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A Post Most Auto-biographical: In which I take the Proust Questionnaire

Here I am feeding one of the bunnies that hops freely around White Point Beach Resort in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Here I am feeding one of the bunnies that hops freely around White Point Beach Resort in Nova Scotia, Canada. At this time of year, the beach is neither white nor resort-like (see the parka), but the bunnies made up for the weather.

In case you were wondering what I look like on the weekends, when I haven’t had my hair and makeup done for an author photo, the picture on the left was taken last weekend while I was away with a couple of girlfriends from some R&R.

And in case you were wondering how I might answer the Proust Questionnaire that is habitually found at the back of Vanity Fair magazine – you’re in luck! (I doubt anyone was wondering at all, but I’ve always wanted to take the questionnaire, and now Vanity Fair will have a head start on their profile of me when I become the J.K. Rowling of paranormal romance). When I took the interactive version of the questionnaire on Vanity Fair’s website ( here), I was intrigued to learn that my answers were similar to those given by Ray Charles (90.56% – cool!) and Bill O’Reilly (82.56% – erm, ok then).

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Great books, great food, great company.

2. What is your greatest fear? Giving up on my dreams.

3. Which historical figure do you most identify with? Dorothy Parker.

4. Which living person do you most admire? Dolly Parton.

5. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Taking out my frustrations on others.

6. What is the trait you most deplore in others? A lack of compassion.

7. What is your greatest extravagance? Eating in restaurants too often.

8. On what occasion do you lie? To spare someone’s feelings. To avoid impertinent or overly personal questions.

9. What do you dislike most about your appearance? Wearing glasses.

10. When and where were you happiest? Childhood summers spent outdoors, when I was free to pursue whatever interested me.

11. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I would care less what other people think of me.

12. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be? We would get together more often before it’s too late.

13. What do you consider your greatest achievement? Doing the right thing, even when I don’t want to.

14. If you came back as a person or thing, what would it be? I hope to be a dolphin.

15. What is your most treasured possession? A stuffed animal from childhood – “Willie Bear”.

16. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Guilt.

17. Who are your heroes in real life? Everyone who sacrifices comfort or security to pursue a dream. Everyone who sacrifices a dream to provide comfort or security to their family.

18. What is it that you most dislike? Being stared at.

19. How would you like to die? Peacefully and at an old age, before my husband.

20. What is your motto? Listen to your heart.

Another White Point photo with my lovely friend, Cheri (I'm the one on the right. People often mistake us for sisters/each other...do you see it?)
Another White Point photo with my lovely friend, Cheri. (I’m the one on the right. People often mistake us for sisters/each other…do you see it?)

Now that I’ve taken the questionnaire, I plan to revisit it in a year or two and see if my answers have changed. Over time, I’ve gone back and forth between feeling like I’ve changed so much, and then at other times feeling like it’s just circumstances that have changed, while I remain fundamentally the same person I always was.

What do you think – do people change fundamentally over time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tips from Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Kobo’s Director of Self Publishing and Author Relations

Beach kobo by Jennie Faber. CC BY 2.0.
Beach kobo by Jennie Faber. CC BY 2.0.

As a member of Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada (RWAC), a Canadian chapter of Romance Writers of America, I am fortunate to have access to a wide variety of guest speakers, workshops, retreats and other writing events.

At RWAC’s April meeting, we were very pleased to welcome guest speaker Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Kobo’s Director of Self Publishing and Author Relations, and an author himself.

So without further ado, here are just a few highlights of Mark’s presentation:

  • The 3 “P”s of self publishing success;
  • Pricing advice from Kobo; and
  • Inside information on how books get featured on Kobo and why.

 1. The 3 “P”s of self publishing success

As we all know – and have heard ad infinitum – patience, practice, and perseverance are the only ways to really be successful as a writer. “Overnight” successes make for sexy headlines, but in most cases, years of effort have gone into those successes. What distinguishes Mark’s advice from this old (but true) chestnut is the fact that he expands on the traditional advice to just keep swimming – er, writing.

From a branding perspective, the trick is to just keep writing with your target audience in mind (think of Stephen King’s Constant Reader). If you don’t know who you’re trying to reach with your book – guess what? You probably won’t. In addition to this, you need to provide the best all-around book that you can, which means it must be of superior quality in all respects, not just in terms of writing. According to Kobo’s statistics, the success of a book is directly related to the quality of its editing and cover.

2. Pricing advice from Kobo

In his time at Kobo, Mark has observed that three things are necessary to ensure sales when pricing an e-book:

  • pricing deliberately;
  • pricing responsively; and
  • pricing often.

Authors are most successful and achieve highest sales when they price deliberately, taking into account things like genre (romance prices are low compared to other genres, but more units are bought by the average reader), book length, and comparator titles. They should also be aware of the dreaded “Dead Price Point” – $1.99. For some reason, books of all lengths and genres sell poorly at $1.99, and do better at either $.99 or $2.99 and up.

Pricing responsively refers to the idea that self-published book prices don’t need to be – and shouldn’t be – static. Since the author is in control, she has the power not just to take advantage of marketing opportunities, but to create them for herself. If you’ve written a book set on Halloween, for example, why not offer a sale in the days leading up to the holiday?

Or say you’ve written a series. You might want to consider making the first book free. In one example, Kobo found that 12,000 readers downloaded a free e-book, but only 2,000 actually opened it, and only about 350 read the whole thing. Of those who read the book, however, 50% went on to buy more books from the author, and the total downloaded units helped push the book higher in the rankings to increase its visibility.

Finally, don’t be afraid to try different pricing strategies. One bestselling author found that when she increased her book’s price from $5.99 to $6.99, her sales improved at iBooks and Barnes & Noble, stayed the same at Kobo, and decreased at Amazon. While many authors would have panicked at the hit on Amazon (the Holy Grail of self publishing, to some), the author decided to wait a while and see what happened. To her delight, sales at Amazon went back to previous levels within a week and a half and stayed high everywhere else, meaning she was now moving more units than ever and making more money on each book.

3. How books get featured

When asked how Mark and his team decide to feature an author in Kobo’s digital “front window”, the answer was simple – it’s a combination of serendipity and good planning on the author’s part. On the good luck side of things, Mark has featured artists that he has gotten to know through conferences, readings, podcasts, and networking. But no matter how much he or the marketing team likes an author, they still have to take into account the financial realities of selling books online.

The biggest challenge to an e-book retailer in promoting indie authors is price point. When a book is priced at $.99, the author’s share is $.45. This means that Kobo’s share of a sale is $.54, before costs associated with processing a credit card transaction. On the other hand, an author’s share of a book priced at $9.99 is $6.99, leaving $3.00 for Kobo before costs. This doesn’t mean that books priced at $.99 don’t get featured, but it does mean that when there is a choice between two equally great books, the one that will generate more money (or at least not cost Kobo money) is the one that gets top billing.

 

For more information on Kobo’s self publishing hub, check out Kobo Writing Life here. While it’s no secret that I’m seeking traditional publication (it says so on the “About Me” page of the website), I am intrigued by the concept of hybrid authorship. If and when I’m ready to go ahead with self publication, working directly with Kobo looks like a great choice. (I have not been remunerated in any way for blogging about Kobo – it just looks like a genuinely great bunch of people who believe in indie authors).

The Life Authorial: How to be a great critique partner

The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.

The Algonquin Hotel, New York City by OpenPlaques. CC by 2.0.
The Algonquin Hotel, New York City by OpenPlaques. CC BY 2.0.

Throughout the Roaring ’20s, the Algonquin Hotel in New York City was the daily meeting place for “The Algonquin Round Table”, one of the most famous “critique groups” of all time. Composed of writers and critics, its members traded “wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms“, which were published in newspapers across the country (from Wikipedia).

Although they were the founders of The New Yorker magazine, comprised the literary in-crowd of their day, and served as an inspiration to up-and-coming young writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, they were also accused of rehearsing their witticisms in advance, and of being overly concerned with their images and with elaborate practical jokes*. Among themselves, they used the more self-aware moniker of “The Vicious Circle”, and founding member Dorothy Parker later commented that:

“The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them”.**

By comparison, most of us don’t have the luxury of daily hotel luncheons at which we can trade jokes and practice our witticisms, so we do our best with the time and resources that we have – and one of the most important of those resources is feedback from other readers and writers. When starting out, the thought of showing your work to someone can be daunting, but the odds that you will write a masterpiece with no input or advice from others is slim.

So where do you look for critique partners and what do you do when you find them?

In my experience, the best feedback will come from like-minded writers who understand your genre and are at approximately the same level of skill and experience. This isn’t to say that you won’t find exceptions that work – I’m so far unpublished, and one of my partners has published more than half a dozen novels – but there does need to be some common ground. For example, if you’re writing inspirational romance about Amish heroines and I’m writing horror erotica, the odds are good that we won’t be on the same page.

Finding critique partners as a new writer can be frustrating. There are a lot of places on the internet that encourage us all to help each other succeed as part of a “writer’s code”, but it’s hard to tap into that if you don’t actually know any other writers. I’ve found that sites geared toward helping writers collaborate and network are the most fruitful places to look, and my own critique partner relationships have developed as a result of my memberships at Romance Divas and Ladies Who Critique.

Typical critique partner etiquette is to trade a chapter or two with someone whose profile and work looks interesting before committing to an entire manuscript exchange. This way, you can find out if each of you “get” the other’s work, and if your editing styles are a good match.

Once you’ve exchanged chapters, determined that you’re a good fit, and have your new critique partner’s manuscript in hand, the next step is to actually provide feedback. Here are a few tips on how to make sure you and your partner get the most out of your relationship:

1. Accentuate the positive.

There’s more to being a good critique partner than just telling someone what’s wrong with their work – it’s important to let them know what they’re good at, too. As a new writer, it’s hard enough to deal with feelings of self-doubt and self-consciousness without being told that there aren’t any redeeming qualities to your work. Be truthful, but be kind.

2. Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses.

My personal style of critiquing is very micro – I point out issues with plotting and character development if I see them, but I also work on a “line editing” level and make changes to spelling and grammar. I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) I mostly just can’t help myself; and 2) this is the sort of detailed feedback I like to receive. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that this sort of editing is mostly subjective. Proper grammar is proper grammar, but  word choice, punctuation, and dialogue are used in different ways for effect, not just technical correctness. Just because I have a personal dislike for semi-colons, it doesn’t make them “wrong”.

3. Be gracious.

This point isn’t about commenting on someone else’s work, but it’s one of the most important things to keep in mind when receiving feedback on your own. Someone else has taken time – often hours – out of their life to help you. To be a good critique partner, you don’t have to agree with all of their suggestions, but you do have to appreciate their efforts. It can be hard to hear that your heroine is “too stupid to live”, but the correct response is not to explain to your critique partner why she is wrong (she’s probably not) or to criticize her. Just smile, say thank you, and move on. Whether you change your work or not is up to you, and you’ll likely get worse reviews when you’re published – everyone does.

For more tips on how to be a great critique partner, check out these other resources:

  • Karen Henley points out 7 Tips for Receiving Critique. My favorites are numbers 1 and 6 – weigh the critique according to the skill and knowledge of the critiquer, and realize that if you don’t catch your mistakes, the public will.

 

*from  Herrmann, Dorothy (1982). With Malice Toward All: The Quips, Lives and Loves of Some Celebrated 20th-Century American Wits. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. pp. 17–18. ISBN 0-399-12710-0 at p.29, courtesy of Wikipedia.

**from Herrman at p.85, courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

Retro Reads: Domestic Suspense

Retro Reads is a series of posts highlighting the best, most interesting, and most hilarious trends of the fiction of yesteryear.

"Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Romantic Suspense", edited by Sarah Weinman
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Romantic Suspense, edited by Sarah Weinman (Penguin, 2013).

I’m halfway through the book pictured at left, and I have to say – It. Is. Brilliant. The introduction from editor Sarah Weinman is informative, engrossing, and entertaining, and the stories chosen for the book proper are no less so. As advertised, this collection educates the reader about the true “trailblazers of domestic suspense”, women who paved the way for books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl“2012’s most popular and critically acclaimed suspense novel” (Weinman, p.xv).

While I’m a dedicated devotee of the male hardboiled “greats”, I couldn’t be more thrilled to discover an entire generation of female crime writers whose careers spanned the same heyday, just waiting for me to discover them. As I’ve written here before, there’s certainly no shortage of women crime writers – including hardboiled writers – but many of us are criminally ignorant of their existence. With this spectacular collection, Weinman is helping to remedy that.

So what exactly is domestic suspense, and what makes it different from regular suspense?

Domestic suspense, Weinman explains, is more nuanced than a lot of male-authored, male-dominated crime fiction. It is less concerned with “writing wrongs and playing by rules”, and more interested in blurring boundaries. It’s about ordinary people – particularly women – “trying to make sense of a disordered world with small[er] stakes” (Weinman, p.xviii).*

Yes, the characters are concerned with crime, but they’re concerned with it insofar as it affects their friendships, marriages, and inner selves. Which is not to say that their concerns are small or petty – in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, female protagonists are confronted with (and are the perpetrators of) thefts, murders, betrayals and sundry other crimes, committed for reasons as varied and conflicted as any motivation found in Chandler or Hammett.

At the time the stories in this collection were written, women were facing a changing world, shaped by WWII and its aftermath, much as we are shaped by modern conflicts and an evolving society today. And that’s what makes domestic suspense so relevant – so keenly, thoroughly modern – despite the now-retro, sometimes quaint settings and dialogue of the stories featured in the anthology.

As Paula L. Woods says in her L.A. Times review of the book, for many readers it is the psychological complexity of domestic suspense that sets apart stories like those in Weinman’s collection and novels like Flynn’s Gone Girl. The twists and turns are more real, more relevant to our daily lives, as they “extrapolat[e] commonplace fears about safety of children or marital infidelity into compelling fiction”.

In one of my favorite stories from Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, Nedra Tyre’s “A Nice Place to Stay” paints a picture of a woman whose entire existence has been categorized by poverty and unfairness, but who still wants only the titular nice place to stay. Relegated by life to the role of a constant domestic, the protagonist eventually finds her ideal place, but as Weinman points out in the introduction to the story, “a nice place to stay” can mean very different things to different people.

For interviews, book reviews, author bios, articles and more on the subject of domestic suspense, check out the website for Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

 

* I don’t actually agree that the stakes are smaller for most of the women in these stories, or in modern domestic suspense – to me, it feels like this statement relegates women’s concerns to a “lesser” sphere than men’s – but the point is arguable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Life Authorial: Choosing a pen name

The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.

Pilot Hi-Tecpoint & Precise by bfishadow. CC by 2.0.
Pilot Hi-Tecpoint & Precise by bfishadow. CC by 2.0.

So I chose this photo because: 1) pens, duh; and 2) the Hi-Tecpoint writes so smooothhh (picture me saying that in a James Brown sort of voice), I can easily picture myself using it to sign my name on the crisp new pages of my super-mega-like-whoa bestseller.

The first hurdle, of course, is to write the book, but I’ll put the trivial details aside for a moment to talk about what’s really important – the pen name! In deciding whether to use a pen name or not (I do), there are several factors to consider, including:

  • How difficult is it to pronounce your real name?
  • How common is your real name?
  • How dorky is your real name?
  • How embarrassing/shocking/controversial is what you’re writing?

My real name isn’t particularly difficult to sound out or spell, and I don’t think it’s all that dorky, but there are different variations of it and folks outside my geographic area have been known to have trouble pronouncing it.

On top of all that, it’s a fairly common-ish name where I’m from, and I didn’t want it to be immediately obvious to everyone I know that I write a little – ahem – purple prose from time to time. So it was pretty much a no-brainer for me to decide I wanted a pen name.

And if the above wasn’t enough to convince me, there’s something that’s just plain fun about a pen name – as Nora Roberts once said, she assumed all romance authors used a nom de plume*.

So now that you know you want or need a pen name, how do you go about choosing one?

1. Say your name, say your name. 

First of all, say your potential name out loud and ask yourself if it sounds like a porn star, as Angela James suggests in this great blog post at Carina Press. If you call yourself something like Candy Jane Stiletto, you’re going to attract a very different sort of audience than if you call yourself Tolstoy J. Auteur. Keep in mind whether or not you’ll actually be embarrassed to use this name professionally, and have people address you by it in public.

2. Consider your intended audience. 

Do you want your book to appeal to fans of chick lit or middle grade fantasy? Romantic suspense, or military thrillers? There are certain naming conventions across various genres, and christening yourself in the tradition of your genre can help readers associate you with a certain type of work. I chose the “FirstName, Initial, LastName” convention because although my work falls very definitely in the romance camp, I’m also heavily influenced by sci fi and mystery writers like Donald E. Westlake, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Philip K. Dick (Ks are popular, apparently).

3. Will you be able to remember and respond to your name?

choose your own adventure 138: dinosaur island by Chris Drum. CC by 2.0.
choose your own adventure 138: dinosaur island by Chris Drum. CC   by 2.0.

If all goes according to plan, you will someday be a big, huge, famous author whose fans go crazy whenever you speak at a conference, and call for you in the street. When they yell out, “Candy Jane, we love you!”, will you automatically turn and look, or will you fail to recognize that they’re speaking to you?

(If the latter, you manage to alienate a big-time reviewer and sink your career. The End.)

4. Does the name make practical sense?

  • Will readers be able to say and spell it? And more importantly, find you online and in bookstores?
  • Is the name you’ve chosen even more common than your real name? (If so, you’re kind of missing the point.)
  • Is there another author already using the name you’ve chosen?
  • Are you able to write the name with sufficient ease and legibility for book signing purposes?

5. Is your domain name still available for purchase, and are the associated social media handles still available?

As James points out in her post, “if you search for a domain name and it’s available, be prepared to buy it, even if you haven’t settled on that name. It’s worth the $7 to $10 investment per domain to reserve a few options. There are people who watch sites like GoDaddy, to see what people search for, and then buy it, hoping you’ll come back and decide you want it and pay a higher price for it.”

The same goes for Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. Even if you aren’t ready to start establishing your presence on all channels, it will be an asset later on to have these accounts already ‘reserved’.

*From an interview excerpted from the March/April 2002 issue of Book magazine, at barnesandnoble.com.

On Writing: Life Hacks to Help You Write

Pills by  .v1ctor Casale. CC by 2.0.
Pills by .v1ctor Casale. CC by 2.0.

What if a pill could make you rich and powerful?

This is the tagline attached to 2011’s Limitless, a film about struggling writer Eddie Morra, who is able to access 100% of his mental abilities with the help of a mysterious, experimental pill. Predictably, mayhem ensues as the miracle drug turns out to be more than the writer bargained for.

While Morra’s use (or rather, abuse) of the fictional NZT48 enables him to write like a fiend, attract women like Casanova, and speak new languages effortlessly, there is unfortunately no miracle drug in real life that can make us all better, smarter, more productive versions of ourselves.*

So this is where life hacks come in.

Life hacking “refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency” (from Wikipedia), and in the writing context, life hacks can be used by authors to provide motivation, increase output, and improve the quality of that output.

Here, I discuss four major obstacles that commonly prevent authors from meeting their goals, and what to do about them:

Pomodoro Kitchen Timer for Action Logging by AndyRoberts Photos. CC by 2.0.
Pomodoro Kitchen Timer for Action Logging by AndyRoberts Photos. CC by 2.0.

1. Manage Your Time

Something that many authors, myself included, struggle with is finding time to just sit down and write. It always seems like there’s some other writing-related task that needs to be done, and sometimes we end up putting our blog updates, social media, and critique partners ahead of our own WIPs (work in progress).

So how do we keep all these demands on our time from interfering with our actual writing?

  • Schedule writing time into your life – and stick to it. This tip may seem obvious, but many people write when the spirit moves them, rather than as a matter of routine. I’m guilty of this all the time, but it really is an ineffective way to pursue and achieve your writing goals. If you allow yourself to feel overwhelmed by your day job, family obligations, and to-do list, you will end up trying to “sneak in” writing time around everything else. Instead, try scheduling blocks of time into your day or week, and then stick to them. Let your family and friends know that this time is off-limits, but that you will make yourself available to them once your scheduled time is up.
  • The Pomodoro technique. This method of time management was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, and takes its name from a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro being the Italian word for tomato). In this technique, you work in set intervals of time, with short breaks between each. Traditionally, intervals of work are 25 minutes long and are used to tackle a specific task. When your timer goes off, you put your work down and take a 3-5 minute break. Every four intervals, you take a longer break (say 15-30 minutes). If you complete a task before an interval is up, you devote the rest of the interval to overlearning – practicing your newly learned skill beyond the point of initial mastery so it becomes automatic. (So if your goal was to finish a chapter, and you’re done early, you might find a writing prompt online and practice writing dialogue, or showing instead of telling).
  • Use technology to hold yourself accountable. With countless time management apps and programs available, keeping track of where your time goes has never been so easy. I particularly like this Lifehack.org roundup of the Top 15 Time Management Apps and Tools. Just a few of the apps listed include:

focus booster, based on the pomodoro technique;

Toggl, which lets you know how much time you spend on projects and tasks via graphs, charts, and timers; and

focus@will, which claims to combine neuroscience and music to boost    your productivity.

stream of consciousness by Chicago Art Department. CC by 2.0.
stream of consciousness by Chicago Art Department. CC by 2.0.

2. Minimize Distractions

One of the biggest obstacles to my writing is a tendency to ignore certain distractions. If the phone rings? I answer it instead of letting it go to voicemail. A new email comes in? I have to check it right away.

So how do I ever get anything done? Here are two things that work for me:

  • Set yourself up for success. Pick a spot that you find comfortable enough to hang out in for a solid block of time, and gather up all the writing accessories you need. This way, you’re not constantly jumping up for a cup of tea, your power cord, or a snack. Figure out whether you work best facing the window or a wall. Ask yourself if you feel more productive when you get dressed and sit at a desk, or if you’re able to settle in better in your pajamas on the couch. Whatever your ideal routine is, figure it out and then give yourself permission to follow it. Just for fun, here are a few routines used by famous authors, from brainpickings.org:

John Steinbeck kept twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk and used them so heavily, his editor had to send him round pencils to combat the calluses he developed from the traditional hexagonal shape;

Anthony Trollope began every day promptly at 5:30 A.M., and wrote 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch; and

when Victor Hugo was writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he put himself under house arrest and locked away all of his clothing, save a large grey shawl, to avoid the temptation to go outside.

  • Avoid the internet. Or better yet, just turn it off. Even critically-acclaimed, bestselling authors like Zadie Smith have had to resort to internet applications to – ironically – turn off the internet in order to get anything done. In fact, the UK Daily Mail notes that Smith relied on such apps so heavily in writing her latest novel, she thanked them in the acknowledgements.
posslope2_2 by blamevaraia. CC by 2.0.
posslope2_2 by blamevaraia. CC by 2.0.

3. Increase Your Output

One of the most well known stories on the internet of how to increase your output is that of author Rachel Aron. On her blog, she describes how she went from writing 2,000 words per day to 10,000 without increasing the time spent writing. Instead of writing longer, Aron advises, write smarter.

Her number one tip is to know what you’re writing before you write it. This will minimize the time spent – or wasted – trying to think your way out of plot holes and seemingly un-resolvable cliffhangers. For those of us who are natural “pantsers” (authors who write from the “seat of our pants”, rather than planning things out), this advice can be hard to follow. However, I do find that I’m able to write much faster when I have an outline.

Secondly, Aron advocates paying attention to the time – how long it takes to write a certain number of words, and what factors affect that time. You should also pay attention to when you reach peak efficiency, and when it drops off. Aron, for example, found that the longer she wrote, the faster she wrote, up to a point when she would become too “brain fried” to continue.

Finally, Aron points to enthusiasm. While the advice to write every day, no matter what, is often touted online, her practice is only to write on days when she is able to muster enough knowledge, time, and enthusiasm to do justice to what must be written next. To get excited about the day’s work, Aron plays a scene through in her head, looking forward to the parts that work, and getting rid of the ones that don’t. This way, she is always eager to start, and enjoys the added bonus that her work improves from the visualization.

*I include often-abused “study drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall in this statement, as I firmly believe that non-prescribed use of medications will eventually catch up to you in a negative way. (And of course, I am not suggesting that those medications shouldn’t be used by people with legitimate medical concerns who can be helped by them).

On Writing: Educating Myself on Diversity in Fiction

Diversity Mask from the ArtWorkers exhibition at the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin, Missouri. See license here.
Diversity Mask from the ArtWorkers exhibition at the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin, Missouri. CC by 2.0.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity in genre fiction – where to find it, how to write it, and what it means. In my own writing, I aim to include people of diverse backgrounds and histories, whether cultural, racial, sexual or otherwise, but like many authors, I worry about whether I’m “doing diversity right”.

I worry that I will create stereotypes and tropes (commonly occurring devices) through ignorance, even as I try to avoid them, since diversity in fiction necessarily calls for writing about people whose cultures are foreign to me and whose experiences I haven’t shared. But I also don’t want to not include those characters just for fear of getting them wrong.

So what am I doing about it?

Well, first and foremost, I’ve been researching. I’ve been reading articles, essays, and blog posts for months, trying to understand different points of view and how my own contribution to the written word can impact the world around me. I’ve been learning about what differentiates an innocent trope, such as “robots” or “time travel” in science fiction, from the harmful – like the “Magical Negro”, a cliché in which a person of color with supernatural powers, wisdom, or insight appears for the sole purpose of helping a white character.

Although I had seen this character over and over, it wasn’t until recently that I really became aware of it in the media I consume. According to Wikipedia, “critics use the word “negro” because it is considered archaic, and usually offensive, in modern English. This underlines their message that a “magical black character” who goes around selflessly helping white people is a throwback to stereotypes such as the “Sambo” or “Noble savage””*.

After reviewing this list of Magical Negro occurrences in fiction (which is far from exhaustive), I realized that not only had I been consuming the trope for years, I’d been buying into it without thinking. And so do a lot of really wonderful, well-intentioned readers and writers. As Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu points out in her 2004 Strange Horizons article “Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes”, my own favorite author’s frequent use of the Magical Negro may be problematic, but it doesn’t make him a racist.

Nor is the problem of the Magical Negro inherent any time a black character commits an act of self-sacrifice for the good of a white character. Rather, per Okorafor-Mbachu, “[the] problem becomes apparent when viewed in context: 1) The fact that this character is typically the only (or one of very few) black character[s] in the story. 2) The history of slavery and subsequent race relations in the United States, and the world. 3) The Magical Negro’s low position in life.”

Which leads me to a really major conclusion, one that I thought about long and hard before deciding that diversity in fiction was even an issue I felt ready – or qualified – to discuss.

Ready? Here it is:

It’s ok to make mistakes.

Really great, famous authors make them, and regular people make them, and I will undoubtedly make them too. But the real mistake is in not thinking about the big issues that affect all of us. Like diversity, or privilege, or how our contributions to the world will affect it.

So far, I haven’t been guilty of the use of more obvious clichés like the Magical Negro, but all my reading has left me aware of other things that could be improved upon in my writing. For example, issues of diversity are not limited to just primary or supporting characters – they extend to worldbuilding as well.

As Geena Davis (star of Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own, and founder of her namesake Institute on Gender and Media) discusses in her excellent December 2013 essay on sexism in Hollywood, even crowd scenes in movies are “enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space”. Aside from female characters’ hypersexualization and lack of occupations in family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), Davis points out the following:

  • there are roughly three male characters for every female;
  • that crowd and group scenes in these films — live-action and animated — contain only 17 percent female characters;
  • and that the ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946.

So how do we address this issue?

Davis explains how we can very easily boost female presence in our writing:

“Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?”

Author Marie Lu also endorses the concept of flipping characters’ gender, race, or orientation in her “Writing Diverse Fiction: A Practical Guide”, and provides further useful tips on how to apply the Bechdel Test to your writing. While Lu cautions that the Test isn’t always accurate, and may be best used as a guideline than a hard and fast rule, the main point is that if your story features primary female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man, there’s a good chance that you’re on track to feminist writing.

As Lu says, we all mess up from time to time, but it is far better to try and fail than to ignore diversity altogether.

* from Jones, D. Marvin (2005). Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers. p. 35. ISBN 0-275-97462-6. OCLC 56095393.

The Life Authorial: Using photos on your blog

The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.

Blog Girl, after Norman Rockwell (detail) by Mike Licht. See license here.
Blog Girl, after Norman Rockwell (detail) by Mike Licht. CC by 2.0.

So, that girl with the computer? The one stuck in the olden days with the confused look on her face? That’s me, trying to figure out ‘the internet’.

Or to put it more specifically, trying to figure out ‘the blogging’.

As far as surfing, browsing, researching, and other basics go, I’m as web savvy as the next person. In fact, I actually capital-letters LOVE research. But to create something and put it online? That’s a whole ‘nother ball game. One that involves really hard things like…hacker-level HTML coding (or, y’know, cut and paste)…figuring out what blog ‘tags’ do (still not totally sure)…and most importantly, not ripping off other people’s work.

So what’s a poor, hair-bow-adorned, Victorian lass to do?

1. Never, ever assume that because “everyone else does it”, improper photo attribution is ok.

As blogger Roni Loren discovered, you CAN get sued for using photos you don’t own on your blog, even when you have the best of intentions. In this blog post, she recounts her experience of being sued after using a photo from Google Images with a disclaimerBecause she had seen many other blogs – some of them really ‘big’ blogs – using improperly attributed images this way, she assumed it was ok. Unfortunately for Loren, it wasn’t, and she ended up having to pay “money she didn’t have for a photo she didn’t need”.

Roni Loren’s blog post about her experience is not only helpful, but honest and really brave, and I highly recommend it.

2. Use images that you own, or which are licensed through Creative Commons.

The most obvious, simplest way to avoid copyright infringement and improper use of someone else’s work is to use your own. If you are not photograpically inclined, however, you can use work that has been shared with the world under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons is a “global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools“. What it is best known for is sharing copyright agreements with the public free of charge. These licenses can then be applied to artists’ work (by the artists holding copyright themselves – you can’t unilaterally license someone else’s work) to allow other people to use the work according to specific, defined circumstances.

One of the most well-known “hubs” for works available through Creative Commons licenses is photo-sharing site Flickr. The site offers artists different “levels” of licensing options for their work, and it groups images into easily navigated categories by license type.

3. Take the time to understand your rights and obligations.

Using Flickr as an example, let’s take a look at the different types of Creative Commons licenses out there:

Attribution license – this means that you may copy, distribute, and display an image provided under this license, so long as you give the author credit. You may also create derivative works from the originals, meaning you create something new using elements of the image. In this instance, you must still give the original author credit for use of their work.

Attribution-NoDerivs license – this means that you may copy, distribute, and display an image with proper credit, but you may not alter it or use it to create something new.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license – see above, with the added caveat that your use must be non-commercial.

ShareAlike license – if you create a derivative work from the original, you must distribute your work under the same license as the original.

You should also remember that while summaries and articles of your rights and obligations (like this one) might be helpful, they are not legal advice and are not a substitute for reading licenses yourself to determine what you can and cannot legally do with an image.

4. Respect the formal requirements of proper attribution (giving credit).

When using an image licensed under Creative Commons, it is not sufficient just to say it is subject to a CC license. To comply with the license, you need to provide more detailed information, including:

  • the title of the image;
  • the author’s name (a best practice is to link to the author’s profile page);
  • a link to the original source (for example, the Flickr site where the image can be found); and
  • a link to the license.

Creative Commons provides a handy, detailed guide (with examples!) on best practices for attribution here. And in case all of this seems overwhelming and stressful, try to keep in mind that CC stresses that there’s no need to make things overly complicated. As they say in their guide to best practices, “there is no one right way; just make sure your attribution is reasonable and suited to the medium you’re working with”.

5. Feel free to use work that is in the public domain or is being used for the purposes of “fair dealing” or “fair use”.

While you should always be sure to confirm your right to use an image before you post it on your blog, there are some circumstances in which no license is required. Some works exist in the public domain, meaning that they are not subject to copyright and can be used freely. Some artists choose to offer their work for free, and some older images (think decades, not years) have been in existence long enough that their copyright has expired. According to Wikipedia, the image of the Mona Lisa, for example, has been reproduced on everything from postcards and t-shirts to seaweed and computer chips.

Other images may be used without permission from their creator if they are being shared for purposes of “fair dealing” or “fair use” such as study, criticism, review, or news reporting. One frequent example of this is book bloggers’ use of unattributed cover images of books they are reviewing. In her FAQ, The Librarian Who Doesn’t Say Shhh! does a great job of explaining that this is ok because the images she uses fall under “useful article” criteria, and are copies of an inferior quality to the originals.

As always, you should be sure to confirm the copyright status of an image before using it. What constitutes “fair use” or “fair dealing” varies from country to country, and copyright laws may provide for differing lengths of copyright terms.

*Because I’m a lawyer in real life, I need to be extra careful not to lead anyone to believe I’m giving out free legal advice. The above discussion is a summary of information found online, and does not speak to specifics of circumstance or jurisdiction. This post should not, in any way, shape, or form be taken as legal advice.

Retro Reads: Hardboiled Fiction

Retro Reads is a series of posts highlighting the best, most interesting, and most hilarious trends of the fiction of yesteryear.

Image by Joel Kramer. See license here.
shells by Joel Kramer. CC by 2.0.

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
                                                      ― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, arguably the two biggest names in hardboiled fiction, ushered in the golden age of a new type of detective story when they introduced the world to their cynical, sarcastic antiheroes. More often than not down-at-the-heel, and always hard drinking, the ‘private dicks’ they created were men (and occasionally women) who had seen enough of the world to know they couldn’t change it. Unlike Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the detectives who populate Chandler and Hammett’s worlds are possessed of no particular genius or skill. When they are able to solve their cases, it is because they are persistent, or they are pissed off, or sometimes they just need the money.

Sometimes, they even do the right thing just because it is right.

In hardboiled fiction, the characters – good and bad – indulge in wholesale violence, and the heroes are prone to casual sex and strong language. They are insightful, yet sardonic narrators, and aren’t shy about voicing their observations to crime bosses, crooked cops, and dizzy dames. And just in case we doubted their toughness – their ‘hardboiled’ essence – there’s almost always a femme fatale waiting in the wings to be tangled with.

The genesis of the genre is relatively straightforward – in the beginning, there was Carroll John Daly. Daly’s work was published in Black Mask magazine in the 1920s, and often featured recurring character Race Williams. Though Daly is the lesser-known predecessor of Hammett and Chandler, he has been credited with producing the first-ever hardboiled private eye story, published in 1923 to beat out Hammett by a matter of months. At BlackMaskMagazine.com, Stephen Mertz argues In Defense of Carroll John Daly that Daly’s Race Williams was no less influential than Hammett’s Contintental Op, and was a staple of pulp magazines well into the 50s.

Fast on Daly’s heels came Hammett in the 1930s with his beloved Sam Spade, star of The Maltese Falcon, and Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. Spade was immortalized on screen by Humphrey Bogart in 1941, and Nick and Nora became the foundation of the recurring literary and cinematic trope of romantically involved partners-in-crime (detection). Though Hammett never wrote another novel starring the couple, he did pen two of the five sequels starring the duo that were adapted to film.

Raymond Chandler styled himself a detective writer in the late 30s, after losing his job to the Depression, and his first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. His iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, was a “lonely, honest, wisecracking, poetic, worldweary modern knight” (see Mertz, above), who, along with the others, advanced the modern archetype of the troubled, solitary avenger. Their influence is seen in characters such as the Shadow of the 30s, who asked “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”, to Rorschack of Watchmen fame in the 80s and 00s.

The Last Cop Out by Brendan Riley. See license here.
The Last Cop Out by Brendan Riley. See license here.

Though the heyday of hardboiled fiction is considered to have been the 30s to 50s, authors in every subsequent decade have imitated and paid homage to the early masters of the style, and modern incarnations of the hardboiled P.I. can be found under the imprint of Hard Case Crime, founded in 2004. Though the imprint’s covers are substantially more tame than Mickey Spillane’s 1973 The Last Cop Out, they stay true to the tough-guy, underworld feel of the ‘originals’, and have graced the work of mega best-seller Stephen King and one of my own personal favorites, Donald E. Westlake.

The modern hardboiled canon has also shifted to create room for female-authored work like Sue Grafton‘s ‘alphabet’ series, starring female P.I. Kinsey Millhone. Unfortunately, women authors of hardboiled fiction tend not to be as well known as their male counterparts. Though I haven’t read most of the authors on this list (embarrassingly, I haven’t actually heard of most of them), it looks like a good place to start.

Retro Reads: Vintage romance – the evolution of a genre

Retro Reads is a series of posts highlighting the best, most interesting, and most hilarious trends of the fiction of yesteryear.

Message From A Stranger by Marya Mannes (Dell 515, 1951) by Joseph Bremson. See license here.
Message From A Stranger by Marya Mannes (Dell 515, 1951) by Joseph Bremson. CC by 2.0.

Most of us have probably seen this sort of watercolor-foggy, beautiful-people romance cover before. Now a staple at yard sales, used book stores, and grandmothers’ basements, this type of image is characteristic of what comes to mind when we think about category romance publishers – especially the biggest of them all, Harlequin Romance.

What many people would be surprised to discover, though, is that Harlequin wasn’t always in the romance game. In fact, it once published a much more lurid, pulpy type of book, and was responsible for such titles as Pardon My Body: A tough expose of the American Underworld and You’re Lonely When You’re Dead.

vintage harlequin pardon my body

vintage harlequin lonely when dead

harlequin romance pulp art exhibit 1 and 2 by yawper. CC by 2.0.

This sensationalized approach to storytelling would carry over to the romance genre with the publication of what some call the first ‘modern’ romance novel. In 1972, Avon released The Flame and the Flower, which featured the heroine’s forced – ahem – deflowering, and was controversial for its graphic depiction of sex and violence.

While The Flame and the Flower‘s enthusiasm for baring it all raised eyebrows, however, it wasn’t quite a true ‘first’ in the genre – according to Wikipedia, even one of the earliest romance novels, a popular 1740 publication called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded was criticized for its licentiousness. Pamela was revolutionary for its almost exclusive focus on courtship and its narration from the female point of view, telling the story of a young maid imprisoned by her employer. Her virtue is, in the end, rewarded with a marriage proposal from her master, but not until he foils her repeated attempts at escape and tries to rape her .

Post Pamela, the genre brought us Jane Austen’s celebrated (though comparatively tame) romantic comedies in the early 1800s. Although Austen was not a particularly prolific author, her works have permeated our public awareness and inspired countless miniseries, films, spin-offs and parodies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?).

In the 1920s, there was a return to smut with the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (read it for free at Project Gutenburg), which was banned in countries all over the world and was the focus of a storm of obscenity trials across the globe. Georgette Heyer also came onto the scene in the 20s with her extensively researched Regency romances, giving rise to an entire subgenre.

The 1950s gave way to a spate of Harlequins and other mainstream romances featuring modern “career girls” (largely nurses and stewardesses), and on the heels of Avon’s foray into romance with The Flame and the Flower in the 70s, American author Janet Dailey sold her first romance to Harlequin, becoming their first (and at the time, only) American author. Dailey’s books provided an exciting new take on the genre, and readers were eager to read more about heroines who had adventures in the American West, had explicit sex with the hero, and generally did more than sit around waiting to be rescued.

Unfortunately for Dailey, she was discredited in the eyes of many when she was sued by powerhouse author Nora Roberts in 1997 for what turned out to be blatant plagiarism. Dailey passed away in December 2013, and is noted in a Washington Post obituary as a pioneer who left a complicated legacy. La Nora, as she is known to fans, continues to dominate the industry, and with more than 200 books to her name, is one of the most prolific writers in the history of the genre (or any genre).

Today, the genre continues to evolve, with new subgenres such as paranormal romance, romantic urban fantasy, and romantic science fiction gaining in popularity over the past 15-20 years. The most recent addition to the canon of romance subgenres is New Adult, which focuses on the “growing pains” unique to protagonists in their late teens and early 20s.

Another major shift in the genre is the move by many authors toward self-publishing – but that’s a whole other post!