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52 Books in 2013—Update 03

7. Zorro by Isabel AllendeZorro

When I was little, Zorro was my superhero. I wanted to be him when I grew up. (Yes, I’m female. Your point?) I’d watch the old black-and-white Disney show and make up my own adventures with Diego and Bernardo. So when I saw Isabel Allende had written a Zorro novel, I was stoked. And then I was disappointed. She’s an amazing writer, but her approach to the story just didn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because I’m so in love with the Disney show. Maybe it was the fact that she wrote it in the style of a biography or memoir. A lot of the story and action were watered down by the fact that it was told secondhand. And she took some artistic liberties that just rubbed me the wrong way.

Haunted8. Haunted: 11 Tales of Ghostly Horror edited by Monica Valentinelli

Another book of short horror stories! Overall, I’ve had pretty good luck with this lately. This one was no exception. Sure, not every story was a diamond, but they ranged from pretty good to awesome. I enjoyed the read, and there are some authors I’ll be looking up to see what else they’ve written. Also, I really like ghost stories. So I was biased going in.

9. 77 Shadow Street by Dean Koontz77 Shadow Street

Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas books are sheer brilliance. They’re amazing. They make me want to read everything he’s ever written. And every single thing I’ve picked up that he’s written that wasn’t an Odd Thomas book has thoroughly disappointed me, from Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein to What the Night Knows. And 77 Shadow Street falls firmly into that category. First of all, there are too many characters. As soon as you start to care about what’s happening to one, it shifts POV. Second, never name a character Sparkle because that is distracting. I never noticed what she was doing because I was too busy going. “…Sparkle?” Third, putting an electronic voice that says, “EXTERMINATE. EXTERMINATE,” is a quick way to go from horror to humor. Instead of being creeped out, I just thought of daleks and chuckled. Totally ruined the entire atmosphere for me. It just feels like he’s trying too hard. Everything I read of his just screams, “Look at me! I’m edgy and dark! Look, damn you!” Does this mean I’ll stop trying to find something non-Odd Thomas of his that I like? No. If you read all the wrong Stephen King books, King comes across as a boring idiot (I tried to read Lisey’s Story and had no idea what was going on for the first two hundred pages. I gave up). Read the right ones, and you’ll be spellbound. So I’ll keep trying. But so far, I don’t have a lot of faith. Though to be fair, 77 Shadow Street did pick up towards the end. It just took 350 pages to get to that point. (P.S. If you haven’t read Odd Thomas, go do that right now.)

One for three isn’t terrible, and I don’t regret reading either 77 Shadow Street or Zorro. But I can’t wait to find something that really inspires me again.

Link to first update: https://writingatmidnight.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/52-books-in-2013-update-01/

Link to second update: https://writingatmidnight.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/52-books-in-2013-update-02/

Beta Readers

I recently sent the first few chapters of Mortality out into the great wide somewhere, the wild, untamed jungle of beta readers. It was like sending a young child off onto a spirit journey armed with only a knife and the instructions, “The first thing you kill with your bare hands is your totem,” then sitting on your front porch waiting for them to come home and trying not to worry. Ha. That’s a laugh. I’m worried sick. (I don’t care if that’s not how spirit journeys work, I’m just trying to illustrate a point.)

It could come back to me in tatters, ripped to shreds by the red pen (or the comments feature of Microsoft Word, which is equally merciless). It could be awful. I might cry.

Well, I’ve actually now gotten some of the feedback back, and it’s exactly what I was hoping for: helpful. Yes, it was encouraging, which is great for the ego, but more importantly, I know how to make my story stronger. I know what’s missing. It’s a good feeling.

And I am so, so fortunate to have reliable beta readers. Because finding good beta readers is hard.

Being a beta reader is a huge commitment, and not many people have time for that in this day and age. A good beta reader puts a lot of work into providing feedback. Even finding someone willing to read a 3,000 word short story can be tough. There have been a number of points in my life where I’ve thought, “Well, now I’ve written the first draft. Crap. Now I don’t know what to do. Will someone read this thing for me?”

How to Find Beta Readers

1. Join a local writing group
This isn’t always easy, depending on where you live, but when you find a good one, it’s a valuable as gold. Or diamonds. Or Twinkies.

2. Take a local writing class
Take the class and try to get to know your fellow students. That’s how I was able to put together my current writing group. We’d all taken a class on writing fantasy and science fiction with Philip Athans. Now they’re among the first people I turn to for writing help.

3. Look online
And no, I don’t just mean post on a forum saying, “Looking for beta readers!” Build up relationships first. Make friends, then ask those friends to help you.

4. Join “Critters
Critters is a online writing workshop. You give and receive critiques. It’s very valuable as long as you stay an active member.

My beta readers are a mix of my writing group, who gets a chapter each meeting, and a few other people that I roped into reading the story in three chapter chunks. Without their help, Mortality would be a hopeless project. No lie. My first draft is pretty solid, but it’s still a first draft. Having outside eyes to point out what I’ve missed, from the smallest grammatical errors to the largest structure issues, is invaluable. I’m thankful to them and glad I found such reliable help.

A Note to Clarify: After mentioning elsewhere that I was attending a meeting for my writing group, I received a confused comment that boiled down to, “But you make fun of them on your blog! Why do you still go to that group?” So I think I’ve been unclear. I’ve had two writing groups. The old one, that I haven’t been a member of for a couple of years, was awful, and that’s the one I’m calling out in my blog as a failure. My current writing group is all kinds of awesome. Current writing group = good. Old writing group = bad.

The Cost of Writing

Blog_Price

A friend of mine recently sent me this message on Facebook: “I am really starting to resent Writer’s Digest.”

I asked, “Why?” But I suspected I already knew.

The response, as predicted, was, “I signed up for their newsletters and every day I get another advertisement for a different webinar, each costing around $200.”

That’s exactly what annoys me about them, too. It’s all about really expensive webinars and book packages and workshops and classes. It feels like a “get rich quick” scam, but instead of “get rich quick” it’s “write a book quick” or “get published quick.” Maybe that crap appeals to some people. For me, it’s just a scam to get your money.

Yes, that’s super petty.

But it’s not just Writer’s Digest (and I’m not saying they don’t have good content). And the issue isn’t really the morality behind the company or others like it. It’s about the fact that all of these writing webinars are really expensive.

It seems kind of contradictory. I mean, the writer generally falls into the category of “the starving artist”. Yet we’re expected to drop five hundred dollars for a writing retreat or a convention or a webinar.

I’m not saying I don’t understand why. Of course I do. The teachers have to dedicate a lot of time to that and there are resources that go into it. But it bugs me all the same because I can’t afford it. Super webinar on nailing your mystery novel? Sure, I’d be interested! Oh, seven hundred dollars? Never mind.

And it’s not just that. Freelance editors. Writing retreats. Writing software. Workshops. It would be very easy to invest a lot of money in getting one book published…and then make no money on it. Because that’s the probably one thing you’re likely to hear most as an aspiring writer: you’ll never make money writing.

This is not a rant that it’s wrong to charge money for these things. Of course it’s not.

The real question is, is it worth it? I have spent money for writing classes and the like, and I’ve enjoyed them. But I may never make that money back as a novelist. In fact, it’s very likely that I never will. So is there something I’ve gained despite the money I’ve spent? I’d like to think so. But I can’t help kicking myself. I guess the part of me that loves writing wants to hoard information and learn as much as I can about the craft, but the skeptical part of me can’t help but think, “That’s just ridiculous.”

Of course, there are ways around this. Writing software like OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Storybook, yWriter, or even Notepad or Wordpad. Writing in notebooks and on notepads. Reading blogs and joining free groups to polish your craft. Buying “How to” books for $3 each at the used book store. There are a ton of free resources out there. You don’t have to spend a lot money to write. Or any. I’d be a moron to say you do. But if I had a dollar for every time I looked at an expensive writing event and thought, “Man, I wish I could do that,” I could probably afford at least one those events.

So, what’s the deal? Are we expected to buy into this stuff? Is some executive somewhere laughing at us for spending so much money when so many of us are doomed to failure? Probably not, but it’s hard not to think so.

Here are the questions I try to ask myself before investing money in a resource (especially being on a tight budget):

1. Will what I learn from this fundamentally change my life?

The last writing class I took totally changed how I view villains and put plot together, so I’d say that was worth it.

2. Is this a lesson best taught in person?

In other words, can I learn just as much from buying a book or reading a blog post? Sometimes even if there’s a book on the topic, the chance that I’ll ever get around to it is low.

3. Is this a one time opportunity?

If you don’t do this now, will you ever be able to again? I just dumped a lot of money on a convention that would normally be out of my budget, but a few con vets have offered to show me around. I wouldn’t get that super star treatment normally, and I hope that it will help give me a foothold (if a tiny one—maybe a toehold) in the industry.

4. What do I actually hope to get out of this?

I realized part of the way through my class on writing science fiction and fantasy that what I was really hoping to learn was how to write short stories. And the class turned out to be invaluable for that. But had I fully realized that going in, I might have taken a different approach. Granted, it would have been the wrong approach, because that class turned out to be needed in other ways.

5. Can I honestly afford to do this?

This is about sitting down, looking at your bank statement, and considering what cutbacks you’ll have to make. No matter if #1 through #4 are true, if #5 isn’t, it’s a no-go. That convention I mentioned above? Yeah, I ended up having to borrow money from my parents to make that happen. Yes, I’m 26. Yes, I am shamed. I’ll let you know if it was worth it.

6. What is the fun factor?

This may seem like an unimportant point, but it’s totally not. If two things would be valuable, you can only afford one, and one is fun and the other is not, which would you choose? Remember, as much as writing is work, it’s your hobby because you love it. And if you’re not loving it, you’re doing it wrong. The amount of weight this point bears is subjective, but for me, it’s critical. If I can’t honestly say there’s a good chance I’ll thoroughly enjoy what I’m getting into, I’ll find another way to get that information.

7. Is this the best bang for my buck?

If there’s an expensive class being offered called “Nail Your Romance Novel!” and a reputable website has a high-rated free webinar on exactly that, you’ll feel pretty foolish paying for the class. Before deciding to invest in something, do some research. Don’t just jump at the chance because this webinar’s $50 off a normal price of $600. I know, I know, sales get me, too. Just stop and think before putting in your Paypal information. Another way to look at this one is “How can I do this better?” If you can’t come up with a better, cheaper solution that is actually realistic for you given your motivation and time needs, then investing in the event may be a good idea.

8. Is this a good idea for networking?

Honestly, class A and class B might cost the same and contain the same information, but if class A is taught by Joe Shmoe Writer, and class B is taught by Super Famous Writer, class B may be your better choice. Like any industry, it’s all about networking. Through your teacher, you could gain access to a lot of resources that may eventually end up being the difference between a book deal and…well, no book deal. This requires you to be somewhat proactive though. If you’re the wallflower at the back of the class, don’t expect Super Famous Writer to remember you a week after class gets out, much less eight months later when you’re looking for advice. (This is coming from someone who tends to be the wallflower. Don’t be me.)

Basically, just be smart about it. Remember that some of these fantastic deals that get emailed to you may not be such fantastic deals. Sit and think before enrolling. And this doesn’t just apply to webinars and conventions. That new software you’re thinking of buying? That typewriter you’d love to drop $800 on because you like the sound of the keys better than a normal keyboard? That editor who you’d love to hire but is way out of your price range? Invest wisely.

To get you started, here are some resources:

Software

LibreOfficeA free office suite similar to OpenOffice but, rumor has it, better maintained. Don’t quote me on that. I still use OpenOffice.
OpenOffice
A free office suite.
Storybook
Free novel writing software.
yWriter—Free novel writing software.
Evernote—
Google Drive—

Books

Used Books—I prefer to buy most of my books used, but it’s not always feasible to go to a used book store. So I buy a ton of books used online at Amazon. Usually the book is like, one cent, and then I’m just paying four bucks shipping.
Library—
I have a great library just down the street, and I keep forgetting it’s there. I can request books online and have them held for me. Don’t forget your local library.
Borrowed Kindle Books—
Don’t forget, if you have Amazon Prime, you can borrow a Kindle book each month. You can also loan Kindle books to friends.
How to Write a Great Story—Free Kindle ebook.
How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent—Free Kindle ebook.
Smashwords Book Marketing Guide: How to Market Any Book for Free—Free Kindle ebook.

Blogs

StoryFixGood blog with a free newsletter.
Writer Unboxed—Good blog with a focus on fiction writing. Also a free newsletter.
WordPlay—More helpful advice. Lots of free resources.

Classes

Creative Writing—”Delve into the world of creative writing and hone your skills and knowledge on the craft with Creative Writing: A Master Class eCourse.” Apparently, there may be some trouble accessing the textbook if you don’t have an iPad.
Start Witing Fiction—”This unit looks at how characters might be drawn and how setting is established. It works on the different levels of characterization, from flat to round, and how character and place interact. It also works on the effect of genre and how genre can be used.”
Writing What You Know—A course on descriptive writing and observation.
Introduction to Novel Writing—”The full Novel Writing unit offers MA Professional Writing students the opportunity to develop a sound creative writing structural foundation on which they can build a novel.”
Writing for Children—A course on writing children’s books.
Intensive Grammar Workshop—A course on improving grammar.
Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy—”Whether you’re trying to write for the first time, or have been at it for a while, you’ll probably find some useful tips here. The course is intended mainly for younger (high school and middle school) writers, but it covers fundamentals you can build on no matter what your age.”

Other

Podcasts on Writing
Pikes Peak Writers—Free online writing community. “Join us to improve your craft, learn about the business of writing, connect with other writers, share successes and failures, and grow as a writer.”
Writer’s Digest—Free digital newsletter (though they do offer a lot of paid resources as well.)

I’m Not an Editor

Blog_Editor

Here’s a true story.

I was in a writing workshop that met twice a month on Tuesdays in the local Denny’s. The cuisine was not ideal, but the staff was accommodating. It was a Meetup group. Meetup, by the way is a great service—in theory. What we ended up with was a hodgepodge of writers of various experience levels, interests, and backgrounds. Plus, it was inconsistent from week to week. We constantly had new people dropping in, which made it impossible to appropriately critique ongoing projects. We got the self-published author whose crappy fantasy novel would have never been been picked up by a publisher, but since she was “published” she was an expert in the writing process. We got the guy who was writing a self-help guide because he was an expert on a topic despite a lack of credentials. I mean, I’ve got a blog about writing novels and none of my novels are past “draft one” stage, but I don’t charge people for my advice. And then we had the girl who was writing an uncomfortably personal true story about a romantic experience with her college professor. If it had been fiction, it would have been fine, but we didn’t know her at all, and reading it was just…very awkward. I’d like to think we’re above that, and that everyone can submit whatever they like without fear of judgment, but that was awkward.

Then there was one woman who submitted a fantasy novel. I don’t remember the quality of the novel itself because I was too distracted by her utter lack of understanding about basic punctuation. For example, all of her dialogue looked something like this:

“That is fine.” Said Bill.

That was an example, mind you. Her work was riddled with errors. Riddled, I tell you.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having trouble with punctuation. Part of the point of coming to a writing workshop is to learn.

But when it was pointed out to her, she sneered and said, AND I QUOTE, “That’s what editors are for.”

Really? Really? Lady, no editor would want to touch that manuscript with a ten foot pole. I can’t even approach the story because the punctuation is so bad. It’s distracting. If you won’t even try, you’re not a writer. Sorry, but it’s true.

What chemist doesn’t know his periodic table? What mathematician doesn’t know algebra? If you are going to work on a craft, you should understand what that craft is, and you should know how to use the tools of that craft. A story is made up of paragraphs; paragraphs consist of sentences; sentences are made of characters—that is, letters, spaces and punctuation symbols. How can you write and not know how to construct these words and sentences and paragraphs?

If writing is something you really want to do, you should understand how. You should know what you’re doing. When a writer comes to me and asks me to critique something that is filled with glaring errors, I can’t imagine that they are a passionate writer, or that they really care about what they’re writing. When I write a story, that story becomes important to me. I want to feel satisfied with it; I want it to be polished.

That’s my opinion. There are other reasons to improve your skill at the technicalities of writing.

First of all, if you want to get it published it’s going to have to be edited regardless. Books don’t go on shelves that haven’t even been spell-checked.

No one in the publishing industry will take a second glance at a paper that hasn’t been edited at least a little bit. If your first sentence has three errors in it, the publisher is not going to read further, no matter how wonderful the concept of the sentence is. If you don’t care enough to fix it, the publisher doesn’t care enough to read it. Also, getting published is not easy. You want your story to stand out, to be chosen. Submitting a book is, in a way, submitting a resume. You’re saying, “This is what I have done. Please choose me, and I won’t let you down.” Potential employers often say that if they see spelling or punctuation errors on a resume, they just throw it away right then. Now think if you wanted to be a writer and your resume looked like that.

Of course, there’s always the option to hire an editor before you send it to the publisher. If you have the money to spare, more power to you! But editors don’t always just accept every manuscript that comes their way. If they take a look at your writing and think, “Dear god, this is going to take a ton of work,” they may just pass you by. And even if they don’t, have some dignity! Have some passion! This is your work—are you really willing to do a shoddy job and expect someone to clean up after you? If you are, you’ve lost my respect.

So how do you learn the proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation? You can buy a book on it, which is probably pretty boring, or you can just start actually paying attention to your beta readers (remembering that they may not always be correct). Possibly the best option is to start following a blog on the topic.

And the best best option is to read. Pay attention to writers you like. How do they phrase things? How do they use commas? Remember, not all published writers use correct punctuation or grammar 100% of the time. But for the most part, when they do, they are knowingly breaking a “rule” of writing. They know the rule, they know it inside and out, and they are artistically choosing to go against that rule to add emphasis or make a point.

This brings in my last point here. You don’t have to be an expert at writing rules. All I’m saying is you should know the basics and be willing to learn. Editors are there to catch the errors that you miss. As long as you understand that they’re not there to “fix” your story.

Unless you have a really, really patient editor. But I wouldn’t rely on that.

52 Books in 2013—Update 02

It’s still early in the year, but I can already see that this challenge has made a big difference, as I hoped it would. Life can be so busy. It’s surprisingly easy to forget how thoroughly wonderful a good book can be. Sometimes you have to force yourself to remember.

Here’s my second set of updates.

4. The Third Floor by C. Dennis MooreThe Third Floor by C. Dennis Moore

My review of this book is probably colored by the fact that just before I read it, I read The Mourning House (which I discussed in my previous post about my 2013 book challenge). I really enjoyed The Mourning House, and this one just didn’t compare. That said, The Third Floor isn’t a bad ghost story. In fact, the ending is pretty interesting and gave me some great inspiration. But it could have been a lot stronger. For example, while Liz and Joey were interesting and sympathetic, the character of Jack was exactly the opposite. In many ghost stories, one family member refuses to accept the evidence right before his or her eyes until the very last moment—usually the adult male. It’s just too overdone, and the more the story progressed, the less I liked Jack. He seemed like more of a problem than a character. Very flat. And secondly, the writing style didn’t work for me. It felt like another victim of “tell, don’t show,” which really doesn’t work for a horror novel. I couldn’t get emotionally involved in the story, at least, not until the end. I would like to point out, though, that it’s gotten a number of five star reviews, so in this case, I think it’s really just down to a matter of opinion. And props to the author for friending me on Goodreads when he saw I was reading his book. I felt bad about giving it only three stars, but I had to be honest. But it’s good to see an author reach out like that.

5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley JacksonWhat a delightfully strange book! Not what I was expecting at all. It’s very dark, but in a unique way. It’s more a character study than anything else. It’s about two sisters and their uncle living isolated in a large manor at the edge of a village thanks to a scandal that made them unwelcome in town. It’s about relationships: the two sisters, the townsfolk, the family members who perished… I still don’t quite know what I think about it, except that I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys horror, though it’s a very unique sort of horror.

6. Just After Sunset by Stephen KingJust After Sunset

Stephen King is one of those authors who is not consistent. Some of his books are very powerful. Some just fall flat. This collection of short stories is a testament to his amazing skill. When he’s on, he’s on, and in this book, he’s on. I actually almost let this one pass because his previous short story collections never really resonated with me. But this was worth it. More than worth it—this was inspiring. It made me both write short stories and discouraged that I could never write like him. But not that I’ll let that stop me. I picked up the book for the story The Gingerbread Girl, which was fantastic, but I think my favorite would have to be Mute, which is something of a surprise, since it’s actually a quite simple story.

Link to first update: https://writingatmidnight.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/52-books-in-2013-update-01/

Guest Post: Corey M. P., Author of HIGH

High Cover

Corey M. P. is a writer and a graphic designer. Her first novel, HIGH, is now available on amazon.com in both paperback and on Kindle. Corey is also the creator of Sammy’s Books—a collection of children’s books for kids under the age of five. Visit her blog at: coreymp.wordpress.com.

 

Have you ever had the urge to escape? Leave the norm…and flee? Go somewhere far—do something spontaneous and unexpected? Did you do it?

Uptight workaholic Sonja Fines deals with this exact dilemma. In HIGH, she takes you along for an unforgettable ride that changes her life dramatically. It all begins when she hops in a cab, late for an important presentation in Manhattan, but ends up in a coffee shop…in Montreal.

Excerpt from HIGH:

Traveling is an escape from the norm. It’s a suitcase full of surprises and new adventures. It’s an adjustment to new time zones and new cultures. It’s a refreshing treat that makes you see things clearer. Smell better. Taste better. Traveling opens new doors and sometimes closes old ones. It makes you begin to either value what you have back home or realize that maybe life is better lived somewhere else, sometimes even with someone else, or alone. Traveling is a little detour that may lead you to another path and pull you out of old habits, forcing you to experience life, and not simply live by routines and schedules that only limit you and trap you into a cycle. Traveling makes you remember the food you ate, the sight you saw, the man you met a long time ago. Traveling is about meeting people that may change your life, or whose lives you may change. Traveling is a hop, a skip, or a leap toward something or somewhere new. Traveling can change you.

—HIGH, page 226 (thoughts of Sonja Fines)

The inspiration to write HIGH came to me during a moment of realization and contemplation. It happened years ago, when I worked as a graphic designer for a company I used to work for. I spent long hours meeting deadlines, and spent less time living life. When I finally had a chance to step outside for a few minutes, I embraced every second of it, hoping I never had to go back in. While I sat outside, sipping my cup of coffee—I realized I was burnt out. At that brief moment, I had the urge to escape but the reality was—I couldn’t. Instead, the story of HIGH immediately began to brew in my head, and words came to my rescue. Writing HIGH became my escape.

I would love to hear from you. Feel free to comment here.

For other questions, or for interviews, or guest postings, email me at: coreympanergo@gmail.com.

Thank you, Alison for giving me an opportunity to guest post on your blog. I am thrilled to have your blog be my first stop for my HIGH Blog Tour.

Get your copy of HIGH on amazon.com.

2000 Views

Some time last night I broke 2000 views. Not the best considering how long the blog’s been around, but it’s still a milestone and I’m proud.