In 2012, I attended Viable Paradise, a one-week, intensive writing workshop held annually on Martha’s Vineyard the thirdish week of October. “Paradise” because duh, Martha’s Vineyard in October. “Viable” because only one week, not six. You don’t have to get a second mortgage and put your entire life — job, family, friends, etc. — on hold.
But you still get an amazing experience. A lot of awesome information from top-notch instructors; a lot of amazing socializing with your fellow students, the instructors, and staff; a lot of tasty food; and probably a little something else, as well: a tribe.
I wrote a retrospective post about it a few days after I got back. It’s linked from Viable Paradise’s page, and I notice an uptick in the number of hits each year around the time the new crop of students are accepted. :)
This year, 2016, marks the twentieth anniversary of Viable Paradise. Twenty. A two followed by a zero. That’s a lot of writers they’ve guided (~480ish!). They’ve put together a reunion the week before VPXX, and I’m going! As part of the whole ‘Twenty Years of Viable Paradise’ thing, they (the organizers) asked for volunteers from past years to write blog posts talking about their experiences, to help the VPXXers be ready for their week in Paradise. :)
This is one such blog post. And . . . it got a little long. I apologize, but I tend to get very excited and effusive about Viable Paradise. I can go on about it for hours if you let me. Just ask my very, very patient friends. :)
The rest of this is addressed directly to the twenty-four newly selected students of VPXX.
So, first things first! Which, I’ve discovered, is the perfect place to put things which are first!
Curse you, my old nemesis! I have it. Chances are, you have it, to some degree. I was absolutely convinced — convinced — that the only reason I got into VP was that they had found twenty-three awesome writers and needed a twenty-fourth person to make up the last place, and they pulled my application out of a hat. Never mind the illogic involved in that. Impostor Syndrome doesn’t do logic.
Know this, and try to take it to heart: you were selected because of your talent. Your submission was good enough, and you are in because you deserve to be there.
A lot of high-density information is going to be coming at you at relatively high speed. It will be fun information, and you will enjoy the lectures and the symposia and the . . . activities associated with The Horror That Is Thursday™. :) With that in mind, however, you might want to arrange to take a recording device to capture audio to take some of the pressure off of trying to take coherent, detailed written notes. They talk fast. :) A good many of the VPXVIers made recordings, and we have since shared them with one another using DropBox. They’re quite interesting to listen to and remember. I took notes and recorded. The notes consist mostly of bullet points.
You will get and give critiques. Maybe you’ve had a lot of critiques going into VP (I had), or maybe you’ve had very few or none. Either way, getting critiques from strangers — some of whom will be the instructors — can be a little daunting even if critiquing is old hat to you. One thing to keep in mind: No one there is against you. Or, indeed, your story. Some people may honestly not like it. Some people may gush over it. But all the suggestions, even the ones that might unfortunately be worded harshly or in such a way as to feel pointedly aimed at you and not the story, are done from a place of helping you to make your story the best it can be. To paraphrase Shakespeare (because pretension): “The story’s the thing.”
So! Try to make your own critiques about the story at hand, not the author, and try to phrase your critique in a way to emphasize what worked for you (and why!) as well as what did not (and why!). Avoid offering ways to fix it; just point out your issues and let the writer figure out the ‘how’ part. You’ll understand after VP. </cryptic> :)
Different things are going to stick with different people. And some of it doesn’t feel like you’re being instructed in writing at all, at the time. One of the instructors was showing us what I then took as just random stuff. Tangentially related — if at all — to the lecture he was giving at the time. But! The point he made when showing us the model house with the hidden, detailed room has stuck with me longer than any single thing any of the instructors said. I think about it almost every time I sit down to write. Your experience will almost certainly be different, and something another instructor says may resonate with you more than what Uncle Jim said does with me.
MacAllister Stone. OMG. I cannot say enough effusively wonderful things about Mac. But I’ll try. :) You’ve probably already received the email from her asking about dietary needs. And here’s the thing about Mac: she will take all of those requirements from everyone and come up with a menu that will be remarkably like all the other VP menus, but everyone’s specific needs will be addressed. For dinner, you will eat well. If you’re still concerned (and that is to be understood; I have issues I was very concerned about; see below), my big suggestion is this: ship some “safe” food to yourself at the hotel.
Dinners are social events at VP, but you’re expected to fend for yourself for breakfast and lunch. Uncle Jim has pancakes and what I’m told (see below) was amazing maple syrup for breakfast. But what I did was to get a box of non-perishable stuff and ship it up to the Island Inn about a week before we were supposed to arrive. When I got there, my box was waiting for me in the office. Cereal I knew to be safe for a diabetic. Stuff for late-night snacks. Whatever you think you’ll need that’s light enough to not cost an arm and a leg to ship, won’t spoil, and that you might need while you’re there. Just ship it and forget it. You will be told that food is expensive on the island (it is), and while they took us directly from the ferry to the grocery store/supermarket before hitting the hotel, I was glad I had shipped certain things from home. I bought perishables. Stuff to make enough lunch for the whole week (I know some people bought bread, peanut butter, and jelly; I got tuna, cheese, noodles, and veggies, and made a casserole.) Every room will (I believe) have at least a stove top, if not an oven. Plan accordingly. :)
When the week was up, I had some of my shipped stuff left . . . and I just tossed it. It wasn’t worth taking back home. I used all the perishables (milk, eggs, veggies). I had some olive oil left that I think I gave to Mac. :)
The staff of VP consists of VP alums, for the most part. They’ve been where you are, know how things work, and are there specifically to help you. If you have any problem, seek out a staff member. Feeling overwhelmed? Talk to them. Need a trip to a pharmacy or grocery store? Ask the staff. Need to blow off steam? Go to the staff suite. Want to socialize? Head to the staff suite.
Special Medical Needs
This one is aimed at people with specific medical issues. You can skip it if that doesn’t pertain to you. I have a chronic intestinal thing that crops up periodically, and has for more than twenty-five years. It comes with horrible pain and, if left untreated, a visit to an emergency room. My doctor and I go way back, and I can call him up and say, “Doc, I have that thing again,” and he believes my self-diagnosis and phones the pharmacy with a prescription for antibiotics. No wait, no muss, no fuss. Because this thing crops up related to stress and diet, I let him know that I was going to be on Martha’s Vineyard for a week, that I’d be eating food I didn’t have any control over, and that there would be potentially high levels of stress involved. He gave me a prescription for the antibiotics, just in case. You don’t know how much of a load of worry this took off me. If I ate the wrong thing or got too little sleep or whatever, and came down with this issue, I could have missed a day or more of VP dealing with the fallout. As it was, I knew that I could get the medicine in a matter of a couple of hours. So take care of yourself and if you have a medical problem like mine . . . maybe talk to your doctor ahead of time and set something up to ease your mind.
Now, onto more fun things. :) Socializing! This was something I deeply wish I’d done more of. There were dinners and other times when everyone was together, and I had a great time. I’m very much an introvert (No, really!), and shy around people I don’t know. (Golly! A writer who mostly spends time alone and has problems getting to know people? Go on! ;)) It’s very hard for me to start a conversation with people, even when we have a blindingly obvious thing in common: writing. As a result, I didn’t seek out more socialization. This is the biggest regret I have about VP. I’ve kept in touch with almost everyone from VP to one degree or another. But I barely got to know several of the others, and it’s entirely my own fault, and no reflection on them. So my advice: if possible, get to know those people. They’re your tribe. But, at the same time, you know you better than anyone else does. So take care of yourself, as well. If you need me-time, take it. Everyone will understand. Most of them probably need it, too. :)
I didn’t partake of any of Uncle Jim’s pancakes and maple syrup because I was worried about my blood sugar. But I could have gone up and joined in the fun, regardless. I went to bed freakishly early (midnight) every night, listening to everyone having a lot of fun upstairs (I was on the lower floor), but I knew (thought?) that I needed a certain amount of sleep or my immune system might compromise and I might get sick . . . but I wish now that I’d just gotten a couple of hours less sleep per night and spent time hanging out. The cold I probably would have gotten the week after would have been worth it. :) But again, you know you, and take care of yourself. People will understand.
Uncle Jim’s hikes! Again, I didn’t go on any of them because Reasons. Mostly because I felt like I needed that extra hour of sleep rather than getting up and spending an hour walking around Martha’s Freaking Vineyard in October getting a little exercise in the insanely fresh, nippy, early morning air and talking about . . . who knows what? I didn’t go! I have no idea what they talked about. But I’ll bet it was interesting! :) If you can manage at least one morning walk, don’t make the mistake I did. Again with the ‘you know yourself’ caveat.
The Wifi at the Island Inn is . . . there. Mostly. I wouldn’t rely on it too heavily. You won’t have time to be online much, anyway. But just know that if you’re used to lightning-fast network speeds, you’re going to be underwhelmed.
Bring a memory stick or something along those lines. Something handy to have on you for, say, copying documents on . . . to then dash up to the staff suite for printing . . . in the wee hours of Thursday morning, for instance. </cryptic> Oh, and virus-check the crap out of it. No need to give the staff your nasty computer virus. :)
Stay An Extra Day
I know this is something you’ve heard before, but if at all possible for your schedule and your expenses, stay the extra night and leave on Saturday instead of Friday. There is a lot of socializing that goes on that last night, and it’s a lot of fun. Also, since you can’t take home the open bottles of booze, they tend to form a . . . booze buffet, if you will. I did not partake, being a non-drinker, but there was much rejoicing. And music, and just . . . an all-around good time. So if you can, stay until Saturday.
I will close this lengthy post by relating a little story that exemplifies the entire VP Experience™ for me. I smile every time I think about it.
On Wednesday, a group of us walked into town for lunch. We also spent some time sightseeing. When we walked back, Nicole came dashing out of her room and ran up to us and said, “Quick! I need a way to dispose of a body by burning, but I have to be in the room with it while it burns!” (I’m paraphrasing, here, and I hope Nicole will forgive me if I’ve made her sound not like herself. Or, you know . . . kind of murdery. Which, one hopes, is not like herself. You know, I’m going to stop, now.)
Now, a random group of people selected off the street might have many reactions to a statement like that, but none of us even blinked. Instead, several people started offering suggestions and asking clarifying questions. “A fire that would consume a body will need to be hot. How big can the room be?” “Do you want the body reduced completely to ash?” “How much time do you have?” Etc. A short discussion ensued, but I didn’t hear most of it. Because I kept walking while grinning to myself. It had just hit me. These people are my tribe. They get me.
And that is a wonderful feeling to get.
Enjoy yourself. Get drunk (if you drink), but not too drunk. Have some Scurvy Cure. Play silly games. Play poker with Steve-with-a-Hat. Have pancakes. Take walks. Go and see the fireflies of the sea. Tour the town. See the Methodist Munchkin-land. Visit the lighthouse and watch the sunset. Read a dreadful romance out loud. Sing along. Have a beer with Billy. Bring your pajamas. Lament the dreadful, Dreadful, DREADFUL, unexquisite agony of writing. Become a Thing. Join the Mafia. Enjoy the food. Take a binding oath (or two). Seek out the staff if you have problems: that’s what they’re there for.
And the less said about The Horror That Is Thursday™, the better.
As you may know, I adore podcasts. I listen to a lot of them. (There’s a not altogether up-to-date list, even.) They are my primary form of entertainment, learning, and news.
The Round Table Podcast has been around since early 2012, although I didn’t discover it until spring of 2013 or so. As I am wont to do, I started at the very beginning and worked my way forward.
RTP is hosted by Dave Robison and a “random” co-host. Dave, his co-host, and a pro-writer guest host invite a guest writer to come on with a pitch for a story. The guest writer pitches their story for five to eight minutes, and then, for the next forty-five or so minutes, the three hosts take the story apart, suggesting ways to make it better, where “better” is according to the needs of the writer. For instance, it might need more world-building, or better characters, or something exciting to put in Act 2. Whatever the guest writer is looking for, Dave, his co-host, and the guest host help, starting many phrases with “What if…” and offering up “literary gold.” (Or, as their disclaimer states, “complete bullshit.” I have found that disclaimer to be somewhat disingenuous, because even in the parts that don’t mesh with what the guest writer has in mind, there are nuggets of literary gold. If not for the guest writer, then for some of the listeners. :) ) The guest writer is involved, of course, answering questions, and clarifying any confusion on the part of the hosts.
It takes a while to work through the back episodes of a new-to-me podcast, because I have many podcasts I do the same thing with, simultaneously. When I discovered RTP, I put the first four or five episodes on in the car when me and my housemate were on the road to visit my mother a few hours away. I remember saying to her (the housemate), “I need to be on this podcast!” Listening to them brainstorm other people’s stories often gave me ideas for my own.
A couple of months into my catch-up activity, I noticed that no new episodes had appeared in iTunes for a while, and I went to their site to check and — Oh, no! They had gone on indefinite hiatus! (For good reasons, mind you.) I was heartbroken, because I really, really wanted to pitch my novel and be on the show. Crud!
After about a year (summer, 2014), they came back! I continued catching up. Again with the goal of becoming a guest writer in my mind, but not feeling like I knew enough about what my story was about to pitch it, effectively.
In February of this year, I decided to make my move. I had enough of an idea what my novel was about that I felt like I could coherently describe it to people. I started slamming episodes, listening to four or five of them at a time. Meanwhile, I went on their site and filled out the form to be a guest writer.
I got in! :) I won’t try to reproduce the sound I made when I got the email from Dave saying he was interested, but it resembled “squee,” and may have involved (since I was alone at the time) in-chair happy-dancing. I’m sure it was very dignified happy-dancing. You’ll have to trust me, as no video feed of the event exists.
We recorded my episode last Thursday night (4/12/2016). My “random” co-host was Heather Welliver and my guest host was Kat Richardson, one of my favorite writers in my genre (Urban Fantasy; her Greywalker series is very good and you should read all nine of them). She was one of two names I mentioned in my application under “Who would be your dream guest host?”
On Tuesday, May 31, an episode called “20 Minutes With Kat Richardson” will go live, and it will involve Dave’s patented stalkery introduction (which can go on for a good fifteen or twenty minutes) of Kat and then a forty- to forty-five-minute interview with her, with questions from both Dave and Heather. Then, a week later, on Tuesday, June 7, Episode 102, with me as the guest writer, will go live. Squee!
I invite all of you reading this to please go subscribe to The Round Table Podcast. It really is excellent. It’s basically a recorded session of “novel breaking” as practiced at Taos Toolbox and in the unofficial ‘free-time’ parts of Paradise Lost.
I got some really awesome suggestions. I’m still letting them swirl around in my brain to see what comes of them. I took roughly eight and a half pages of notes, and will end up archiving and listening to my own episode a time or two to get probably a couple more pages.
Now, a warning. Some people may or may not want to know the full plot of my novel, as they are expected to critique it at some point, and they won’t experience the twists if they listen to the episode and hear me outline the entire plot in 8 minutes. Assuming I don’t completely throw out my current plot based on what Dave, Heather, and Kat said. :) So if you’re among that crowd, just know that listening to the episode will spoil my novel. I’m not sure how badly, because after last Thursday, it may or may not end the same way. :)
<vague>. . . and not all of my characters may end up being the same people as they are currently.</vague>
As a side note: I’m a little miffed that I didn’t get to make my joke “on air,” as it were. Before the recording, co-host Heather remarked that we had three -sons on the show: Henderson, Richardson, Robison. Expecting her to make the same comment during the actual recording, I was ready to quip to Heather, “So, does that make you Fred MacMurray?”
Oh, no, you don’t! That was damned funny! And now only people who read this site will know the comedy gold they missed out on.
- This may seriously be the most pretentious phrase I have ever typed in my life.
- Until the extended hiatus, the co-host was almost always Brion Humphrey. After the hiatus, Brion had a new baby and other responsibilities, so now the co-host role is filled by different people in each episode, with a good bit of repeat “offenders.” ;) And “random” is in quotes because they’re selected at least partially based on the genre of the guest writer’s story.
- Oh, how wrong I was. Luckily, Dave is good at his job, and gave me some pointers to get my haphazard pitch streamlined and to focus on the parts that mattered, and damn! It worked. I couldn’t be happier with my pitch.
- Serially, you goofball, not simultaneously. But on 1.77x speed, which is the fastest I can listen and still understand and get anything out of it.
I was listening to a podcast earlier today and it happened again.
Guest: Um . . . Not really. I can’t think of —
Host: Well, not Wikipedia, right? Whatever you do, don’t use Wikipedia! [laughs]
Guest: [laughs] Right.
Ha ha ha. He he. Ho ho.
There’s this meme out there in Internetland that is oddly persistent. That meme is that Wikipedia is the absolute, bottom of the barrel, worst place to go to research anything, because it’s always, always wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard it. You may even have perpetuated it.
“I got it from Wikipedia, so take this with a grain of salt, but . . .”
I’ve also heard celebrities being interviewed, and they’ll say things like, “You got that information from my page on Wikipedia didn’t you? It’s wrong. I have no idea where it came from.”
The thing about Wikipedia is this: it’s free. It’s editable by anyone.1
That’s both a good thing and, necessarily, a bad one. I can go on Wikipedia right now and change the facts on the page about the Hubble Space Telescope to indicate that it was built and launched by Serbia in 1573 by rogue centaurs intent on proving the moon is made of Camembert cheese. But that will be corrected almost immediately. And if I do something like that too often, I’ll attract the attention of the Powers That Be. <insert ominous chord here>
Apparently in contradiction to “popular belief,” Wikipedia has editors. A dedicated group of unpaid volunteers from around the world who police the site, watching for suspicious behavior, and taking action when needed. I know at least two of these people, and it’s no small undertaking.
But here’s where I’m headed with this entire rant: if you find something on Wikipedia that you can prove is wrong, fix it. That’s the entire point of the site. It’s meant to be a public domain encyclopedia maintained by the public. The idea being that all of us are smarter than any one of us.2
Now, should you go on there and just correct something without citing references? No. That’s a waste of time. Someone will notice your lack of citation and probably revert the page to its state before you edited it. Not out of malicious intent, but because without a citation, it’s your word against the word of everyone else who has ever edited that page.
I was listening to an NPR show called “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me” a few years back (November 4, 2006 to be exact) on which the “Not My Job” segment featured guest Jimmy Wales, who is the creator of Wikipedia. The producers of the show decided it would be funny to give him a quiz gleaned from some of the more trivial pages on Wikipedia. It’s a funny segment, and one I can highly recommend. That link up there will take you to that particular segment so you can listen to just it and not have to wade through the entire show if you don’t want to.
The funniest part to me, though, is when Wales himself says (at 8:25 in), “Wikipedia is really, really, really strong in the area of Japanese cartoon characters. And if you push that ‘Random’ button, I think about 33% of what you find in Wikipedia is Japanese cartoon characters.” The host, Peter Sagal, later quips (at 9:05 in), “You’re right, I kept pressing the ‘Random Entry’ button to find material for this, and, like, every other one was a Japanese video game.” [Note: the button is actually a link labeled ‘Random article.’]
All joking aside, here’s where I hope to set the record straight on something. While Wikipedia may indeed be unreliable on certain subjects, on academic subjects — for which there is much published reference material — it is no more or less inaccurate than Encyclopedia Britannica.
There have been a number of studies that have upheld this conclusion. Circular reference alert: This article on Wikipedia is about the accuracy of articles on Wikipedia. There are a number of caveats in the article and in the studies themselves, but the gist of it is this: Wikipedia is surprisingly (for most people) accurate on scientific or academic topics. You can probably safely use it as a starting reference.
I’ll finish with something I learned at Viable Paradise in 2012. Dr. Debra Doyle lectured about research and how to go about it. The thing that stuck with me is this: always try to find the original source for information. How does this relate to Wikipedia? At the bottom of well-written Wikipedia articles are links to sources that are cited. Use those as your starting point. Glean from the article what you want, and then focus in on the parts you need further clarification on. Go to the sources cited by Wikipedia. Then go to the sources cited by those sources. And so on. Eventually, you’ll end up at the bottom of the rabbit hole wondering where the last fourteen hours of your life went, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a (weary) smile on your face for having found the information you needed.
And if you take nothing else away from this rather long-winded rant, make it this: If you find something incorrect on Wikipedia, fix it! That’s the entire purpose of the site.
- It is possible to get banned from Wikipedia for various offenses such as vandalism. For example, in May of 2009, IP addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates were banned from Wikipedia for relentlessly pushing its own agenda, including editing Scientology-related pages to remove anything they deemed inappropriate or that would reflect negatively on the church. Individual users may also be banned for similar offenses. Topics may also be locked down and set uneditable because of frequent vandalism.
- Even for very, very smart people like Steven Hawking or Albert Einstein. Do you think Hawking knows anything about bat physiology? Do you think Einstein knew anything about the behavioral patterns of Japanese snow monkeys (macaques)?
One thing “new”1 writers often hear is “write what you know.” It’s told to us as a hard-and-fast Rule of Writing™ that Must Not Be Broken™. Or something.
“Class, write one thousand words by Friday.”
“But, Mrs. Teacher, what do we write?” ask the worried students.
“Just write about what you know, dear,” she says, a knowing smile on her face.
Well, sure. That’s easy. I could write about being an only child growing up in a small town in rural Alabama, going to a private school, getting together with my friends and riding bicycles all over town after school and during the summer. I could expound at great length upon being an only grandchild (on one side) or what it’s like to spend all day at the municipal swimming pool in chlorinated water, getting a sunburn, and then doing it all again for 90 straight days during the summer. I could wax poetic over what Halloween was like in the 1970s in small-town Alabama. I could go on for hours about computers and the Internet and all the books I read or the podcasts I listen to. Get me started on the wonders of the universe and science and learning for the sake of learning and you’ll have to physically restrain me to get me to stop.
But . . . I write science fiction, fantasy, horror, and urban fantasy. You know, faster than light travel, teleportation, magic, vampires, werewolves, Things That Go Bump in the Night™, aliens, zombies, alien zombies, alien werewolf vampire zombies going faster than light using magic to escape from killer robots from the future . . . like that.
I don’t know any of that. And that’s where that “rule” breaks down. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great rule. For beginners. Because if you know something, you’re passionate about it. I think experienced writers and teachers tell learners that so they’ll want to write about something and therefore spend the writing time it takes to get the million words of crap out so the good words can start spilling forth.2
But at some point, you have to start writing about what you don’t know. Can’t know. One of the first stories I ever completed was about a pregnant woman who started losing time every day. Do I know what it’s like to be a woman? Or pregnant? Or married? No, no, and no.
But here’s the thing. As you mature as a writer, you develop the ability to extrapolate.
I am an only child. I was supposed to be the first of three. But I was born and was apparently (according to my mother) such a horrible child (colic) that they decided one was plenty. I try *twitch* not to let that *twitch* bother me. I think I’m doing *twitch* quite well, actually. So does my therapist.3But I can imagine what it’s like to have a sibling. My father had three brothers and four sisters, and I’ve heard many, many tales of what life was like for them growing up with so many people around. My mother has a younger brother, and I’ve also heard tales of their mutual childhood.
Aside from that, I have friends I consider members of my family. I have a housemate. I have twenty first cousins on my father’s side. I used to babysit for my mother’s friend, who had a boy and girl six and seven years younger than me, respectively. So I can extrapolate from all that what it might be like to have a little brother or sister, older sibling, or twin. Do I get it perfect? Probably not. But there are as many different types of families as there are people, so I figure if I get it wrong, people will assume that’s just how it is in that family and move on. :)
Now, here’s the funny part. As I was writing this post over the course of a few hours on Sunday night, I had a sudden realization. In my current work in progress, which I’m calling Death Scene, I have a main character Nick Damon, who had a brother Jacob, but Jacob died while they were still young. Another character Javier Ellis, is an only child. As is Charlotte (Chuck) Norris. And Manuel Gutierrez. And Lena Saunders. And Monique Johnson. And Terence Yamato. And Derek Meads. And . . .
I have managed to write what I know without realizing I was doing it. Literally all my characters are only children, essentially. How did I let that happen?
Time to rethink a few things. :)
Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 109 prompt: Sibling(s).
- I’ve been writing one way or another since I was 11. So I’m hardly ‘new,’ but since I’m also not a professional writer until I sell my writing (which, granted, would be much more likely to happen if I submitted frequently), I use ‘new’ here in that sense.
- There is a well-known(?) rule of thumb that says a writer must write a million words of crap and get them out of her system before she gets to the good words. It’s an arbitrary number, sure, and if all you do is glurge words day after day with no attempt at improvement, you’re never going to get to the “good” ones.
- I actually don’t have a therapist, but the joke was too good to let pass . . . ;)
Note: I don’t make it a habit to rant, here, but I felt the need to vent about this.
This is something I wasn’t aware of until some friends of mine pointed it out last night. A writer of their acquaintance whom I shall call "Jack" sent out an email to the Atlanta Writers Club with the following title:
Jack Writer Has a New Pulitzer Nominated Book
Jack is published through what I will call a small press, but an argument could be made for calling it a vanity press. I’ve met the owner of this publishing house, and although he seems like a nice, earnest person, there was something about his answers to basic business-of-writing questions that told us he’s not really all that knowledgeable about things like contracts and rights. Which a publisher should be, if he expects to stay in business long.
The email provided a link to the book’s PR site (part of the service provided by his publisher). The page contains a number of blurbs (a.k.a. "puffs") written in that breathless style seemingly reserved for such purposes. "An instant classic!" "A tour-de-force!" "I wasn’t able to put it down!" "Jack’s story grabs you by the throat and won’t let go until the final page!" Etc. You know the type. The purpose of a blurb or puff is to influence you to buy the book. Authors (or their publishers) generally get well-known authors in their genre to provide quotes. According to Marilyn Henderson on AbsoluteWrite,
When an author gives another writer a blurb, it implies an endorsement or recommendation of the novel. Her fans may buy your book on the strength of her liking it enough to let her name be on it. It also implies her fans will like your book, so you must choose the author you ask carefully.
If her stories do not include on-stage murder, violence or profanity, for example, her fans don’t expect any in a book she recommends. They assume a novel she "endorses" will be similar to hers. If it isn’t, her publisher may get angry letters, and she may lose fans and sales.
Just as you must know the audience you write for, you must know the audience of the authors you ask for blurbs.
Recognizing none of these authors’ names, I looked a few of them up and discovered that they, too, are either self-published authors or published by small, niche-market publishers. One of them was billed as a critic for a prominent online newspaper which I will decline to mention. I looked him up, and sure enough, he’s a critic. A film and TV critic. Who publishes his reviews on his own site. And then this newspaper links to them.1 He has several books . . . also published by a small, niche publisher.
My point is that these book blurbs were all written by people in the same basic position as Jack: an author whose small publisher is probably pushing them to scratch a back in the interest of reciprocity. I have no proof of this; I’m supposing.
Now, let me be absolutely, crystal clear: none of that is an issue. I don’t have a problem with self publishing. I don’t have a problem with small publishers. I don’t have a problem with niche markets. I don’t have a problem with people getting their work in front of people by any reasonable means necessary. Except for one thing.
Surely that can’t be right. Can it? The Pulitzer is a major award. It seems unlikely that a book by an unknown writer would be nominated for such a prestigious honor.
So my friends looked into this a bit.
Turns out, anyone can enter the Pulitzer Prize competition. You pay $50 and send off a few copies and it’s "submitted." Officially entered in the contest for the Pulitzer. Notice that "submitted" is not the same as "nominated." That is a very fine distinction.
Read more here (Huffington Post article by Steve Lehto). A salient quote from that article:
The Pulitzer Prize organization has juries which select finalists in various categories and then the Pulitzer Prize Board picks the winners from those finalists. According to their own website, the only people who should say they are "nominated" for a Pulitzer Prize are the finalists who have been selected by the juries for consideration by the Pulitzer Prize Board.
Jack himself may not have had any say in this. The publisher may very well have paid the $50 and be urging him to hype the "Pulitzer Nominated" nonsense. And having met him, I can’t say that I would put it past him. That very earnestness I noted above may blind him to the negative impact something like this could have on both Jack’s and his own reputation.
So the morals of this story are these:
- Do not ever do this. It is at best a cheap marketing ploy. It is at worst a bold-faced lie. And if you’re caught at it by your peers, you’re going to have a hard time regaining whatever trust this costs you.
- If you hear of an author claiming his book is "Pulitzer Nominated," check the Pulitzer site before you believe it.
- My problem is the implied lie. Or lie of omission, if you will. Saying he is a "critic" "for" the ElectroNews Times (or whatever) implies that he is a full-time book / literature critic working directly on the payroll, not that he is a film / TV critic on his blog, which the publication then features. It’s the difference in saying, "Here comes the president" vs. "Here comes the president of the PTA." Both are true, but one is more truthful.
These are some thoughts I had on NaNoWriMo. They were originally written as part of a lengthy reply to a friend of a friend who was curious about the whole process of NaNoWriMo and who had some concerns about writing a character based on a real person.
It’s quite normal to agonize. Over your characters, your setting, your plot, your vocabulary, your grammar, whether semicolons are pure evil or useful, whether or not subtext exists, your skill as a writer, whether you should defrost the freezer before writing, how to clean the grout in your shower . . . procrastination takes on a whole level of evil when you have a deadline, or at least mine does. (Look up ‘waxing the cat.’ No, it’s not dirty.)
Writing something semi-biographical is rougher still, because of discomfort in potentially harming the person’s reputation or angering their descendants. Our society is litigious to a fault, after all. But it’s merely based on a real person. You may not want to take too many liberties, but you may not have ever met the person you’re basing the character on, especially if they lived and died before you were born. Just keep their best interests in mind (assuming you like them) and remember that no one is or ever has been a paragon of virtue. Everyone has a darkness. Everyone has flaws. If you don’t portray that, the character will come across as unbelievable. Flat. A caricature.
A lot of my very fictional characters have inside them a tiny core of someone — or a mixture of several someones — that I know. But I don’t worry about them figuring it out, because if I’ve done my job well enough, they’ll never know, even if they read it. But basing it on a real person, that might be harder to conceal, if you even want to conceal it. Let’s say it’s Frida Kahlo you’re writing about. Of course, people will know it’s her, and they’ll also know that you had to concoct stuff. But as long as you’re more or less faithful to the events and things people do know, and that’s consistent with the stuff you make up, then . . . sure, it might tick off some people, but others will read it and think, “You know, she could have thought that.”
My take on it is this: Write the story, and do the absolute best you can. NaNoWriMo is about getting the story out of your head and onto paper / electrons. It’s not about making it perfect. It will never be perfect. Rewrites are for getting it as close as you can. If what you have after November is over still strikes you as having something you like in it, you can go through it after letting it sit for a month or two without looking at it (that is key), and decide what works and what doesn’t. And if nothing works? You still learned what doesn’t work, and you probably have a better idea what will.
I have this Epic Fantasy story that has been knocking on the inside of my skull since I was around eleven. In different forms over the years, of course, but basically the same story. I must have written chapter one a hundred times. In pencil or pen. In a spiral-bound notebook. Because it had to be perfect or I wasn’t doing the story in my head any justice. So I’d write chapter one . . . and it would suck. And I’d hate it, and I’d rip the pages out and burn them. And then some time later, I’d write it again . . . and it would be slightly less sucky (at least to me), but not good enough. It wasn’t perfect. It. Had. To. Be. Perfect.
This went on for more than thirty years. Then in 2008, I finally decided, “Idiot, you’ve got to get this out of your head. Just write it.” So I took all my character notes and all my plot notes and all my other stuff and I started writing on November 1, 2008.
And by the end of that November, I had 53,515 new words that I never had before. And I got a lot of that out of my head. But I used virtually none of the copious notes I had been taking for all that time. I came up with some great new ideas. I invented new characters, thought of scenes I never realized were there, before, discovered things about my characters I never had. Because I learned something crucial:
To write the story, you have to bind and gag the editor that lives inside your head. And lock him in a small, dark room.
That editor will tell you that what you’re writing sucks. He’ll want you to go back and “fix” stuff. He’ll pester you to stop using the word ‘actually’ so much. So you have to beat him over the head with something hard, tie him up, stuff a gag in his mouth, and dump him in the basement and lock the door. Until you’re done.
You’ll find yourself around day eight or so thinking, “Gah! This blows. I’m just going to rewrite that last chapter because–” No! That’s your editor. Why didn’t you make those knots tighter? He got out! You have to club him again and make sure to tie him up tighter next time!
You don’t fix that chapter. You make notes in the margin and go on as though you had fixed it and don’t worry about it. So what if for six chapters your main character is a monk in a monastery in Tibet, but starting in chapter seven, he’s a famous Las Vegas entertainer? You assume the story has taken place along your new path up to chapter seven, and you go on.
You probably won’t encounter anything that drastic. I think my “drastic” change was that in Chapter nine, I realized one of the secondary characters needed a skill I hadn’t given her earlier, so I just assumed she’d always had it, made notes to go back and fix it, and wrote forward.
Of those 53,515 words I wrote in 2008, probably less than half of them are useful words. But what is useful is what I learned about those characters. When I go back and revisit that story and add more plot, the characters, setting, etc. will be all the better for having had to work through stuff to make it make a bit of sense for the novel. On the other hand . . . that story is no longer knocking on my head. I’ve moved on to other ideas. Better ideas. But I learned a lot in writing that epic fantasy, and I will still come back to it at some point, and by golly it’ll be better. Because I’m a better writer, now, than I was in 2008.
For 2009 I wrote a mystery novel (55,000+ words) and had no idea who the killer was until about halfway through. Same thing. I had to silence my editor, who kept saying, “Gary, what the hell are you doing? Who is the killer? Don’t you even know?” *PWANG* with a shovel right in the face. Basement. Knots.
For 2010 I wrote a science fiction novel involving time travel. Got to 78,000 words on that one, then 93,000 by February. Finished it. It needs editing big-time, but this time, my inner editor went on vacation to Aruba while I was writing. He learned. It only takes one or two shovels to the face to make an editor learn his lesson. But there’s some good stuff in that novel. Stuff I really like. And some stuff I really hate.
And yeah, no one ever has to see it but you. The only time you have to show anything is when you paste the full text into the site on the last day so it can verify your word-count. It’s not saved by their site. The count is tallied and all anyone need know is that you either did or did not make it to 50,000.
Even if you don’t get to 50,000 words, you’re 9000 words or 15,000 words or 27,000 words closer to having a book than you were when you started. Or 250 words. Any honest attempt is better than nothing.
If you’re worried about lawsuits resulting from basing a character on a real, historical figure . . . I’ll tell you what someone told me when I had some similar worries: When the publisher agrees to publish the novel, that’s when you worry about lawyers. Before then, tell the story and don’t worry about stuff like that. That’s not your job. You’re the writer. That worry is your editor talking. Remember what we do with internal editors? *grins evilly and hands you a shovel*
7 Tips on NaNoWriMo: Backup often. Backup often. Backup often. Backup often. Backup often. Backup often. Oh, and backups? Do them often.
Do you feel pepped? Has my pep talk helped? I love NaNoWriMo. Love. It. It pushes me to do things I’ve never done before, and with each November, I feel more pumped up than the last one.
For almost as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve heard a nearly1 consistent piece of writing advice: Avoid the tired cliché of having the character look into a mirror so you, the writer, have an excuse to describe the character to the reader.
It just isn’t to be done.
Unless, of course . . . you happen to know how to do it right. I have just read a passage that impressed me as a way to do it right. The following is an excerpt from the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I’m reading the Kindle version of the English translation (from Russian, if that’s not clear) by Clarence Brown. I quote this for review purposes and do not intend to infringe on anyone’s anything.
Isn’t that wonderful? Of course, it’s immediately obvious that, aside from the eyebrows, eyes, and the dark circles around his eyes, he doesn’t actually describe himself. We have no idea if he’s blond or brunette or has a pimple on his nose or if his earlobes are attached or detached. But I think that’s the whole point. This looking-into-the-mirror scene isn’t about describing the character, but having the character discover something unnerving about himself. That we learn a few details of his appearance is basically a side-effect of the real purpose of the paragraph.
It’s one of my favorite passages from this book, so far, and there have already been quite a few. (I’m 32% done with it.)
- A couple of years ago, I took a writing workshop from a local (to Atlanta, GA) author. He actually—against all advice I’ve heard to the contrary—recommended the technique. I considered said advice with a large grain of salt, mind you, but hey. :)
It’s been about a month since I last updated my blog. I’ve had a busy social life and a sick cat and frankly haven’t written much. I also helped out a fellow writer by critiquing her entire finished novel over the last couple of weeks.
But another thing I did work on was submissions.
I finally bit the bullet and submitted a manuscript to Viable Paradise. In their own words,
Viable Paradise encourages an informal and supportive workshop atmosphere. During the week, instructors and students interact in one-on-one conferences, group critiques, and lectures. The emphasis at first is on critiquing the students’ submitted manuscripts; later, the emphasis shifts to new material produced during the week. Even when not actively engaged in teaching or critiquing, instructors often share meals and general conversation with the students.
The Viable Paradise experience is more than the workshop itself; it also includes the autumnal beauty of coastal New England and the unique island setting of Martha’s Vineyard. Taken all together, they create a learning environment that’s perfect for helping you reach your writing and publishing goals.
I’ve wanted to go to VP pretty much since the first day I heard about it—Egad! Six years ago!—when podcaster and writer extraordinaire Mur Lafferty went in 2006 (VPX) and talked about the experience.
Of course, I’d also like to go to Clarion/Clarion West. But I have a full-time job and only 23 PTO days per year, and Clarion takes six weeks, or 30 PTO days. (Which actually isn’t all that bad, considering. They’d only have to let me do a leave of absence for seven work days . . .)
The shortage of time off still didn’t stop me from attempting to apply. I mean, once I got in, I could worry about getting time off, right? But I misread the submission guidelines. I worked for hours editing a story to get it as perfect as I could get it. And then with just about twenty minutes to spare, I was getting ready to email everything in and . . . realized they had asked for two short stories, each between 2500 and 6000 words. I had just the one, and it was 6900 words.
Here’s a tip: Read the submission guidelines thoroughly, boys and girls. <grumbleblather>
Not that Viable Paradise was a distant second choice, mind you. It could even be argued that my subconscious sabotaged Clarion on purpose. Dastardly subconscious.
I sent in my submission on April 16th. The deadline is June 15th. They will make a decision as soon as possible after that date and let everyone know one way or the other. Only 24 students will be accepted. They will, of course, have to read and evaluate all the submissions they get at the last minute, so I wouldn’t expect to hear one way or the other before the 20th of June, certainly.
So now, I wait. Patiently? Well . . . :)
In other news, I have recently started listening to a newish podcast called Toasted Cake by Tina Connolly. Tina is an accomplished author (and Clarion West 2006 graduate) and voice artist who frequently voices stories for the three Escape Artists podcasts, EscapePod, PseudoPod, and PodCastle, as well as Drabblecast and Three-Lobed Burning Eye.
She decided to podcast a flash story per week for 2012. She hit up her writer friends for the first dozen or so, then opened up for submission from interested listeners during April. I sent her three of my extremely short flash pieces to see if they strike her fancy. She likes ’em dark and kind of twisted, which these three are. I sent the anti-Valentine’s Day poem, “Pot O’ Gold,” and “Nothing Lasts Forever,” all of which I have put on this blog in the last year. I should get a “Pass” or “Hold” email before too long. Submission deadline is April 30, and I sent it in a couple of days ago.
So that’s basically what I’ve been up to. Which doesn’t amount to much on the page, but I’m hoping one or the other or both of those pan out.
What I have done, writing-wise, is come up with a veritable mother-load of ideas for the second novel in the Urban Fantasy series I’ve come up with (which I’m tentatively calling The PCIU Case Files). You know, the second novel. I haven’t finished the first one, but my brain is supplying me all kinds of good stuff for the second one.
Tonight marks the close of the 7th day of NaNoWriMo 2011.
So, I have just completed week 3 of this craziness. I had every intention of doing a week 2 report, as well, but I just didn’t have time. You’ll see why in a moment. After day 7, I had 44,717 words, less than 6,000 words shy of “winning” NaNoWriMo. Here are my individual story word-counts as of midnight, November 22nd.
“A Is for Anchor” – 10,574 words – incomplete – Magic Realism
“B Is for Bard” – 10,092 words – incomplete – Fantasy
“C Is for Clowns that Creep Through the Yard” – 5719 words – complete – Horror
“D Is for Dragon” – 6,369 words – complete – Fairy Tale + Humor
“E Is for Egg” – 4,975 words – complete – Science Fiction
“F Is for Fangs that Are Sunk in Your Leg” – 9,039 words – incomplete – Science Fiction
“G Is for Gravesite” – 2,204 words – complete – Fantasy
“H Is for Haunted” – 5,309 words – incomplete – Horror
“I Is for Investigation: Unwanted” – 6,627 words – incomplete – Urban Fantasy
“J Is for Jackpot” – 3,069 words – complete – Dystopian Science Fiction
“K Is for Kiss” – 3,191 words – complete – Fairy Tale
“L Is for Lucky for a Hit or a Miss” – 3,219 words – complete – Dark Fantasy
“M Is for Moons” – 3,378 words – incomplete – Science Fiction + Fantasy
“N Is for Nocturnal” – 4,151 words – complete – Erotic Fantasy
“O Is for Oath of Service Eternal” – incomplete – Fantasy + Humor
“P Is for Prey” – 3,630 words – complete – Science Fiction
“Q Is for Quest” – 1,557 words – incomplete – Fairy Tale + Humor
“R Is for Ritual Performed as a Test” – 4,598 words – complete – Dark Fiction
“S Is for SkullCosm” – 3,872 words – incomplete – Science Fiction
“T Is for Talents” – 3,622 words – complete – Dystopian Science Fiction
“U Is for Unicorn Imbalance” – 1,826 words – complete – Dark Fantasy
If you add in the 617 words of “Fangs” that I wrote and then crossed out because I had chosen the wrong part of the story to start at and the 1527 words of “Nocturnal” that were an interesting science fiction idea that I could not make work before I changed it to Erotic Fantasy, that comes out to a grand total of 101,066 words as of today.
Here’s what the intervening two weeks of writing fast and furious to get to this many words has taught me.
- Write through writer’s block. For the first seven stories (the first week), I had definite ideas (minus Anchor). When I sat down to write most of them, I knew the characters, plot, and world, and all I had to do was sit down and let the words out. It was actually fairly easy. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed writing so much as I did that first week. But then for Haunted, Investigation, Kiss, Moon, Prey, Quest, Ritual, and SkullCosm, I had only the vaguest notion of what the story was. At most I had a notion of character and a glimmer of a world. But I sat down at the keyboard and I just started typing, going with the first thing that popped into my head, inventing as I went along. As I went, I was forced to make decisions, and those decisions forced me to make others . . . and then before you know it, I had character, plot, and world. Do I love these stories? Not all of them. :) I think all of them are good ideas, and with a little work after NaNoWriMo, I may be able to pull a better story out of them, and you’ll notice that a lot of those are incomplete. But the important part is that I didn’t let not having a perfectly formed story stop me. I went with my original ideas and made them work, and I look forward to finishing the stories.
- Butt in chair. For Jackpot, Lucky, Nocturnal, Oath, Talents, and Unicorn, I had less than no idea when I sat down to write at the beginning of the day. Not even the words for all but two of those. But I let my subconscious work on it, and each time, a story sparked. It’s interesting that of these most recent 14 stories, my favorite six are Jackpot, Lucky, Nocturnal, Oath, Talents, and Unicorn.
- Trust your instincts. For Nocturnal, my first glimmer of an idea was involving Nyx, the Greek personification of the Night. I did a lot of research on her, but the story kept turning into erotic fiction, and I couldn’t figure out the POV. So I abandoned it and forced another interpretation, which I then tried to write. I got 1527 words in and said, “No. This isn’t working. This isn’t what I want to write.” So I scrapped it and started over using my original idea of Nyx, but told from the POV of a man she picks up from a bar. I’m not comfortable writing erotic fantasy, but apparently that’s what I needed to write, because that’s what came out. And other than the very last paragraph or two, I really like it.
- Two—or sometimes 17—heads are better than one. I needed help on some of my ideas and I enlisted friends to help me out. I used names suggested by my Facebook friends in Dragon. The entire idea for Fangs came from a friend on LiveJournal. Kiss got its twist from yet another friend who made a typo to me in IM while trying to help me out. For Ritual, I used many suggestions from my friends on Facebook, although never in quite the way they probably intended. :) Not only did my friends make direct contributions by coming up with angles I wasn’t seeing (I need to work on that, clearly), but merely opening up for that to happen seems to have gotten my own creative juices flowing more.
I’d like to stress one thing in relation to the first point above. “Writers Block” doesn’t mean you don’t have ideas. It means you don’t have ideas that you can work with right now. Or at least for me, that’s what it means. I had plenty of ideas for, say, the letter J, but nothing that worked for me until a tiny voice in my head said “Jackpot” and showed me the entire story from beginning to end.
That’s pretty much it for weeks 2 through 3. I typed this mostly because I need to keep all these points in mind for the upcoming week. I have nothing at all for V, only a faint glimmer of a world and situation for W(itness), zero for X(enogamy) and Y, and then the beginnings of a notion for Z(ombie).
I can’t wait to see what I come up with. :)
Golly! Two posts in one day? Will wonders never cease?
My posts here are automatically cross-posted to my LiveJournal account. Over there, one of my long-time friends very casually gave me “F Is for Fangs. I got bit in the leg” to give my subconscious a little help on the stanza currently troubling me.
Now, I had already thought of “Fangs” and rejected it. “There are way too many stories about vampires,” I thought to myself, then told my subconscious to just ignore “vampires and fangs” and go on.
I said as much to my commenter. She then said, “Oh, I never thought of vampires. I was just thinking Dragon → Egg → (baby dragon) Fangs . . .”
Well, duh. Even though that’s not something I can use because the Egg story that I want to write has nothing to do with the Dragon story that comes before it, I never saw the progression. It was staring me right in the face, too. Either me or my subconscious should have seen this.
Then, just as I was getting over that, she added one more comment. “You know what else has fangs? Snakes. :)”
Again, duh. You know, I’ve been a snake online for so long that you would think that would have been the first thing that occurred to me. But no, “fangs” to me implied only vampires.
This comes back to something Holly Lisle recently said in one of her excellent writing newsletters. She was talking about a technique for generating story ideas that she calls “Calling Down Lightning.” It’s when your conscious (left brain) says, “I need to write a story about <topic> of about <word count> words, and I need it by <deadline>.” The subconscious (right brain) hears this, cogitates on it, and starts tossing out concepts.
The conscious then either says, “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe . . .”, and the subconscious goes back to refine the idea or provide new ones.
It’s a pretty good personification of the process creative types go through when trying to generate ideas.
In that newsletter where she introduces the process to her readers, she tells a story of how it broke down for her. She needed a “paranormal romance” idea, but told her subconscious to avoid a certain topic because she already had a couple of other stories about that. Her subconscious went into a four-day sulk, refusing to give her anything at all to work with.
Because her conscious tried to limit her subconscious. Exactly what I did when I said, “F, but not ‘fangs’ because I don’t want to write a vampire story.” So my subconscious mind may have gone off in a huff and worked on something else just to spite me.
Or I’m overanalyzing and my shipment of ideas from Poughkeepsie simply hasn’t arrived this week.
I don’t know how I got so locked into “fangs = vampires,” but it clearly has caused me to miss a couple of good ideas. Which my commenter helped me see.
Thanks, Molly. :)