Garth Nix, for the library bulletin board). I dived in anyway, read 20-odd articles on the subject, and got told 20-odd times why I-- and you-- need to care.  

Reviewing books is about entering into a conversation, about contributing to the literary world. By giving a book 5 stars and writing a paragraph or two in praise of its strong points on Amazon, you are informing readers with similar tastes that this book is worth their time and money, as well as helping to support authors. Positive reviews are literally a win-win-win. More lengthy reviews, posted on blogs or printed in newspapers and magazines, are even better.

Negative reviews are a little trickier. I’m blessed with the capability to enjoy almost anything I pick up to read, so I don’t have to worry about this so much. But on the rare occasion when I don’t like something, or for those who are a little pickier, should negative reviews be put out into the world? It’s hard for writers when we consider that the author, his/her agent, or others involved might actually be people we know or could meet. It’s also a little scary when you hear horror stories like this one, in which an author decided to sic her Facebook fans on reviewers who wrote negatively about her book. Negative reviews are always going to be a little contentious, and I won’t pretend that I like the idea of writing one or that I could even see myself doing so. But I do think that they serve a purpose, especially if they are thoughtful and charitable. 

I hope that all avid readers will write reviews. Even if you’re not a writer, you’re a part of this community. Here are a few tips gleaned from the articles I read and my own experience:

1. Include some plot summary in your review. Your audience should get a clear sense of the book (not just plot and characters, but tone). In this way, your review becomes interactive: the reader can evaluate this summary and see if it sounds better to him or her than maybe it does to you. If so, great! Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean someone else won’t, and vice versa. 

2. “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” -- John Updike (for more of his rules for reviewing, read this). The funniest examples of this can be found on A funny site in general, they catalog the worst reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and the like. Once you read reviews in which people are disappointed because Dracula is nothing like Twilight, you will either want to write your own semi-intelligent reviews or just curl up and die. 

3. Avoid owl criticism. This is Charles Baxter’s way of saying, similar to Updike, that you need to take books as they are, not blame them for what they aren’t. For example, if you read a book about owls and don’t like it because you think owls are stupid, that is not a good reason to give it one star and say it sucks. (Now, if the book is called “The Wonderful World of Cats” and you just LOVE kitties and you buy the book, open it up, and the first page says, “Just kidding! Owls!”, THEN you’re entitled to hate it for that reason). 

Don't like owls? Then why did you pick up a book with a big owl on the cover?

4. Just give your review some substance, for crying out loud. I don’t know how many Amazon reviews I scroll past and ignore because they’re one line long. In order to be fair to the book, the author, and your audience, you need to provide not just an opinion, but reasons for that opinion (preferably with concrete examples from the text itself). 

Review books because you love books. Sure, you’re not going to love them all, and it’s up to you to decide which to review. But reviewing books is an art in itself, one that should not be taken lightly, especially by people who are dedicated to reading and writing. This is our community, and if we don’t take care of it, who will?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day Special: Get in the Mood... To Write

It’s that time again. Whether you embrace the most romantic day of the year with open arms or rant about the stupidity of it on Facebook, there’s no denying that Valentine’s Day is important to a lot of people: Americans spend millions on dinners, gifts, cards, and flowers every year. The media is busy giving us all tips on how to pull off the perfect V-Day for our significant other, so I thought I would jump into the fray. For those of us who are practically married to our work, here are some tips for setting the mood in order to get the most out of writing time on Valentine’s Day and every day.

Go Out. Do you have a specific place where you go to write every day? Leave it. There’s nothing like breaking out of your normal routine to inspire fresh ideas and adventurous new techniques. Try the local park, the library, a cafe, or even your own back porch.

Use Your Imagination. Sure, you can’t be writing all the time. That would burn you out! But when you’re standing in line at the bank or struggling through a boring day at work, think about your characters. Follow various alternate storylines to see how they would pan out. Begin planning the scene you’ll write when you get home. Keeping your mind busy will help build anticipation for the moment when you actually sit down to write.

Pamper Yourself. There are days when I roll out of bed, head straight for my laptop, and go at it. I can never stay there for very long before I start to feel gross, and I have to break my rhythm to go and take a shower. Instead of bumming around, treat yourself to a long bath (with bubbles if you’re feeling particularly indulgent), a manicure, a new ‘do, an expensive bottle of cologne/perfume, anything that makes you feel sexy. If your body is happy, your brain will be, too.

Get Away. In the world of social media and cell phones, distractions abound. Disconnect. Set your phone to silent and put it aside. If you can’t be on your computer without compulsively checking Facebook and Twitter, shut it down and grab a notebook. Remove yourself from anything that causes your mind to wander and give your writing your full attention-- it’ll thank you for it.

Music. I’ve only recently gained the ability to listen to music that has words while writing, but it has to be related to the work somehow or the lyrics get in the way. Music, used wisely, can really set the mood for the piece you’re working on. Choose carefully, though: Thrash metal might cause your love scene to turn out a little weird.

Scents and Lighting. Never underestimate the value of a room full of scented candles. Atmosphere has an incredible influence on mood, from the color of the walls to the aroma in the air. Create a special place for writing that makes you feel comfortable, relaxed, and ready for anything.

Self-Confidence. It all boils down to this: You must love yourself before you can love anyone or anything else-- including your work-- properly. You can’t bring your A-game if you’re feeling inadequate. Your confidence will show in the bold choices, the energy, and the originality your writing bursts with. Knock ’em dead.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How to Hook Your Reader on the First Page, Part II

This is part II of my last blog post, so if you’re just tuning in, go back and read it first! To review, we all know that the first pages of your novel are the most important when it comes to landing an agent. Often, their decision about whether to read the rest of the manuscript is made by the first page. So I decided to examine the first pages of some of my favorite novels and figure out how they grab my attention and hold it. No better way to learn than from the experts!

7. Sabriel by Garth Nix
First line: “It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough.”
This curious line gives us a glimpse of the world which we are about to be immersed in. The rest of the first paragraph informs us that on one side of the Wall in Ancelstierre (not-England) it is noon and the sun is shining, but on the other side in the Old Kingdom, it is sunset and rain is falling. This unfamiliar fantasy world is being built even within the first line.
The above line belongs to the prologue of Sabriel. Prologues are tricky things. This one tells us the strange circumstances of Sabriel’s birth and introduces both her father, the Abhorsen (giving us the meaning of the title she will later take on), and an antagonist, Kerrigor. “Is this prologue necessary?” is a question we all must ask ourselves, and in this case, I think it does a good job of building suspense and holding attention while providing important background information.

8. Watership Down by Richard Adams
First line: “The primroses were over.”
Has there every been a more beautiful or subtle way to say “Something’s going down, guys”?
The genius of that first line is that it serves as a launching point for a description of the setting-- the rabbits’ original warren-- which is, naturally, full of plants and flowers and a brook and whatnot. In all the scenery, we forget that pretty-but-ominous first line for awhile, allowing ourselves to be lulled into the same peaceful complacency as the rabbits. The other great thing about that line is that it helps the novel come full circle, as the last line speaks of the primroses beginning to bloom.

9. Abarat by Clive Barker
First line: “The storm came up out of the southwest like a fiend, stalking its prey on legs of lightning.”
Barker’s command of language and imagery is one of the many things that keeps me coming back to his books. He has an imagination like no other and the ability to share what is in his mind in such a way that readers see it just as vividly. Can’t you already see the dark clouds roiling toward the characters?
The first page introduces us to three women in a boat, who suspect that the storm threatening them is unnatural and who have some “precious cargo.” Already, we have hints that something serious and probably magical is happening. There is palpable tension in the boat, both among the three women and between them and some unknown antagonist. This sense of foreboding draws the reader in.
10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
First line: “Shadow had done three years in prison.”
I remember reading this for the first time and thinking, “Shadow? Really? Like the dog from Homeward Bound?” So, even though I love Gaiman, the name made me a little nervous. But I stopped being bothered by the name very quickly when I got sucked into the story.
The first page talks about Shadow’s thoughts and experiences in prison, which are very interesting and give us a sense of Shadow’s character. For instance, he had this feeling of relief when he was incarcerated because it meant he had hit bottom and could go no lower. There’s an honesty to it that has you rooting for the character almost immediately-- which seems like a big leap from the first line. The key here is the voice: it’s unique, relatable, and intriguing.

11. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
First line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
A what? In a hole? I’m sure the original readers of this precursor to the LOTR trilogy were baffled by the opening line of Tolkien’s novel, but it certainly sparks curiosity.
The rest of the page goes on to describe Bilbo’s residence: It’s not just a hole in the ground but is actually a very comfortable, well-furnished home under a hill. From the word “hobbit” we suspect that we are not in the real world as we know it, and the description of this home in a hole draws out that feeling of not-quite-rightness. The first few pages are taken up with exposition and hints of future adventure, which is just Tolkien’s style. Tough out the long passages of description/exposition and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most epic fantasy scenes ever penned.

12. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
First line: “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”
Noticing a trend yet? This is yet another line that begins with world-building. Instantly, we are told rather conversationally that this is not a place we know. The magic-steeped land of Ingary is presented to us as well as the curiosity-piquing statement concerning birth order and luck.
The protagonist, Sophie Hatter-- that unfortunate eldest daughter-- is introduced, and within the first page, the story flies in the face of conventional fantasy tropes, even going so far as to poke fun at them. Diana Wynne Jones’s storytelling voice is unique and engaging, differentiating her work from other YA fantasy. 


So, to recap, here are the main ideas I’ve gleaned from reading these first lines & pages (as well as many more that never made it into the blog). 

1. Craft purposeful first lines. Your first line should be interesting and original, and it should DO something. A first line that just lays there like a dead fish will never grab a reader’s attention. It can set the tone, begin world-building, introduce a character (and his/her voice), foreshadow plot, jump into the story in media res, amuse, disgust, intrigue, or surprise, but it should never just be.
2. Be unique. The first few pages of your novel can fulfill many different functions and still be successful in hooking the reader. There is no formula for first pages. It can be helpful to take the idea of this blog and run with it-- i.e., model your first page after one by a favorite author-- but once you have figured out and established your own voice in the piece, you should absolutely come back and revise.
3. Teach the audience how to read your novel. In most cases, it’s best to start in the point of view of your protagonist. Know what tense, what voice, and what tone your story will have, and use these from the beginning. A heavy philosophical passage preceding a light-hearted adventure-- or vice versa-- is jarring to the reader. Also, be sure to let them know right away if your novel is not taking place in the real world. This can be done subtly (think Stephen King’s use of made-up words) or blatantly (Diana Wynne Jones’s “In the land of Ingary...”).
4. Introduce major dramatic questions. This may be most important of all: Give the reader a reason to read on. Make them care about your character and understand the stakes of his or her situation. If there’s nothing they’re wondering about by the end of the first chapter, why should they keep going?

Hopefully some of the first lines discussed in this blog caught your fancy. As I said before, these are some of my favorite fantasy novels, so if you're looking for a great read, look no further! I also encourage you to give your own favorite books this treatment and see what makes their opening pages tick. Have a favorite first line that uses one of these attention-grabbing strategies? Share it!