Friday, February 24, 2012

"Ground Control to Major Tom ..."

A few days ago America celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of John Glenn's historic orbital space flight. But space exploration has not been without its challenges: case in point, Russia's early entry, Laika the Space Dog (this is a true story, so if you're sensitive, you may want to stop reading here).

Everybody’s seen the picture of Laika the German shephered strapped into his capsule: noble, serene, ready to be launched into the void for the glory of Mother Russia. But did it ever occur to anyone (at the time, or now), the Russkies had no plan of bringing the besotted dog down? The Politburo just wanted the honor of sending the hound up; as for it coming back alive, bounding into the joyful waiting arms of little Alexei (or whoever) … meh.
Which leaves us with two unsettling mental pictures:

First, two days after the launch, Laika came down all right, in a hideous fireball somewhere over the bleak and trackless steppes.

Or second, its bones are up there still, silently orbiting.

Now go enjoy the day! *G*
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don't Let Life Pass You By, by JoAnn Durgin

Ever wonder how a writer's perception differs in terms of events, circumstances and the seemingly insignificant, mundane things of life?  Writers take mental snapshots of people, events, and places, and we hold them in our memories, imprint them on our hearts. Years later, I still remember some of those fleeting moments in time.

One of the most interesting things I ever wrote was on a tray liner at a Burger King while sitting in Piccadilly Circus in London as I observed a man interacting with a series of young women who slid into the booth across from him. It was pretty clear what his relationship was to those women. My heart ached for them, and it opened my eyes a bit to the ways of the world, that so-called "seamy underbelly" a small-town girl from Indiana had never glimpsed before. Then there was the bride outside a suburban Boston Marriott, dressed in her finery, running down the sidewalk alone at midnight. These are the kinds of mental images that stay with me.

Take the time to watch and observe carefully over the next few days, and you might be surprised. Just this morning on my way to work (a twelve-mile trip across a double-decker bridge stretching across the Ohio River dividing Indiana from Kentucky), I saw the following:

1. Four elderly women standing outside the Catholic church, hands clasped together, waiting until it was safe to cross the street. Reminded me of the yellow diamond-shaped street sign near our home in Massachusetts that read "Dear Crossing" with the silhouettes of a "finely-aged" man and woman holding hands in a crosswalk. My eyes well with tears when I see these women, as I often do. It's their morning routine. They'd been to the church, but I can't help but wonder about them. Are any of their husbands still living? How long have they known one another? Where did they meet? What I see is the deep friendship, the caring and the protectiveness they share.

2. An older man using a long metal stick, pointed at the end, to pick up trash on the side of the road. I see him most mornings as I turn the corner onto the main road from our neighborhood. He does his part to keep that part of the road clean and litter-free. But he always looks somber, sad, the lines on his face etched deep, his mouth downturned. I wonder if he lives alone, how he came to pick up the debris so faithfully as his daily mission, and what he thinks of those who throw their trash out their car windows with no regard.

3. Ironically, another kind of deer - a dead one, on the side of the road. A young one, judging by the size. Female. Can't help but think of Bambi recently rereleased (again). Love Thumper and Flower, but that movie makes me sad on so many levels. Just can't sit through it again.

4. A four-car pileup. Didn't look like anyone was hurt, thank the Lord, but a couple of cars were most likely totaled. Some drivers waiting to get past the accident scene were impatient, others bided their time. But almost all were on their cell phones calling work to say they'd be late. What did we ever do before cell phones were invented? They've changed the entire way we communicate. In some ways, like immediacy, it's good. In other ways, it's self-limiting and perhaps cuts us off from interacting and reaching out to new people.

5. A woman pulling down her rearview mirror and applying mascara as she waited to turn from 9th Street onto Market Street. I see this a lot. Is this grooming in the car part of her usual routine? Why would she risk poking her eye with a mascara wand? What could she possibly have been doing before leaving home? Is she single, married, with or without children? Maybe she'd been so busy taking care of everyone else in her family she hadn't taken time for herself. Or maybe she stayed up late the night before and opted to sleep in.

6. A homeless man, a cart loaded with his worldly possessions beside him on a downtown street, poking in a trash can for leftovers. Puffing on a cigarette. I thank the Lord it wasn't too cold last night. What kinds of things run through this man's mind? How does he spend his time? Does he know about the local mission and nearby shelter? Has he been there for the night? What kind of daily existence must he lead? That one's difficult for me. It's beyond the scope of my understanding, but at this point, I do what I can for him - I pray.

7. The Coca-Cola driver unloads his truck in front of my office building, chatting and smiling with the office worker walking toward the revolving doors. The man with the Volvo stops to ask for directions. The group of tourists heads to the Convention Bureau to hear the life story of Colonel Sanders or the Muhammad Ali Center to hear more about The Champ. The business men and women hurry across the street, wearing nametags, going to a seminar.  The Mercedes and the Lexus, with rushed drivers behind the wheel, speeding toward the stoplight, hoping to turn left before the light turns. You know the type - yellow means speed up, not use caution and prepare to stop.

8. Multiple school buses, parked in front of the Kentucky Center for the Arts (where I worked part-time until recently), with children lining up by the front steps, smiling and chattering, ready to see a special play. They're happy, full of the innocence and boundless faith of youth.  How exciting that is to see. Some of these children might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend a performance here. It's exciting for them, and it shows in their body language, their facial expressions. It makes me smile as I turn into the parking garage. I've seen a lot in just one trip to work, but I've seen things I'll imprint on my mind, my heart.

We can let the world pass us by, or we can stop and pay attention and use what we see to enhance our lives and our writing. Feel the emotion. Glimpse the beauty in life, the hope, and the joy, to balance out the inevitable sadness, the loneliness.  All the emotions that make up life.

Author BioJoAnn Durgin is the author of the popular contemporary romantic adventures, Awakening, and its follow-up, Second Time Around, published by Torn Veil Books. Her third book in the series, Twin Hearts, releases next month. JoAnn, her husband, Jim, and their three children live in her native southern Indiana after living in TX, CA, PA and MA. She likes to say she’s “been around in the nicest sense of the word.” She’s a full-time wealth administration paralegal in a Louisville, Kentucky, law firm, and is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and Romance Writers of America. Her books are available at every major online book retailer such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, both in paperback and electronic versions. Please visit her at or on Facebook.
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Monday, February 20, 2012

What You Should Know Before Considering a Career as a Freelance Editor - and Other Questions Answered

My acquaintance with author, editor, blogging maestro, and insanely entertaining wit Victoria Mixon began when both of our blogs were named in last year’s Top 10 Blogs for Writers award on Write to Done. Today, I’m pleased to introduce her to you as well! She has been a professional writer and editor for thirty years and now works as an independent editor through her blog at A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of the delightfully engaging and impressively instructive The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as the co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. Victoria can be found on Google+ and Twitter.

What inspired you to seek out a creative lifestyle writing fiction?

You know, I operate on a very old-fashioned concept of what fiction is: magic created through the written word. Really—a very fundamental idea.

No matter what changes the publishing industry has gone through, no matter what jobs I’ve worked in nonfiction, no matter how much we hear in recent years about the author as self-marketer, that’s what my love of fiction has always been about. The magic of the written word.

I’ve been doing this work all my life. I love the zillions of tricks of the trade, the myriad techniques of the craft of writing. They’re almost intangible if they’re done right, but they’re there. Mostly I love the art of it—that a beautifully conceived and written story can change someone’s life. That’s a magic worth living for!

You’re a successful freelance editor. How did you get started in that business and would you recommend it as a worthwhile profession for others?

It’s been a slow, steady climb. The first thing I did was get thirty years’ professional experience as a writer and editor. I worked jobs in line editing and book organization for a really long time. During those years, I was also studying canonical fiction in detail, learning from the greats, searching for epiphanies about how stories are written. Devoting my life to writing. And then practicing that.

It was only after all those years that I finally started a blog and began acquiring independent clients.

It takes so long to get enough practice at this work to take money from writers. New aspiring editors don’t necessarily understand this, but the long-term professionals know exactly what I mean. There is a huge abyss between being a star grammarian in college and perhaps being good at giving peer critiques, and becoming a professional editor.

We all hear the horror stories from writers and industry professionals about aspiring editors or even published writers charging for editing that is not real editing. People who don’t really know what they’re doing. And it gets worse every day.

So if someone is recently out of college, if they’re relying on mentors and writing books for their knowledge, if they just see themselves making a fabulous living as an authority on fiction while staying home in their jammies all day, then, I’m sorry—they’re not ready. They should look for a job working for an established editor or publishing house, apprentice themselves to the craft.

But if they have put in those years of dedication as a professional writer and editor, if they have a reputation among professionals, and if they either live very cheaply or have a secondary source of income (I do), then, yes, I do recommend it. It’s intensely hard work, and no one’s getting rich on it—but I’m happy!

How do you balance your editing with your own writing?

I have to be extremely disciplined. I edit and manage my business—including social media—during regular weekday hours, spend evenings and weekends with my family, and sometimes I get a half day on the weekend to work on my current novel. Every year in November I write a children’s book for my son really fast, so that keeps me limber, but otherwise my fiction these days goes really slowly. I’m busy working on other writers’ stuff.

So much to write, so little time!

You’ve written two books on the writing craft. Will you tell us about those and what inspired you to write them?

Oh, thank you for asking. Yes, I have two books on writing craft right now: The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual.

And this year I’m writing The Art & Craft of Prose: 3rd Practitioner’s Manual.

I wrote the first one because I couldn’t get everything I wanted to say onto my blog. I found myself teaching my editing clients the same basics over and over again, and, really, there’s no reason for me to charge aspiring writers by the hour to tell them something they could get for twenty bucks in a book. So I wrote the book.

Even as I was writing Fiction, though, I realized I’d only have room for the bare bones, just an overview of developmental and line issues to get writers started. I wanted to cover copy issues, as well, and of course living as a writer, surviving the despair of writing. All that came to almost 400 pages. The book was packed.

So as soon as I was done with Fiction, I began planning the two books that would explore those two basic aspects of fiction in depth. One book, Story, would focus upon the developmental issues of plot and character. The other, Prose, would focus upon the line issues of scene and exposition.

And the feedback has been so rewarding! Wow. Writers are amazing readers.

Both of your books are published under your own independent publishing company. Why did you decide to take that route? Would you have made the same choice had your books been fiction?

Yes, La Favorita Press. My baby.

You know, I’ve always thought of my books as my own. When I was a typesetter, I designed the interiors of the novels I was writing. When I worked in graphics, I designed the covers.

Then when I was published by Prentice-Hall in 1996, I learned what the traditional process can be like from the inside. There were terrible problems with the editing process—my book wasn’t even proofread for typos. There were problems with the promotions department that would raise the eyebrows of the most jaded industry insider. Then I wasn’t sent my galleys—talk about raising eyebrows!—and I didn’t see my cover until I received my published copies. It wasn’t the money, although I’ve made more money with my self-published books than I did with that one. It simply wasn’t fun.

These days I know how to bring a book up to publishable quality myself, plus I have friends who are professional writers and editors who are very kind to me. My husband is a computer wizard who handles the formatting, covers, and e-books and deals with the printers. I also have a platform for my writing books in my editing business. So I’m having fun! I’m incredibly lucky.

However, fiction is in its infancy in the self-publishing realm. It’s hard to become a known expert as a fiction author when everyone else is also writing a blog about their fiction. It will shake down over the next five or ten years, as readers choose their own gatekeepers in the form of favorite reviewers or micro-publishers or—as they do now—authors. It’s going to be phenomenal, and we will all come out of it with vastly more freedom to read and write what we love than we’ve had since the 1970s.

Truly, it’s a wonderful moment in history. After decades of stagnation, we’re entering a new golden age of literature!
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Friday, February 17, 2012

FFF: What Would You Say Ya DO Here?

Neil Gaiman answers a troubling, age-old question that all writers wrestle with. (Bonus geek points if you get the reference in the subject line.)

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review of Conducting Effective Twitter Contests by Tony Eldridge

The social media platform Twitter has long since rocketed its way into a fabulous network on which writers can connect with readers and promote their books. One of the ways authors can take advantage of that network is by hosting contests on Twitter, and marketing guru Tony Eldridge has compiled his considerable expertise on the subject into this short e-book. In a nutshell, Eldridge’s approach to Twitter contests is partnering with sponsors to offer large prizes, promoting the contest on his blog and Twitter account, and using people’s RTs of specific Twitter messages to qualify them for entry in the drawings.

The book offers a day-by-day guide to planning, setting up, running, and mopping up after a contest—and supplements its text information with links to dozens of videos that expand upon the chapters and offer visual aids where appropriate. Eldridge approaches the subject from the assumption that his readers may not know anything about running an online contest, so much of his info covers basics that many of his readers will already be familiar with. But, as someone who has run her fair share of online contests, I still encountered at least one new and worthwhile tidbit in every chapter.

The info does get repetitious at times, and I couldn’t help feeling that the book could have been successfully shortened by perhaps as much as a third. But it gets props for its intuitive and easy-to-follow layout, including Appendices offering at-a-glance summaries of much of the book’s info, as well as links and titles for further reading. Not a perfect book, but, all in all, I definitely recommend it to anyone considering any type of major online contest.
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Monday, February 13, 2012

Dancing Around the Elephant

My husband hurt my feelings the other day. Apparently, he knew it--or read it in my eyes--because he shoulder-nudged me. The ol' "I didn't mean it" shoulder-nudge. When that didn't work, he did what he could to make me laugh. His attempts are always hard to resist. One of the reasons I love him is because he makes me laugh, so I couldn't help but to giggle.

But I didn't let him off the hook.

There was no point discussing it. We both knew the name of the elephant in the room. We've been married so long that the words "I'm sorry" are reserved for the really big stuff, so we've both mastered the art of non-verbal apologizing. And we both recognize the other's code for "forgive me."

He became agreeable, helpful, attentive. All nice, all worth milking for however long I felt he should feel guilty. Of course, he won't play penitent husband for long, so he brought out the big guns. As we bowed our heads over our meal, he said a special prayer for me to remain healthy and have a good day.

Of course I granted an immediate reprieve. What else could I do?

Non-verbal cues come in handy in life and in writing. Using dialogue to show an all-out war between a couple can be fun, but using finesse and nuance can be challenging and more effective. What isn't said can blare from a page.

Are you illustrating strong emotions? Look for the less obvious. A passive-aggressive who's ticked off may add too much salt to a stew before setting it before the object of her ire. A woman who simply "doesn't want to talk about it" will go to extremes to change the subject. A man who's on the verge of tears at seeing his daughter in her wedding gown may crack a joke.

You don't have to look farther than your own idiosyncrasies and those of the people you're most familiar with to find examples. Capture these for the page to add depth to the emotions you want to portray.
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Fabulously Fun Friday: Why All Writers Are Crazy

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lessons from the Pros ~ Louis L'Amour on Setting

One of my favorite authors, growing up, was Louis L'Amour. I have always been a sucker for a good cowboy story.

So the other day, when I had an afternoon that begged for some relaxation, I picked up one of the many L'Amour books on my shelf and flopped on my bed to read.

Now let me first say, don't go to a L'Amour book for lessons on how to handle Point of View. He wrote in a day and age when "head-hopping" was permissible and used frequently.

However, if you want a lesson on how to create a setting, THIS is a man to study. He can pick you up and drop you into a snake-infested desert canyon in fewer words than it has taken me to write this paragraph.

Sadly, in many contemporary writings, setting seems to take a back seat. We live in a world that has been educated more than any previous generations, simply for the fact that we have the internet at our fingertips both day and night. Some, therefore, have argued that setting is not so important because readers are already familiar with what the writer is referring to. I would challenge that belief.

We read to escape, and what better way to create that illusion of a "new world" than by pulling your reader so deeply into your setting that they forget stress for an afternoon and simply immerse themselves in your story?

Take this opening paragraph from L'Amour's The First Fast Draw. 
When the shelter was finished, thatched heavy with pine boughs, I went inside and built myself a hatful of fire. It was a cold, wet, miserable time, an nowhere around any roof for me, although here I was, back in my own country.
The description is sparse, but by the end of the paragraph you not only feel the chill and damp, but you can see the character huddled around a tiny fire with his coat hunched up around his ears. And the you already have an empathy for him too.

That brings me to another point. Use your setting to help you reveal some secrets about your main character. L'Amour here uses the setting to show us this character is a lonely traveler, just back to his home country.

And notice how setting doesn't have to be paragraph after paragraph of description. Just weave the necessary information in with your action and dialogue.  Pause often to ask yourself what your character is seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing and add those experiences into your setting.

By the way, Google maps is a new favorite tool of mine when I need to add a little more oomph to my setting. It's a very powerful tool - especially the "street" view which allows you to see a 360 degree circle around most major roads now.

Do you have a favorite book or author that does an amazing job creating setting? Or a favorite tool that helps you when you need that little something extra?
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Monday, February 6, 2012

Is Your Author Photo Sending the Right Message?

Last night, I finished reading Kameron Hurley’s “bugpunk” novel God’s War, and between the book itself and the compelling author’s bio (referring to her attempts to not die “spectacularly”), I was curious about the author. So I googled for images under her name and found several pix of her. In the old days, this would be unthinkable. How many of Charles Dickens’s or Jane Austen’s readers knew what they looked like? Nowadays, an author photo is a vital part of the promotional package. And, like it or not, your author’s photo is going to influence your reader’s opinions of both you as a person and you as an author.

In perusing a magazine a few weeks ago, I glanced through the front matter, which contained headshots and bios of some of the contributors. Two photos, side by side, offered a stark contrast of how and how not to have your author photo taken.

Photo by Sarah Ward
One the one hand, we had an obviously professional headshot of a smiling woman standing against a picturesque red barn. She was dressed casually but professionally, her neat hair and makeup highlighted beneath appropriate lighting.

One the other hand, we had what looked like a picture taken on the author’s web cam. This author looked like he had just gotten out of bed and had yet to find his way to the nearest Starbucks. He didn’t make eye contact with the camera, which resulted in a glazed, disoriented look. He was wearing a T-shirt. The setting behind him was a messy desk. And the faint lighting cast a shadowy and gloomy pall over the picture.

Two author headshots. Two totally different presentations.

So how can you ensure your author photo is sending the right message to your readers (and employers)?

Image by Michelle Leong
1. Choose a professional photographer. If at all possible, have your picture taken by a professional or at least a friend who knows cameras, knows lighting, and knows how to properly pose you.

2. Dress professionally. Dress like you would if you were going to a job interview—because, in a sense, that’s exactly what you’re doing. This picture is about to become your calling card. Add the fact that it’s going to be preserved to all eternity on the Internet, and consider how you want to be seen and remembered.

3. Focus on the head. I’ve had several author pictures taken that included full body shots, and depending on how you want to use them (website, etc.), you may want a few yourself. But your face is what people want to see. They want to be able to flip your book over, look into your eyes, and see you looking back.

4. Be creative. Depending on your personality and the type of books you write, you may want to think outside the box. A picture of science fiction author R.A. Salvatore holding a sword in front of his face has stuck with me for a long time. So be goofy, be daring, show off your personality. But do it cautiously and with forethought, since professionalism is still the name of the game.

If you haven’t looked objectively at your author photo for a while, take another peek. Does it still look like you? Does it look like an author you would want to read or even meet? Does it appropriately indicate your professional attitude? Of course, if you’ve yet to have an author picture taken, it’s time to get cracking!
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Friday, February 3, 2012

Fabulously Fun Friday ~ A Few Authorial Jokes to Brighten up Your Weekend

Three men: an editor, a photographer, and a journalist are covering a political convention in Miami. They decide to walk up and down the beach during their lunch hour. Halfway up the beach, they stumbled upon a lamp. As they rub the lamp a genie appears and says "Normally I would grant you three wishes, but since there are three of you, I will grant you each one wish."

The photographer went first. "I would like to spend the rest of my life living in a huge house in St. Thomas with no money worries." The genie granted him his wish and sent him on off to St. Thomas.

The journalist went next. "I would like to spend the rest of my life living on a huge yacht cruising the Mediterranean, with no money worries." The genie granted him his wish and sent him off.

Last, but not least, it was the editor's turn. "And what would your wish be?" asked the genie.

"I want them both back after lunch," replied the editor, "the deadline for tomorrow's newspaper is in ten hours.

Q. What's the difference between publishers and terrorists?
 A. You can negotiate with terrorists.

Q. If you were lost in the woods, who would you trust for directions: the publisher who prints everything you write, an agent, or Santa Claus?
 A. The agent. The other two indicate you are hallucinating.

Happy Friday, Everyone!
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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What Is Speculative Fiction?

We know what SF is, an abbreviation for Science Fiction. (Sci-Fi also works, although the purists will make a strong distinction, sneering about Sci-Fi the way literary fiction sneers at SF - it's all about feeling superior and favorable toward one's preferred genre. But I digress.)

But you should probably also know about the other SF, Speculative Fiction.

Speculative Fiction as a genre term is often attributed initially to Robert A. Heinlein. While he didn't initially include Fantasy in his definition, the term has grown to include many genres.

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.

Because SF and Sci-Fi both refer to Science Fiction (in lesser or greater degrees), some abbreviate Speculative Fiction as 'spec-fic.'

In my own reading, I started reading more serious Science Fiction authors like Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, however, it was the discovery of Roger Zelazny that changed my preferences forever. Zelazny sometimes defined his writing as 'speculative fantasy,' indicating his awareness that he often trod a different path from more rigorous Science Fiction authors.
Roger Zelazny is the most notable of several speculative fiction writers who mix fantasy with science fiction. Zelazny brought stylistic consciousness, somewhat better characterization, mythical archetypes, humor, and deeper explorations of psychology to his novels.

Rebecca Weybright has another definition for Speculative Fiction that I quite like.
All fiction is to some degree concerned with speculation–asking the question ‘What if.’
Speculative fiction, however, asks the ‘What if?’ question in both broader and more specific ways. The main branches of speculative fiction are science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and there are many fabulous little hybrids and sub-genres of those three.

To be very simplistic, science fiction goes beyond the boundaries of the known, real world through (you guessed it) science; fantasy does so through magic or other paranormal means; and horror does so by expanding the role of fear.
There is a nice list of the many 'fabulous little hybrids here. Some of my favorite hybrids are cyberpunk, magical realism, and space opera.

Finally, Charles Tan explains why Speculative Fiction is so cool—it's harder to pin down and allows room for genre surprise as a reader.
The term speculative fiction holds a special place in my heart because it is able to accommodate all the other genres under its umbrella. What I mean by that is that fiction written under it can include elements of romance, mystery, horror, etc. In a certain way, the same can be said about the other genres....

There's also another advantage to such a vague term as speculative fiction. The only expectation one comes into reading it with is that anything can happen. Take horror, for example. When you read a short story that's classified as horror, you're already preparing yourself for the horror element to pop up. Compare this to reading a story simply labeled as speculative fiction, where you don't know whether it'll tickle your sense of wonder or frighten you (or both). While there's something to be said about the technical craft of writing a horror short story, sometimes it's better to not know that it's a horror piece in the first place for it to have a greater impact.
And for added value, you can mix and mashup some of these sub-genres to make for a truly fantastic reading experience. But we can talk more about that next time.  ;)
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