October has been a busy month this year, and one of the best parts is the Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada writers’ retreat. Every year, a bunch of writer buddies get together at a gorgeous beach resort here in Nova Scotia for a weekend of writing, brainstorming, and fun. Although you definitely can’t swim at this time of year (unless you’re a member of the Polar Bear Club!), we always enjoy walks on the beach, feeding the bunnies that roam the resort, and delicious food at the main lodge.
Here in Canada, Thanksgiving just happened as well, and I have a lot to be thankful for. Last year at this time, I was an unpublished writer and was just starting to work on the manuscript I’ve entered into the SilverHart publishing contest. This year, I am a published author with one book out in the world and another on the way very soon. (Fury Scorned will be coming out on November 1, 2015!)
Thanks to all my readers for your awesome support – it means everything to me. And thanks to my fellow members of RWAC for your friendship and another fun retreat!
The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.
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.
The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.
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 particularlydifficult 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?
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.
As they say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other ones. In fact, for many people, having a photo taken is so uncomfortable, it rises almost to the level of a phobia*. But for those of us who aspire to literary greatness, there can be no yielding to our fear of getting out from behind our word processors. After all, as we’ve been told time and time again, image and online presence matter in this business.
So we might as well make the experience as fun and fulfilling as possible, right?
At least, that’s what I told myself when I was contemplating having a professional author photo taken…and oh man, am I glad that I did. Not only do I now have a photo that’s about a million times better than anything I could have come up with on my own – I have a photo I’m not embarrassed for the world to see. Sure, I still haven’t achieved Danielle-Steele-posing-in-a-ball-gown glamour (if that’s your thing), but I do look Nicola-R.-White-fabulous (which is totally a real adjective). And trust me, when your default pose is a grimace of pained awkwardness, that’s saying something.
So how did I achieve such – dare I say it – miraculous results?
First of all, I did what any researcher would do – I Googled. I found this awesome post by author Mary Robinette Kowal, which explains not just why you need an author photo, but how to find a photographer, how often to update your headshot, and what to bring to the shoot itself. I also liked this satirical article on 10 ways to take a bad author photo, from Salt Publishing.
Finally, I Googled a few authors I admire, and compared their photos to how I wanted to appear to my readers. Based on this highly scientific research, I knew enough to take a couple of different outfits to my photo shoot so I could try out different looks and personas.
For the shoot itself, I chose a photographer I had worked with previously, so we had a good rapport and the whole thing was both laid-back and professional. Knowing how poorly I photograph most of the time, this was the most important thing to me, even more than the setting, hair, makeup, or outfit. If I had gone with a photographer I wasn’t comfortable with, I know I wouldn’t have been able to show off my genuine, authentic self, and the whole thing would have been a waste of time and money.
Once arrangements had been made with the photographer, I took a good, hard look in the mirror and in my closet to assess what I had to work with, and what I could use some help with. Since I’m pretty happy with my wardrobe most of the time, and have only an average amount of skill at doing my hair and makeup, I opted to wear clothing I already owned and invest in having my hair and makeup done professionally on the day of the photos.
As I mentioned in my last post, a lot of us struggle with ‘outing ourselves’ as writers, and having my photo taken really helped with this. Not only did it force me to tell the photographer what the photos were for, I had to explain it all to my hairdresser and the woman who did my makeup. Aside from that, there were also a few random passers-by who stopped to watch the photo shoot itself. The whole thing was a little awkward, but it did make me feel more legitimate. It was also the first step toward creating my website, as I didn’t want to put anything online before I had some half-decent content to share.
All told, the whole experience cost me a few hours of time and a few hundred dollars, and the value I got in return was huge. While I recognize that not everyone is able to spend that much money on non-essentials, I highly recommend asking a professional photographer to take your author photo. If costs are a concern, you can probably brainstorm a few ways to keep them in check. For example, you could schedule your photo for the same day as your regular trim to avoid an extra, expensive trip to a hair stylist. If a professional photographer is definitely out of reach, you could also try a photography student, who may be willing to work with you for free in exchange for a chance to build his/her portfolio.
Last but not least, you should also keep in mind the possibility of any intellectual property issues that could arise as a result of your use of the photos. If you plan to post them online or use them commercially, you should make sure you and the photographer are both clear on what rights are held by whom, and whether licensing or attribution should be discussed*.
Intellectual property rights for authors is a topic I plan to discuss in another post(s), so stay tuned for more info.
*In a world where decidophobia and triskaidekaphobia exist, I find it hard to believe there’s no specific term for this fear, but there you have it. The internet wouldn’t lie, right?
*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. When I say you should be careful about intellectual property rights, I mean it only as a piece of common-sense information, like “you should be careful not to get run over when crossing the street”. I do not, in any way, shape, or form mean to advise anyone about the specifics of any agreement they have with their own photographer.