Tuesday, 21 August 2018

My Top 5 Helpful People In Indie Publishing

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It would seem that the days of vanity publishers and publishing scams are supposed to be over, with all the wealth of information out there about how to put a book together. But not long ago, while hanging around a writers' forum, I was simultaneously saddened and infuriated by someone's post about how her dad is seriously considering giving 10,000$ to a "publisher" who raves about their book and is offering to "include all costs in the package". Older folks who are not very tech-savvy, or newbies, or people who have gone through round after round of rejections and are just desperate for validation, still fall prey to scammers. And there's absolutely no reason why this should happen.

10,000$ for a book? Man, if you can cash out 2000$, that's a generous budget that would cover everything: editing services, formatting, cover design and promotion. A good-quality book can be published for much less, actually. Uploading to KDP is no rocket science.

It's at moments such as these, when I hear/read about someone about to be lured into a trap set by unsavory "publishers", that I'm particularly happy to be able to point to those champs who are like beacons of light helping navigate the murky waters of publishing. So, without further ado:

Joanna Penn - Joanna is probably my top go-to for anything that has to do with indie publishing. Her website and blog are just packed with practical, step-by-step advice that will get you started and keep you going. Her free Author Blueprint is my favorite all-encompassing how-to author guide.

David Gaughran - David Gaughran gets right into the nitty gritty of Amazon, the biggest digital store out there and the bread-and-butter of most indie authors. He shares helpful tips on choosing categories and keywords, building your email list and keeping it engaged, and more.

Derek Murphy, also known as Creativindie, generously shares many no-nonsense hacks. Also check out his book covers website here - reading Derek's book cover guide completely revolutionized my approach to covers (in a nutshell: a book cover is not a piece of art, it's a graphic statement of your genre and what readers can expect from your book).

Jane Friedman offers tips on both sides of the coin: traditional publishing and self-publishing. More and more authors are choosing to do both.

Chuck Wendig' s blog posts often feel like a punch in the face, like for example this one. But if you are ready to take a good honest sober look at your writing and publishing attempts, Chuck is your man. That's the indie publishing place I go when I want to laugh (at myself).

So don't let scammers rob you of your hard-earned money, time, energy and self-esteem. Learn all the time. Read everything you can get your hands on. And keep climbing up.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Criticism: developing a thick skin

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I have heard more than one aspiring writer say they are reluctant to show their work to agents and publishers out of fear of harsh criticism. I thought I'd touch on this here. 
First off, if you garner any personal response at all from agents and publishers, you can congratulate yourself on at least grabbing someone's attention. From my experience, most commonly you'll receive lots and lots of silence and some impersonal rejection notes. 
If someone does take the trouble to point out flaws in your work, even if you disagree with their opinion, reply in a polite, courteous manner and thank them for their time and attention (unless, of course, we're dealing with "constructive criticism" along the lines of, "this is complete rubbish. You should give up writing altogether"). Also, even if your critic is rude, sit down and think if maybe, just maybe, there's a grain of truth in what they are saying. For example, if someone says, "I couldn't get past the first pages. They are filled with excruciatingly boring, meaningless detail", of course it will make you bristle. But is it actually true? Be honest. Maybe your opening chapter can, in fact, benefit from some trimming down of details. 
Finally, if you want to put yourself out there, either via traditional publishing or self-publishing, you absolutely must NOT let criticism get to you. There will always be people who dislike your writing and even you, personally (yes, even though they don't know you, personally). Maybe you remind them of their elementary school principal. Maybe they suspect you voted for Trump. I can testify to having actually received death threats (yep). You must develop a thick skin, if you want to go public and live to tell the tale. 
That is not to say you ought to ignore feedback altogether and claim that your work is a perfect and impeccable product of a genius. But you just cannot afford to topple over every rejection letter or scathing review, taking them personally and letting them get you down.
Look at the big picture. View your work with a critical eye, with honesty and good sense. And just always keep writing, reading and improving.ding and improving; always strive to make the most of your abilities.

Monday, 13 August 2018

How To Write Humor, with Catherine Weaver


Catherine Weaver
Today's post is brought to you by Catherine Weaver, a Middle Grade fiction author who brings us down-to-earth, practical advice on how to incorporate humor into writing. 

I write for middle graders, and the one thing they demand is that you make them laugh. There’s a serious school of writing for kids which teaches that the best kids’ books talk about bad things that happen to people and how they deal with them. But, believe, me, this school was not invented by an 11-year-old.
People in this age bracket want to laugh, and if your book is not funny in any way, they do not enjoy it.

So, how can you be funny on demand? This is a question comedians get asked. “How can you be funny out of nowhere? Isn’t comedy something spontaneous, that just falls on your head like Newton’s apple? Doesn’t there have to be a cause that you can then react to in a funny way?”

Well, comedy doesn’t follow the laws of physics. “For every action there is an equal and opposite joke” is not a law in comedy. Comedy is something that starts with you, and your observations.

The first, and my most favorite method of comedy is what is known as the physical gag. Sure, you can easily throw in a fart or stepping in dog do for a cheap laugh, but those only go so far. For a funny scene that will last, I go to the masters like Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Dick Van Dyke and Mel Brooks. Slipping and falling on your butt (prat falls), hitting people with ladders forward and backward, dropping things that won’t stop bouncing, and other physically awkward scenarios are their specialties. As a writer, one then simply describes a scene in which these things happen. This is where the maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” comes into its own.

Here is an example in an excerpt from my book Phoenix Down:

            The next morning found me skidding down the marble halls, bouncing off walls and down stairs like some kind of crazy pinball, late for my first day in Amazon school.
            How could I help it? The school uniform was some kind of complicated thing with a white tunic, a gold armor-bra, a jacket and boots made of rabbit fur and lots of leather straps to hold everything together. There were also some leather things to hold weapons that were empty right now, and a leather pouch. The first class started at dawn, and I had to try to put all this gear on in the dark.
            The good news was the boots were slippery, so I slid down the halls faster than I could run. The bad news was the boots were slippery, and by the time I got to the classroom I couldn't stop. I sped through the open door, hollering at the top of my lungs, crashed into some desks, sent them clattering to the floor, and landed on a table in the middle of the room on my back.”

            Another form of comedy is absurdist humor, which is another favorite of mine, and great for kids’ books. This form involves nonsense or surreal situations or non-sequiturs. Bugs Bunny is a great example of this type of humor, or Alice in Wonderland, or any number of shows or books that have become classics in children’s literature.

For this one, as an author, you have to be brave. Everyone thinks of bizarre things that stretch the audience’s suspension of disbelief past its limits, and authors tend to hit the delete key as soon as they’ve written them down. But if you are brave, and stretch that disbelief of nonsense to the limit, the tension can evoke laughter.

            For example, from my book Gold Dust:

“’Oh, Alex, since you're late, you can be the first to recite your poem on the theme of the color blue.’
‘Uh . . .’ I could hear giggles and little snorts from people in the front of the class.
             ‘Go on, dear,’ said Mrs. Douglas.
‘Okay, um, well, here it is...
             I like blue,
              It is true.
             Why don't you
             Like blue, too?’
             I don't have to tell you what everyone thought of that. I tried to just sneak back to my desk and pretend I didn't exist.
             ‘Wait, Alex, you haven't offered a rationale for your poem. Give us an analysis, please.’
             ‘Well, it represents the . . . conflict . . . between people who like blue and people who don't,’ I said quickly, and then ran back to my seat so fast I skidded into my chair with a crash.”

            Another form of humor that kids thrive on is is irony, and its relative, sarcasm. Kids love feeling that they are smarter than the characters in books or that they know more about what’s happening. You can get in easy one-liners with sarcasm, like, “I just love it when the rain does an extra rinse cycle on the clothes I just washed this morning,” or build a whole ironic scene. I think Lemony Snicket and his Series of Unfortunate Events gives some of the best examples of irony in children’s fiction.

            And then there are the too-well-known, for tweens and teenagers, embarrassing experiences. They are horrible to have, but can’t help but be funny when they happen to others. They can be anything from farting in an elevator to being stuck in a tree and having to be rescued by the fire department, but for middle-graders and teenagers, the most embarrassing, and therefore most funny, usually have to do with misunderstandings about people you are attracted to.

            You can find great examples of embarrassing experiences in the Harry Potter books. Poor Harry spends at least half of these books wanting to crawl under a desk in embarrassment.

            Here is another example from my own works, showing how I used this method of comedy:

            “I was riding my bike to school and this boy named Todd, who was so cute the way he smiled, was riding his bike right behind me. I kept looking back at him (discreetly of course), but he wasn't looking at me at all. He kept talking to his friend. So in desperation I whipped off my helmet and let my long brown hair fly free in the wind.
            No one seemed to notice me at all except one person: a cop. I can't believe I got pulled over! He asked me why I wasn't wearing my helmet.
            ‘I forgot it,’ I stammered stupidly.
             ‘But Miss, you have it in your hand!’”

            Armed with these examples and a study of the masters of the different types of comedy (some of which I’ve listed above), you can write humor whenever you want, and not have to wait for it to fall on your head.

Catherine is an educator and musician who makes her home in the Silicon Valley. She is a 5th-generation Californian and comes from a family of writers. Since she raised her children in Palo Alto, she believes a book about a girl in Palo Alto is due. She has had several short works of poetry and non-fiction articles published, but Gold Dust is her first novel for children. She is looking forward to many more in the future. Visit Catherine's website and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Where Are All the Russian Authors? Guest post by Marina J. Neary

Marina J Neary's profile photo, Image may contain: Marina J Neary, close-up

Today's post is by Marina J. Neary, an author who writes in multiple genres but is probably best known for her historical fiction. She touches upon a subject that strikes a personal chord with me as well - the struggles of an immigrant author. 

There were, and are, more than a few Russian authors who have made the switch to writing in English. Vladimir Nabokov is probably the most famous example. It is no trivial feat to soak up a second (or third) language deeply enough to be able to write fiction in it. It actually requires rewiring one's brain a little. 

***

Hannah, thank you so much for hosting me and giving me an opportunity to elaborate on my journey as a bilingual author. It sounds like in addition to our interest in historical fiction you and I share a Judeo-Slavic connection. Your ancestors were Eastern European Jews out of Ukraine, and I'm a first generation American, born is what is now known as the Republic of Belarus. (Hannah's note: actually, I lived in the Ukraine until the age of 6, and have Romanian-Jewish as well as Ukrainian ancestry).

 I came to the US as a teenagers in the early 1990s. I am fully bilingual - Russian and English. In addition to my day job in foreign exchange I write fiction in both languages. I have a couple of American publishers for my novels in English. The same novels have been translated into Russian and published by a small Russian press in Israel. The literary market in Russia is extremely unstable and unfriendly towards new authors, but I was lucky to find a small Jerusalem-based press that was founded by Russian immigrants. 

People often ask me why there aren't more Russian authors on the English language market. It's a very interesting and complex question. I will do my best to try to answer it. First of all, there is no such thing as a collective "Russian" experience. There are many people who grew up speaking Russian as their first language, though they may be of Lithuanian, Jewish, Ukrainian stock, as their surnames suggest. So their experiences and perspectives are colored by their cultural differences. If you came from an area that used to belong to the former Soviet Union, chances are, you grew up speaking Russian and therefore will be identified as "Russian". So when I say "Russian", I refer to a very broad group of people who grew up speaking Russian at home and/or went to school where all subjects were taught in Russian. In the US there are not many bilingual Russian-English authors who write fiction. There are several journalists and bloggers, but not many fiction writers. Let's examine some of the reasons behind it.

Sometimes authors whose first language is Russian write under a pen name. They don't want their Slavic sounding name to become a distraction. It's a two-edged sword, two conflicting desires. On one hand, you want to put forward your authentic self. On another hand, you want to reinvent yourself, create a sort of mystery. (Hannah's note: I can identify with that. I didn't want to be defined as the foreign author, or the Jewish author. Most of my writing is not directly related to Judaism or emigration. I didn't want people to raise eyebrows and compliment me on my English. I wasn't going to cut myself any slack. I was determined that language should become a complete non-issue)

Sometimes, if your day job has nothing to do with the world of literature, you may not want people in your professional network to be privy to this part of your life. I have friends who work in the world of finance, and they don't want potential clients or employers to Google their names and come up with lists of fiction titles. Nobody likes to admit it, but sometimes, being viewed as "artsy" can be detrimental to your professional image. Yes, it's unfair, but some people don't trust their money or health to those who live in the world of fictional characters. And given that many Eastern Europeans do end up pursuing careers in finance, medicine and law, it makes sense that they would want to keep their artistic lives in a separate dimension. 

Also, Russians tend to have very high standards. They grew up with a solid foundations in the classics, and it's hard for them not to compare themselves to the literary giants. The logic is, "If I can't be another Tolstoy, why bother? The world doesn't need more amateurs." They can be very critical of self-expression of questionable quality. If you feel the need to express yourself in writing, you can keep a journal or a blog. Writing a novel and making it available for others is a huge step. There is also this notion that you need to have a degree in a particular field in order to engage in it professionally or semi-professionally. If you want to be a writer - you need to get an MFA in writing. If you want to be a painter, you better have a diploma from a top tier school. Now, most writers know that having a degree is not always a guarantee of succeeding in a field. I know many authors struck big without any formal training. I also know many aspiring authors with completed very competitive programs yet cannot complete or place their first novel. 

Still, aspirations to authorship are met with certain skepticism in the Russian community. My American and British friends have long since ditched the inhibitions associated with self-publishing. They want to enjoy the creative process. Critical acclaim is always desired, but it's not the ultimate motivator. Most Russians still ask themselves, "What will others say?" Also, they have a very narrow interpretation of "write what you know". So they assume that they should limit themselves to writing about their own experiences and not venture outside of that spectrum. And then there is that self-deprecating lament, "Who wants to read about Russian immigrants?" (Hannah's note: what you are should not define what you write. Coming from a certain background does not mean you must represent that background in your writing. You certainly can, but you don't have to)

On occasion, you will also hear something along these lines: "I am trying to forget who I am and where I come from. I am trying to reinvent myself. The last thing I want to do is relive my past through fiction."

But what about "making a difference" and "leaving a footprint"? Again, I am not generalizing, just pointing out to certain trends and patterns. Eastern European immigrants tend to be socially conservative and less vocal in politics. You are not likely to see any Slavic names in political activism. They are not motivated to "make a difference" or "have their voices heard". For those reasons they are less likely to be involved with groups that have historically been associated with activism - that includes actors and writers. I am not saying that all writers are left-wing revolutionaries, but among my fellow historical novelists there are many who embrace left-wing politics and are very vocal about their views. They assume that the world of literature is dominated by the left wing and feel that there is no room for conservative voices. We are back to that defeatist "why bother" attitude. 

As a bilingual author who has experimented with various genres, from realism, to sci-fi, to horror, I encourage all aspiring authors, regardless of where they came from and what language they grew up speaking, to ditch their inhibitions and write what comes naturally to them. There is no rule that says that your fiction has to be rooted in your own experience.  Do not undermine your talent, your potential contribution to the world of literature. Do not dismiss your work before it's created. Your unique perspective could be exactly what makes you stand apart from the rest.

PS: if any of you are interested in exploring Russian American authors, here are a few names: Irina Reyn, Lara Vapnyar, Nadia Kalman. 

Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the US at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand. Visit her blog, connect with her on Facebook and check out her books on Amazon

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Why I'm not afraid of plagiarism

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Many aspiring authors often worry about copyright infringement and ask, “but what if someone steals my book/idea/title/characters?”

At some point I used to worry about this too, but now I am no longer concerned someone will snatch my brilliant plot and turn it into a bestseller series and a blockbuster movie and I’ll be left bitter and frustrated about not protecting my rights better.

Why?

1 1.   Humility, humility, humility. There are so many great books and talented authors out there. So many fantastic stories are online, just begging for readers. The chances someone will zero in on my specific plot/story and steal them are basically nil. It’s not like I’m the female version of Stephen King. Many, many writers out there are a lot more talented than I am.

2 2.       I have more ideas for potentially brilliant plots and sketches of engaging characters than I can develop in a lifetime, and the same is generally true for any moderately talented author. More often than not, authors will have too many of their own ideas to choose from to care about mine. And if an idea is taken? Why, I'll just go with another one. 

3 3. Your (and everyone’s) unique voice:  few plots are truly original. It’s a lot more about execution than about the general idea, so unless someone actually steals my whole book and publishes it as their own (which would be pretty easy to prove), I don’t care. Consider books about World War II, an inexhaustible theme. There are so many stories about the Russian village boy gone off to join the guerrilla war against the Germans, or the Jewish girl hiding in a Christian home under a false identity. It isn’t an original story but, with a gifted delivery, it will never grow old. People can copy your ideas, but they can never copy your unique voice and the details and sub-plots and characters that make a book truly worth reading.

Imagine J.K. Rowling telling someone about her book idea sometime back in 1991, and this someone (without enough creativity to think of their own plot) says, “hey, I like this. I think I’ll sit down and write a book about a public school for wizards.” Most likely he’d have written something mediocre nobody would read. J.K. Rowling, with her brilliant realistic twists, wealth of detail and unique humor, created the work of a genius.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

How to keep social media from taking over your life

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There's a lot of talk among indie authors about how important it is to be active on social media, get on Facebook, Twitter, to blog and podcast, etc - but in my opinion, it's vital to keep the following in mind: what makes us writers isn't Tweets, or Facebook updates, or podcasting. What makes a writer is writing. Actually sitting down and working on a serious, ambitious writing project for a portion - even a small portion - of every day.

It's easy to get swamped in the social media. Perhaps, if you have plenty of leisure, it's OK with you. For people who are busy, however - people who work full time at day jobs, or people who, like me, are full-time caretakers of small children - this can be a disaster. I get on Facebook and give about fifty likes to people. I get on Wattpad and there are a dozen threads on the forums I'd like to extensively comment upon. And then the baby wakes up, and it's time to make lunch, then fold the laundry, then make dinner... and another day has drawn to a close and, though I've definitely typed away quite a bit,  I haven't added a single new line to my novel.

So what do I do?

1. I've decided on the One Login A Day policy. I'm allowed to login once to Facebook, post what I need, respond to comments, briefly check the groups and respond to one or two threads, and log off. That's it. No more "just one little peek" that day, or I get sucked in again and am unable to stop. Same goes for Twitter - one login a day, post one Tweet, check my feed, log off. Same thing for my emails. I'm not going to check my emails 10 times a day, even if I'm waiting for a response from a literary agent or whatever.

2. Don't spread yourself too thin. I know of authors who have a YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter, Wattpad, Instagram, their website/blog, and more, all dedicated to promoting their writing. I, however, know I won't be able to handle this much, and handle it well (with regular updates, etc). So for now I just stick to Facebook and Twitter - and it took me a while to get on board with the latter, too. Because if I stop writing, I will soon run out of anything to promote.

3. I read less than I'd like these days. I know this is a real drawback. To advance as a writer, ideally you should read a lot. A lot of good stuff, some mediocre, and even some lame stuff - to realize more clearly what you shouldn't do. Also, it's good to review people's work and develop connections. All that is true. But I am literally starved for time. I cram in the basic things, such as eating, writing and an occasional shower, and there's very little left over. So I read a bit on my phone while breastfeeding the baby, or pick up one of my favorite classics. At this season of my life, it will have to do.

Again: social media is good, but if it draws you in so much that you have no time left for writing, you are losing your actual purpose.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Accomplishing Your Writing Goals

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If you are able to throw yourself into writing full-time, this post probably isn't for you. If, however, you are just starting your writing career, and are juggling the duties of a day job, parenthood, social life, etc, perhaps you - like me - can sometimes feel your days melting away, without any time for actual writing.

My husband and I have four very active young children and a host of animals. As you can imagine, life is pretty busy around here, and I can't dedicate all or most, or indeed even a large portion of my time to writing. Nevertheless, I'm pretty happy with the volume of work I have managed to achieve, following a simple strategy:

Set specific goals - for me, this ideally means writing a 1,000 words a day. To accomplish this, all I need is one hour, daily, of uninterrupted writing time - a feasible goal even for a busy mother or someone who works full-time. Once I have written my daily portion, I set the keyboard aside. This enables my novels to progress at a good speed and prevents burnout.

Prioritize - if I have one hour, really one hour and no more of quiet time on the computer when I'm fresh and ready to do some serious work, I will spend that hour writing. This means I will deny the luring call of Facebook, an overflowing inbox and the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Not always, of course, because nobody's perfect. But that's the general rule.

Focus - once I've started writing, I'm writing. I forbid myself to open another browser window to just check my emails for a minute, or watch a goofy video on YouTube, or send a happy birthday wish to an ex-classmate on Facebook. Because I know that if I go down that path, my quiet hour will be frittered away on nothings, and before I can blink it's time to make dinner and wrap up the day.

I guess my main point is this: take your writing seriously, because if you don't, no one else will.

This is what works for me - I'll be happy to know what works for you.