Monday, January 31, 2011

The Reluctant Doorway

I'm currently in revisions with my WIP. Where I am is at the start of revisions-- dealing with the big stuff like character arc, plot, etc. Later, I'll move into the technical aspects like writing quality and word choice.

One of the things I do when I'm in the plot revision stage* is look at plot and consult my books on the subject. My favorite, which I've mentioned many times, is James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure, which I think is one of the most simple, easy books on plot around.

*I talk like I'm a pro and have done this a million times, but it's important to say here that in fact I only recently learned to revise this way from the top down, and let the technical aspects go until later.

One thing that stuck out at me more this time than any other (which is telling) is Bell's discussion on character arc, which dovetails into the plot. He says it should be like this:
  • Beginning
  • First doorway (almost always reluctantly)
  • Incidents
  • A deepening disturbance
  • A moment of change (epiphany)
  • Aftermath/resolution
But hang on. Look at that first doorway the main character steps though--almost always reluctantly. I really think I'd been missing that subtle point until very recently when I went back to look this stuff over. A main character should begin moving through the plot almost always reluctantly. Holy Krakow! Really?

I put this to the test. I thought of popular plots and yes, they check out--across all genres:
  • Star Wars: the first doorway occurs when Luke's uncle and aunt are vaporized by Imperial troopers. He then decides to join Obi-wan to go fight the Empire. But he is reluctant to go at first, and if his only known family hadn't been just killed, he might not have done it. (Let's not argue that the Force would have drawn him in anyway.)
  • GhostTown (the movie with Ricky Gervais): Ricky's character, Bertram Pincus, can see ghosts after he dies and comes back on the operating table. He really does not want to see ghosts, or talk to anyone in particular, and so this new skill is really annoying to him.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Frodo really does not want to go take on the pressure of the ring, and he reluctantly accepts the heavy burden of traveling to Mordor.
  • The Godfather: Michael Corleone does not want to join his family's "business" but steps through the first doorway nonetheless-- shooting the crooked cop and his father's enemy.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Blomkvist, the main character, doesn't really want to go take the job of writing the old guy's story, does he? But he does. His decision to do it forces him through the first doorway into the story.
  • The Fixer Upper by Mary Kay Andrews (contemporary women's fiction): The main character is fired from her job and her father tells her to go fix up an old house he's inherited. She really doesn't want to because the house is in a small backwater town, but she goes because she'll be financially cut off if she doesn't.
Watch a movie or think of the book you're reading. Can you find the reluctance of the main character as they step through that crucial first doorway? Can you think of any plots that don't have this element that worked? I know some of you never think about plot and story just works for you. And in a way, I hate to be so stringent about this little detail. But I could pick it out of pretty much every plot I remembered, as demonstrated above, so it must have something to it, right?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Google Reader Roundup

  • A fab post from one of my favorite bloggers (and not uncoincidentally the author of my two favorite writing books, Plot & Structure and Revision & Self Editing), James Scott Bell has a few story opening no-nos, and tells us about a special Writers's Digest issue out.
  • And last but most certainly not least, Kristen Lippert-Martin's stupendously awesome writer's glossary. My favorite is SLOWER THAN A CONSTIPATED GLACIER, but I certainly identify with DELUSIONS OF FIRST DRAFT GRANDEUR.

Happy weekend!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Getting to The End: 4 Tips

Man. Although I technically won my competitive little contest with my friend Mike Chen, I also kind of lost. Because Mike actually finished his book before I did. In fact I floundered for quite a while. Mind you, I beat our word count goal wayyyyy ahead of him, but he finished first. (Easy to finish first when your word count is much lower than mine, but whatevers.) To recap: Mike and I had a competition to push us to finish our WIPs by the end of the year. My word count and output was always WAY HIGHER than his, but what ended up happening was that my book was much longer than his, so he finished first.

I was probably 3000 or so words away from typing those two sweet little words: The End. I got waylaid by New Years and vacation and a few sudden life changes. So I was distracted. But I wasn't, really. Because nothing distracts me from my passion to write--and I really like this current story.

So, why couldn't I finish? I knew the resolution, and I knew what the characters need to do. But getting there was tough. I could have really used the challenge of beating Mike Chen to finish, but SOMEBODY (mainly named Mike Chen) decided to wimp out and end early.

You ever have this problem? Getting to the end? Never one to sit, I did a little looky-looing around the tinterweb, and here are some tips I found:

1. Use writing sprints.
Writing sprints are group-style timed events where you sit for a specific time and length, and just write. Twitter has one or you can start your own on Twitter or with someone.

2. Use the NaNo method.
Just write and see what happens, and don't pay attention to plot. Just let it flow.

3. Make yourself write 100 words a day, at least.
Hey, it'll inch you towards your goal, and you might find yourself back in the slipstream of the writing that way.

Alas, none of the above actually worked for me. But here's what did:

4. Free-form write what you think should happen.
To get past whatever block I had going, I started typing, as though I was telling a friend (me) the story. I started with "OMG, so, X tells X this and then she..." taking away the novel format. It was like a kick in the pants, because the more I typed, I noticed I started falling right back into the story. It worked to get me over the hump.

You guys have any other ideas? Commiserations? Crowing that you don't have this problem ever? Do tell.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tiger Marketing

Psst! The winner of a signed copy of my uncle Vince's book is listed at the bottom of this post!

By now you've probably heard and read about the hype surrounding author Amy Chua and her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.

Her book --and the hype-- concerns the concept of strict, "traditionally Asian" parenting depicted in Chua's memoir. It's gone mainstream--it's this week's cover story in Time magazine, and People did a big spread, not to mention all the television appearances and newspaper articles and blog posts.

Let's put aside the parenting issue and talk about the book marketing. Because it was pretty good--and I personally find it fascinating.

You'll find only passing references to the marketing aspect of the situation, which is that the original Wall Street Journal article, which excerpted the book before its release and which has been viewed over a million times, was:
  • Purposefully edited to show the harshest moments
  • Presented as a essay and not an excerpt from a memoir
  • Does not reflect that the book shows transition (change) of character
  • Titled, "Why Chinese Parents Are Superior" -- NOT "An Excerpt from this book"
  • Supposedly not edited by Chua, nor was she given the opportunity
Any marketing person can tell you that one of the most effective--albeit morally questionable-- methods of starting a fire surrounding your product is to tap into people's outrage and indignation. You'll notice politicians regularly do this. Outrage is what captures people's attention--and Chua's publisher/publicist knew it.

And you'll also notice that Chua's book has skyrocketed to a bestseller using this marketing tactic.

Here's the thing: Chua says that she was initially shocked that the WSJ post had misrepresented her book, or that her publicist or publisher had decided on this tactic. She is careful to mention in every interview since the WSJ post that she "gets her comeuppance" in the book and that her methods worked for her family, to a point, and when her daughter rebelled, she compromised. She's doing the right thing to say these things carefully--if indeed the WSJ post took her by surprise.

What would you do if your publisher twisted your words around to make your book sound like you were advocating something in the name of marketing? Apart from a San Francisco Chronicle article on Chua, I haven't seen any of the coverage mentioning the marketing angle that was taken--and the SF Chronicle article was interesting in that it was early on in the media coverage, and thus one of the first to piece together that the WSJ post didn't quite gel with the point of Chua's actual memoir. Most people probably don't care, but I went "hang on. have we been duped?" At the end of the day, it doesn't matter, because the parenting thing is what people are concerned about.

But as a writer, what if Chua didn't know her book would be positioned this way? What if she wasn't in on it? Maybe she doesn't care--after all, she's a bestseller now, and appearing on every talkshow and magazine article and newspaper. But if she didn't know, is it right? What do you think? Do you think it's ultimately for the best since the tactic sold her book?

And now: The winner of a signed copy of Vince Ferraro's book, Blood and Chocolate, is:
Demery Bader-Saye!

Congrats Demery! picked you. Please e-mail me with your address!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Google Reader Roundup

Before we get into the roundup, can I just say I'm sorry for being such a dolt and not giving a kind of contest close date for the entry to win a copy of my uncle Vince's book, Blood and Chocolate. So, please note, the contest ends today at midnight and I'll post the winner on Monday.


Ellen Oh gives unpublished and unagented writers a pep talk that I totally thought about all week: she's you, just at a later stage.

An eloquent and thought provoking post from Anne Allen on what happens to your blog when you expire. Anne not only does a great job of telling us what we should do in the event, but she shows us what happens if we don't.

Tawna Fenske talks about the process of minuscule word changes suggested by her editor, and whether they are in fact that minuscule.

A beautiful look at our world--a year in 90 seconds, shot in Norway. (You Tube video)

Agent Jessica Faust at Bookends suggests performance reviews with your agent.

If you missed the hooplah surrounding the Most Heinous Writing Contest in the World, read probably the best recap of it at Janet Reid's blog. She has posted updates since, including one that reports the contest now appears to be dead (and good thing too since it was such a blatant scam). And in case I haven't made my point, POO ON YOU, contest-runners! The whole thing stunk worse than a neglected pig shed in high summer.

Jody Hedlund talks about the importance of the first chapter, especially for unknown writers

A commenter asks Janice Hardy a great question about how unpublished writers can genuinely figure out whether they suck or not (but in nicer words).

My nemesis Simon Larter impersonated Tawna Fenske on her blog--and apparently did a good job. It was an interesting commentary on voice, but I do hope Tawna realizes that she has filthed up her blog in a way never previously attempted---and that's saying a lot for Tawna.

Clare Langely-Hawthorne at the Kill Zone has a great new word for us: "moasting." (A cross between moaning and boasting.) Here's one of my own: "Oh deary me, I can't believe I have to stay home all day and take naps and play on the computer and play with son, because I don't have a job. Poor me."

Kristen Lippert-Martin gives us another dynamite analogy in a discussion of the first five pages and why they matter. Read this one, folks. KLM is as sharp as a tack. Also, I am starting to worry because there's like way too many similarities between us. I shall list them in a future post because it's freakishly uncanny.

DL Hammons has a super cute way of reminding us there's a blogfest going on...and a great way of showing rather than telling. He's a writer, folks. This is the way you do it.

Happy weekend loverlies!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Blood and Chocolate

Today I'm super pleased to introduce you all to my uncle, Vince Ferraro, author of Blood & Chocolate:A Kelly Bloodsworth Novel. Read on and win a copy of his book!

Two weeks ago when I was visiting my family in Southern California, I discovered my great-grandmother's rejection letters from 1932. I also discovered that my uncle Vince had written a book. My family had never thought to tell me these two things before now (I prefer not to think they view my writing as a trifling little hobby).

Vince isn't my uncle by blood, but he's been a part of the Godfrey family forever. He's my uncle John's best friend and honorary son to my grandparents; he grew up with my family and was a fixture at all our family events until he and his wife moved to Virginia a few years ago.

A few weeks ago when I visited my grandmother, she told me Vince had written a book and self published it, and then she pulled his novel down off her shelf. She said, "Yes, look at the first page! Godfreys are in it!" Since I can't resist either a book handed to me (I've never been much good fending off Mormon literature) nor anything with my name in it, I eagerly opened and read the first page. The first line begins with my grandfather's name: Lee Godfrey. Lee's children are mentioned, a Christopher and a Catherine, which are both middle names in our family. It was terribly exciting and I am sorry to say that my grandfather's name hooked me instantly.

But the first page was pretty great reading, too.

I asked my grandmother for Vince's e-mail address, but my grandmother is 82 and doesn't speak e-mail. Eventually I got hold of it through my aunt, and Vince and I have been enjoying an e-mail exchange since.

Vince was a decorated police officer for 23 years in a major Southern California city. He was a patrol officer, a motorcycle traffic officer and a detective, investigating computer crimes. He retired to the country in Central Virginia where he lives with his wife, Sherri, reading, writing, and taking photographs.

Naturally, I wanted to introduce Vince to you all.

Sierra: Did you always want to write, even before your accident?
Vince: Yes, I have always been a writer, even if it was only for myself. I took creative writing classes at PCC (in the 70s..) I dabbled in poetry and short essays. At the PD I wrote a history of the Anaheim Police Department that was published in house -as kind of like a school yearbook format -that was sold to employees of the city. I also wrote for the Anaheim Police Department newspaper called the "Hot Sheet." I wrote an essay reference the Miranda Warning that was picked up and re printed in a couple of other Law Enforcement papers.

Sierra:Tell us about Blood And Chocolate. I love that there is Chocolate in the title. Is there a lot of chocolate involved, and is it milk or dark?
Vince: Blood references my hero's name "Bloodsworth" and it is sort of her nickname. I plan on having "Blood And..." in every title. The "Chocolate" is in reference to the fact that the "Godfrey" (pro and antagonists in the story) siblings inherit a candy factory. The brother is Milk chocolate, sweet and hearty. The sister is dark. Bitter and strong. They are born competitors and must play a complicated "game" in order to become the "boss" of the company. This "game" leads to industrial espionage and murder.

Kelly Bloodsworth, Private Detective, is called in to help save a friend's reputation and solve a mystery. It is a story of friendship, family, good and evil. It has drama, action, adventure and humor.

Sierra: What are you working on now?
Vince: I am working on the sequel now. I am calling it "Blood and Thunder" now, but that could change :)

Sierra: What is one of the biggest lessons you've learned in your writing journey so far?
The biggest lesson I have learned is patience. If it is the writing, or in the quest for representation, or publication. NOTHING happens quick, and the race doesn't always go to the swift.

Sierra: Do you think you'll pursue traditional publishing methods with the follow-up novel, or will you remain with self-publishing?
Vince: I would like to get an agent and a book deal of course, but if it doesn't happen I am grateful that I have the resources to keep my series alive myself. The self publishing experience was very stressful and had many complications that I had not anticipated and again, I had to be cool and realize that it was BUSINESS and not personal. My law enforcement training ( a perfect control of temper, and a tough skin :) came in very handy.

Sierra: Describe your writing routine and writing space for us. Vince: My desk is warm oak and has lots of flat open space. There are four computer screens that spread out in front of me like easels. Each one is a partner in creativity. I manipulate photographs, create video movies, manage my vast music and movie collections and take care of business on the net from my chair. The 24" main screen directly in front of me is my word processor and it is here I attempt to translate my imagination to type. I tried voice recognition software but I found it distracting and stifling. There is nothing like banging on a keyboard to make you "feel" like a writer. I am a 4 finger typist so it is slow and I have to look at the keys, so I thought that dictation would be better, but it was not.

I have a yellow legal pad at my elbow that is full of research notes, plot ideas, character sketches and continuity points. I refer to it often and usually have a quick note to scribble every morning because I run my story in my head at night to put myself to sleep. I try to write every day, even if is only for a little while. I have the luxury of being able to spend all day writing if it "gets good" to me.

Vince adds:
They say to "write what you know" so I decided to write a "Detective Story," but I also wanted to stretch my imagination and write what I "didn't know" as well. So my hero is a woman, I'm a man. My Hero is Gay, I'm straight, my hero is a private detective and I'm a sworn officer of the law. But we do share many traits and I use her to make points in an entertaining way that I would like my readers to hear. My stories have a melting pot of personalities that
hopefully speak to the reader and makes them care about them and what happens to them. The greatest compliment I have received was when a reader told me that they really wanted to know "what happens next." So do I ! So I continue to write.

Thanks, Vince!

Help Vince kick-start his online presence. His newborn blog is and his new Twitter account is @VinFerraro.

Buy Blood and Chocolate at Amazon.

Now the super fun part! I have a signed copy of Blood and Chocolate for a lucky commenter. Please leave a comment below and indicate if you'd like to be entered into the drawing for the copy, and I'll have Google randomize it and pick a winner.
Note: I am aware that the comment system, Intense Debate, has an attitude problem and sometimes tells people that no new comments are allowed. I am working on that, but in the meantime if you get that error or are otherwise prevented from commenting, just e-mail me: sierra [at] to enter.

Update: I'm sorry I forgot to post the deadline for entry, so it is: Friday 1/20/11 at midnight. Winner will be announced Monday 1/24/11.

Monday, January 17, 2011

In Defense of Deep Reading

I saw an article in the newspaper last week about the supposed decline of deep-reading. (Link)

Its main point was that with all that technology offers today, "deep reading," or reading while comprehending and critically thinking about the material, is on the decline.

This may statistically be true. But the article used several points that I would like to refute in the defense of deep reading. Granted, deep reading feels natural and right because that is all I know, but who knows what the future will hold? Below I argue several points in reading's favor and why, despite the demise of book stores, deep reading will always be with us.

#1: Twitter is taking over.
The article says, "Just last summer, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he was concerned about what he sees as a decline in slow reading. Instant messages and 140-character tweets appear to be taking over our ability to concentrate on a single idea or theme in a book, he told Foreign Policy Magazine."

Listen, Google CEO man. I put forth that people on Twitter are mostly educated. Twitter is a convenience, after all. It takes critical thinking to distill your message down into 140 characters. I disagree that short bursts of what is essentially chatter will replace the mind-nourishment of deep reading.

* Mr. Sierra hastened to point out that Ashton Kutcher's tweets get way more followers than, say, mine, and that the people tweeting about Ashton are probably not good examples of educated, clever people. I maintain that they could be, if they would stop talking about Ashton Kutcher.

#2: Hyperlinks on Web pages are too fast.
The article says, "It's easy to forget the benefits of deep reading in an age where anything worth doing is done fast, Canadian author John Miedema says. We surf the Internet, gather snippets of information and click hyperlinks that bring us to different topics and authors, he says ... "The Web is essentially a distraction machine. Hyperlinks are meant to take you away from where you are."

Um, yeah, because hyperlinks are what the web should be about! Yes to hyperlinks!
Web pages must allow you to move through as you will! That is not deep reading, that's called usability! And it's dictated by the medium! This isn't an argument. I reject this point and don't know why it's in the article.

I will concede this point, however:
'"I can appreciate people's desire to read faster," Miedema says. "But if you want to have a deep relationship with a text and understand a complex idea, then slow reading is a preferred style. It's good for pleasure, too. It's not a rushed experience and you can lose yourself in a text."'

Yes, true. Which is why if you're designing a research site for students, don't include hyperlinks. Make it so they stay on your page. Again, the usability should be dictated by the medium.

#3: Technology affects how we read.

The article says, "Mirit Barzillai, a child-development doctoral candidate at Tufts University of Boston, focuses on literacy and says researchers are just starting to study how people process what they read on websites. [Barzillai says,] "There are so many different and new places to read these days -- online, with electronic readers, on the phone -- that there isn't a lot of research looking at the processes of reading and how technology affects it."

I'll tell you how technology affects it: POORLY. The reason is that because until now, reading on screen has SUCKED ROCKS. Until we had e-readers with "e-ink," reading on a computer screen was the poorest of the poor. It still is. E-readers are changing this, but until screen resolution improves, we will not turn to computers or the internet for deep-reading because resolution is so crappy. I mean, come on.

Finally, the article ends by proving all my arguments:

"Ohlone College English professor Cynthia Lee Katona...was late in picking up her first book -- she didn't start reading novels until she was 14 -- but she's a voracious reader today. She says reading is a highly social activity that builds the mind and social connections. If you read, she says, you simply know more and have more to talk about with friends, partners and acquaintances."

Right, because reading is delicious and nutritious and nothing beats it. Thank you Ms. Katona for underscoring that point and supporting my argument that those who know how to deep-read aren't going anywhere. And we already know how important it is to train our young to enjoy it as well.

What do you think? Is deep reading declining? I'd love to hear your opinions on this, especially differing ones. (But ones that are in complete and total agreement with moi are obviously welcome too.)

Also, on Wednesday I have a LOVELY TREAT for you in the form of an entry for a FREE BOOK!! Yes! Check back!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Google Reader Roundup

  • Agent Rachelle Gardener has some sound follow up thoughts to her post last week about the nightmare publishing experience.
  • Clare Langley-Hawthorne at The Kill Zone writes about when the author personality disappoints, using the example of Enid Blyton. Blyton was my childhood favorite author, but was supposedly horrid and nasty in real life.
  • Anne Allen has a guest post: Catherine Ryan Hyde on self-editing. I took a workshop in self-editing from Catherine and it was particularly wonderful. Catherine is great. Read this. I insist.
  • Gorgeous web site from Fedex showing the changing world--really well designed, and great sounds.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Old-timey Rejection Letters, Part II

Monday I told you about my great-grandmother and her attempts to get her completed, 43,000 word middle grade (or younger) children's book, Little-My-Dearie, published in 1932. She had seven rejection letters in the pile I got my hot little hands on, and I really enjoyed the overly-formal language the letters contained. Especially when couching the "No" in condescension that is rarely found in today's rejections.

One of the best, which I saved for you today, is from Writer's Digest. I don't have Grandma Hickok's original letter to them but I am guessing from their reply that she wrote to them asking for help in finding a publisher. Their response is a little over the top. It also sounds like they will help her out for some kind of fee--I'm not aware of their business model in 1932. Anyway, here it is. (Click on image for larger view; text is repeated below the image for your reading convenience.)

Dear Miss Hickok:

I have before me your letter of August 26 asking where you should send your book. If I would ask you this question: "I have a pain, which doctor should I see?", [sic] you would answer, "go to a specialist depending upon where your pain is, [sic] and if you knew doctors very well you would tell me exactly which specialist was the best for the particular pain I had.

Since we know nothing about your book we cannot give you any information on where to sell it. I suggest that you send your book to us for a free reading at no obligation to yourself. We will then inform you whether or not in our opinion we believe it is worth further effort and, if do so, we shall advise you our service on it, which you may reject or accept.

When sending your novel to us, please refer to this letter as otherwise we will not know why it has been sent. We have worked with a good number of first novelists with success.

Thanks for coming along with me on this (what I think is) fascinating look at a personal history of submission and response.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Old-timey Rejection Letters

Do I have a treat today for you!

Don't judge me for looking matronly,
I'm preggers here, remember.

First, thanks again to my fabulous guest bloggers last week, Roni Loren and Meghan Ward. Roni and Meghan helped me out because I was on vacation visiting fam and frolicking at Disneyland in Southern California. During my trip, I managed to deliver a cat's ashes to a cousin, negotiate (and fail) for a set of 12 Days of Christmas plates from my aunt, but score a cozy blanket instead, stuff myself full of food, and generally wallow in the pleasure and comfort of being around people who knew me when I was brattier than I am today. Or anyway, I hide it better now.

One of the things I did while with family was glean two fabulous pieces of writing-related news about family members. News that I kind of can't believe they kept to themselves all this time.

And let me just say, these bits of news are going to make for a fabulous January blog schedule.

The first piece of news, which I'm sharing with you today, is that my late great-grandmother, Grandma Hickok, who was a school teacher for many years and fondly remembered by all, was quite a writer. In fact, she submitted and had published what looks like dozens of short pieces to children's magazines. She wrote poems and activities and short stories. Her scrap book, which I managed to make off with Volume II of (but believe you me, I'll get my hands on Volume I next time), shows clippings from magazines called The Children's Friend and Girlhood Days, many of which were published in 1946. I also found dates for some items in the 1950's and 1960's.

But my great-grandmother had been busy long before 1946.

One of the items I was allowed to pilfer from my aunt was a manuscript called "Little-My-Dearie" at 43,000 words, which appears to have been written in the late 1920s or early 1930s. It is a total treasure, painstakingly typed, and written in archaic language that shows just how far we've come with children's literature. A sample from the first page:

"Ol' rain!" said Frances soberly, as she watched the fat shining drops run down the pane. "Nassy ol' rain! Now I can't play out. An' all the little bugs is gettin' wet--all wet an' nassy. All wet an' cryin', too!"

"But, Little-My-Dearie, the bugs are perfectly safe," said Evelyn. "Now you just listen and minute to Sister. All the little bugs and bees are very smart and they always know when it is going to rain. So they just hurry inside until it stops raining, and maybe they are standing by their little windows and watching it rain, too!"

"Randin' in a stow!" giggled Little-My-Dearie, pressing her little nose against the pane as she tried to see where the eves were dripping. Sister giggled, too.

"You mean 'standing in a row,' Little Goose. You always get so mixed up!"

"Where's a goose in a row, Sister? Where's a goose?"

"You're a little goose, Dearie! And the sweetest little goose ever was!" And Evelyn kissed her little sister on top of her curly head.

It goes on like this in similar fashion. I, um, haven't read very far, or past the first page really, but duty urges me to continue reading at some point. I won't besmirch Grandma Hickok's work here, but let's just say it's a story for a time now past.

Perhaps the best part of the whole package I made off with was the stack of rejection letters Grandma Hickok received for Little-My-Dearie. Alas, I don't have copies of the queries she sent, and she didn't appear to query agents, just publishers.

And publishers in the 1930s weren't so nice, it seems.

Below is one from 1932 from a now-defunct publisher called Dodd, Mead and C0mpany (click for a better view; text is written out below).

Here's what it says, sexist terms and sarcasm complete:

"Dear Madam--

When a publisher accepts a book for his list, he usually assumes all the expense of publication and pays the author a royalty on each copy of the book sold. This royalty usually amounts to 10% of the retail price of the book.

Our publishing plans for the coming season are quite complete and we scarcely think it advisable for you to submit your manuscript for our consideration."

Dang! Grandma Hickok may have asked how they pay, and the first paragraph may be their answer. Or, it could be an elaborate lecture to explain why they won't be looking at her manuscript. The second paragraph has an uppity tone I don't care for, especially the "scarcely" bit. Ah well. They're out of business now.

There are only seven rejection letters in the pile, some from recognizable names like Grosset & Dunlap (who regretted to inform her that they were reprint publishers and therefore couldn't look at her manuscript), and Harper & Brothers, the flagship of HarperCollins, which gave the nicest-worded rejection of all ("We wish to emphasize this point [of them being compelled to be cautious in their publications], assuring you that there is no discrimination whatever against your manuscript"). (I love the word "whatever" used in place of "whatsoever.")

One of the nastiest comes from Writer's Digest, I am sorry to say. And that you'll get to see on Wednesday.

(As for that second bit of fascinating family writing news I got? That's coming. Very soon.)

Do you have any writers in your family? My Grandma Hickok wasn't the only writer--my grandfather was a technical editor, and several other members are well-versed in the art of words. I always think it's fascinating that some of our burning passions have been in the family for generations.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Google Reader Roundup

Welcome back, lovies, to the first Google Reader Roundup of 2011! Here's a chockablock list full for you. (I love that word chockablock, I do.)

  • Agent Rachelle Gardener has a new query policy in effect...and it's definitely an interesting one. On one hand, she says she doesn't need any new clients, but on the other, she leaves it open for long time blog commenters and others with whom she's familiar. What do you think about this?
  • Something must be in the fresh 2011 air about backing up. The Blood Red Pencil has a post on ways to backup--not just online storage options that I listed in my post. Very good stuff here as well.
  • As if we didn't have enough pressure on us already with blogging (see Meghan's guest post here on the blog from Wednesday about making yourself unhappy with blogging), we now have these suggestions from Nathan Bransford about blog comments. I don't like a few of them, like the one about how "the most effective and influential commenters" get there early. That sounds a little elitist to me and favors east coasters, but your mileage may vary on that one. My experience with Nathan's blog tells me he has found it to be true or he wouldn't have said it, no matter how much I might not like it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Blogger's Guide to (Un)happiness

Thank you and welcome to all my new followers who came over and commented, followed, and thought I might be worth reading as a result of Roni's awesome guest post on author brands Monday (I am hugely flattered!). Today I have another great guest post from my friend Meghan Ward, who blogs over at Writerland. Meghan and I met in our in-person critique group, so she knows all my writing skeletons. We've had great discussions on blogging and how to grow one's blog, so today's post from Meghan is a great cap on that subject. And now, Meghan!

The Blogger's Guide to (Un)happiness

With all the holiday cheer that's been going on lately, there's been little room for unhappiness. But for all your Scrooges out there, I can help. Today I present you with The Blogger's Guide to Unhappiness: How to Feel Miserable When Things Are Going Great.

1. Make it your goal to blog every day. Keep that up for several weeks. Then miss a day or two. You'll feel terrible. Repeat until you're missing three or four days at a time. You'll hate yourself and want to give up blogging. Don't. Keep trying to blog every day, missing weeks now and then, maybe even a whole month. Before long, you'll be one of the unhappiest bloggers in

2. After you write your daily post, visit every blog in your Google reader. Read all 500, and comment on every one. Try to come up with clever comments that will generate discussion and maybe send readers back to your blog. Do this every day, never taking time to eat or work or sleep or write. You'll be unhappy in no time.

3. Feeling happy, rested, and satisfied with your blog productivity? Start a second blog. And a third. Then see numbers 1-3.

4. Sign up for Google Analytics and read your stats every day. Obsess over them. Make lists of reasons your blog isn't as popular as you would like it to be. Remind yourself how successful so many other bloggers out there are. Not feeling that awful yet? Then maybe you should:

5. Add Google Friend Connect to your blog. Obsess over how many followers you have. Host blog follower contests, and when you get just five or ten new followers, write in your journal about what a loser you are compared to all those bloggers who have 500+ followers. Ask yourself why you're not as funny or clever or informative or disciplined as those other bloggers. Compare yourself constantly. You'll be unhappy in no time.

6. Assess how much you can realistically take on and still put the majority of your time into your WIP. Is blogging once a week a realistic goal? Now triple that. Blog three times a week, or more. And beat yourself up when you can't keep up. Make blogging a priority over working on your WIP because, after all, what is a published book without a blog?

7. Focus on your failures, not your successes. You've reached 100 followers? Chastise yourself for not reaching them faster, for not reaching 200 followers, for not being the-super-most-amazing-blogger-on-the-planet.

8. Blog about what makes you unhappy. Writing about what makes you unhappy will make you unhappier. Focusing on the negative and never being grateful for the good things in your life will contribute to your misery, too. Start an Ungrateful Journal. Every day, write five things that you feel ungrateful for‹the bad weather, how overworked you are, how broke you are, and all the friends who didn't return calls this week. Once a week, share your Ungrateful Journal with your readers.

9. Never respond to comments on your blog, and never comment on other people's blogs. That will make them happy. And then they will comment on your blog. Which will make you happy.

10. Redesign your blog every three months. Put all your energy into making it look really cool. Better yet, spend thousands of dollars on a cutting edge web designer. Then write long-winded, meandering, unfocused blog posts. You'll soon discover that the best blogs aren't necessarily the coolest looking blogs, but the ones with the best content. And that will make you feel like shit.

What about you? What advice do you have for happy bloggers seeking to be unhappy?

Meghan is a writer and editor working on a memoir titled, PARIS ON LESS THAN $10,000 A DAY, a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Paris modeling industry in the late 80s/early 90s. Meghan worked as a high-fashion model in Europe and Japan from 1988 to 1994 before returning to the U.S. to pursue a career as a journalist. She has written for dozens of publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and 7x7 Magazine. She holds a BA in English from UCLA and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. She writes out of her office at the San Francisco Writer¹s Grotto and lives in Berkeley with her husband, two children, and fluffy new kitten.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Creating An Author Brand: Why It's Not Really About the Book

I am so excited to kick off 2011 with some fantastic guest blogs. Today I have a guest post from my friend and author, Roni Loren, and it's really fabulous and touches on a subject Roni and I have long been in agreement about. If you don't know Roni or her blog, you're definitely missing out-- she's one of the most popular bloggers out there in the writersphere, with good reason. And now, Roni!

Creating An Author Brand: Why It's Not Really About the Book

First, I want to thank Sierra for inviting me over to her hacienda. This blog is one of the few that I make sure to never miss a post. So it's an honor to be hanging out over here. :)

Now, Sierra basically gave me carte blanche to talk about whatever I wanted to today. Dangerous thing that. :) But what I decided on is this...

What do you want your brand or public image to be?

I know, I know. Those of you out there who are plugging away at writing your book or maybe just sticking your toe in the writing waters are probably thinking...look, I just need to get this book written, find an agent, get a book deal, etc. etc. and then I'll worry about a public image. I've got time for that. Publishing is a slow business.

You're right. The book should be priority number one and publishing IS slow. I got my book deal a few months ago and my book won't hit the shelves until 2012. But let me tell you, when all the good stuff starts happening, it can happen fast. And you'll be thrust from "writer" to "Author" with a capital A in a moment's time.

That's great news. You won't really feel any different (though you'll be excited) and writing will still be just as difficult (believe me.) But the change means your blog, website, twitter, facebook, etc., you know all those things you've been doing to build your platform/presence, are now your brand.

So if you've spent your time on your blog bashing books you don't like, cursing like a sailor, or only posting pictures of cats in doll outfits (or even *gasp* not blogging/tweeting/pick your poison at all), you may have to do a major overhaul or start from scratch. You don't want this stress when you're going to be facing the new stress of being contracted, editing and writing against a deadline, and figuring out all it means to be a paid author. So why not get your brand in place NOW?

Great. You're all on board. (right?) So the next question is...

What do you want your brand to say about you?

If you write YA, does that mean all your posts should be about MTV and Justin Bieber? If you write political thrillers, should all your tweets be about big world issues? No! I think this is a mistake that's easy to fall into. Yes, you want be relatable to your target audience, but that doesn't mean you have to stuff yourself into some little genre box. And God forbid you do this and then hop genres at some point like I did.

Here's what I think:
Your brand should be YOU. Whoever that may be. Your book/genre is only a piece of that package.

Yes, your branding/websites/etc. should appeal to your target readers and not offend them or scare them away. But I think the only way to create an effective brand it to be genuinely yourself. People want to get to know YOU, the person.

I write erotic romance, and not just erotic romance, but BDSM-themed, dark, suspenseful erotic romance. So it would be a logical jump that I should tweet or post about sexy stuff all the time, right? Well, I could. My friend, erotica author Tiffany Reisz, blogs and tweets openly about sexual topics. She puts it all out there without a filter. And it works for her because that's who she is. She's a person who feels very comfortable being that open and is not afraid to push the envelope. It's genuine. And I and others enjoy following her because of that.

I, on the other hand, keep my posts and tweets PG-13. Why? Is it because I'm uptight and uncomfortable with the topics? Hardly. I couldn't write what I write if I was. No, it's simply because I'm a shy, private person. I can talk about pretty much anything with people I'm close to; but in general company, you're not going to hear me curse or talk about sex. So for me to post only things related to erotic romance wouldn't be a genuine depiction of who I am. It would come across as a persona instead of a person.

So I blog about writing and tweet about all kinds of things: writing, motherhood, cooking, books, Guitar Hero, reality TV, 80s movies...whatever is on my mind. And other people who relate to those things or appreciate my sense of humor follow me.

Do I think that every person who follows me is going to rush out and buy my book? Of course not. But I've already been told by many friends I've met online that even though they've never read an erotic romance, they plan to buy mine.

Why? Because they've gotten to know me and (for some strange reason) like me, so want to be supportive. I also think there's an element of--"Huh, I seem to have a lot in common with this person. So if she likes and writes erotic romance, maybe I'd like it too." It makes a genre that is very intimidating to venture into more approachable because someone like me--a (mostly) normal mom and wife--enjoys it. And that--though it happened totally by accident for me, lol--is marketing and creating an author brand.

So I know Sierra has talked about it on here before, but the best advice I can give is get out there, be genuinely you and not who you think you "should" be. And don't make your online presence about the book. Having your Twitter name or website address be the name of your book or a character is not a good idea. Beyond the fact that if it's published, the title will probably change, you want people to get to know you and not just your book title. Hopefully you won't just write ONE book, so you need to think more long-term. This also goes for using monikers instead of your name/pen name (a mistake I made early on, lol.) Do those things and you'll be way ahead of the game when your book deal is inked. :)

So what are you doing to create an author brand? How do you want to be perceived as an author? Which authors do you think do a great job of creating a "brand"?

Roni wrote her first romance novel at age fifteen when she discovered writing about boys was way easier than actually talking to them. Since then, her flirting skills haven’t improved, but she likes to think her storytelling ability has. After earning a master’s degree in social work from LSU, she worked in a mental hospital, counseled birthmothers as an adoption coordinator, and did management recruiting in her PJs. But she always returned to writing. Though she’ll forever be a New Orleans girl at heart, she now lives in Dallas with her husband and son. If she’s not working on her latest sexy story, you can find her reading, watching reality television, or indulging in her unhealthy addiction to rockstars concerts. Her debut novel, EXPOSURE THERAPY, will be published by Berkley Heat in early 2012.