Writers and Authors

writer-vs-authorLately I have been working hard on a novel. It is not the first time I have tried to write a novel, but this is the furthest I’ve ever come. And it is still going strong. This is a miracle to me.

And suddenly it feels like I should have been doing this all along. I can talk to other writers with real knowledge of what they are going through, not just a sympathetic ear. I feel like I’ve crossed a border. I am creating a whole world that didn’t exist before, and peopling it with beings I made up. They say words I made up, they make movements I made up. It’s incredible, really.

One thing I didn’t expect: the stark contrast between being in that writing world, and then having to re-enter the Real World. I find myself drifting back to my fictional world in the middle of my days. Oh sure, I’ve heard of this from other writers before, but I didn’t think it was such a visceral, physical tug.

This explains a few things for me. There is, of course, a real difference between the life of a writer and the life of an author. A writer is in their own world, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. They are alone in a room, most of the time, or at least not talking to other people. They are pulling their mind in a different direction from anything that they would normally be forced to consider in daily life. The laundry, dinner, the dishes. Deadlines, bills, work. It’s all extraneous.

And I know this. Intellectually, I know this. I have heard people talk about it. One author I know gave a great keynote a few years ago about this exact thing. But to me, in the audience, not having entered that world in such a way, it was all academic. I knew what he was talking about, sort of, and I even referenced that in my work with other authors. I knew they would suffer as he did.

What I did not know was the depths to which the suffering would go. I thought I understood, but I didn’t. The difference between being a writer and an author is… well, the only thing I can think of that would be analogous is being born. Being whipped out of your comfy safe cocoon, warm and cozy, into a sea of bright lights and noise and demands. Ugh.

That is what an author must do. An author (as opposed to a writer) must push themselves through the birth canal (to use a rather mucky metaphor) and once they have done that, they cannot quit – they must live! They must navigate the ways of the media, they must self-promote, they must speak in front of groups.

This must be why I have found in my promotional work that many writers quit once their book launches. (And not just self-published writers, though they suffer from this more than traditionally publishers authors, I think.) I have worked with many writers who simply cannot or won’t do the work of promotion. They will blog and send out postcards and do events right up until launch month, but then, they just quit. They are done. I have seen this time and time again. It always puzzled me.

What I think is going on is that they didn’t anticipate this dichotomy. They enjoyed the writing so much, but didn’t realize what came after. There was some disconnect there that no one else could address, because the writers themselves didn’t even realize it existed (I’m guessing).

Oh my. What have I got myself into? It is the price we must pay, I guess, for that lovely place you find yourself in when your fictional world comes alive. Well, at least I know what’s on the other side. I mean, intellectually, anyway.

Sucked into the research vortex

time-and-space-vortexIf you are a writer, you must do research. That is sort of a given. One of the staples of the writing life. Even if you write fiction, and purport to make it all up, there will come a time when you will want to know the definition of a given word, or the infinitesimal difference between one word and the next. Then you must consult something, whether it’s a quick internet search or a large tome on a stand. It’s surprising, actually, how much research you will find yourself doing.

But if you are writing historical fiction or any nonfiction, or really, even most fiction, you will need to know more. You can make up a whole world but you will still need to know how people do certain things given certain parameters.

And in my world, with my story set oh so many years ago, there are many parameters.

I had always written essays and poetry. I had tried writing a novel a couple of times, but it just fell flat. Then I got an idea, and I realized it was an idea that could actually work. It was something I was interested in and that I wanted to know more about, and there was a story there. However, it required me to find out an awful lot about a time and place that I knew little about. Lucky for me, I was obsessed.

Because when you start to pull that world together, and the words flow onto the page, it’s like magic. When you have created a scene where something happened, where before there was nothing – that’s a kind of magic, isn’t it? Probably the closest I’ll ever come to doing magic. Conversations that never existed, until now. And if you’re a pantser like me, each day brings these new surprises. New delights, but at the same time, the whole thing is playing like a movie in my head.

Until, of course, it’s not. When a time comes that the character must do something concrete, like take off a shoe. And I have to figure out what that shoe looked like. Laces? No laces? Leather or fur? Or the boat they ride in, or the dishes they eat off of. It’s all so fascinating to me, I can’t help but describe it.

After I spend hours looking it up. Oops. Sucked into the research vortex, I made the oft-repeated mistake of falling in love with my research. I pitched the book at a conference and couldn’t help myself from telling the agent all about the archeology it was based on. I caught myself, but it was close.

I have seen cases where the author’s research was showing. Where the corset of the character was described in too much detail. Where we know they spent time researching something, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet here they are describing it. It doesn’t add anything.

This is something to be wary of, my friends. What your story is about, and the backstory research that you have to do to make that world come alive, should not intersect. That backstory, though, is so very necessary. You must fully flesh out the world yourself, before you can fully bring it to life. And it shows, but not in ways that are obvious. That is known as depth.

So be careful out there. Do a lot of research, but not so much that you don’t write the story. And write the story, but don’t show so much research that the story takes a backseat. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tips or guidelines for realizing you are in too deep and pulling yourself out, or where that fine line is when the research overtakes the story. I am just starting out here, and I hope that I can tell the difference. I already know that the time has come to stop doing the research for a little while. We’ll see how that plays out on the page.

How many of you have been sucked into the research vortex? How did you haul yourself out of it?

Why we write at times like this

Men_reading_the_Koran_in_Umayyad_Mosque,_Damascus,_Syria
How can anyone, after watching the horrific events of this past week, this past month, this past year, think that putting imaginary worlds down on a blank page could have any meaning?

I will tell you.

It is precisely in times like this, precisely in times when all fabric of humanity seems to be unraveling, when we are struggling to make sense of actions that seem senseless, when we are determined to overcome fear and uncertainty, that we need to write.

Because it is precisely at these times that we need to read.

Because it is stories that most concisely encapsulate our human condition. It is stories that show us that there is good in the ogre; there is beauty in the ugly duckling; and that there is no place like home. It is stories that show us that no matter how awful or black the world may seem, there is some light in it. There is good behind the scenes, there are those attempting to right wrongs, there are those who will fight for the underdog, the downtrodden, the ones left behind.

It is times like this that story becomes even more important.

It is times like this, when the television becomes a weapon, delivering a slew of hate and violence until we just can’t take it any more, that we must unplug, turn it off, drop out and open a book. Who hasn’t lost themselves in a good book when life got just way too overwhelming? Who hasn’t sought solace in a favorite story, the one almost memorized, the go-to imaginary world of prose or poetry that softens the blows, that reminds us that yes, everything will be all right.

It may seem frivolous to pull out the laptop. It may seem even silly to again enter that world you are creating, to create more myths, more monsters, more heroes. But it is those monsters that we can slay. It is those heroes that we can root for. And reading these stories will help us to enter into our own narrative with a fresh perspective, give our mind a little space to process all that it has seen, all the unanswerable questions and perplexing nastiness.

So go. Write your stories. Write your poems. Work on the ideas that are playing in your head. Don’t try to imagine how things in this world can get worse or get better. Control the world you are creating. And when you come out of that world, this world might seem a little more manageable. You may have some answers, some solutions that you hadn’t thought of before. It’s a slim hope, but we need that.

We need to hope that the dragon will be vanquished. That traffic stops won’t be a death sentence. That scuffles won’t turn into vigils. That people will not be blown up as they pray. That some sense will prevail, as we write the most far-fetched story we can think of, the one in which color doesn’t matter.

Submit or Die: Join A Hashtag Community

You may have heard that in certain circles (largely academic), you must publish or perish.

Well, isn’t the same thing true of any writer? And if you are primarily a writer, and not, say, one who concerns themselves with the esoteric functions of some industry or industrial complex, then you really must publish or perish.

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Submit or die

And what do you need to do first, before you can publish? That’s right. Submit. So really, it’s Submit or Die. And that can mean several things.
You can submit your work to journals, websites, contests and the like. Or you can submit queries to agents, publishers or magazines to publish your articles. Really, the how or what doesn’t matter (I mean, yes, ultimately it does matter), because the bottom line is that you must submit something in order to get started.

There are many people who write and do not submit. They exist in a netherworld of anonymity, known as writers only to themselves and close friends and family (and sometimes, not even that). Sometimes, they think they are not good enough. Sometimes, they don’t think their work is ready or they say they simply don’t have time. There are as many reasons for not submitting as there are writers out there.

But the end result is that only those who submit get published. And those who talk about writing but do nothing about submitting are doing a disservice to their writing.

“So I played softball in high school for four years and utterly sucked at it. Like I was embarrassingly bad. That said, I stuck with it. Something about that practice of persistence in spite of continuous failure *read rejection letters*, has fully prepared me for my life as a writer. Thank You, Softball” – Sagirah Shahid

Recently, I saw a post by a poet friend on Facebook, telling how her experience with being bad at softball – but sticking with it – helped to prepare her for life as a writer. She graciously agreed to let me share it. Resiliency. Gotta have it.

But sometimes it’s easier to do other things, and no one will really notice, right? Well, that’s where a support group comes in. Encouragement and accountability might be the things you need to get yourself on a submitting track.

There are some who say that a true writer must write every day; but also some who say that you should just write whenever you can – but above all, make time for it. I have belonged to two groups over the past 9 or 10 months that have helped me do just that. They both offer Encouragement and Accountability. But no judgment.

The first one that I joined, and I would suggest everyone do this, goes along with the principle of writing every day. It is a monthly writing challenge, centered around a hashtag on Twitter, and I wrote about it here. The second one is a Facebook group that operates on the make-time-for-it option, called #1kTuesday, run by the talented and generous Molly Beth Griffin. Both encourage writing and have another thing in common: no judgment. We all have our demons. But we can still celebrate our successes, even the smallest ones, because small successes tend to pile up to be big successes.

Facebook group #SubmitSunday

What I would like to do is build up a similar kind of encouragement aimed at submissions. I will do this more on the model of #1kTuesday, with a Facebook group and a hashtag. I am calling it #SubmitSunday – though in reality there will be no penalty for submitting on other days. The idea, though, is that you will know as you are spending some time on a Sunday morning, afternoon or evening working on submissions that there are others out there doing the same thing. Make time for it.

And when you are done, you can head on over to the Facebook group and enter your accomplishment. I will ask anyone who is a member of the group to submit each Sunday (or any day) what they did, then I will tally them every Monday. It could be “Submitted to x number of journals,” or “Submitted “so-and-so” piece to x journal” or it could be “Worked on a proposal for a writing grant/residency for one hour.” It could even be “Researched markets with x resource for an hour.” It’s okay to do research, but Extra Brownie Points will be awarded for those who are actually submitting work, and who can name the piece and pass along the market that they submitted to.

Occasionally I will share resources that I know of and trust, and I would encourage others to do the same – places where markets, contests and grants are listed that others will find handy. I always share this kind of information with my students and it is nothing but a good feeling. If you are an editor of a publication or director of a program that awards grants or residencies to writers, I would love to see you post the details in the group or simply with the hashtag on Twitter. Open reading periods, deadlines for contests, requests for proposals – all is game.

I have already started the Facebook group, so please join #SubmitSunday. You don’t have to be a Friend of mine on Facebook, and you can invite anyone you want. Also, use the #SubmitSunday hashtag on Twitter (follow me there at @LindaWonder if you don’t already), and tell your friends! I hope that you can join me!

National Library Week! Libraries Transform

Have you visited your library lately? There is no time like the present: it’s National Library Week!

NatlLibWkWhen I teach a publicity class, I often advise students to go visit their local libraries, to become familiar with how they operate, to get to know the librarians. Who is in charge of events or distributing flyers or hanging posters? How far ahead do they book events? Do they have a newsletter or blog?

But many authors I talk to see libraries as a loss leader. They think that people who take books out of the library are taking money away from them. They should buy the book instead, right?

Well, that would be lovely, in a perfect world. But how many people can afford to buy every book they read? And especially how many voracious readers can simply store all the books they read? I for one cannot.

It’s true. Someone who takes a book out of the library may be doing that in lieu of buying it. But have you considered that they also may be doing that rather than not reading it at all? I can’t tell you how many books I have checked out at the library, only to hunt them down and purchase them later. In fact, it has gotten to the point where in my book-choked house I only buy those books that I know I will like – and often this means that I have checked them out of the library first, or checked out previous books by that author and will buy the later titles.

So think of the library as a way of introducing your books to a new audience. And consider all the riches that your library has to offer. Many libraries have book clubs, run extensive programming, and will buy multiple copies of a popular title – especially of local authors. Where else besides a bookstore can you go where you are sure to find readers of all ages, simply browsing? People go to libraries for all kinds of reasons: job hunting, homework, events, story hour, or simply to read a magazine or newspaper. And they tend to spend time there.

So introduce yourself, if you haven’t already. Want to really get to know your library? Volunteer a couple of hours a week, or even just a few hours a month. I got to know my library staff by volunteering for two hours every other Friday morning. I pulled requests and shelved outgoing requests. Completely menial and requiring no training at all, but it got me into the stacks and the back room, and I know everyone who works the circulation desk now. Some of my favorite people are librarians.

And when planning events, certainly consider your library. In our fair state, there is a legislative action that provides for money for library programming, called the Legacy Amendment. We are so lucky to have it. This provides money that must be used for programming, so libraries are looking for ways to spend it. An author approaching a library with a well-thought out program will likely be able to be paid anywhere from $100 to $250 for an appearance. Many other library systems have money for programming, and it can’t hurt to ask.

When considering programming, think about your audience and what the library wants to offer its patrons. Look at what other types of programs they offer. If it’s for children, have an activity for them to do. If it is adult fiction, provide some visual aids – a slideshow at the very least, but you would sure be a hit if you could wear a costume, have music, or a little show and tell. For nonfiction, depending on what type, you might do something fun or run it more like a workshop or class.

When planning out your events, don’t forget your library!

A Mini NaNoWriMo

GrandMLake
This past weekend, I took part in the inaugural North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in Grand Marais, MN, along the North Shore of beautiful Lake Superior. It was stunning, it was magical, it was invigorating and informative. I met people, reconnected with people, had fun with friends and learned a lot, as well as enjoying teaching sessions to other writers. It was a very centering experience in a place that has long held an other-worldly quality for many.

I am not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I know that many are. If I were, this would have surely given me a shot in the arm to spur me into a flurry of writing. But I’m not worried about it – I’ll be sitting down and writing this week anyway. NaNoWriMo is a great idea, and works for a lot of people. The idea of being surrounded by like-minded individuals, even virtually, is a great motivator. And lots of places hold meet-ups, in-person writing sessions at coffee shops and so on, where you can meet your fellow local NaNoWriMoers.

But for many, it just doesn’t work to try to play by the calendar. November is a busy month, particularly if you have kids, book-ended by two holidays and full of the logistics and preparation that the holiday season often entails. It is also a busy month for me personally this year, with two conferences and several author events. I simply would not be doing myself a favor if I tried to hold myself to it.

But I can make my own little NaNoWriMo, riding on the coattails of the North Shore conference and the cooling weather outside to put my butt in the chair and make some headway on some projects. I’m currently working in three genres, but my focus right now is on the first draft of a novel.

I got a good start on it when I participated in my own little Writing Month in August. I had purposely arranged my schedule and prepared myself mentally to sit down and write in August. I didn’t clear my schedule as much as I would have liked, but enough to give me mental and physical time to get a good start. I found the online Writing Challenge group, which I mentioned earlier, and that, I think, was the game-changer. So I wrote over 20,000 words in August. Amazing what a motivation a hashtag can be.

And I encourage you to do the same. Someone asked me this weekend when I found time to read. I simply said, “At night, or in the evenings, instead of watching TV.” The honest truth is that you have to prioritize – you have to decide what kind of life you want. If you want to focus on writing, you are going to have to give something up. And truly, how sad would you be to give up The Voice? Will you be less of a person if you do not watch that?

This goes for any big goal you have, of course. Sit down and think about your goals and how you want your life to play out. How do you want people to see you? What do you want to leave behind in this mortal coil? There was a session at the conference called The Writing Life. I didn’t take it, but I have a pretty good idea of what she covered. Take a look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro. These are not so much writing guides as they are guides to building the life you want as a writer. Ultimately, of course, building that life is as individual as the leaves on the trees. And it’s up to you.

Halloween Reading 2015

ReadingSkeleton.CyrilBoudaWelcome to my fifth annual Halloween reading list! These titles are not technically horror, as I can’t really abide horror. Gives me nightmares. I promise, though, that they are all eminently readable, with elements of the macabre that make them appropriate for this most deviant of holidays. If you’d like more, check out my previous posts from 2011, here and here, 2012, 2013 and 2014. I typically try to include a classic, something for younger readers, and more current titles. This year it is a mix, with two classics, a series of graphic novels, a series that may or may not be YA or Middle Grade, depending on the reader, but which is delicious for adults as well, and three current titles. I cannot recommend highly enough The Library at Mount Char. It is my spotlight title of the year, so far. There’s still time to get your hands on some of these and settle down with a spooky read for Halloween!

Pride and Prejudice with Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Graham-Smith
I have stated in a previous Halloween article that I didn’t like zombies. When this took off a few years ago, I kind of ignored it. But recently, I’ve been inundated with Jane Austen references: I’ve reviewed two books about her and her work for Library Journal, and I’ve found numerous articles online that I just happen to come across. I also have not read all her works, but I have read Pride and Prejudice. I often confuse it with Jane Eyre, but Wuthering Heights was always my favorite of that ilk anyway. I think that I will have to round out the oeuvre soon, but what they did here was just cheeky enough to be taken seriously. The reimagined scenes may grab your attention, starting with the riff on the famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” Hey, that’s what happens when things go into public domain.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman
I’ve been reading these for a couple of years. Okay, yeah yeah, you probably know all about this series. I simply can’t believe that it took me this long to find it. I discovered Sandman when I went to my first Con. I already knew that I liked Neil Gaiman, on the basis of The Graveyard Book. And I heard all this raving about Sandman. What’s the big deal? Oh, it’s only perhaps the most imaginative re-telling of the crowd of deities and/or Undead that actually control our fates. I love Death – she’s a badass. I love the Sandman himself. I love the rules and how they are broken. Beware, this is a long haul. It’s a series of 15 graphic novels that were published in the 90s. Oh, if only I could go back and read these without all the clutter of all the derivative stuff that’s been published since then, that I thought was original. Again, Gaiman is a, well, he wouldn’t want me to call him a god. Let’s just say he’s utterly breathtaking. And Sandman is spellbinding. If you cannot find this or the idea of a graphic novel turns you off, try Good Omens. Co-written with Terry Pratchett, it is a delightful dystopian, complete with demon child.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
This book is full of so many inventive ways to kill someone, so much blood and gore, that actually about halfway through I kind of became immune to it. The story was so good that I just glazed right over all that baking alive, all that torture, all the explosions and so on. I just wanted to find out what happened. The reason I thought this would be appropriate for Halloween, though it’s not strictly horror, is that the premise is that there is this one man, one supreme being (though, to his eternal irritation, he did not create the Earth), who is capable of creating life from death, who can manipulate time, who works from ash and dust, and through most of the story, he’s missing. Just what would that be like, then? It’s fascinating. What’s even better is what happens at the end. And then, of course, there’s the Library. I have talked to this author on GoodReads and he promises no sequel. So savor this one. Not quite sci-fi, not quite fantasy, it’s a speculative fiction feast.

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Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series
by Ransom Riggs
The final book in this series has just come out (Library of Souls), which as we know is a godsend when starting a series. You don’t have to wait for the new one! I had heard of this when it started, and it kept cropping up on my radar, so with the release of the third book I thought I’d check it out. It was a great series. I found it fairly imaginative, and unique in that it incorporates vintage photos into the story. Each photo is of a character in the book (or each character is modeled after a vintage photo). There are so many twists and turns in this series that you will never, never guess how it finally ends up. I loved Jacob and Emma, and even some of the creepy “bad” guys, like Sharon, who shows up in the final book. I also loved the imaginative peculiarities of the children, the way Jacob grows and changes, and the very real conundrum that he finds himself in. This whole series kept me up late, and was just creepy enough. I think that this would be appropriate for younger than YA on up. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Hollow City

The Uninvited by Cat Winters
This is her first novel and she has the endorsement of none other than our own Wendy Webb, so how could I resist? Actually, I found Cat on Twitter and she mentioned that ARCs were available of her novel, so I went for it. This was not as creepy as I thought it would be. The main thrust of the story is women empowering themselves, in various ways. It’s a nice historical, dealing with World War I, the Spanish influenza, and women’s place in society. It does have a creepy vibe now and then, with the Uninvited Guests of the title, which are the dearly departed that our main character sometimes sees. So if you like women’s fiction, this would be a great Halloween read.

Gossamer Ghost by Laura Childs
I loved the setting of this, and the craft aspect of it, and the two main characters, best friends who are out to have fun. And there were enough dead bodies and dangerous situations to make this a slightly scary cozy mystery. If you want to take a quick trip to New Orleans, and get to know a gal who is making her way, with a hunky detective boyfriend to boot, check this out. Bonus that this is set during Halloween season, so we do get a bit of dressing up, a masquerade ball, and a parade.

The Shadow of Ashlydyat by Mrs. Henry Wood
I’ve not been able to find a copy of this, but it was recommended in a story with a list of scary titles. It is an old title, written in Victorian times. If perhaps you come across it, I would love to hear an opinion of it! I don’t expect that it would match up to current titles in terms of fright but I have seen it mentioned as a seminal book of the genre. The fright factor early on tends to be more on the psychological side rather than the gore evident (for example, Dracula).

Note: I won’t often do book reviews on this blog, but I have pulled this from my Examiner column, as I couldn’t bear to break the streak. I will no longer be writing there as the Minneapolis Books Examiner. Check back soon for news of my all-new all-books blog!

Joining the Writing Club

“I’m not a writer”

I have been teaching classes at the Loft Literary Center for about five years now, and there is something that I always run into. These classes fall on the career side of things – how to promote yourself, how to build an online platform, how to use social media, how to find speaking opportunities, that type of thing.

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Invariably, in any one of my classes, as we go around the group and do a little pre-class discovery, the same thing crops up. At least one person – and usually more than one – will indicate that the project they are working on, having written or at least hope to promote does not really qualify them as a writer. They always start out by saying, “I’m not a writer, but I wrote this book… “ Maybe it is a collection of stories their grandfather told, maybe a memoir about their childhood, maybe it is a series of essays on living in the northland. One woman collected and edited 2,000 of her mother’s letters, wrote introductions to each chapter, footnoted the whole thing, collected photos (including getting permission where necessary) and then told me she wasn’t a writer.

writers-group

My response to them is always the same. “You are a writer. Get over it. Own it.” I feel like they will not make great strides in promoting their project until they take ownership of it and realize that it came out of their own head. Never mind that it was a collection of letters, or stories someone else told them on the front porch, or just a little column that they scribbled for the weekly newspaper. It’s all writing – fiction isn’t the only thing that counts – and I want them to accept that.

I have always written, and I have always self-identified as a writer. I always saw myself sitting at a desk writing. There was never any doubt that my career would have something to do with writing. But then, it often did not. I wrote copy. I wrote press releases. I wrote tons of blog posts, social media posts, and articles. Still, that’s writing. Except when someone asks what you do, and you say you are a writer, and their question is always, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” And the answer is well, no, not unless you’ve read the Cold Weather Rule brochure for the Public Utilities Commission, or the many press kits that I’ve written over the past several years, or perhaps the series of job search posts I wrote over the span of a year and a half for a careers blog. And no, they hadn’t.

Still, I couldn’t blame them. Because I knew there was something else in me, something else brewing. I just didn’t know what. Imagine my surprise when I finally started writing a big project, and it felt like I was butting into the club.

The Writing Challenge

Oh sure, I’d taken my stabs at writing a novel. I had started several when I was younger. I even tried to write a play once. I did NaNoWriMo in 2009, and barely got half way before I realized that the inane dribble I was spouting was going nowhere. I just wasn’t feeling it. I always maintained that I was a poet and essayist first.

Then this past April, I did a blog post challenge. I wanted to kickstart this blog, and it was somewhat helpful in doing that. But most of all, what it taught me was that if you are going to write, and you need to write every day in order to write, then you had better make it a priority, and you had better do it first thing. And it’s helpful to have support, accountability, and check-ins. So that’s a great lesson learned.

Still, I didn’t have an idea for that great novel. Then one night I stayed up late to watch a show on PBS on one of my favorite topics – ancient peoples. This one was about a series of discoveries just made in the last couple years, of Neolithic villages in the north of the British Isles. At the very end, the host made a comment and used a phrase that seared itself right into my very brain. I watched the end of that show with my mouth hanging open. I knew that I had a story.

I thought about it for a few weeks. Then I saw the August Writing Challenge hashtag (#AugWritingChallenge) on Twitter (there are other months, too, just check the website). I went to the website and read the whole thing. It was already August 1, and I didn’t have time to write anything that night, so I started the next night. I had already written the opening scene (or at least the first scene that came to my mind) on a legal pad. I typed it out. I typed some more. I got over 1000 words that first day. And I’ve been loving it ever since.

Giving Yourself Permission

The idea is to write at least 500 words a day, every day, for the whole month. There is an online participation log, and shout outs on Twitter. I love the log. I get to see all those numbers marching across the row, for every day I have written. There are a few zeros on there, but there are far more that are over 1000 words, and I know it will take a while, but it feels great. And the shout outs are really sweet, too. What better for someone sitting alone in a room with the blinds drawn on a summer day?

And now, hey. Guess what? I’m writing. I’m writing nearly every day. I’m writing this novel, and I’m writing blog posts for this poor neglected blog, and articles on my Books column on Examiner.com, and things that I have long promised to other people.

But sometimes, when I post my word counts on Twitter with the hashtag, I still feel like I’m play-acting a little bit. Like maybe those ‘real’ authors out there are going to somehow call me on it. I fall into the old trap: “I’m not really a writer, but I wrote this book.”

But that’s not true. I’m not play acting. I’m actually doing it. I’m giving myself permission. So, to quote another Twitter hashtag #TenThingsNottoSaytoaWriter, my contribution was “Would I have read anything you’ve written?”

Not yet. But some day, you just might.

Find me on Twitter at @LindaWonder and @PubBones and let’s talk about writing… !

Author Bios

Recently I’ve been doing some work for a literary organization which will feature 29 readings over seven weeks, with several authors at each reading. Imagine my delight when getting materials ready for the media when I found that many of the bios in the document I was handed were full of formatting, way too long, and had embedded links.

AllAboutMe

People, people. Okay, I know, if you are sending a bio to someone you might think, well, they can just customize for their use. One person said to me “Why can’t you just right click and delete the links?” But that’s not the point. The point is, I was going through many bios, and I had to go through all these pieces separately, carefully, and it was more time-consuming than it needed to be. And this is not my first rodeo.

When you are providing an author bio, or if you are writing one for your Facebook page or website, here are a few tips I recommend:

Keep it brief. You can have a long version, and this might be appropriate for your website, but know that media will often go there for a bio if they need one, and they would be more appreciative of a short bio. You could provide both. Cook up both versions, as it’s better to have them and not need them, than… you know. Oh, and a one or two-liner for those article bylines is helpful, too.

Focus on your writing. Don’t go into your hobbies, unless they are relevant. Don’t talk about your career as an accountant. Very little said in a bio is going to impress anyone. Take this opportunity to connect.

Make it interesting. Okay, I know I said ease up on the hobbies. But what I hate to see is a two-line bio that says you live in Eastern Shropshire with your dogs and cats. That’s just not very personable, is it? I understand the need for privacy, but also think of those clamoring fans. Give them a little bit of personal insight. Here is an example from mystery novelist Julie Kramer:

“Julie grew up along the Minnesota-Iowa state line, fourth generation of a family who raised cattle and farmed corn for 130 years. Her favorite childhood days were spent waiting for the bookmobile to bring her another Phyllis A. Whitney novel. An avid reader, she tired of fictional TV reporters always being portrayed as obnoxious secondary characters who could be killed off whenever the plot started dragging, so her series features reporter Riley Spartz as heroine.”

You could use just one of these items in a short bio. This is paragraph three of a four paragraph bio on her website. But see how it gives you something to hang on to? A reporter could cull from here what they need. It gives you an idea of her family’s farming background (which sometimes plays in the books), a nice little childhood tidbit, showing her as an avid reader, and then the reason why she picked a TV reporter as her heroine (aside from the fact that she was a TV reporter and producer in her work). The rest of the bio is about the books (which could really go elsewhere, since they are already on her website) and her TV career. So it is complete and brief.

Think about the audience for which the bio will be displayed. Think about what that audience might want to know. Think about whether or not it will be read aloud. A lot of website addresses will be kind of awkward read aloud. Test it out loud to make sure it all flows well. But if it is for a website (such as for a bookstore where you will be appearing), do send a link to your own website. Just don’t embed it in the text. You may actually need several versions of your bio.

And finally, when submitting your bio to a specific person, whether it’s for a publication or an event, submit a clean copy. Keep it bereft of formatting. They will likely be copying it into a different program, so all the formatting will be stripped out as they do that anyway. I am pasting this into WordPress, which, even though I use the little Word icon, will strip out any formatting, including bolding and italics (you may still want to italicize book titles for clarity, as they will then have your document for reference when they do the final typesetting). But embedded links are the worst. As I said last week on Facebook, showing the links to all your books and awards will not impress an editor when they have to spend time stripping it all out.

I have seen I bet you hundreds of author bios in my career. I like the ones that give me an idea of the person, why they do their work, and where they come from. I don’t care much about college degrees or what kind of flowers you grow (unless you are an award-winning gardener writing a series about a gardening sleuth). I do care why you write, how you came to write what you do, and what your purpose is in doing so.

Here’s a really good checklist on how to write an author bio. I agree with all of this, so I’m not going to just parrot it here. Note that you will need a headshot, too, and there is a link in this article to an article about that (I know, sending you down the rabbit hole, aren’t I?). I especially agree with tip #10 here: yes, steal. Beg, borrow and look at all else. Great excuse for a field trip to your local indie bookseller, or hey, even a big box store if that’s all ya got.

Z is for Zombies

I know, kind of a stretch, right? This is my final post for the April A to Z Challenge, and hey, Z is tough. But let me reassure you – I am not into that whole Walking Dead thing. Zombies just never have done it for me. However, there is one way in which they relate to what I’m doing that I can discuss. And that is the old writing maxim: Write it like they’re dead.

This typically applies to nonfiction work: memoirs, biography and the like. Most of the time, someone writing a biography has the cooperation of their subject, so it’s not an issue. But what do you do when you want to write a memoir – ostensibly about your own experience – and in come all those other people in your life, and you find you have to write about them, too?

I went to an excellent panel at AWP (I know, really, this is the last mention!) on Privacy of Secondary Characters. If you are writing creative nonfiction, memoir, or even poetry, you have to consider this. Or if there’s a chance that your best friend will recognize herself in your novel, I guess it would apply there too. But the bottom line is, it really doesn’t matter.

If you are worried about how others will respond to your work, then you have two choices: either don’t write it, or write it like they’re dead. You can’t create this work worrying about what others will think, even if they are explicitly mentioned in the work. One quote from the panel stands out: “The only authorization is the ethos of art.” Which is to say, you will get no authorization, nor do you need to. Unless you are portraying someone as criminal, you can’t worry about it. (And if you are, that’s a whole different story.)

Other tidbits from this session (it really was excellent) include:
1. Make the writing worth the cost (if it’s that good, who’s going to argue?)

2. Don’t worry about defacing the Family Scroll (a hypothetical scroll of family history on which you don’t want to make a black mark)

3. There’s no such thing as writing honestly about yourself and not doing justice to others.

4. You cannot ultimately predict how anyone will respond (panelists had stories of responses very different than they had envisioned, some good, some from different people than they had expected)

5. Compassion + mercy + forgiveness can come back around to the authors.

6. The subject and writer are in this together, even if the subject has a lot more to lose.

7. We do it, we do it imperfectly, but don’t kid yourself there’s no cost to anyone.

I guess then it’s all about your risk tolerance. How much of a risk are you willing to take? What might the costs be of your craft? There is, of course, always a cost. How do you weigh that against not performing your craft?

As I said, this has mostly to do with nonfiction, but you might also consider this if you are writing fiction. I had an idea for a novel a while back that would have been very transparent to my best friend, about a woman whose dad was dying of cancer. The new book I’m working on is actually about my best friend, who herself died of cancer. It is nonfiction. I have considered how her mom might feel about it, or her husband or her son. But I honestly can’t worry about that. Also, they don’t read much or go to book events, or read reviews. So there is really little chance that they would actually know about the book unless I told them. I am torn.

What is your responsibility to your subjects? Is their story just out there for the taking? How do you reconcile that if your story is inextricably intertwined with theirs?

There are so many questions. It’s an ethical question, to be sure. And a good discussion could be had on ethics in art.

What say you?

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