Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Double Standard

I’ve been thinking a lot about the double standard in book sales lately. Does it matter whether the protagonist is male or female to you?

There’s nothing strange about a woman reading a novel from the perspective of a boy or man, but suggest a guy read a novel about a girl and expect to receive an insincere promise to “check it out” when he gets the chance.  And don’t hold your breath. He probably won't.

A close friend tried to explain it to me, saying “men have different roles then women; they can’t get anything out of a novel by a woman, because it’s not shaped to fit their specific purpose as men.” Well said, I thought, but I had a few questions.

Like isn’t every man’s purpose in life different? And then, could a book be tailored to every man’s different purpose simply because it’s told by a man? And don’t women have specific purposes in life, too? And how, then, are they able to enjoy or learn from any novels about males?

The most respected works of all time (respected by both sexes) are invariably tales of men. You might disagree, thinking “What about Austen? What about AUSTEN??” But, honestly, how many men have you caught nose deep in Sense and Sensibility or Emma? Very few.

But why should men be interested in the escapades of strong women? I guess, it’s only fair to ask then, why should women care about the battles of brave men?

For a novel to have a shot at reaching the minds of men and women of all ages, does a protagonist need facial hair, or the promise of it?

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Unprofessional Formatting

Now, strictly speaking, formatting doesn’t have an effect on whether a publishing house decides to take on your novel or not. But I’m speaking loosely today.

Submitting an oddly formatted manuscript is a kind of subconscious first strike against you in the evaluating process, while the assessor might deny any conscious disapproval.

Let me be clear, though. I’m not saying that a manuscript in size-eleven font is going to be thrown directly into the no pile. I’m not even sure if there is a physical “no pile” in this digital age.

No, what I’m warning against is putting your entire book in 18-point font, bolded, and italicized with you own page numbers, randomly spaced line breaks, and double spacing your own lines by leaving a blank line between them (as opposed to using the handy-dandy double space tool… which was made for that).

In case you’re wondering, yes, I have actually received a manuscript that looked like this. Still, I didn’t immediately discount it. But did I have a low expectation for an author who couldn’t even keep a consistent font style throughout the entire novel? Certainly.

After adjusting the size, font, and reversing the bolding and italicizes, I finally got the book to the point where it was at least readable. By this time, I have to admit I was slightly put out with the author, but I tried my best to go into the story with an open mind.
It was difficult.

But eventually, I got past the authors special pagination, which had sentences cutting off erratically, and was able to glimpse a pretty good story and fairly capable writing. I couldn’t recommend the author for traditional publishing, but I suggested the house offer her one of their other publishing options.

The moral of this story isn’t that publishers will pick apart books based on their formatting before considering the actual writing—the truth couldn’t be more opposite. Publishers are looking first for potential in debut authors. Although, as an evaluator, I’m asked to consider the professional nature of the submitted work and, for me, wildly altered documents factor into that (at least a smidge).

What I want to impress on you is the importance of keeping the formatting of your manuscripts standard and simple. Let your words and characters speak for themselves. Don’t hide them under special fonts and strange page layouts!

The last thing you want is for an evaluator to have to “get past” your unique idea of a manuscript design in order to unearth your story. Present it to them as a cleanly wrapped gift.


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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Another Cinderella Story?

One of the things we struggle with most as writers is originality.

I once heard that every story there is to tell has already been told. That’s sounds pretty black and white, though, doesn’t it? Non-Fiction writers, especially, will argue till their faces turn purple that their individual experiences are unique beyond compare.

But that’s the every-snow-flake’s-different vision, the no-two-people-are-the-same view. And I’m not sure which to believe some days. Black and white? Or gray all over?

I’ve often wondered whether that someone was right. Has every storyline been explored? Honestly, how many times can I see Cinderella find her metaphorical or literal prince at the ball? And tragic endings don't necessarily solve this issue. Think of a movie that ends with “The Big Game”. What happens in the end? Either they win, overcoming people’s expectations and beating their sore-losing opponents, or they lose, learning a greater lesson from their defeat.

And how many times can we watch the hopeful character at the climax of the movie walk out of their potential employers office with a shocked/slightly sad look on their face (to which their family/friends quickly tell them "you’ll get it next time") only to say they’ve gotten the job. Did they have you fooled? Would you be shocked even if they hadn't gotten it? No. Why? Because you know they’ll learn something from the experience. Where have I heard that before?

So have we seen it all? Catch me on a bad week and I might say yes, but most days I’m a romantic, and I believe there’s still one or two more unexplored avenues out there in Author City. Maybe I’ll be the one to find it. Maybe you will. But I don’t think either of us should worry too much about it.

Were you blown away when (SPOILER) good triumphed over evil in Harry Potter? No, because that’s what happens in rags-to-riches, powerless-to-powerful stories. And here’s Rowling’s secret: she understood that that’s how people actually want their stories to play out. People want to believe that there’s hope, that dark will always disappear in the face of light.

There’s a reason that we keep writing these “cliché” plots. Because readers, at the core of their beings, respond to them! And it doesn't matter that we knew Harry would win in the end. We wanted to see how he did it, and what he learned along the way.

So write another Cinderella story! Just make sure the journey to happily ever after is all your own.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Need Some Space?

One of the reasons why it’s so easy to edit the work of others, compared our own, is because we have all the distance in the world from it! We haven’t spent hours or days (or YEARS) with our minds perplexed over every little period placement. So we can make an honest judgment about the quality of the work.

Why is it so difficult to do this with our own work? Because, not only will we justify the problems, or settle with them (“It’s better than the first draft…”), but we’ll get caught up in the original vision we had for a scene or the initial way we phrased that sentence because it was pretty darn clever! Well, wasn’t it? Maybe not, if it pulls you out of the story or gives you that uneasy feeling every time you read over it.

We can edit others’ work better than our own, because we’re not bogged down with our own intentions. Although it was with good intentions that we wrote that risky metaphor, comparing a celery stick to a Hallmark card, intentions can often lead us astray.

What can we do, then? How do you get that necessary distance from your own work when you’ve just spent an hour trying to decide whether you should write “Martha said” or “said Martha”?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way—sorry, no miracle solution here.

BUT (I knew you were waiting for it), you can create some space! You just need some patience—ugh, I know right? Who has time for that?!

YOU do. Or you have to. I’ve found that the best way to look at my own writing with fresh and semi-less-biased eyes is to spend a day or more away from it. Now, obviously this isn’t something that you can resort to every day or you’d never be done. But it’s important to get some space after a chapter or other breaking point before heading back for some intense editing. Step away from your own all-consuming thoughts about that ONE DARN PARAGRAPH for a day, and get some insight!

This post isn’t meant to downplay the importance of enlisting a few trusted writing peers to look over your work, but as I’m coming to the end of my own book’s first chapter, I’m gonna be focusing on the early stages. And you never want to open yourself up to that kind of critique (no matter how good-intended) that early on.

Remember how those intentions can lead you astray? You don’t want to be influenced like that when you’ve barely discovered where you and your characters are heading. No matter how many years you’ve been detailing the past, present, and futures of their lives, we all know that the book we set out to write is never the one we end up with in the end, so we don’t need any extra help pushing it off course from our initial vision! We have a specific story we needed to tell here, after all!

Exercise the restraint you need to get some space and insight. But after you’ve gotten a better idea of where you’re going, and a fair amount of chapters under your belt, enlist the help of a friend. They’re likely to catch what you’ve missed (or maybe been denying to yourself).

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Dreaded Blank Page

It’s been a while since I faced my last blank word document with the intention of beginning a book. I figured this time, after having one manuscript under my belt, the horrible white blankness wouldn’t be as frightening. Well, I wasn’t just wrong, I was WRONG.

Last time I faced this vacant beast, I was starting work on a little side project, something I hadn’t even really planned. Something that initially resembled my favorite book at the time a little too much. Over the next couple years it morphed into its own story with twists and turns even I hadn’t anticipated. But there wasn’t that same fear in the beginning, not the fear I felt when beginning my newest project this past Thursday.

It’s easy to see why. There wasn’t so much expectation riding on that book. The project I’ve just started has been in the works for nearly three years now. And from the first sticky note to my book’s forty page reference bible, it’s been an uphill battle. Or battles. Now, I’ve won the majority of them, fixing as many of the kinks in the plot as I can and figuring out the back-stories and motivations for my characters, putting off the first words of my novel till last Thursday.

But facing the blank word document that I’d already saved as “book”…that wasn’t an uphill battle. That was a left-handed sword fight up a cliff faceKeep in mind that I’m right-handed. Also keep in mind that my opponent is the metaphorical equivalent of Inigo Montoya.

So what did I do? I created a header and wasted a few minutes deciding which font to put “Chapter One” in, as if the formatting of my manuscript was at all in my hands if it ever did get picked up for publishing. ßYou see that! That’s why starting this manuscript was so terrifying.

My mind was already worried about the querying process! Oh how I’m getting ahead of myself! But then again, how can I not think about it? I’ve spent years working towards the first book of this series of a lifetime, pouring over fictional details of a world and a story that I can only hope will touch as many lives as possible. So every wannabe author’s dream, right?

Eventually, I just had to put some words down, and then begin the constant game of second-guessing my phrasing. And now I’m happy to say, I’ve got something great underway! (Bet you’ve never heard a writer claim THAT before!) Well, think what you want. No one will believe in it if I don’t believe in it first.

How do you work up the courage to overcome the dreaded blank page?

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Can You Write Where You Work?

There are two things that I find incredibly difficult. Or, at least, two I want to talk about today.

1.  Staying calm when a bee flies into my car’s open window.
Sometimes, in the moment, it’s hard to sensibly weigh my options in a situation like this. On the one hand, I could do everything possible to get rid of the bee: wave my arms about wildly, swerve all over the road, scream, attempt to roll the windows all the way down, have my hair begin to fly into my face, slam on the breaks, hit the gas, etc. And maybe, just maybe, avoid a bee-sting in the process. On the other hand, I could stay tensely calm, focus on the traffic around me, and chance the devilish thing landing on me and stinging me, or biting me—who knows what they’re really capable of?
In the moment, it’s not always easy to see what the better option is. Having faced this, though, I 've chosen the latter option. Not only did I feel brave, but I escaped the incident unscathed.
I did not have this luxury in the office last week when a huge buzzing flew past my ear. I let out a hushed squeal and ruffled the hair beside my ear (just to make sure he wasn’t hiding in there with his buzzer off). I quickly sized up my situation. There was a buzzing something in the house that liked to fly at my head before veering left or right at the last second. One of the other employees had me in her direct line of vision, so I couldn’t swing at it without appearing insane. I watched as the wasp or bee or whatever flew past the girl . . . not a flinch!
I realized I had a bee-in-the-car situation. I had to sit still and look professional and in control, or risk losing every ounce of credibility I held at this internship. So I sat still. I kept one eye on my work and the other on my buzzing enemy.
2. Writing where I work
Is it just me, or is it difficult to write at the same spot where you work? Even the work I do—reading manuscripts and writing about them—seems to spoil the atmosphere of my own writing projects if it’s done in the same place. It makes want-to write and plan my current project into have-to work. It turns creativity into productivity. And that’s a bad transition. I’m not saying that being productive is bad, but productivity is one of those words that sounds like a marketing team is breathing down my back. And that doesn’t exactly get my creative juices a-flowin'.

Writing at the same desk where I work seems almost more harmful to my concentration than having a buzzing something flying around my head. And it’s ironic, because I view my new book as my real work. My time considering plot, character, and words at home is part of my real office hours. I can’t have these kinds of distractions if I want to produce my best work.

So I’m quitting my internship! No, not really. But I’m no longer working at my writing desk. It may seem silly, but just try telling a professional athlete that all of his/her superstitions are silly!
It’s all in our heads, but you see, that’s just where my book is, too.

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