In my latest Writer’s Day video, I share some of my experiences at C2E2 in Chicago, by far the biggest convention I’ve ever attended.
In the commentary on her video collection, Stevie Nicks says that the vocal on her hit “I Can’t Wait” is the first take, and that she knew she nailed it as soon as she finished. Bob Seger was called in at the last minute to record “Shakedown” when Glenn Frey got laryngitis; he also rewrote the lyrics, and got his only Number One hit out of it. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in essentially one long session, on a roll of paper so he wouldn’t have to stop and change sheets, with no punctuation or paragraph breaks.
What got me thinking about these three instances is a comment by British author DG Walker on her Twitter feed that said, “Planning is essential to the success of any undertaking and writing is no different.” Because I don’t neccesarily believe that.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you should never plan. If you’re a professional (or aspire to be), you have to be able to impose structure on your creativity. But writers use the term “pantsing,” as in “by the seat of your pants,” to describe writing without an outline, and with no predetermined goal or end. It’s something that, usually, can only be done with manuscripts that aren’t contracted for, deadlined or otherwise due in a set amount of time, situations in which you pretty much have to plan. After all, pantsing can lead you far astray from what ultimately becomes your story, and revisions can be a madhouse of slicing and dicing. But it also leads you to some of your best ideas.
There’s another element involved that isn’t mentioned in these examples, although it should be self-evident in the first two. At the time they recorded their songs, both Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger were long-time, successful musicians and songwriters. They had spent years honing the skills that brought them success and critical acclaim. And although he’d had no commercial success, Kerouac, at the time he wrote On the Road, had been working diligently to develop a unique narrative voice, something that had never existed before in American literature.
What does that mean for the rest of us, then?
When I teach writing seminars or classes, I use this example: a world-class athlete practices every day, so that s/he will be ready for the Big Game, which may only come once a year. Similarly, a writer should write every day, so that s/he is ready for the Big Idea. A lot of that writing will be pantsing, chasing an idea that may or may not go anywhere. But that time is not wasted, because the writer is perfecting the technical skills and critical judgment that only come from practice.
Stevie Nicks could nail that song in one take because she’d been singing for years. Bob Seger could step in at the last minute, rewrite and record a song that became his only number-one hit, because he’d been a singer and songwriter for over a decade prior to that. Jack Kerouac had been practicing a new form of writing, a prose version of what was happening in jazz music, for years prior to writing On the Road. All of these people, and pretty much every successful artist in any field, spends a lot of time pursuing ideas that, in themselves, go nowhere. But they lead to other ideas that do.
Planning is important: writing every day, having a good physical space in which to write, and so forth. When you have a deadline, you may have to plan how many words or pages you need to finish a day in order to make it. But never abandon the luxury of unplanned creativity, of literally chasing the dream to see where it goes.
Or, to quote Stevie Nicks, “I sang it only once, and have never sung it since in the studio. Some vocals are magic and simply not able to beat. So I let go of it, as new to me as it was; but you know, now when I hear it on the radio, this incredible feeling comes over me, like something really incredible is about to happen.”
And you don’t want to deny yourself that sort of feeling.
This post is about cover art, and specifically the way characters are portrayed in it.
I want to say up front, I’m not being critical of my own covers. A cover is designed to make potential readers check out the book; once they do, it becomes the writer’s responsibility to keep them interested. It goes without saying that often the covers don’t depict the characters as the author sees them, and over time, even the publisher’s idea of what a character looks like can dramatically change:
When I was writing Wake of the Bloody Angel, I introduced a new, major character, Jane Argo. She’s a sword jockey like Eddie, but she’s also a former pirate hunter, and before that, a pirate herself. Here’s how I describe her, in Eddie’s voice:
She was my height, busty and wide-hipped but with a wasp-narrow waist. Her broad shoulders were as muscular as a galley slave’s, and she wore a large ring on every finger. Her hair fell past her shoulders, and only the faint streaks of gray and slightly deeper smile lines indicated she was older than she sounded.
One day I stumbled across this picture of musician Ginger Doss,* and realized this was pretty much exactly how I saw Jane in my head.
The publisher, or rather artist Larry Rostant, who’s done my last three covers, saw her this way.
To be fair, Mr. Rostant may never have never read the book, which is not an essential part of his job description. And again, it’s a great cover illustration as far as its function goes, which is to induce someone to pick up the book: it has atmosphere, sexiness and style. On its own, it’s a beautiful image. But I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide what this dichotomy represents. In professional publishing, the author has virtually no say-so in the cover. It’s decided by marketers, whose job it is to create an image that will attract attention. And certainly the slender redhead with the no-nonsense scowl does that (as several male readers have informed me).
But here’s the thing: one reason I wrote Jane as a physically big woman, with visible muscles and a hint of grey in her hair, was to break away from the idea of the “butt-kicking waif,” a trope that really annoys me. Much like the whole movie Sucker Punch, the BKW is a way to disguise male fantasy objects behind the mask of alleged female empowerment. Buffy is the prime example, maybe even the originator, but it’s become the default setting for SF and fantasy heroines by creators who want to court the Buffy demographic (and who miss the point behind Buffy entirely). So I wanted to react against that, to show a woman who is both as intelligent as the hero, but also maybe a little stronger, physically. And to have none of that make her any less attractive.
The reviews, thankfully, have noticed that. Almost all of them mention Jane, and my favorite comment so far is this one :
Jane’s an unusual character in that she’s the muscle of the operation. Bledsoe lets her be tough without ever questioning her ability to be so. There’s never a comment by another character that suggests she’s strong for a girl [emphasis in the original].
I have a hard time seeing the woman on the cover fitting that description. She’s beautiful, certainly. She’s got a great expression, too. She fully fits into the overall image. But as with Eddie, I wonder if a more visually accurate presentation would make any difference in sales. And if so…in which direction?
*Ms. Doss knows that she was my image of Jane Argo. Thankfully, she’s delighted.
I’ve been a guest on the Conversations online radio show twice, and both times have been a blast. Host Cyrus Webb interviews not only authors but musicians, sports figures, musicians and anyone he finds interesting. I asked him to write a bit about what makes a good guest, and how an author should prepare for a radio interview.
Getting a book published has to be one of the great achievements of someone who loves to write. They have labored with their body of work for some time, been involved in the editing process and then put it out for the world to enjoy. Having it available is one thing. Letting people know about it is quite another.
The internet has done a great deal to help authors publicize their work in various forms, but there is nothing like having someone on the outside share the message of the author and their work. This is where the media can be beneficial. Setting up an interview to discuss what you have written and how others can get it can be an important step to spreading the word. The key is to be both prepared and make sure that you do your part to make it a success.
Reaching out to the press can seem daunting, but I have found that just as authors want to share their work the press is looking for stories to feature. There are many ways to make sure that you get noticed and get attention. If you are looking to be featured locally on the radio it can be as easy as contacting the station and pitching yourself and your book. I have found that this works best if you can tie it into something that is already considered newsworthy in your area or that gives an angle that will both get the attention of the station and its audience.
If you are looking to reach a larger audience, once again the internet can be invaluable. There are thousands of internet radio shows out there. The key is finding those that will fit you and your book and that will allow you to present yourself in the best light.
Let’s say that you’ve either found a show on your own that you are interested in or that you are contacted by someone interested in interviewing you. That is only the beginning. You need to make sure that you are prepared to use whatever amount of time you have to get the important aspects of yourself and your book out there. Preparation is the key. Know the show. Know the host and something about their interviewing style. Most importantly make sure they know something about you. This will ensure that there is a real give and take during the interview.
Some talk shows like to have prepared questions for the guest. Others, like myself, prefer a more free-flowing conversation. Make sure you know that type of information before the interview, and that the needed information is provided.
During the interview make sure to answer the questions that are asked, giving sharp but pithy responses. You don’t want to talk too much, but you definitely want to make sure you answer completely. Not everyone listening to the interview may buy the book initially, but make sure you get your website or how additional information can be found in the discussion. It can be as easy as saying. “On my website xyz.com I have an excerpt from the first chapter” or “If you visit my Facebook page each week I have a book giveaway”. This will let listeners know where you are and how they can find out more.
In the end, have fun with it! Interviews are one of the rewards for doing something great, and by publishing your book you have done just that. Make sure you are taking advantage of every opportunity to share your work with others, and it will make the journey that much more enjoyable.
OFFICIAL BIO: Cyrus Webb is the President of Conversations Media Group, home of Conversations Book Club, Conversations Magazine and Conversations LIVE Radio Show. You can find out more information about him at www.cyruswebbpresents.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was reading this blog by author Theodora Goss and came across this comment:
“My parents’ generation was raised under communism, and still retains the assumption that literature is important to the extent that it adheres to literary realism.”
Michael Underwood’s debut novel, Geekomancy, has been called “modern, sleek and whip-smart” by Cassie Alexander, and Mari Macusi says it’s “fun, fresh and full of geek culture references that will have you LOLing to the very last page.” I met Michael at WisCon this year, and asked him to share his thoughts about influences and how they affect his writing.
Bringing It with You
I grew up in the land of SF/F. I watched Star Wars and Star Trek as a wee youth and grew up geek without knowing that was what I was doing. So when I set out on my path to be a writer, I naturally brought those experiences with me, and unsurprisingly, I ended up writing genre fiction.
But there’s more to life than swords & lasers. Cultivating a cool list of interests is something I think all writers should do. It means we have several perspectives on the world, get to meet people from outside our ‘home’ communities in fandom, and, in my case, give a writer more things to say in their writing. If everyone has read the same books, seen the same movies, and we’re only ever re-writing those same stories, responding to the same list of shared narratives, then we’re a closed system, entropy will win out, and the community would cease having anything remotely new or interesting to say.
My own passions outside the genre include history, martial arts, social dance, and geek culture. I’ve brought each of those passions into my writing, and will continue to do so in new ways as my passions develop over time.
For my debut novel Geekomancy, I took my life-long love of geekdom and geek cultures and crammed it into every single nook and cranny of the novel. I had my lifetime-so-far of experiences as a geek to draw upon, but I also had a M.A. in Folklore Studies, with a focus in subcultural studies, as well as years of experience working customer service in the world of hobby and leisure retail, not to mention a tenure in the world of food service.
Y’know, like Clerks. Every day that something went terribly wrong at the game store, or someone came into the bookstore asking for ‘That one book. You know. It has a blue cover,’ the story of Clerks resonated more and more with me. I wanted to portray a protagonist who was happy with her world and her friends, if not with her immediate post-breakup circumstances, so I gave her a world of boisterous customers, happy hours, delicious pizza and marvelous milkshakes – my world, as I see it, and as I’ve lived it.
There is no one kind of science fiction story, or even three or ten. There are as many different stories as there are people telling them. The world of genre fiction is just one of many places where conversations about society, the nature of humanity, ethics and morality are playing out. We use lasers and swords, other artists use guns and courtrooms, society balls and immaculate gardens.
Genre is neither beginning nor end, it’s a combination of tools and settings, an ongoing conversation that exists on its own and in dialogue with many other conversations. We’re always adding new inputs, incorporating new information, processing, thinking and re-thinking. And it’s awesome.
I’ve been teaching a class for teen writers at the local library, and like any teaching job, the teacher gets as much out of it as the students. These kids are all there because they want to be, and they’ve proven through our first revision pass (my notes on their stories) that they can take editorial comments without freaking out. Even better, than can then implement those comments and improve their stories, often in ways the notes didn’t actually suggest. In other words, they’re real writers.
One particular issue, though, runs through all their work: a tendency to overwrite. They describe everything a character does, or the physical environment, in far too much detail. Their transitions, where a character leaves one location and goes to another, are especially problematic. This falls under number 10 of Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing: Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
Now, me being a professional, you’d think I’d be long past that problem, right?
In my upcoming novel Wake of the Bloody Angel, my hero Eddie LaCrosse has to hire a ship to track down a pirate. He’s also brought along Jane Argo, a fellow sword jockey with a background in both piracy and pirate hunting. I wrote page after page, chapter after chapter, detailing how they found their ship, the Red Cow, and negotiated with its captain. I had them put together a hand-picked crew, each with his or her own story. And no matter how hard I tried, the whole section just sat there like a lump. Despite my best efforts, it seemed determined to be one of those Leonardian parts that readers tended to skip. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t write this any better.
Then my wife, aka the smartest person I know, put it all in perspective. ”He’s basically buying a ticket. How exciting can that be?”
Boom goes the dynamite, as they say.
I deleted the chapters because, just like I tell the kids in my writing class, there’s no point in writing it if the reader’s going to skip over it looking for the next interesting thing. I put the whole section offstage, in the break between two realizations. One chapter ends with Eddie exclaiming, “Son of–” following one bit of insight, and the next begins “–a bitch!” after another. In the first, he’s on land. In the second, he’s already aboard the Red Cow, weeks into his hunt for the pirate Black Edward Tew.
I could have probably left that bit of overwriting in, and with a lot of effort gotten it presentable. But it would still remain unnecessary. And that’s the concept I’m going to try to convey to the kids in my class.
Because, hey: I’m long past that sort of thing myself. Right?
“New York gets god-awful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets.”–Jack Kerouac
I love reading about the Beat Generation. This is not the same, I hasten to add, as actually reading the work of the Beats, which can be hard going for someone used to more traditional forms of writing. But the idea of them–that there was once this group of friends who, through their individual and collected works, managed to change the literary world, and maybe the actual world–fascinates me. I’ve just finished Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, and have begun The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation. And later this year, the long-awaited film adaptation of the definitive Beat novel, On the Road, comes out.
So what appeals to me about these men and women who wrote like “slob[s] running a temperature,” according to the Hudson Review? Why do I envy a group Charles Poore in the New York Times referred to as “a sideshow of freaks”?
Like most writers, I’m a loner. I can’t tell whether it’s because of something in my personality or the world at large, but at this point it’s habitual. I imagine most writers are like that, since writing by its nature is a lone, solitary activity. I don’t mean I’m antisocial, or at least I hope I’m not. I try to be accessible and friendly. But the things that drive me, that are important to me and that guide my thinking…those things I keep to myself, for a simple and ironic reason: they’re almost impossible to convey in words.
The original group at the core of the Beats found a way around that, though. They formed a network of friendships and other relationships, with poet Allen Ginsberg at the center of the web. They shared living quarters, adventures, and romantic partners, all with a raw-nerved intensity. Sure, I recognize that youth was a big part of it, as was the particular historical moment and heavy substance abuse. And there’s no avoiding the narcissistic selfishness that kept them from more traditional connections (the only thing worse than being the romantic partner of a Beat was being the child of one). But even with all that, I envy their sense that here were people who understood, who got both the joy of being a writer trying to do something significant, and the sheer tedium of it. They got it.
Don’t get me wrong, I have good friends who are also good writers. But we e-mail and post on Facebook, instead of sitting up all night in San Francisco coffee shops. We see each other at comfortable conventions, instead of flophouses or jails. Most of us are concerned with living healthy, so we don’t chain-smoke or do hard drugs. Many of us have partners, and children, that we treasure. We’re products of our era just as the Beats were of theirs. And perhaps if I were 29 instead of 49, these connections would have the same effect on me as those espresso arguments had on the original Beats.
But I’m not. I’m a middle-aged guy with two kids, a wife and a mortgage, trying to make it in a world where screaming has replaced talking. I don’t have the option of dropping out the way the Beats did, or of dictating my own terms. And even if I did, I’m not sure I would; a number of the Beats ended up tragically, the result of an inability to handle substances and/or success. Their moment was fleeting, even for them.
Still, once they were the network of the cool: Ginsberg to Kerouac to Cassady to Corso to Burroughs, and so on and so forth. People who understood what the others were experiencing, what the struggle to create something meaningful was like. People who got it, man.
Alyxandra Harvey is the author of numerous YA paranormal books, including the ongoing Drake Chronicles. Here she talks about some aspects of her chosen genre and how she relates to her fans.
First, an apology.
I’m sorry if I’ve become homework.
And I’m sorry if part of me finds that pretty freaking cool.
I get many requests for help on school assignments. Unfortunately, I’m rarely able to answer them— not because I don’t want to, but because when it’s school project season, I get handfuls of those requests every day. Enough so that I’ve added a section on my website with the kind of information students might need. I write about vampires, Victorian ghosts, Fae, zombies… that’s a lot of ground to cover!
Like all writers, I get asked about the craft.
The bad news is: there’s no secret handshake.
The good news is: there’s no secret handshake
So, my advice is pretty basic: write. Sounds simple, right? But a lot of people want to be writers— they don’t necessarily want to write. If you love to write, you’re halfway there already.
Keep at it. Like anything else, you need practice. Learn to finish something: a poem, a short story, a novella. The fire at the beginning of a story can flicker once you’re a few chapters in. You can get distracted by shiny idea #15, and that one over there., and wait is that Dean Winchester? Mr. Darcy? (okay those last 2 might just be me!)… so learn to finish. It’s a skill like any other.
And because I write vampire YA, I often get asked about Twilight, vampires, and cute boys. When I went on book tour in the UK, I was asked at least once every day if I know Justin Bieber (this is because I’m Canadian. And the answer is no, just in case you’re wondering). I also get asked what kind of supernatural creature I would be, which is so much more interesting than your average interview or essay question. And the answer: I would like to be a time traveler. I’m not sure if that counts as a supernatural creature but I’d just really like to visit different periods in history (Regency, Victorian, Ancient Egypt, Iron Age Celts, Middle Ages…) but still come home for my hot shower and ice cream. A girl has to have her priorities, after all.
The really wonderful thing about writing YA fiction is that every so often, I get to travel around visiting libraries and schools. I get to chat with anywhere from 20 to 300 students, all of whom have brilliant insights that would put university lit profs to shame. I am consistently impressed by the calibre of those questions. They make me think about my characters, the reading culture, and writing in general. You are such a brighter star than you think you are. Don’t be afraid to ask those questions.
Another reason I love all those questions? I basically spend my days alone talking to my imaginary friends…and then suddenly on book tour I have to think of interesting things to say to people who actually talk back! So those questions? They save my poor shy writer’s brain.
And I usually have questions of my own to ask…Principally, if you could live in a book, which one would it be? (So far, Harry Potter is winning). Discuss.
Oops. That sounds like more homework.
Alyxandra Harvey’s books include Haunting Violet, Stolen Away, and most recently, Blood Moon. You can find out more at her website here.