Monday, November 30, 2009

The Nerve to Submit

A while back, Tina Lynn asked for a post on getting up the nerve to submit your query to agents or editors. I think the request was a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s a good topic. I’ll deal with two thoughts on the matter: 1] how do you know when it’s time to submit, and 2] having the confidence to do so.

Knowing when it’s time
There are many different answers to this. Some say you’re finished when the edits you make no longer make any difference in the readability. Some say you’re finished when you are sick of the thing. I say you need to be carefully attuned to your instincts on this one. Can you honestly say that there isn’t a single area of the manuscript that couldn’t need more work? Does everything click for you? If it doesn’t, but you can’t put your finger on it, then you probably need to either step away from the manuscript for a time and work on something else, or have new people read it for fresh feedback.

Some people say writers are never really finished—Nathan Bransford did a post with a lot of feedback in the comments on this.

I think that if you have any doubts whatsoever about your manuscript, it is not time to submit. And of course, you must have a solid query and synopsis at the ready before you start submitting. And a list of well-researched agents. It’s hard work, isn’t it?

Having the confidence to submit
This is a toughie and again there’s no real right answer to this. You’re going to face a LOT of rejection in the submittal process and a large portion is going to hurt. It’s like willingly walking into an angry hornet’s nest and twirling around so they get even more pissed off and sting you en masse. Some won’t sting you, but most will. One or two might land on your shoulder and sit a time with you, but in the end you’re going to come out it with hideous red welts that leave scars and sometimes, in the case of the particularly angry wasps, a lasting ache. The key is developing a plan ahead of time and making sure you’re prepared. Like, did you bring Novocaine or shots of morphine to numb the pain? The correlation of that for writers is to have alcohol or chocolate or a good support system or whatever on hand, and work on other things while submitting. All of those take the intensity out of the stings.

But the single most important thing to know about having the confidence to submit is that if you don’t submit, you’ll never get anywhere.

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions of items to take away the pain?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Google Reader Roundup

Hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving. I stuffed myself so full that I could barely walk, and my small son ran screaming in circles at two hours past his bedtime, fueled by delight in his cousins and a fair amount of sugar. It was a great time.

So here's my Google Reader roundup for the week, which is a list of the best posts I read this week for the blogs I subscribe to in my Reader.

  • Tips for revising by James Scott Bell. I actually have one of his books and I love him. This is a valuable link.
  • To keep up to date on the whole Harlequin bruhaha, you should probably read Kristin Nelson's post, which lists some other important posts and follow ups.
  • Jennifer Lawler writes about writers and kindness and realizing that your communication goes so far--after all, that's what we're here to do, right? Spread our words?
  • And last but not least is Roni at Fiction groupie -- it's actually a repost but this list of essential things she's learned is one of those great lists of editing, really. As usual, very useful and makes you think. I don't know WHERE she comes up with these nuggets of wisdom. Probably sold her soul to the devil. (Devil: "I'll give you everlasting awesome and clever blog posts, in exchange for your soul." Roni: "Done.")

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

See? I Am Not Crazy

Those of you who poo-pooed (yes! pun!) my post on how awesome Japanese toilets are surely must be kicking yourselves now (I know you are), because here is proof that they really are the most wondrous inventions: The Telegraph says so.

Thanks to JP for the link. J, if you're wondering, stands for John, and P stands for Padme. Or something.)

That is all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I love this topic because the visual of trolls is funny. Of course I'm referring to Internet Trolls, aka Comment Trolls. These are the people who post soapboxy-style comments that are controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant, or off-topic. (from Wiki).

Of course, I never get trolls. This annoys me greatly.

Probably a good sign of blog success is the appearance of trolls. Of course they can be annoying, but of the tools available to you as a blogger is comment deletion. Yes, of course this is difficult when you get Nathan Bransford-style traffic, with comments numbering in the hundreds--daily--although he definitely manages to delete troll comments.

A few weeks ago, Kristin Nelson had a troll in her comments and then she turned on comment moderation. Then Jessica Faust at Bookends had several all posting under the Anonymous name. Kristin Nelson's troll didn't actually hide from anyone; his web site was in full view and he kind of shot himself in the foot when he wrote (this is cut and pasted), "I disagree that I need critiquing, since I'm not inclined to write the way other people would write. Unfortunately, I'm the type who has to reinvent the wheel to understand it."

Deary, deary me.

I'm still outraged that I don't have any comment trolls. Comment trolls stir up interest by riling emotions of normal, sane people. By and large, they suck, but still I kind of want one. For the bloggers out there, what are your thoughts on them? (And I am totally still laughing at the picture and the name. I love picturing that guy up there bent over his keyboard all ragey.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Recommended Reading

We all have go-to reading lists for writing and learning, and there have been a ton of blog posts done about this subject already. I don’t spend a lot of time reading books on the craft, but the ones I have read have been really good. So this is my list of the books I found particularly helpful in my writing. I learned a lot from each.

I resisted reading books on writing until it became clear that reading a few would greatly improve my understanding of structure. I don’t have an MFA and never studied writing in school. To be honest, I had to teach myself how to start using proper grammar after I got my first tech writing job. It continues to amaze me how I got away with not knowing the difference between "its"and "it’s" for so long.

  • Hooked by Les Edgerton. This is a fabulous book and it really touches on a few points of novel structure that other books might not. I liked the terminology Edgerton uses for the story problem external problem (other terms I’ve seen include internal and external). It’s short, very readable, and highly useful. The last few chapters are full of advice from agents on what they like to see (and hate) in the first few pages.
  • The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life by Amy Tan. This is part memoir, part writing instruction a la Stephen King’s On Writing (which I haven’t read, but broke down and ordered it just recently). The memoir part is fascinating and of course ties into her writing advice. Tan has lived an astounding life. The only thing I wished she’d done is go into how she got to the point of acceptance for her first novel (The Joy Luck Club) because I know she belongs to a writing group. I would have liked to hear how that process helped her.
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Anne is funny in anything she writes (I read Operating Instructions while nursing my newborn son and it was so perfect), and this is no exception. It has great advice on the process but you do need to remember that it comes just from her experience so not everyone will write the way she describes (she’s a real seat-of-the-pants writer). I didn’t get what she meant by taking things bird by bird until years after reading it.
  • Story by Robert McKee. Again I haven’t read the whole thing but this is the tome on structure, they say. I use it more as reference.
  • Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. I LOVE this book. Well, I love plot, so this isn’t a stretch. But it’s well written and I think it should be required reading for every writer trying to write a novel.

What are yours?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Google Reader Roundup

Here's my roundup of my favorite posts this week from the blogs I subscribe to in Google Reader.
  • Did you hear the announcement last week about the inauguration of Agent Inbox? It's a new service that acts as a query clearing house of sorts, where you sign up and they send the query to appropriate agents and editors and of course offer editorial help if needed. So far it's free for authors. Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware has a good post about this including this gem: Creative Byline, which has been in business for more than a year and a half, continues to have difficulty expanding its publisher list (currently, only six publishers are signed up), and has reported no sales as a result of writers' use of the service.
  • Editorrent's awesome follow up post to the three-act plot concentrates on The Reversal....that point in a novel where something changes.
  • Again with the awesomeness: Editorrent continues in the series on plot: the Dark Moment. God I love this.
  • 7 things I've learned so far by writer Mike Chen. Now, here's one thing that I'VE learned. Often you can tell a good writer by their blog, and Mike Chen is clear, succinct, and funny. You'd have to be to write novels, marketing copy, and hockey columns for Fox Sports. Read him. Do it now.
Next week, don't think I'm slowing down because of Thanksgiving. Here Monday through Wednesday. Be here or be square. (I love that saying. "Be square." Like that's such an insult. Can you imagine back when it was? OMG, I'm a square, can't stand it! Love it.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quick Edits

Oh, dear. I have to work hard at tightening my writing. I always worry that writing succinctly comes easily for everyone else in the world, but I know it doesn't, or else there wouldn't be so many books and tips out there.

The fact is, no one is perfect. It takes years to be great, and even then it's hard to catch everything. Can you imagine what it must have been like for people who wrote on typewriters, or before that, long hand? Ugh! Painstaking! I read recently in Writer's Digest that an author whose debut book had just been released chose to write on a typewriter, and that when he made a mistake or had to rewrite a line, he would type the whole page over again because it forced him to....I don't know what. I don't get it. Thank God for word processing software and especially for the Find function.

Which brings me to what I do Finds for (Control + F for those who like shortcuts):
  • about (especially "about it"--found TONS of these)
  • actually
  • almost
  • like
  • appears
  • approximately
  • basically
  • being
  • even
  • eventually
  • exactly --astonishing amount of these. Ack!!
  • finally - one of the most disgusting ones since it's often a sign of redundancy
  • just
  • just then
  • kind of
  • nearly
  • only
  • practically
  • really
  • seems
  • simply
  • slightly
  • somehow
  • somewhat
  • sort of
  • strictly
  • suddenly
  • truly (it was just gross how many I found)
  • utterly
  • was (and was there, was it)
  • were
I deleted about 700 words by doing this (!!!), and I know the text was tightened as a result. Fair dos: I didn't make this list up. I found it, and I'm sorry but I can't remember who posted it but I suspect maybe Rachelle Gardner. Anyway, it's a superb list and you'd be amazed at how quickly and instantly text can be cleaned up by searching for these. Enjoy.

Do you guys have any easy tricks for cleaning up your writing?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Quick—What’s your plot?

We had a fun a few weeks ago with the six word plot game, but while we were coming up with our six word plots, cold spears of fear shot through us (you know it did) because we know that our plots really should–and will--be condensed down to a sentence, sometimes called a logline.
The real use of a logline will come when someone asks you what your novel is about. And if it’s an agent whose asking, you’d better know the answer. Picture yourself at a party and you start talking to someone and they ask what your book is about. You’ll say “Oh, it’s about _______.” And then the person turns out to be an agent, and promptly offers to represent you, manuscript unseen. Or something.

So, how do you describe your plot?

I learned from Nathan Bransford’s seminal post on finding the plot. Once I learned, I totally got it. If you didn’t know how, it’s probably not the end of the world. But think of its use in terms of hooking readers/agents/editors. Consider the following that I saw in a recent Publisher’s Marketplace Lunch weekly email:

Anne Stuart's RAZIEL, the first in a series, about fallen angels turned vampires who are sentenced to shepherd the dead to the afterlife after archangel Uriel wins a power struggle against Lucifer, causing him to be cast out of Heaven; when Raziel, one of the Fallen, decides to rescue his newest ward en-route to hell, his actions, and his undeniable attraction to her, set off a chain of events that lead to a wholesale rebellion by the Fallen against Uriel and his minions, as they seek to rescue Lucifer and restore the balance of power among the forces of good and evil, to Abby Zidle at Pocket, in a two-book deal, by Jane Dystel at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (NA).
That did my head in! I’m sure that RAZIEL is a lovely book, but this “logline” was way, way, way too much. If that’s all I had to go on, I wouldn’t buy the book. Too many names, too many actions, too much description of events that happen. Oh, the plots buried in there somewhere, but I had to work to find it! Not good!

Consider this one in contrast, again from the same Lunch Weekly email:
Therese Stenzel's HIDDEN HEARTS, part of the Christmas Mail-Order Bride Novella Collection - in which a reluctant bride, determined to keep her past from her success-driven new husband, attempts to build a new life but finds it difficult when he's apparently keeping secrets of his own, to JoAnne Simmons at Barbour, in a nice deal, for publication in fall 2010, by Sandra Bishop at MacGregor Literary.
Okay. Now, this one actually describes the plot. A reluctant bride is determined to keep her past a secret—that’s the premise. The husband has secrets of his own, which probably clashes (I’m guessing) with the wife’s attempts at building her life. That’s the complication.

Premise + complication = plot. Done.

In the one for RAZIEL, perhaps it could have said “Fallen angels turned vampires are sentenced to shepherd the dead to the afterlife [premise], but when Raziel, one of the Fallen, struggles with unexpected love for his newest ward en-route to hell, he sets off a chain of events that leads to a rebellion against Lucifer by the Fallen [complication].”

Now that sounds like something I might read. A fallen angel/vampire who falls in love with someone who’s already on their way to hell? Which tips off a revolution against the devil? I’m in! (Although I think it’s overkill that the fallen angel is also a vampire—isn’t it enough for the poor lad that he’s fallen that he has to be a vampire too? But I’m sure it was handled well in this novel.)

It is my opinion that you MUST be clear on these things. Until I read Nathan Bransford’s post on this, I wasn’t clear -- and I definitely couldn’t sum my novel up in a sentence. But you must.
Here’s mine—and notice I didn’t give anything away with specifics (although I would to an agent or in a query):
A woman is dumped by her boyfriend after she tries to embarrass him into marrying her so she moves to a Greek island to recover [premise], where she meets a fellow expat who pushes her in ways she's not sure she wants to go.
This wasn’t easy. I struggled with that for a long time, and it's still not great--it sounds like a crappy romance novel, or a slightly sinister mystery. I didn’t include specifics here, but it would be easier if I did because then I could say “but Greece is overrun with fallen angels-turned-vampires who are absolutely RAGING that they have to be vampires too, and they seriously interfere with her self-realization.” Or something. But at least I could say what the expat actually does.

What’s yours?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Santorini: An Occasional Series

It’s been a while since I did a post on Santorini, the Greek island where most of my novel is set. I was fortunate enough to live on the island for almost three years as a kid.

While the last posts I did talked about the music I remember during my time there, and how the island kind of was, this post will discuss something you'll relate to: the need for research.

My memories of the island are shaky because I haven’t been there in twenty years. That being said, there are parts of the island that are ingrained in my mind--the pistachio orchard that was my playground or the dusty, hot hill we lived on and which I have my main character living on at the end of the novel (that's me with my dog over there on said dusty, hot hill - age 11).

I thought when I started writing my novel that I would have no trouble at all remembering the island—indeed, my memories would pour out and voila. In point of fact, this was very much not the case. Much has changed in the last twenty years, like technology. When I lived on the island, few people had phones and if someone had a VCR in their house it was considered an extravagant luxury (and fat good they did because there weren't any video stores). During the 1980s, the old ways of the island were starting to clash with the modern world. There was a central telephone office (OTE) and of course Al Gore hadn’t invented the tinterwebs yet. Now I am given to understand that there are wifi hot spots around the island and the hotels are quite modern and luxurious.

Rediscovering the island through research was one of my favorite things about writing the novel. Google maps and Google Earth were my friends, as were the official web site for the island, numerous travel blogs done by people, random image searches, and of course the live web cam through which I watch the sun set and rise. There were numerous people who run web sites about Greece and the Cycladic islands who were helpful and willing to tell me things I needed to know, and I mined my mother’s memories for details. Still being able to read a little bit of Greek was enormously helpful for those sites in Greek--including a forum I found where guys on the island had posted football (soccer) games they were trying to organize in the small village football pitch that I remembered well. That really blew my mind that the islanders would post requests for games on an internet forum. I also visited bookstores and checked out the guidebooks on Greek islands; almost none were helpful except the Thomas Cook series--the one for Greek islands is extremely well-written and researched. I bought a few guide books and consulted two books on the island that I still have.

Despite all this, the fact remains that I haven’t been back in twenty years. The question arises: can you write accurately about a place you haven’t been to for such a long period of time, or ever? Can you set a novel in a city you’ve never set foot in? I actually think you can; visits to places leave vague impressions at best unless you’re there scouring the streets for research purposes. I fear criticism for not getting the details right if the novel is published, but I did research the heck out of the place. I've put in details like the pebbled mosaic pathways, donkey poop everywhere, and how almost every wall is whitewashed with blue trim, but I constantly questioned whether I conveyed the right image of the island. The only thing left to do is actually go there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Google Reader Roundup

Here's my Google Reader roundup for the week, which is a list of the best posts I read this week for the blogs I subscribe to in my Reader.

  • Good God, the Rejectionist's Form Rejection Contest Winner is stunning. Guaranteed to instantly and effortlessly make you feel devoid of all intelligence and writing talent, it's so good.
  • Lots of posts this week from agents about not sweating queries--clearly, a movement is underfoot. Nathan Bransford, Michael Bourret at Dystel and Goderich, and Holly Root at Waxman (think this was mentioned last week's Roundup).
Have a great weekend all. I'm back raging on Monday with a full week of posts.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blog Names

One of the things I love about blogs is the unique names. Obviously, mine doesn't have one--by design. (Fine. Fine. I couldn't think of a cool enough one, but my own name does serve the purpose of saying who I am.)

Blogs don't have to have a cool name in order to be successful--indeed, it can sometimes detract from the marketing of your blog or web site if people are confused by it. The example that comes to mind is literary agent Kate Schafer Testerman, who runs KT Literary. She has a blog--a good one--called "Ask Daphne." It always confuses me slightly because I don't know who Daphne is or how Daphne relates to Kate, who clearly writes the blog. But all is well because it's certainly memorable.

I love blog names that are plays on words, too. Here's a list of some pretty cool blog names. Feel free to add in the comments if you know of a good one. (And PLEASE NOTE that by excluding any blogs, I'm NOT saying they're not cool.....this list is just of ones that stood out to me, completely independent of their content, by the way. Oh and they're mostly all publishing/writer blogs. Am biased.)

  • The Swivet by Colleen Lindsay. Do you know what a swivet means? Extreme distress or discomposure. What’s not to love!
  • Sadly, no! - not sure what this blog is about but I like the name.
  • The Other Side of the Story - This is nice because it’s a play on the word story. It’s a blog about writing by a published author who maintains another blog about her published work.
  • Bent on Books - Agent Jenny Bent’s blog is a nice play on her name.
  • Market my Words - another good play on words; this is a blog about marketing for writers
  • And finally, who can’t love Bookslut? Makes me cringe every time.
Here's some reading on how to create a catchy blog name.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Endings, Part 2: The End Method

Yesterday I wrote about the specifics of last lines of books. Today let's talk about endings in general.

I personally like endings that tie up the story, resolve all outstanding issues, and leave me satisfied, like I’ve just eaten a large meal with mashed potatoes and cheese. Delicious. My husband likes endings that are unconventional. He always cites The Last American Virgin, a movie I admit I've never seen. He says it's about some guys who try to lose their virginity, but one guy doesn't make it happen. He ends up not ever losing it. My husband thinks this is a good ending because you never expect it. I think it's stupid because what kind of story is that? Nothing has changed! What was the lesson learned? (Again, I might have more perspective if I'd actually seen it, but you get my point.)

Some people hate cliff-hanger endings, or endings where the end isn't quite explained, but left there for you to put together. The Crimson Petal and the White, an amazing and beautiful novel by Michel Faber, ends abruptly. You never know what happens to the characters, although you can imagine. (This obviously annoyed other readers, because Faber just released The Apple: Crimson Petal Stories, a sequel of sorts. One of the reader reviews on Amazon says "For those annoyed by the abrupt ending of Michel Faber's Crimson Petal and the White, this will hopefully be somewhat soothing. While not a linear sequel, there are glimpses of the later lives of Agnes, William, Sugar and Sophie."


So what kind of ending is a good ending to you? What do you hate? Are there any examples of endings done particularly well? How do you feel about epilogues? (I like them for books I love and don't want to end, but there's no question they feel "extra.")

Monday, November 9, 2009

Endings Part 1: Last Lines

Much is made of the first few lines of a novel, but I haven’t seen a lot in the way of endings. Obviously, beginnings are more important in that they hook readers (and agents, etc.) and play a large part in the decision to purchase a book. But endings have their place too. They can be satisfying or leave you wanting more; they can set the story up for more in a series. Endings to stories play a huge role in reader satisfaction, don't you think?

Tomorrow we’ll talk about endings in general, but right now lets talk about ending lines. Last lines can either carry a lot of import or they can be throw-aways—but in my opinion, if they’re done right, they’ll be clever, significant, and carry meaning. If they’re very clever, they’ll tie back to the rest of the story.

Some great endings:
Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.

–Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
Ah, the quintessential last line. Leaves you wondering, but also underscores wonderfully Scarlett's unflappable determination, which is arguably her only endearing characteristic.
Are there any questions?

-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
This is good because of course there are questions: the world has been turned upside down in the story.
But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

–A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner
Extremely satisfying, this. This line nicely sums up the emotion of the story: the enduring friendship between the boy and his bear.

Now here’s a few from my favorite novels:
Why don't we go and find out?

-Rosamunde Pilcher, Coming Home
Coming Home is my most favorite novel. I love this ending line because it both resolves promise for the characters and also sums up the struggle of the main charachter throughout the novel. It follows on a conversation the two main characters are having about telling their loved ones that they've just become an item. And one says "What will they say?"
So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.

-The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
This ending line absolutely sets us up for the second book, but it also does a nice job of referring back to the whole atmosphere of the sort of steam-punkish alternate world they're in and pays tribute to the fact that Lyra is growing up and out of her world.

And finally, what would the list be without one from Marian Keyes, this one from her book Rachel's Holiday:
"Rachel," he said when he finally reached me. To my disbelief, I watched him get down on one knee. And the crowd went wild! He took my hand. "I suppose," he said, looking deep into my eyes. "Getting naked together is out of the question?"
I included a bit more here, because this is the way it's printed in my copy: all as one paragraph. But the final line, "Getting naked together is out of the question?" does a nice job of encapsulating the humor and the seriousness of the book, which is about drug addiction and recovery. This end line is very typical of Marian Keyes and therefore a good example.

What are your favorite last lines?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Google Reader Roundup: Friday 11/6/09

Here's my Google Reader roundup for the week, which is the best posts I read this week for the blogs I subscribe to in my Reader.

  • Bit of an interesting commentary from John Grisham on The Today Show with Matt Lauer on the pricing of books. He says he'll be fine, but he doesn't know about anyone else--especially new writers. Scary.
  • You know you wanted to know all about the Google Partners Program. Oh yes you did. Agent Kristin Nelson has a nice explanation.
  • And Janice Hardy has a very nice roundup of the TWO hooks (yes, two) that need to be felt for readers to buy into a story: the emotional, and the intellectual. (If you're not reading Janice Hardy's blog for writers, you're missing out. She is incredibly insightful.)
  • And finally, Marsha's Musings has an interesting post on how you name your main character. Me--well, I probably name mine partly based on names I like, partly based on names with letters that carry weight or meaning for me. I know that sounds weird.
For next week, we all talk about how important beginnings are to books, but what about endings? I have thoughts on endings (you totally knew I did), Monday (part 1) and Tuesday (part 2).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Word about Ampersands

You know what they are: the & sign. I see them misused everywhere and the time has come for me to step up and stamp my foot.

Using "&" in place of "and" is not the same!

You read me right, don't do that. It doesn't mean "and" in the sense of "I made myself a peanut butter & jelly sandwhich." Stop it! It's lazy and incorrect!

In general, ampersands are used:
  • In company names, such as Hughes & McLeith Accountants
  • In artistic endeavors, such as in a logo (see below for design considerations)
  • In some academic references, such as Phillips & Collins, 2003
And sometimes:
  • When space constraints are an issue, such as files & uploads, except use caution here since you're essentially using the ampersand as "and." I personally would re-word or make the space bigger to avoid doing this.
As Wikipedia says, the ampersand is considered a logogram. Essentially this means: don't use it as a replacement of a word.

Wikipedia (which, yes, I know isn't supposed to be taken as the final word on matters, but in fact it's well written for the most part and well-edited, so yes, I'm going to go ahead and believe what it says here. I also find Wikipedia extremely accurate when I edit the pages, but that is another matter) says:

The word ampersand is a corruption of the phrase "and >per se and", meaning "and [the symbol which] by itself [is] and". The Scots and Scottish English name for & is epershand, derived from "et per se and", with the same meaning.

Traditionally, in English-speaking schools when reciting the alphabet, any letter that could also be used as a word in itself ("A," "I," and, at one point, "O") was preceded by the Latin expression "per se" (Latin for "by itself"). Also, it was common practice to add at the end of the alphabet the "&" sign, pronounced "and". Thus, the recitation of the alphabet would end in: "X, Y, Z and per se and." This last phrase was routinely slurred to "ampersand" and the term crept into common English usage by around 1837.

At the least, using an ampersand in place of "and" says the writer is lazy and can't be bothered to write out the three letters that make up "and." You're not lazy. I know this. So do us a favor and don't use it like that.

Design Considerations
The ampersand is actually a stunningly beautiful piece of typography. Observe its range:

Look at those curves and swoops! Gorgeous! Please--celebrate the ampersand in this way, but not in your manuscript, not in your e-mails, not in any kind of written anything. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Counseling Session

The time will come for everyone on their path to publishing that they will be rejected in some manner or another, whether by agent or editor or publishing house, or by losing a writing contest. In these cases, we all know how important it is to be fortified in soul, so that we can weather these rejections without wanting to rip our heads off in despair and stuff it into the trash can along with our work.

Unfortunately, it's really hard to maintain a clear mind after you’ve been rejected--especially if you're an emotion-driven person like me. The trick is to think ahead and prepare for the inevitable emotional breakdown in the event of rejection or losing, so that you do not embarrass yourself in front of others. In the actual heat of the rejection, when it hits you like a fly hitting the windshield of a double semi whittling down an empty interstate, you will not be able to maintain sense whatsoever -- in fact, you will trick yourself into disbelieving any emergency good thoughts your brain will try to come up with.

So, with that in mind, I give you help now, while you’re sane and your wits have not yet been blown to smithereens and you think everything you’ve ever written, including your name and address, is a complete failure.

Think of these things in the face of rejection:

  • Agents/editors are subjective. Remember that time you read a list of contest entries on that one blog and you thought more than half of them were utter toilet fodder, yet the agent/editor picked one of the crap ones as the winner? Exactly. Not being picked now doesn’t mean you’re terrible, it just means that you didn’t appeal at this exact moment. Action required: keep moving forward.
  • If your submission is posted on a blog or other online forum, for the love of books, please don't post defensive replies to the critiques, if there are any! Action required: remain professional and keep your trap shut.
  • This contest/submission probably doesn’t accurately represent your work. Action required: work on creating a better sample, or revising the query.
  • If you were given feedback on your sample/submission/query, make sure to wait a few days and think about it before making changes.
  • Also wait a few days to let the disappointment die down. Most likely in three days, you’ll feel better again and like you can go forward once more.
  • Remember, this was a subjective contest/submission, and you’re professional and a good writer. You’re fine and you’ll go on. Action required: lock yourself in a dark room away from modes of communication, people, and animals, until sanity has returned.
Now, if you happen to win the contest or be asked to submit more, of course you will get a big head and exult in your genius. Be careful there, too, and don’t be obnoxious. Remember:

  • You can still be rejected down the road.
  • Your winning/being requested for more does not necessarily mark you as a fantastic New York Times bestseller. It just means your work caught the agent/editor’s eye today.
  • The other entries were not crap in comparison.
I hope these lists of emotional buoying helps you moderate the wild range of emotions you might experience. Above all, remember that if you persevere long enough, you’ll probably find your way to publication—but you must be willing to listen when people give you feedback that you don’t want to hear.

Carry on.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Learning from Book Reviews

Before I started getting serious about writing, I never paid much attention to book reviews in the newspaper. But after I learned about structure, plot, characters (you know, those silly story things), I started paying attention to how published books were written, and in turn, how reviews of those published books were written and what they picked out.

You can learn a lot from reviews. For example, in my local newspaper last weekend, there was a review of three sci-fi novels. The reviewer wasn’t overly impressed with any of them, but here’s what he had to say about the first one (newspaper, name, and book all redacted because the intent here is not to slam the reviewer or the book): “[Author name] is a talented author, fueled by a passionate point of view, and that combination makes [Book title] a powerful, if not exactly uplifting novel.”

Well. You could certainly say that about anything, couldn’t you? Those are some pretty undefined adverbs. This post isn’t a lesson in how to write a book review (because frankly, it’s an art—and the reviewer’s aim is not to make the reader by the book), but rather an exercise. Read a book review—find one online. Go to your local newspaper’s online arm and search for book reviews. If it doesn’t have one, go to the nearest large city’s major newspaper web site. Do the reviews tell you anything about plot? The climatic event? The depth of characters?

To get you started, here’s one I found from The San Francisco Chronicle’s web site,
It’s an excellent example of a thorough review—probably because a writer wrote it. It’s for a book called The Rebel Yell by Alice Randall.

The hook is clearly stated in the review (and not in a “I just read this off the back cover” kind of restating): “Randall raises the compelling question: How could an African American who grew up during the civil rights movement oversee a foreign policy in which imprisoned men were tortured and humiliated?”

I learned that the characterization in the novel is tough to pull off, because the reviewer says, “Randall's execution is haphazard, more concept than character-driven, less dramatized than theorized, and structurally disjointed.”

I learned that not all writers think through the what-ifs, and Randall could have benefited from that: “In her search to uncover the real Abel, Hope never considers talking to his second wife or their three daughters, who feel as flat as cardboard cutouts, props intended to show how Abel lost his way. “

And finally, the last part of the review, the reviewer says, “Randall seems to have wanted to show how a person could lose his humanity, but because she doesn't paint a clear portrait of his later life, it's hard to feel invested.”

This is a great critique. The reviewer tells us the problem areas of the novel, points out where we’ll find depth, but make sure we know that there are blurry patches. All that being said, the reviewer did start with the hook, which is compelling, and so I am left with my own decision whether to read the book (and knowing what to watch for), rather than the reviewer’s. In my opinion, this is the best kind of review because it lays out the strengths and weaknesses of the novel appropriately –and explains them, unlike the sci-fi review I listed first. And, it shows me how reviewers look at novels and what they watch for.

The reviewer, if you’re interested (and I totally was) is Malena Watrous, and according to the byline her first novel, If You Follow Me, is being published in 2010. Unfortunately her web site is a bit sparse, but we hope Malena develops it so we can learn more about her.

So in the meantime, go on—get a review and post about it in the comments. I'm interested.