The spam monsters have won. Over the past several months, I have tried to limit spam in the comments to this journal. Despite my best attempts, though, the spam continues to be posted -- often more spam comments than legitimate ones.
Therefore, I am forced to bar comments from people who are not my LJ friends.
But all is not lost! If you would like to comment on a post here, and you are not an LJ friend, and you don't care to create an LJ account to become my friend, you can comment on my main website, the one that mirrors to this journal. That website is
Mindy, regretting that it's come to this, but pleased to finally get rid of the obnoxious spam
About fifteen months ago, Amazon took a major step to level the playing field for self-published authors: it allowed us to offer books for pre-order to our readers. Pre-orders provide several advantages to authors, including:
- Fans can order not-yet-published books on an impulse after finishing and enjoying earlier books by an author;
- Authors can guarantee a certain release date, rather than relying on the approximation of processing time for new books added to the system; and
- Authors enjoy an increased likelihood of reaching a bestseller list due to their experiencing a release day “drop” of accumulated pre-orders.
Amazon remains devoted to providing the best customer experience possible. Therefore, if an author misses a release date after accepting pre-orders, the author is banned from using pre-orders for a full year. (In fact, authors are required to submit the final version of their text by no later than ten days before release date.)
Alas, in multiple instances Amazon’s pre-order system has been severely flawed, costing authors valuable goodwill and–sometimes–hard cash.
A case in point: the boxed set Mischief Under the Mistletoe, which contains my novella Fly Me to the Moon along with eighteen other hot holiday romances. In order to provide the best experience for our readers and to maximize our sales of our limited edition boxed set, we decided to make the set available for pre-order. To achieve that status, we uploaded Amazon’s required placeholder text file ninety days prior to our release. In our case, that placeholder consisted of one draft novella by one of our authors, repeated nineteen times to approximate the length and content of the not-yet-completed other novellas in the boxed set. We uploaded the placeholder file and began to promote our set on August 25, 2015, with an eye toward a November 17 release.
Our pre-orders for the set steadily grew as we invested time, money, and effort in promoting Mischief. On November 2, 2015, well before Amazon’s ten-day deadline, we uploaded the final version of our text file. That final version contained nineteen novellas, each of which was proofread, formatted, and hyperlinked in a master table of contents. Amazon confirmed receipt of the final file.
On November 17, Mischief Under the Mistletoe went live. Shortly after midnight, approximately 8100 pre-orders were fulfilled. Alas, Amazon mistakenly sent those customers the placeholder file instead of the final file. (New customers who placed orders after the book released, received and continue to receive the correct file.)
Forty-eight hours later, the situation remains unresolved. Nearly 40% of our reviews are one- or two-star reviews, commenting exclusively about the problems of the placeholder file (without comment on the substance of that one story or, obviously, the content of the missing eighteen novellas.) As a consequence, we have had several advertisers drop our pre-purchased advertisements, because we have not met the four-star threshold for those ads. (We have been denied refunds on those ads.)
Amazon has admitted its error, confirming that we did upload the final file on a timely basis. They have admitted that pre-order customers incorrectly received the placeholder file. They maintain they have “pushed” the correct file to pre-order customers; however, very few–if any–customers have received the pushed file. In fact, some customers who have complained have been instructed to delete the faulty file, request a refund, wait for a week, and re-order the boxed set. (ETA: That week’s wait, of course, pushes the re-sale past the date that counts for we authors hoping to hit a bestseller list.) Customers who have manually deleted the placeholder file and attempted to download the final file have generally found that their ereaders mistakenly re-load the placeholder file.
Most frustratingly, Amazon refuses to delete the one- and two-star reviews–even though those reviews patently have nothing to do with the quality of the product.
As authors, we are trying to handle this disaster as best we can. We are trying to recruit new buyers (customers who will now receive the proper file). We are commenting on each one-star review, apologizing to our disappointed customers and explaining the circumstances. We have reconciled ourselves to losing money on the ads that will not be distributed, and we’ve resigned ourselves to not hitting any bestseller lists due to the poor star-rating of the boxed set and our irrevocably harmed sales during this crucial first week.
Many of us have books already in the pre-order system. We know we must deliver our files on time or face the wrath of Amazon, including the penalties we agreed to when we bought into the pre-order system. But we dread our launch dates, and the possible repeat of this public relations and sales disaster–especially with no relief on the horizon for Mischief Under the Mistletoe.
ETA: Early Thursday morning, Amazon emailed pre-order buyers, informing them that the publisher (i.e., we Mischief authors) had corrected our mistake (!) and the correct file was now available for downloading. The email provided instructions for downloading, and pre-order buyers are now reporting their receipt of the correct file. (To date, the one-star reviews remain, though, and the canceled ads will not revisit their decisions.)
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
(And now, I really *do* have to apologize, for ear-worming you with Uncle Albert…)
Last weekend, we went to see the play Sorry, by Richard Nelson, at the Studio Theatre. This play is part of the Apple Family Cycle — four plays that are each set on a specific date. Each play involves a gathering of the Apple Family (three sisters, their brother, their uncle, and a boyfriend), centering around a meal. Each play unfolds in close to real time, as the family members eat, squabble, push buttons, and generally act like … family.
Studio staged the first two plays — That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad — two years ago. We saw Sorry this past Saturday, and we’ll see the last one, Regular Singing this coming Saturday.
The plays — and Studio’s staging — are brilliant. They’re small pieces, pretty much the opposite, say, of Henry V. There are no grand armies, no choreographed fight scenes, no doubling of actors to cover the dozens of characters called for in the script. They have more in common with O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (although two Apple plays could fit inside one performance of Long Day’s.) But unlike O’Neill, which feels like staged poetry (in the best of all possible ways), the Apple plays feel like real dialog.
Except, of course, they aren’t real dialog.
Real people ahem, and um, and like, and you know. They can’t describe their feelings and their thoughts with near-perfect clarity. They think of the perfect bon mot after the fact, instead of in the moment.
It’s hard to explain what makes these plays such perfect little gems. There’s something incredibly intimate about watching the actor’s eat their food (oh, look, he doesn’t like whipped cream on his ice cream! Oh, she really is opening that third bottle of wine…) The stage is close enough for the actors to tur around and offer a taste to the audience members in the front row. When one character scrapes her spoon against the bottom of her bowl interminably, the sound is every bit as annoying as when your sibling does it at your dinner table.
The program notes say that the playwright was originally contacted to write an epic drama about politics and war. Given his skill, that production probably would be interesting. But the Apple plays, the opposite of epic, the opposite of “politics” as we typically think of the word, are amazing.
So? What about you? Have you ever seen a play that rocked your world?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo. (Insert long list of reasons why, starting with my early indignant exclamations that drafting 50K words is not writing a novel, and ending with my later understanding that most people who do NaNo seriously understand that fact, but I still have always kept my own writing schedule…)
But this year, I sorta, kinda did my own NaNo. I went on a writing retreat last week and drafted 66,000 words of a new novel, in seven days.
I spent the first five days at a cabin in Gifford Pinchot State Park with Maria V. Snyder. We work on sort of opposite schedules–I get up around 6:30 and get out of bed by 7, eating a quick breakfast and then writing for about 5 hours before I break for lunch, then dig back in to the writing. Maria gets up around noon or 1, eats a waking-up breakfast, then works for about four hours before we both break for an hour of walking around the park (avoiding the areas open for hunters–it’s small game season, and we had no blaze orange clothing), followed by dinner. Then I put in another three or four hours (five on a couple of nights, when I was really on a roll.) Maria stays up until 2 or 3 in the morning.
Lather, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.
The last two and a half days of the retreat were spent at a fellow writer’s house; there were five of us who got together for the weekend. I loved the conversations, but I was a bit of a nut, pushing to finish my draft, because my home schedule is going to be crazy for the next month or so…
Yeah, that’s the most productive I’ve ever been on a writing marathon. It felt good while I was doing it–I felt like I was working at my maximum pace, creating good work, powering through the moments when I felt bored or despairing or fatigued. Skimming back over what I wrote, it’s as good as any of my first drafts ever is. Better than some, because I didn’t have a chance to forget things I meant to include.
The first two evening walks, the lake was incredibly still. The weather was warm–high 70s in the afternoon. In fact there, were paddleboaters on the water in the evening:
(Okay, you can’t really see this guy, but he’d in the middle of the picture…) During the day, the couple at the neighboring cabin went kayaking, carrying their kayaks down to the water in two trips, then back from the water in two trips, looking curiously at the strange woman who seemed tied to her computer out there in all that gorgeous nature. The fall colors were still pretty strong:
But the leaves on the trees closest to the cabin had fallen:
(That last picture is my view, as I stretched my back after sitting at the picnic table for several hours.)
So, Just One of Those Things is drafted. And it’s a good, strong draft. I have lots of notes to myself, things that I want to tweak, resonances I want to make ring more true, motivations I want to make razor sharp.
But I’ll get this Harmony Springs book off to my beta readers in a couple of weeks. And then you’ll be able to read it on February 9.
I guess I sort of like this NaNo thing
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
G is for Genre.
Genre is vitally important to authors. Genre allows us to locate agents, publishers, and readers who are interested in the specific types of stories we write. Genre is one of the first markers that classify books. (Other markers might include author’s name, publisher, price, etc.) Specific genres rise and fall in popularity, as readers define what they’re willing to buy. Some genres get re-cast, in an effort to freshen sales. (For example, “chicklit” is generally considered to be passé, but “romantic comedy” is on the rise in popularity. A book that would have been categorized chicklit in 2001 is likely called romantic comedy today.)
It used to be easy to define classify books by genre: Just figure out where to shelve them at the local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Authors (and their readers) could make straightforward declarations: This book belongs in Mystery, that one in Travel.
But bookstore classifications aren’t really that simple.
Should there be a single section called Science Fiction, and a separate one called Fantasy? Or can Fantasy piggy-back on SF? What about Horror, where does it fit in? Should we create a category for movie tie-ins? Should we include card games like Magic? Character-driven games like Dungeons and Dragons with their handbooks and guides and manuals? And what about non-fiction genres, like History? Should History be broken down by geographic region? By general time periods? Solely by author’s last name?
And why does anyone really care?
In the bricks-and-mortar setting, genre is vitally important. Bookstores must decide where to shelve their stock. They can’t sprinkle one copy in every section where a book potentially fits. (The order for most new books is at most three, and “singleton” books often get damaged by handling.) Therefore, physical bookstores rely on genres to cue readers about where to find the books they want.
Obviously, shelf space and physical layout is not crucial to online sales. Books can be classified in multiple genres, with simple electronic links taking potential buyers from one section of the store to another. There’s no danger of lonely single books getting lost or damaged.
Perhaps as a result, genres are fracturing.
All books—print or electronic—sold online are typically organized using codes. In the United States, the industry relies on BISAC (“Book Industry Standards and Communications”) codes, which are promulgated by the Book Industry Study Group. BISAC Codes are organized into 52 major sections. They consist of three letters defining the broad genre, followed by six numbers defining a sub-genre. One book might be described by several BISAC codes. For example, my novel Perfect Pitch can be listed as FIC038000 (Fiction/Sports.) It can also be described as FIC027020 (Fiction/Romance/Contemporary).
Similarly, British libraries rely on BIC codes, which are promulgated by a trade association, Book Industry Communication. Those codes are less specific than BISAC codes; they consist of one to three letters, with longer codes being more specific than shorter ones. For example, Perfect Pitch is listed as FR—Fiction/Romance. (While FRH would indicate Fiction/Romance/Historical, there is no three-letter code for Fiction/Romance/Contemporary.)
How are these genre codes used?
Online booksellers rely on BISAC or BIC codes as one tool to classify books, adding those classification links that connect buyers to multiple books in a genre. They also rely on all of a book’s other metadata — the title, sub-title, “back of the book” copy, keywords, etc. As a result, customers are able to “drill down” to books they are likely to enjoy. Instead of browsing through all the possible romance novels available, customers can search just sports romances. The result is a win-win—readers are more likely to find books to enjoy, and authors are more likely to sell books.
The explosion of metadata associated with books has resulted in narrower and narrower sub-genres. For example, Jennifer Stevenson’s A Hinky Taste of You, which has a heroine who skates in Roller Derby, is classified in the following categories on Amazon:
- Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Sports > Individual Sports > Rollerskating & Rollerblading
- Books > Sports & Outdoors > Individual Sports > Rollerskating & Rollerblading
- Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Sports
Try to imagine a bricks-and-mortar store with a specific aisle dedicated to books about rollerskating and rollerblading! Also note that the Amazon classification technically considers Ms. Stevenson’s light paranormal novel to be “Nonfiction.” In a bricks-and-mortar store, mis-shelving a novel with nonfiction books would typically destroy any patron’s chance of finding the novel, but online customers are still able to locate the work they desire.
Authors can take advantage of these relatively narrow definitions of genre. They can join forces with fellow authors of similar books to cross-promote, either in traditional advertisements, boxed sets, or special user communities in social media. At the same time, they can launch separate promotional efforts for their novels in separate sub-genres. (On a personal note, I can promote my baseball books separate from my light paranormal, without boring or offending any of my readers.)
The splintering does raise a potential problem: It’s possible to define sub-genres on too granular a basis. For example, Perfect Pitch could be placed in a sub-genre of romances set in Raleigh, North Carolina with heroines who are beauty queens and heroes who have blue eyes. In theory, vendors could set up a genre system to pull together all books that meet those specific markers. But how many other books meet those requirements? What use is a genre populated by a single book? Buyers’ tastes aren’t that restrictive. Therefore, it’s not worth vendors’ or buyers’ time to create such detailed systems.
How about you? Have you found your definitions of genre changing over time? Do you classify books in a more general or more specific way than you used to? Are your reactions different as an author (if you are one!) than as a reader?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
One of the great things about living in the greater Washington DC area is the number of classes one can take. There are adult ed offerings at all the major universities, plus all sorts of special programs offered through trade associations and other groups. Alas, my time is limited like anyone else’s, so I don’t get to do as many things as I’d like, but I always keep a close eye on what’s happening at the Smithsonian, especially through their Resident Associates program.
On Sunday evening, I attended a Smithsonian class: “The Mind of a Critic.” The program was held in the auditorium at the Navy Heritage Center, which is unfortunate because the chairs in the auditorium at the Navy Heritage Center are some of the least comfortable in the metro area. Nevertheless, the description of the panel was tempting enough for me to risk persistent lower back pain for a couple of days.
The program was built around a panel of local restaurant critics — Tom Sietsema (who writes for the Washington Post), Todd Kliman (the Washingtonian), Stephanie Gans (Northern Virginia Magazine), Jessica Sidman (food editor, Washington City Paper), and the grand doyenne of DC restaurant criticism, Phyllis Richman (who wrote for the post for many years but is now retired.) They were interviewed by Mary Beth Albright, a food writer and media personality.
The three current critics arrive in disguise — scarves and baseball caps, large sunglasses, etc. Despite problems with the sound system (a persistent problem in all Smithsonian venues!), the panelists told answered questions about how they work, the challenges they face, the effect their work can have on restaurants, etc.
There was a fair amount of disagreement among some panelists about the value of “citizen critics”, through sites like Yelp. Sidman, in particular, noted that “we all use Yelp, whether we admit it or not” and Kliman disagreed, saying that Yelp reviews are overly generous and completely unsourced.
And as they spoke, I realized that the critics’ experience mirrors mine as a writer in two key ways. First — I often discuss research with other writers, some of whom spend days, weeks, or months researching their novels either before or as they write. As a librarian, I completely understand the value of research, including the importance of identifying the biases of sources.
And yet, more often than not, I (and most authors I know, with the possible exception of those writing historic fiction) begin my research at Wikipedia. Yes, I know Wikipedia is written by “citizen scholars.” I know I have no way of telling the actual credentials of an article’s author. I know I sometimes find mistakes in articles when I know the subject well enough to evaluate veracity.
And yet, Wikipedia is good enough for a lot of my spot research. If I’m trying to create a supernatural being that has the ability to divine truth, I can use Wikipedia to get a vague idea of such creatures, prior to adapting them, merging them, contorting them into my own. And if I want to research a specific fact-bound point, where accuracy matters, I can still use Wikipedia to get a basic notion of the facts, prior to confirming them with multiple credentialed sources.
The second point raised by the critics, though resonated even more strongly with me: Critics are constantly confronted with untrained individuals who think they can write as well about food and restaurants as the critics can. This challenge is only natural — we all eat food. We all have opinions about the food we eat. We all share those opinions with friends and family on a regular basis. But critics (who aren’t organized in any formal union, complete no formal training, have no accreditation body) do something more than we regular folks — they draw on years of experience, on industry-specific knowledge, on a wide range of actual dining to hone their skills.
Similarly, the vast majority of people have written stories. Maybe not a novel, maybe not a novella, but we all wrote short stories for English and/or Literature classes. We learned about protagonists and antagonists, about Man against Man, Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself.
So, with all that so-called experience, it’s not surprising that a huge percentage of the population thinks they’re ready to write professionally. I literally cannot count how many people have come up to me at a party, or at a non-writer conference, or elsewhere in my life, telling me that they want to be a writer too, that they have a story to tell, that they want to do what I do, often when they retire from their “real” jobs.
Everyone’s a critic. And everyone’s a writer.
Bottom line: I enjoyed the Smithsonian class. (I was surprised to discover there were swanky cocktails offered as well — I had a lovely gin and lemon thing, flavored with sage, but there were lots of other options!) And I realized I had more in common with food critics than I thought.
And I figured out a way to get a food critic to Harmony Springs
So? How about you? Do you Yelp?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
Huh. Yesterday was a Tuesday. I’ve made a commitment to blog on Tuesdays and Fridays. I didn’t blog yesterday.
I could make all sorts of excuses: I was waiting for an important phone call in the morning, which distracted me from my ordinary schedule. I had a hangnail. My tea was brewed too strong.
Or, I could roll out the real excuse: Monday was my birthday, and I took it as a holiday from work, which meant that I thought yesterday was a Monday. ::shrug::
I remember how important birthdays were when I was a kid. My parents always let us have birthday parties: roller-skating parties at the local rink with most of the class or sleep-overs with a handful of kids or (once!) a trip to Ice Capades with three hand-picked best friends.
But the birthday party I remember best would make kids roll their eyes now. My father brought a film projector home from work. We went to the public library and checked out a film (actual film, not videotape!) about the life of otters. For my party, we popped popcorn and showed a movie in our living room — which was incredibly novel and exciting!
Yeah, that was a long time ago.
I know people (fellow adults) who treat their birthday as a federal holiday, day of holy obligation, and relationship referendum all in one. They want their favorite meals, and a pile of gifts, and elaborate cakes, and a constant stream of me, me, me.
As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, I’m not one of those people. In fact, I spent this birthday running errands with my husband, which was fun and (relatively) low-key. (Would have been completely low-key, but some of the errands were a bit fraught — more on that in another post.) I woke up to a short stack of birthday cards from my husband (and one from the cats), and I ate my favorite cereal for breakfast. I got to choose where we went for our late lunch, and we ate a lot, too much, so we didn’t track down cake or ice cream or other dessert. I checked in on Facebook a few times during the day and was amused by the messages people left me.
Oh, and I forgot to post on my blog
Really, that’s enough for a grown-up birthday. At least, it is for me.
How about you? Are you a low-key grown-up birthday person? Or are you a no-holds-barred celebrator? (Come on! Maybe you can convince me to change my ways!)
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
F is for fan fiction (or fanfic, if you feel like abbreviating.)
Fan fiction is fiction written about characters (or, sometimes, settings) that were created by another author in a work that was previously published. In one very famous example, the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James began as fan fiction written about the characters in the young adult novel Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. As an alternative to having roots in novels, fan fiction can be based on television shows, movies, or other creative works.
By definition, fan fiction is a derivative work under the copyright laws of the United States. The legality of fanfic is hotly debated (sometimes in court, in multi-million dollar lawsuits. Some fan authors argue their work is “fair use” and therefore not a copyright infringement. “Fair use” is a tricky area of copyright law; each case must be examined based on its individual facts, weighing a number of factors including whether the alleged infringement destroys the market for the original work and whether the alleged infringer receives money for his/her work.
Many authors start their careers writing fanfic, either as a matter of childhood storytelling or by intentionally joining a fan fiction community. Others enjoy forays into fan fiction throughout their writing careers, long after they’ve published independent works. (Full disclosure: My first attempt at a full-length novel was fan fiction based on The Lord of the Rings, written with my then-best friend when I was in seventh grade. My friend and I never finished our sequel to Tolkien’s trilogy, and we never published our work for free or for profit. I have not written fanfic since that juvenilia withered on the writing vine.)
Authors’ motivations for writing fan fiction vary greatly. Some write solely as a tribute to authors whose work they enjoy. Others write to continue stories abandoned by authors who have moved on to other work. Some fanfic authors want to explore character motivations beyond “canon”, beyond the parameters of the original work. That exploration often includes sexual encounters between characters who do not have a sexual relationship in canon.
Many authors write fanfic because they enjoy the community built around that writing. Many active Internet forums allow authors to exchange and critique fanfic. Some exchanges are structured to allow people to request stories written about specific characters, often providing precise “prompts” to fanfic writers about plot points, other fandoms, specific actions to include in the fanfic, and levels of sex or violence such as those defined by movie ratings (e.g., “I’d like to see Harry Potter encounter the Agents of Shield in a Christmas Story set in Bali, with at least an R level of violence and at least PG level of sex; please include at least one scene involving sex between Hermione and Daisy.”)
Authors’ reactions to fanfic vary widely.
At one extreme, some authors embrace their communities of fan writers, encouraging alternative fictions written in their universes. In fact, some authors have created entire worlds specifically for fan writers to play in. Stephanie Draven ran the Firan MUX (Multi-User Experience) for over fifteen years, inviting writers to create characters within the parameters of her Greco-Roman-inspired world. Orson Scott Card ran a similar forum in Hatrack River, an online role-playing game where users created characters in a frontier community based on Card’s Alvin Maker series.
At the other extreme, some authors flatly forbid any fan fiction. They consider all use of their characters or settings to be violations of copyright law, and they sue in federal court to protect their rights. These authors often explain that they are required by US law to police their copyrights rigorously; if they choose to overlook one fan fiction as “good, clean fun”, they might be precluded from prosecuting other fan fiction that is sold for profit or that portrays their characters in unsavory fashion.
Authors who forbid fanfic sometimes state their fear that they might be precluded from writing a specific story in their own universe if a fan has already written a story involving similar themes, characters, or plot points. (Marion Zimmer Bradley is most frequently cited as an author kept from writing her own work after fanfic exploited a specific story, but the facts of that situation are hotly debated.)
Most authors fall somewhere between the two polls, regarding their acceptance of fanfic. Authors might state that they don’t mind fan fiction based on their work, but they won’t read it (thereby avoiding the problem that allegedly ensnared Bradley.) Other authors say fanfic is fine, so long as the fan authors do not charge for their work. Some authors turn a blind eye to most fanfic but take exception to the sexualization of certain characters (or to specific sexual acts performed by specific characters with other specific characters.)
Fan fiction might be a great way for an author to exercise writing skills, learning to recreate an established author’s tone and/or using known characters expected to act in specific ways.
But if you intend to publish your work, you’ll need to move beyond fanfic. That “moving beyond” should include at least “filing off the serial numbers”, erasing the specific references to character names, locations, and other details. Thus, Bella Swan from Twilight became Anastasia Steele, and Edward Cullen became Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey. The special world of sparkling vampires became the elite life of a billionaire.
If you’re already an established author, you should develop a policy about fan fiction. You might publish this policy on your website, or otherwise let potential fan writers know your stance. In any case, having a specific policy will allow you to police your work in a uniform, thoughtful manner.
So? If you’re an author, what is your opinion about fan fiction? Do you write it? Do you allow it to be written about your works? And if you’re a reader, do you regularly read fanfic? What do you find appealing—or not appealing—about fan fiction?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
Are you close to the Washington DC metropolitan area? Are you interested in being (or becoming!) a rational writer? Do you have $35 to invest in pursuing your writing career (or are you a member of the Mystery Writers of America)?
If you answered yes to all three of those questions, then do I have a deal for you!
On Tuesday, October 20, I’ll be speaking at the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Mystery Writers of America’s monthly meeting. Here are all the details:
MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA
Once upon a time, authors wrote a book, sent it off to their publishers, and started writing the next book. They didn’t have to worry about business matters. At least that’s the fairy tale. But these days, authors definitely have to worry about business matters: tracking data, promotion, legal concerns, and more. This split focus between the creative and business ends of writing makes it all the more important for authors to have effective time-management techniques and plans for success. That’s where Mindy Klasky comes in. The author of The Rational Writer: Nuts and Bolts will be our guest speaker at our October 20th meeting, sharing her project-management techniques for writers.
Klasky, a USA Today bestselling author and an attorney, will discuss her step-by-step guide to project management. Her techniques are suited to authors who self-publish their books and traditional authors with publishing contracts from large or small presses. With more than twenty years of publishing experience, Klasky aims to help writers spend more time writing books and less time managing business details.
This meeting promises to be of interest to writers as well as people interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look into how writers work. We hope to see you there.
Tuesday, October 20th
Embassy Suites Hotel at the Chevy Chase Pavilion, Ballroom Level
4300 Military Road, N.W., Washington, D.C.
Garage parking under the hotel.
Metro: Friendship Heights.
6:30 p.m. Reception/Cash Bar
7 p.m. Dinner (including a complimentary glass of iced tea or soda, warm rolls and butter, crisp salad, coffee and tea): choice of baked chicken, ginger tilapia, or vegetarian pasta, and choice of chocolate cake, fruit sorbet, or a fruit plate.
8 p.m. Mindy Klasky speaks
9 p.m. Book sales and signing. Credit card sales may not be available. Please bring other methods of payment.
RESERVATIONS: Cost is $35 per person. The price is the same for members and nonmembers. To reserve your seat, call or email Trish Carrico no later than 8 p.m. Thursday, October 15th, and let her know your entrée and dessert choices (choice of baked chicken, ginger tilapia, or vegetarian pasta, and choice of chocolate cake, fruit sorbet, or a fruit plate). Trish’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org mailto:email@example.com. Her phone number is 240-560-7085. If you reserve your seat by email, or if you reserve by leaving a voicemail message, you should receive a response confirming your reservation within a couple of days. If you don’t receive a confirmation, please contact Trish again to ensure your reservation was received.
PAYMENT DETAILS: We no longer accept cash. Please remember to bring a check made out to Mystery Writers of America with you to the meeting. Payments will be collected at the door. Our in-person payment policy is based on trust, and we want to continue this practice. Please don’t be a no-show/no-pay.
DIETARY RESTRICTIONS: If you have dietary restrictions precluding you from eating any of our available meal options, please let us know well before the RSVP deadline. Kosher meals can be provided upon request, and we can work with the hotel to address any other dietary concerns if we are given enough notice.
WEATHER: For any announcements regarding cancellation or postponement in the event of inclement weather, check the chapter email list or the announcement list, or email Donna Andrews at firstname.lastname@example.org mailto:email@example.com.
Our meetings are open to the public. You don’t need to be a member to attend, but you do need to make a reservation. Please share this announcement with others who love mysteries, as a writer or reader or both.
Please remember to bring a check with you when you come to the meeting. Thank you.
I’d love to see you there!
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
Last week, I wrote about the challenges I face, being a conflict-averse person, writing novels that turn directly on emotional conflicts between characters. That post seemed to spark a lot of interest, mostly from other conflict-averse writers. Their comments have led me to think more about how conflict works among family and friends–people who are supposed to love and support each other.
Years ago, after completing law school and taking the bar exam, I traveled with my college roommate through western Europe. We both had Eurail passes, which allowed us to travel by train to most (all?) western European countries. (For a small surcharge, we could reserve a “couchette”, a fold-down bed, and we did so for a few overnight trips, thereby saving ourselves the cost of a room in a student hotel!)
We started our trip in Amsterdam. Within two days, we met numerous people who had begun their trips with one or more friends, all traveling by Eurail pass, but who had split up along their journey.
We quickly realized why these splits occurred. To (mostly-) sheltered US kids, EUROPE loomed large and terrifying–there were borders to negotiate, money to exchange, languages (or pantomime) to master–all sorts of details we’d never grappled with before. But the train system, especially with a Eurail pass in hand, turned out to be trivially easy to figure out. And the rest of it–borders, money, languages, etc.–all fell into place in short order.
“Europe” turned out to be a lot easier than most of us expected. At the same time, sharing plans and compromising on travel arrangements with friends sometimes turned out to be more difficult than expected. Travelers need to negotiate meals and a schedule for visiting tourist attractions and an agenda for which cities to see when, and, and, and. There are a hundred decisions a day (at least!), and if those decisions are made with friction, the game soon gets old.
Therefore, for a lot of people, it was easier to turn to travel companions and say, “Hey, I don’t need your support. I’ll venture out on my own. I’ll take my Eurail pass and go.”
So, being sort of odd, my college roommate decided to see if we could argue with each other to the point where we would say, “Take your Eurail pass and go.”
These mock arguments were over silly things. “You ordered alfredo sauce with your pasta–that’s disgusting! Take your Eurail pass and go!” “You wanted to walk from the Louvre instead of taking the Metro–that’s absurd! Take your Eurail pass and go!” “You wanted to sit in the English Garden instead of taking in one more museum! Take your Eurail pass and go!”
We collapsed into laughter every time.
But the truth is, we both avoided the real pressure points. On days when we were especially tired, or hungry, or stressed about being lost, we didn’t play “Eurail pass.” When we played, we never dug deep to real criticism of personalities, or choices, or … whatever.
We were both too conflict averse to truly fight.
Twenty-six years later, we’re still best friends. We still joke about taking our Eurail passes and going. And we still avoid the truly hateful things we could say to each other. (Which, let’s face it, is a list that’s grown, with twenty-six more years of ammunition!)
This evening, I travel across country to see my college roommate, for an intense trip at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (five plays, three days!) We’ll stay up too late, talking. We’ll eat too much. We’ll take shortcuts in conversations, just quoting punchlines to each other because we already know the stories.
But we’ll never get close to the true bone. We’ll never actually take our Eurail passes and go.
How about you? Do you have “Eurail pass” friends and relatives in your life? Have you ever been the one to take your pass? And how did that turn out?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
So, for those who don’t know me in real life, I’m one of the world’s most conflict averse people. (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out how I spent seven years working as a litigator, arguing cases in state and federal court…)
I live my life with very little drama — my husband and I don’t have screaming matches, I drift away from friends who purposely kindle drama to spice up their lives, and I tend to go with the flow on most group decisions.
Which would make me an incredibly boring character in a novel. Especially a romance novel, where heroes and heroines are expected to butt heads early and often. (Butting of heads, of course, leads to butting of other body parts )
So, when I get to the Breaking Moment of a novel I’m drafting — the knock-down, drag-out confrontation, where the hero and heroine say and do things that irreparably harm their relationship (except, of course, the harm isn’t actually irreparable, because this is fiction…), I really need to prepare myself. My first draft of those fight scenes is about one paragraph long and generally consists of a few statements:
“I really hate it when you do X.”
“Really? I didn’t realize that. I won’t do X any more. Because, well, I love you.”
Not really worth reading 80,000 words for that, huh?
So I go on to write a second draft. In my second draft, my characters start to say what they’re really thinking. Usually, their statements are constructive:
“When you do X, I feel Y.”
“I do X because of Z, an incident in my past. But I’ll consciously try to change that.”
A little more emotion, a little more baring of souls, but not enough to make those 80K words worthwhile.
So then I go in for the third draft. I forget about all the things I know about the characters, all the reasons they say what they say, all the reasons they do what they do. I still know it; that knowledge influences word choice and stage direction, the actions the characters undertake in the scene. My third drafts are all emotions, all the thoughts that bubble up to the surface, all the unwieldy feelings my characters experience:
“I hate you when you X!”
“That’s who I am, babe, so hate away!”
*slam of door*
There are other scenes, later in the book, where my characters can recover. But in the moment, they’re raw. They’re messy. They’re vulnerable.
I hate hurting them that way, laying them bare, exposing every last nerve. But that’s what the story requires. That’s what makes readers turn the page. That’s what makes 80,000 words worth the time it takes to read, the money it takes to buy the book. That’s why one story is worth choosing over another.
Sometimes those I engineer those confrontations more successfully than others. And I just have to say, I am ridiculously pleased with the Breaking Moment in Fly Me to the Moon. The emotion grows out of the characters organically. It exactly matches who they are and what they’ve experienced. It’s made deeper, sharper, by the fact that they haven’t known each other for very long; they don’t have a history of working out problems.
Some days I love my job. Even if I wouldn’t want to live the lives of the characters I create!
So? What about you? What books have you read that handle conflict — especially in conversation — particularly well?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
E is for Edit.
And edit again. And edit one more time. And yet another. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Every round of editing has a different purpose. Each is necessary to achieve the ultimate writer’s goal—a publishable book.
The first round of edits are revisions. Revisions may include changes to characters (and characterization), to setting, to plot. (Authors who create their plot organically—so-called “pantsers”—are likely to invest a fair amount of time in revisions to make the beginning of their plot line up with the end.) Revisions allow an author to re-vision his story, to see it again, in a different light.
Some authors avoid doing any revisions as they write. They start their story at the beginning of chapter one, and they create straight through, without any editorial interruption, without any break to update “mistakes” along the way. Typically, these authors leave themselves notes, either in their working files or in a separate place, detailing the changes they will need to incorporate down the road.
Other authors execute revisions as they write. They spend a session drafting a section of their book, and then they spend the next session revising those words. This “leap-frog” system keeps the book moving forward in a consistent manner. By the time the author reaches the end of her “first draft,” she has actually completed a second draft.
For a handful of writers, a single round of revisions suffices. Most of us, though, require additional drafts, integrating the revised text more completely, smoothing over errors or inconsistencies introduced by the new text. For most writers, a final round of revisions corrects grammar and usage. The end-point of revisions is the final draft.
But editing is far from done.
After an author achieves a final draft, she’s ready to pass her work on to peer critics (See, C is for Critique.) Beta readers or critique partners can help expose flaws in a book, viewing the story with fresh eyes and analyzing how it holds together over the course of the narration.
Critique partners deliver their opinions, either in person or electronically. Of course, authors aren’t bound to accept those criticisms; however, a fresh round of revisions allows the author to consider each note. Authors can answer critics’ questions, accept suggested changes, reject suggested changes, or implement alternatives to suggested changes.
And then it’s time for another round of editing.
Next up is development editing (sometimes called content editing.) Developmental editors are outside professionals—employees of publishing houses (for authors who are traditionally published) or contract employees (for authors who are self-published.) Developmental editors may be paid by the hour, by the word (counting the words of the author’s manuscript, not the words of the editor’s critique), or by the task. Authors should negotiate payment before the editor begins work.
Typically, a developmental editor produces two documents. The first is an overview including reactions to the work as a whole, written in paragraph form. This overview includes notes on all aspects of the novel. It may include notes about marketability, including genre placement.
The second document expected from a developmental editor is a marked up version of the manuscript. This markup, often completed using the Track Changes feature of Word, allows the editor to make comments about specific words or sentences. It also allows correction of typographic errors (although such corrections are not the primary focus of developmental edits.)
Once the author receives developmental edits, he undertakes another round of revision. Once again, the author can accept or reject changes or come up with solutions that address concerns in a different way than the editor envisioned. Self-published authors are never bound by their editors’ suggestions. Most traditionally published authors also remain the final arbiter of the manuscript; however, they might need to engage in political negotiations to do so.
But editing isn’t finished yet.
The final round of editing is copy editing. Copy editors review work that is formatted for publication. The finality of formatting can vary—some copy editors read type-set galley proofs (for print books); others read PDF or .epub or .mobi files (for electronic books.) Many electronic books, though, are copy edited in a word-processor version, so the copy editor can make notations directly on the file (which is typically difficult to accomplish with PDF, .epub, or .mobi files.)
Copy editors wear multiple hats. They are responsible for proofreading, for catching typographic errors, grammar mistakes, and usage slips. Good copy editors also read for continuity errors (including characters’ varying hair and eye color, calendar mistakes, weather inconsistencies, changing phases of the moon, etc.) The most valuable copy editors work over multiple books in a series, maintaining uniform standards throughout.
Authors can help copy editors by providing a list of all proper names in a work, along with notations about specific aspects of worldbuilding (e.g., levels of magicians in an arcane guild, or ranks in a military force.) A good copy editor returns a style sheet with the manuscript, detailing the same data (which often is more complete than the author’s original list.)
Once the author receives her copy edits, it’s time for another round of revision. Typically, authors accept most of the edits suggested by their copy editors. Some copy editors, though, overstep their bounds, “correcting” intentional non-standard usage (or, occasionally, “correcting” text that was actually correct in the original.) In that case, the author can “stet” the copy edits. For a self-published author, “stet” amounts to ignoring the edits. A traditionally published author writes “stet” beside the copy editor’s suggestion, thereby signaling the typesetter to keep the original.
A complete book requires at least three rounds of edits. Some result from a dozen or more. Each stage should make the book better, incrementally building a story that can’t be resisted by readers.
If you’re a writer, how many rounds of edits do you typically do? If you’re a reader, do you see a difference between books that are traditionally published (and edited) and those that are self-published?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
Sometimes, all sorts of creative strands come together — and the result can be wholly unexpected. Wholly enjoyable, too, with a healthy dose of learning and making new connections.
Recently, we’ve been watching Ken Burns’s remastered The Civil War. I’ve seen the entire series once, and I’ve watched several segments multiple times (usually, after we’ve visited one of the battlefields.) The remastered images are much clearer than the originals, which makes the story they tell much more terrible.
The American Civil War, of course, took place from 1861 to 1865. In 1865, in Paris, France, Paul Durand-Ruel inherited his family’s art gallery. Paul Who? you might ask.
Durand-Ruel was the first gallery owner who took the Impressionists seriously. He bought up large numbers of their paintings (and, in some cases, held those paintings for decades, while he built a market for them.) That’s an image of him at the top of this post, toward the end of his nine-decade life, painted by Renoir.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently hosted the exhibit: Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting. (It closed on September 13; I visited a couple of weeks ago.) I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of Impressionist paintings before, especially large collections of Renoir and Monet. But this Philadelphia exhibit taught me things I never knew before.
The Philadelphia show was built around the notion of Durand-Ruel’s gallery. Each painting included a typical curatorial plaque, with the artist’s name and the painting’s name, the date it was created, the medium, and a brief summary of the work. But each plaque also included information on when Durand-Ruel acquired the work and when he sold it.
And therein lay many a tale.
Some paintings were bought and sold within a matter of days. Others were held for months. A few were held for decades. In some cases, the artists reclaimed their work, only to return it to Durand-Ruel’s possession, after which it sold.
Those purchase notes completely changed the way I viewed the paintings. They were no longer just pretty pictures. And they weren’t just the calculated canvases that I’ve learned how to analyze — with specific applications of paint, with color schemes and artistic tricks.
They were commodities, bought and sold, in a market largely created by Durand-Ruel. The dealer held salons, at which he educated potential buyers about the new painting. He curated shows, bringing Impressionism to the establishment (and enduring scathing criticism.) He built a market where none had existed before.
As I walked through the exhibit, I kept thinking about the current writing field. With the advent of self-publishing, we’re watching a change in publishing similar to the change over which Durand-Ruel presided. The old gatekeepers (of traditional publishing, of the Paris Salon art show) are losing their tight grip. New models are emerging, with artistic experimentation in form (Monet’s series paintings, boxed sets of multiple novellas.)
(I also thought about how Durand-Ruel functioned in ways similar to an agent — he promoted his artists, selling them to collectors. And he often loaned them money when they were in particularly difficult straits — something I was told on day one never to expect from my agent (but I knew of people who had borrowed from him in the past!))
We bought the catalog from this show, and I look forward to reading it in detail. Who knows? There might be a story or three lurking behind those pictures!
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
D is for Determination.
At first glance, it seems that anyone can write. We all wrote book reports in elementary school. We wrote five-paragraph essays after that. We wrote papers in college, and some of us wrote theses for our undergraduate or graduate degrees. The vast majority of us complete some form of writing every single day in our jobs.
Everybody writes. So who needs determination?
The rational writer does.
It takes determination to carve out the time to write anything that isn’t required. We all have dozens of demands on every second of our time. Family, friends, work, health, personal goals—they all take time to maintain. When you decide to add writing into the mix, you must steal time from some other aspect of your life. When that aspect begins to push back (fun invitations, boring obligations, whatever), only the determined writer will persevere.
Of course, determination in carving out writing time isn’t the only challenge for the aspiring author. Once you share your work with critics, you’ll be faced with praise. But you’ll also be presented with a list of your work’s shortcomings. Many writers decide they’re through with the game at that point; they don’t have the determination to evaluate criticism, to accept the good points, and to discard the bad.
Addressing criticism requires revising one’s work. Yep, that requires determination as well. Revisions force a writer to rework (and re-rework and re-re-rework) text multiple times. Many authors get to the point that they literally can’t see the words on the page (or screen) any longer; their brains fill in the existing text with past versions, due to the overbearing familiarity of the words. Getting past that overload, that boredom, requires determination.
Once an author has created a definitive final draft of a book, the fun is only beginning. If he’s pursuing traditional publication, he needs to find an agent—a process that requires sending out multiple query letters. Most authors send queries in batches—half a dozen to first-tier agents, then half a dozen to the next-preferred group, etc. Agents have always been selective about taking on new clients, but in the publishing world’s current economic downturn, representation by a qualified agent is nearly impossible for new writers. Nearly impossible, but not completely impossible—that’s where determination kicks in, as writers query and query and query some more.
Even if an author hoping for traditional publication succeeds in landing representation, she still must find an editor willing to buy her book. That search can last for months or even years, as editor after editor reads, evaluates, and criticizes an author’s work. The process is grueling, with raised hopes dashed, especially in this era when an acquiring editor still needs to convince marketing and financial departments to take on a book. Once again, authors must remain determined to succeed. (Age-old advice is still the best advice: authors should work on writing a new book while they wait to sell an existing manuscript.)
Self-publishing does not allow a weak-willed author to skip the determination requirement. Self-published authors must educate themselves on every aspect of the publishing process. They must hire and manage professionals, master a complicated web of distribution, and remain committed when the details of running a publishing business change overnight at the whim of a vendor. (Amazon, anyone?) Skills mastered today may be useless tomorrow. Constant re-tooling requires fierce determination.
Once a book is available to readers, the promotional bandwagon begins (or, more accurately, continues—the rational writer has promoted his book before it hits the stands.) Structuring and executing a promotional plan requires endless determination. Some activities will work, but many will fail completely. Sales, for the vast majority of books, will be lower than the author hoped. Even in the face of less-than-ideal performance, though, the author must seek out the next promotional opportunity.
The ultimate promotion requires the most determination of all: starting a new book.
Every single stage of writing requires determination. The only way to maintain determination in so many ways for so long a time is to provide rewards for accomplished tasks. Some authors treat themselves to chocolate, some to wine. Others buy books to read for enjoyment. Some plan vacations—from walks around the block to field trips at museums to luxurious travel to foreign cities. The goal, of course, is to figure out rewards that don’t wipe out the benefits of determination. (Much like the dieter who rewards the loss of a pound with a candy bar, an author who rewards completion of a word goal with a week off from writing ultimately defeats himself.)
What challenges require the most determination to conquer in your writing career? What rewards do you give yourself for staying the course and achieving your goals?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
Saturday marked the 15th National Book Festival. I remember going to the first one, which was held on the National Mall, in massive tents, with chairs that tilted more than a little on the grassy lawn. The Festival was a brain-child of Laura Bush, and it brought thousands of readers to a common space, where they received brightly colored cloth bags, listened to dozens of authors, and had a chance to buy books by those speakers.
I wasn’t always a huge fan of the Festival. I somehow wanted it to be more than it was — to have panels relevant to my interests, to have authors more interesting to me, personally. (Also, the Festival was often the victim of horrible weather — heat or rain, which made spending a day outdoors an unattractive prospect.)
This year, the Festival was bigger than ever. It moved inside a couple of years ago (for a number of reasons, including ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the grass on the Mall.) It now takes over the Washington Convention Center for a single day, each “tent” becoming a huge meeting room, with projection screens to better see the speakers, with an entire exhibit floor of booths from supporting entities (AARP, Scholastic Books, the Washington Post, etc.)
And this year, I adored nearly every panel I went to. Gone are the days when authors primarily stood at a lectern and read from their works (with varying degrees of skill — truth be told, my finest National Book Festival memory remains watching Neil Gaiman read from Anansi Boys, while an extraordinarily animated sign language interpreter signed a chapter about a horrendous hangover…)
At this year’s Festival, only one author read from his work, and that reading was about two pages long.
Instead, authors talked. They talked about what made them right. They talked about what is important to them. They talked (a little) about process and (a lot) about how the publishing world told them they weren’t likely to succeed at various points in their careers.
I discovered that, in the future, I will pay good money to hear Walter Mosley speak — any time, anywhere. I heard David Baldacci tell a wonderful story that would make every author on earth feel better about people who are more successful than they. I listened to Laura Lippman talk about family and writing and balance and dark stories, and I felt as if I’d known her for years. I laughed with Stephan Pastis, getting new insights into the daily grind of creating a comic strip.
Alas, the weak point in the Festival was its inclusion of Romance as a genre. This inclusion was a Big Deal — it’s rare for Romance to be recognized as “legitimate” on a national stage. The Festival, though, seemed to be betting against Romance — they only included two hours of programming (compared with at least ten for most other genres), and that programming was from 7:15 p.m. to 9:15 p.m., when most Festival-goers had left for the day, or were taking dinner breaks before some of the big evening activities. While the speakers were good (and Beverly Jenkins, in particular, drew a huge crowd), they weren’t of the same national prominence as most other genres’ speakers.
I hope that, next year, the Festival will take steps to treat Romance more like other genres. But even if that is not the case, I’ll return. Because I can always use a reminder from other writers, about why they do what they do.
And because I now have a whole stash of new stories to tell. Did you hear the one about the author whose editor told him…
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
C is for Critique.
Criticism. Most of us hate it. We make excuses. We get defensive.
But criticism is the best way for an author to discover the flaws in his book. After days, weeks, months of working with specific characters and a specific plot, most authors lose some perspective. They need an outside opinion about what is working and what is flawed. Enter the critique partner.
Critique partners are trusted individuals who read and evaluate a book it’s in a final state. These people go by many other names—you might call them your beta readers, or your critique group, or your writers group. Most authors have more than one critique partner, and they learn different things from different critics. One partner might excel at catching plot mistakes, gaps in storytelling or oversights in timeline that destroy the credibility of a story. Another partner might be best at noting character inconsistencies, those times when an author makes a character do something completely unexpected, solely to advance a plot. Yet another partner might point out factual mistakes or grammar errors or any of a million other details that keep a book from being its best.
Ideally, an author assembles a team of critique partners who address all these areas, along with any other known weaknesses. It’s difficult to hand over one’s work, purposely presenting it to people who are likely to tear it apart. Yet, the improvement in the ultimate product is worth that challenge.
There are multiple methods for receiving criticism (most of which are designed to minimize the sting.) Some authors conduct all critique work online—they submit their files electronically, and they receive comments electronically. That computerized distance translates to an emotional distance. The author can temporarily stop reading criticism if it becomes difficult to process. She can rant and rave in the privacy of her own home, without building permanent barriers to communication with her critique partners. This method, though, can lead to a lack of understanding; without direct time-synced communication, the critic and the author might inadvertently be at cross-purposes.
Other authors conduct critique work in person, at weekly or monthly meetings. Many of these sessions follow a workshop model, where each member of the critique group presents his comments within a limited time period (for example, three minutes.) During that presentation time, the author must remain silent (except, in some cases, to ask for a clarification of a specific point.) The author then has a limited time period to respond to all the issues raised. This method allows each critic and the author to present points in a planned, methodic fashion. It also reduces purely emotional responses. This method, though, requires real-time communication, either in person or through an electronic tool such as Skype. It also requires restraint on all parties, who must stick with time limitations and speaking restrictions.
Yet another model involves direct, ongoing exchanges between the author and his critics, without limitations on time or subject matter, either in person or by a Skype-like tool. Critics and the author make statements and ask questions without restraints on time or subject matter. This method allows everyone to flesh out ideas more completely—critics can state their problems with a work, and authors can delve more deeply, pinpointing specific issues. This method, though, has the potential to dissolve into debates. Aggressive critics and defensive authors can quickly derail the effectiveness of direct, unlimited communication.
Most authors both receive and give criticism. A few simple rules make it easier to deliver critiques that can be processed productively by an author:
- Begin with a general introduction. This is the place to state that you’ve never liked farmboy-saves-the-world epic fantasy novels so your comments should be taken with a grain of salt, or you had a bad experience at a high school pep rally so you have trouble finding a gym teacher a sympathetic heroine. Put your own biases on the table to allow the author to better understand your critique.
- Move on to positive statements. What works in this book? Why? Always find something positive about a work, even if it’s the formatting or enthusiasm of the author.
- Follow up with critical statements. What needs work in this book? Why? Start with larger topics (“this romance novel has no conflict between the hero and heroine”) and end with smaller topics (“the White House is on Pennsylvania Avenue, not Connecticut Avenue.”) Consider grouping smaller topics into catch-all paragraphs (“Geography: review a map of Washington DC to double-check locations for the White House, the Capitol, and the Convention Center.”)
- Present potential fixes as suggestions, rather than as mandatory statements. (“Consider making the heroine a blind orphan to heighten the tension with her fellow boarding school students” instead of “Make Sally blind.”) If you don’t have a potential solution to a problem, admit as much.
Critique partners offer authors valuable insight into what works and what does not work in a book. Sometimes, that criticism is directly on point—the mere statement of the problem is enough to help an author see what needs to be fixed. Other times, an author concludes that a critic is mistaken—she doesn’t understand the book, or she isn’t familiar with a particular sub-genre, or she was having a bad day as she wrote her criticism. Even in those cases, the rational writer considers the criticism as a warning that the reader was pulled off track at that particular point. Often, a critic finds fault with a particular aspect of a book (e.g., “your heroine sounds whiny when she talks to her best friend”) but an author discovers a completely different fix (e.g., the heroine shouldn’t be talking to her best friend in that scene; instead, she should be taking steps to solve her problem more directly.) Critics aren’t omniscient, but they can be good barometers of when a story succeeds.
Some authors find that critique relationships have a limited lifespan. Most critics have “pet peeves” and most authors have “darlings.” If a critique partner cannot abide an author’s recurring theme, character, or plot point, it might be time to make a separation. Some critique partners focus on minutiae, losing track of the author’s sorely needed big picture issues. Others present their critiques so abrasively that a reasonable author cannot process the criticism.
Similarly, some authors choose not to follow any advice from any critic; they present book after book containing the same issues. Or authors may shift into writing sub-genres that a critique partner cannot adequately review.
At these times, authors and critics owe it to each other to speak plainly about their needs. If minor (or major!) changes in the relationship can fix the problems, they should be made. But time is too valuable for authors and their critique partners to continue working together without productive criticism. If accommodations cannot be made, critique partnerships should end so that new bonds can be formed with other partners.
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.
My mother (who is an avid reader, but not a writer) is consistently amazed by the way writers help other writers, especially with regard to self-publishing. I tell her about the conversations I enjoy at writers conferences or about the way New York Times bestselling authors take time out of their production schedules to beta read my work or about asking my writer-idols to breakfast so I can pick their brains about new-to-me subgenres, and my mother just gapes with astonishment.
Sometimes, I gape too.
When I practiced law, there wasn’t a lot of lawyers helping lawyers. In law school, there were times when I went to the stacks to retrieve a case, and I found the pages I needed had been cut out of the reporters. As a practicing litigator, one of my primary case strategies was not to assist my opponents; I learned to file briefs at times that made responses inconvenient, and I honed my ability to answer questions truthfully but without illumination.
As a librarian, however, my entire stock-in-trade was being helpful. I responded to questions from patrons. I anticipated questions from library users who had not yet entered my office. I worked with other librarians to collect resources for our community and to share those resources. (In fact, we had an active inter-library loan program that resulted in such strong ties that we all exchanged edible holiday presents in December and gained multiple pounds before each new year!)
Yesterday exemplified the way I’ve adapted those librarian skills to my writing. Yesterday morning, I spent 1.25 hours on the phone with an acquaintance, a woman I’ve known for years in my local Romance Writers of America chapter (and once ran into, completely by surprise, at the Tower of London!) She is considering a shift from a 100% traditional publishing career to a hybrid career, and she wanted some advice about the balance such a transition requires. Many of her questions were easy for me to answer, but some required me to think. A few questions required me to share relatively personal details — about my income, or my personal philosophy of success and failure, that sort of thing.
Then, last night, I reached out to a different writer acquaintance, a woman I’ve also known for years through RWA and because she and I briefly shared the same agent. Her day-job gives her the precise knowledge to analyze the accuracy of my small-town Christmas novella, Fly Me to the Moon. I emailed her and asked if she could read my draft and turn it around in a few short weeks. She responded within an hour and said she’d be happy to do so — she even offered to get the manuscript back to me in fourteen days.
What goes around, comes around. A rising tide lifts all boats. A bunch of other cliches.
Bottom line: I love helping other writers. And I’m incredibly grateful when other writers help me.
Who has helped you in your work (writing or otherwise!) lately?
Mirrored from Mindy Klasky, Author.