Thursday, April 23, 2015

Everyone’s a Critic, but Few People Make Good Critique Partners

by Sophie Perinot

You can’t pick your relatives but you CAN pick your critique partners.  And a wise choice will make you a better writer.

The tools in each writer’s kit vary—sometimes wildly (don’t believe me, put a pantster and a plotter in the same room).  But whether you write long hand or go straight to your keyboard, whether you do a quick-and-dirty first draft or agonize over every word, there is one tool essential to turning out a novel worth reading and that’s a good critique partner.

Given that critique partners are so essential to authorial success, it is perhaps not surprising that newbie writers snap up the first living breathing body available to them.  That is a mistake, a big mistake.

The selection of a critique partner should NOT be driven by desperation or sheer gratitude.  I mean imagine if people got married that way—if they were just glad to be asked by someone, anyone?  Shudder.  Yet I've seen people acquire critique partners in that manner, and then try to “make it work” when a divorce would be a mercy.
So how do you interview someone for what is basically an unpaid and sometimes thankless job without seeming rude? And how do you and make a reasoned selection?

Let’s start with the most basic qualification: the person under consideration needs to be a writer.  Save your grandma/best friend for the role of beta reader.  Yes, I am sure she reads hundreds of books a year and will offer an honest, unvarnished opinion of your wip (actually I am not sure, but that’s beside the point).  BUT she is not a writer.  Would you hire the bag-boy at your grocery store for legal advice?  When it comes to critiquing your writing you want someone who can write and write well, which leads me to point two . . .

When you meet a fellow writer (at a conference, in a virtual community, through a “critique partner’s wanted” posting) and you start thinking “maybe this one is the one,” be smart—start by offering help before requesting it.  Offer to critique something for the candidate: his first three chapters, her query letter.  Get a sense of whether he/she is not just a writer but a GOOD writer.  Personally, I am looked for critique partners who write better than I do.  No matter how nice your critique-partner prospect is, if you don’t respect their work you need to finish critiquing the portion of manuscript you've been given, smile nicely, say how much you've enjoyed it and then walk away.

Assuming your possible partner survives this first hurdle, you will want to refrain from doing a little victory dance until you find out if this person—let’s call him tall-dark-and-talented—can edit.  Or more specifically, can edit in a way that is useful to you in shaping your manuscript.  A surprisingly large number of awesome writers cannot critique the work of others.  Why?  Three problems are common:

  • Some people are just too nice.  They might be willing to circle a comma fault, but they aren't willing to go much further.  They desperately want to tell you your book is great (primarily because they desperately want someone to tell them their book is great).  This is useless to you.  If you want to hear your book is great you can go back to grandma.  I am willing to concede for a moment that your first draft IS great, but you want to make it better, right?  That’s why you are seeking a critique partner. So you need someone who is willing to say the tough stuff: your protagonist lacks dimension, your back-story isn't working, the manuscript could start two chapters later without losing anything.  In other words, someone who can see big-picture developmental issues, not just catch misspellings.

  • Some writers can only see your work through the lens of their own style.  I call these the “my way or the highway” crew. Such a partner is more than willing to mark-up your manuscript, and every edit they suggest will make your writing more like theirs.  But you don’t want to be them, you want to be a better authentic YOU.  A good critique partner gets your style and holds you to it.  They will identify an awkward sentence without rewriting it in their signature style.  So when you get your first chapter back from tall-dark-and make sure his comments are not just an attempt to turn you into his clone.

  • Sometimes there is a basic incompatibility of vision.  This is the would-be-partner whose comments just don’t resonate.  Every partner, even the best, is going to make suggestions that have you thinking “huh?”  These are changes you will ultimately leave on the table—after all it is your book and you can be selective.  But if a majority of tall-dark-and’s comments simply don’t add up for you, than however many his other attractive features, there is no chemistry and he is not your match.

When you find someone who can both write and edit you celebrate!  And you also commit.  I mean if you like it then you better put a ring on it—metaphorically. Be ready to become your new critique partner’s ally, giving your time (sacrificing the occasional a weekend when she has a deadline) and best efforts to review her work.  Like most things in life, you will get out of the critiquing relationship what you put into it.  It is not a coincidence that so many critique partners climb the ladder of writing success together.  They are boosting each other up the whole way.

Sophie P’s has two critique partners of her very own--one of whom has played that role for eight years (yes, the woman is a saint).  Sophie's next novelMédicis Daughter--set at the intrigue-riven, 16th century French Valois court--will be out in December of 2015.  But you can ABSOLUTELY pre-order it now.  To find out about Sophie's previous literary endeavors, visit her website, or her FB page.  You can also  follow her on Twitter as @Lit_gal 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Stay In The Moment

I had a long eventful weekend so this will be short and, hopefully, sweet.

I spent Saturday and Sunday managing the Society ofChildren's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) booth at the Los Angeles TimesFestival of Books. It went very well, and I'll blog more about that after I recover from the exhaustion.

On Sunday, I had to slip away from the festival to attend a memorial for a friend from my theatre days. It was a beautiful service that got me thinking and feeling. My friend was not only a successful actor, but also a fantastic person. He had two great kids who he and his wife raised to perfection. He took life as it came, with a pragmatic approach to solving life's problems.

Why do I bring this up here? As a reminder.

We artist of all disciplines sometimes get lost in our work. We can lose sight of what is important. In trying to hold up a mirror to life, we sometimes forget that we must also live. Our books, our paintings, our performances become important to others, but our lives are what are important to us.

Or, they should be.

Live well. Stay in the moment. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Crowd Funding & Self-Publishing: Tips From A Newbie

by Mindy McGinnis

I've never jumped into the self-publishing waters before, mostly because I feel like standing out in the crowd would be the biggest challenge. As a traditionally published author with HarperCollins I still feel that way, quite often. Even with everything my publisher does for me (and they do a lot) I'm a long way from being a household name. Pile on top of their efforts what I do myself in terms of promotion - Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Blogging - yet in many ways I'm still just another voice in a very crowded room.

That's always been my reasoning behind not following the self-pub path... until recently.

A few months ago two good friends of mine, Demitria Lunetta and Kate Karyus Quinn - both fellow YA Harper authors - approached me about participating in an idea they had for a self-pub anthology that would feature short stories from thirteen authors (us and ten others yet-to-be-determined). I figured that this would be a good opportunity for me to learn about the process, and also ride along as we all learned how to run a Kickstarter.

After a couple of lengthy email chains we came up with a title AMONG THE SHADOWS: 13 STORIES OF DARKNESS & LIGHT.

I signed on, and between the three of us we quickly amassed our thirteen authors. You can see by our back cover that we've been lucky. Some big names in YA are contributing to this project, and yes that definitely had a huge impact on our success so far. But I can still speak to the process of self-pubbing and crowd funding as a wide-eyed, carefully-stepping, newbie who wants to be sure there aren't any landmines in the field she's about to cross.

One of the first things we did was pool non-monetary resources. What could we do ourselves? What friends or family members had skills we could utilize?

When it comes to publishing of any sort, cover is always key. With our theme of darkness and light, we knew we could get a great visual out of that. After some stock photography purchases and a lot of favors called in from Demitria's talented brother, we ended up with a pretty kickass cover.

We were thrilled. With just the funding for the stock photography involved and the design talent of Demitria's brother we had a great cover. Be aware this wasn't an overnight job. We went through a few different concepts and quite a bit of tweaking once we'd settled on one.

Tip: If you're calling in favors from friends or family, make sure you're comfortable giving your opinion, and they're happy to rework. A bad cover will sink you. Be ready to give feedback if you don't like what they produce, and be up front with them about what you want from the beginning.

So we had the outside of a book! Great! But the inside of a book has to be designed as well, something a lot of people don't think about. Again, we were lucky to have an author on board who has formatted interiors in both physical and e-formats, and she graciously volunteered her talents. (Thank you RC Lewis, you are a good, kind, talented person).

Tip: When asking for in-depth work of this type from a friend or contributor, make sure that you have deadlines in place that you can give them far in advance. Formatting is time-consuming. Don't drop it in their lap and ask for it by the weekend.

What else can get costly in self-publishing? Editing.

Editing is a different animal from writing. Not all writers can self-edit and many editors will tell you they can't write worth a lick. A very different skill set is involved, but hiring a freelance editor can get expensive. The three of us asked ourselves if we honestly thought we could do it, and decided that yes, we could. With each of us having gone through the process of being professionally edited for our published books (six between us all), we decided to take what we've learned from that experience.

Tip: If you're going to edit yourself, or edit for a friend, you must both be comfortable giving and taking criticism. Compliments are wonderful, but they don't improve the story.

Finally, the big concern that has always held me back from self-publishing: visibility.

Even with a great line up of authors with built-in fan bases, our anthology would need advertising dollars in order to get exposure. There are a lot of great ways to get your book in front of readers. Advertising on Goodreads gets clicks, and many people have had success with Bookbub, an e-book email blast with tons of subscribers. But advertising comes at a price - and not a cheap one.

Crowdfunding can be a fantastic way to gain support and dollars for your project, but there are a lot of pitfalls along the way. We put together a list of feasible incentives that we knew we could deliver on time, and set our goal at a reasonable amount.

Tip: Be aware that running a Kickstarter is a project in and of itself. Make sure you have the time to invest in putting together a good pitch, design a nice page, and be able to post updates on your progress.

Tip: Be inventive with your incentives, but don't promise anything you can't deliver. Post clear dates on when the incentives will be made available.

Tip: Be honest with yourself about how much money you actually need. Setting a high goal can be off-setting to possible contributors. Remember you can always go over your set goal, but coming in under means (in some crowdfunding platforms) you don't receive any of the pledge money.

I'm very happy to share that our Kickstarter for AMONG THE SHADOWS was fully funded within 48 hours. Yes, it's definitely true that having known authors on the list gave us a boost, but we also followed the steps above and used common sense to help us out. Even with a great lineup of authors, a bad cover or a high donation ask would have been a turn off.

So far my first experience in self-pubbing has been great... but, what about the final question? Sales.

I'll let you know when AMONG THE SHADOWS comes out September 14th!

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author who has worked in a high school library for thirteen years. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, a post-apocalyptic survival story set in a world with very little freshwater, has been optioned for film my Stephanie Meyer's Fickle Fish Films. The companion novel, IN A HANDFUL OF DUST was released in 2014. Look for her Gothic historical thriller, A MADNESS SO DISCREET in October of 2015 from Katherine Tegen Books. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Meaningful Connections: The Semicolon

by J. Lea López

I think semicolons get a bad rap. I've been asked on more than one occasion about the proper use of semicolons. I've also heard other people respond to such questions with snarky replies like, "I just don't use them at all. Solves that problem!" If you're someone who struggles with semicolons, hopefully today I can clear up some of your confusion. The following example sentences are taken from my current work in progress.

Semicolons and Lists

I'll get this one out of the way because it's the usage I am least often asked about, and it's probably not one that will come up as often in fiction as the main usage we'll be discussing. When you're listing something in a sentence and the individual list items contain commas, you can use semicolons to separate the items in the list so that you don't end up with a sentence that looks like William Shatner dropped all his extra commas in it. For example, if I'm naming places I've lived, I might tell someone, "I've lived in Towson, York, Pittsburgh, and Manchester." No need for a semicolon anywhere in there. But if I want to include the states along with the cities, that automatically adds four commas between each city and state. In that case, I'll separate each list item with a semicolon, and it'll look like this:

I've lived in Towson, Maryland; York, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Manchester, New Hampshire.

If I just list them as Towson, Maryland, York, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh... etc. it becomes unclear whether I'm saying that I've lived in Towson, and I've lived in Maryland, and I've lived in York, and I've lived in Pennsylvania, and so on.

Independent Clauses, Comma Splices, and Conjunctions

The most basic explanation you've probably heard is that you use a semicolon to join two independent clauses. An independent clause can stand on its own as a complete sentence.

Independent clause: Tears well up behind my eyelids.
Independent clause: I squeeze them tighter so I won't cry.
Correct semicolon use: Tears well up behind my eyelids; I squeeze them tighter so I won't cry.

It sounds easy enough, but I know that many people still falter when it comes to using semicolons. Have you had a critique partner or editor call you out on comma splices? Those occur when you use a comma alone to join two independent clauses, and they are incorrect. You don't want to end up with comma splices any more than you want to incorrectly use a semicolon.

Comma splice error: Tears well up behind my eyelids, I squeeze them tighter so I won't cry.

Another way to join two independent clauses is with a comma and a conjunction. However, you don't use conjunctions when you join clauses with a semicolon. (You can use a semicolon and conjunction with lists as shown above.)

Comma and conjunction (correct): Tears well up behind my eyelids, and I squeeze them tighter so I won't cry.
Semicolon and conjunction (incorrect): Tears well up behind my eyelids; and I squeeze them tighter so I won't cry.

A semicolon can replace a period between sentences, and it can also replace the comma and conjunction between independent clauses. It can replace those, but should it? This is where I think a lot of people falter in their use of semicolons.

Meaningful Connections

A semicolon isn't something you just go tossing into your manuscript between sentences for the sake of variation. There's more to it than that. A semicolon joins two clauses that are closely related; your intended meaning is a vital part of this punctuation choice. This is where the thrill and joy of writing, of crafting worlds and lives and stories practically from thin air, should push aside any disdain you may have for the banality of grammar rules. Personally, I think grammar is pretty rad, but I know most of the people asking me about how to use semicolons don't necessarily share my enthusiasm. It's not a matter of The "rules" say I "can't" use a comma here, because "rules" or whatever. (And I totally hear you using those scare quotes in your mind when you complain about grammar like it's some old curmudgeon yelling at you to get off his lawn. Don't deny it.) A semicolon is an option that allows you, the author, to better convey the meaning of and relationship between the words you've so carefully chosen. The relationship between clauses feels very different when separated with different punctuation. Let's take a look at another example.

Separate sentences: I can still smell him in our bed. I didn’t mind it for the first few days, but tonight it’s unbearable.

Comma and conjunction: I can still smell him in our bed, and I didn’t mind it for the first few days, but tonight it’s unbearable.

Semicolon: I can still smell him in our bed; I didn’t mind it for the first few days, but tonight it’s unbearable.

Using two separate sentences in this example would be perfectly acceptable. Each thought stands on  its own grammatically, and there's nothing wrong there. Joining them with a comma and conjunction results in a long, awkward sentence. It doesn't really work because it tries to force a closer relationship between the two sentences than there actually is. There isn't a strong enough correlation to warrant joining the sentences that way. (Compare that to the example in the previous section, where there was a strong enough relationship that using a comma and conjunction would've been a decent choice.)

But the semicolon! Be still, my grammar-loving heart! Because the two sentences are closely linked, a semicolon is a great way to express that connection. As the author, it's your prerogative to choose the punctuation based on what you want your words to convey. For me, in this instance, using a period and creating two separate sentences felt a bit too detached. This comes from a female narrator whose fiance has very recently died. There is emotion and meaning in that small space between sentences, and using a semicolon to bring them together subtly highlights that relationship.

Have I helped you clear up any questions you had about semicolon usage? If not, feel free to ask a question in the comments.

J. Lea López is an author who strives to make you laugh at, fall in love with, cry over, and lust after the characters she writes. She welcomes online stalkers as long as they're witty and/or adulatory. Kidding. Maybe. Check for yourself: Twitter, Facebook, Blog. She will also take her red pen to your words if you ask nicely enough.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

I’m A Writer (No, Really): The Problem with “Aspiring"

by Paul Krueger

One of the cool things about my adopted home of Los Angeles is that everyone here’s got a secret identity. That waitress over there? Right now, she’s waiting to hear from her agent about that Scorsese feature she got called back for. The guy on the other end of your tech support call? He’s been putting short films up on YouTube for years, and in a few months one of them is going to be absolutely everywhere. And me? I’m a writer.

I used to garnish that introduction with a, “No, really,” at parties, when the people I was talking to would barely stop themselves from rolling their eyes. Not that I can blame them; I’m sure by now they’ve met very few writers, but plenty of “writers.” It’s a frustration we all run into: we practice a craft, take it seriously, spend hours a day perfecting our technique, and some jackass with a copy of Word she hasn’t touched in years gets to saunter on up next to us and call us her peer if she feels like it...and there’s nothing we can do to contradict her.

But if you ask me, that’s kind of what’s great about writing.

Back when I first started publicly labeling myself a writer, I attached a label to that label: “aspiring.” It was how I hedged my bets: I could float the writer thing out there in the hope that people would take me seriously, then hide behind my semantics shield when they inevitably didn’t. But looking back on it, I think calling myself an “aspiring” writer was one of the first and most persistent mistakes I made when I was starting out. Fortunately, though, it was also one of the most easily corrected. And my solution is this: if you’re writing--really writing, not just talking about it--you’re not aspiring.

One of the turning points in my relationship with my work was during a phone conversation with my dad. I’d just moved to LA, and was spending my days digging for jobs and writing as fast as my fingers would let me. And that particular afternoon, a spate of fresh rejections had rolled in for the novel I’d been trotting around then. So by the time my dad got to me, I was in a fine, fine mood.

“What the hell has it all been for?” I said to him, except I totally didn’t say ‘hell.’ “All this work I’m’s not going anywhere. It doesn’t mean anything.”

My dad immediately said, “That’s not true.” When I reacted with characteristic incredulity, he continued: “All the writing you do is work, and you’re not going to get anywhere unless you do it. It matters. It means something.”

I stopped calling myself an aspiring writer after that phone call.

I’ve sat through plenty of charlatans prattling on about the Great American Novel percolating between their ears, if they could just find the time or the inspiration to write the thing. When I was younger, I resented them. They made me feel like I had to apologize for and explain away the thing I loved, and how dare they. Now, though, I’ve come to a new understanding. I write, and I know I write, and that’s enough. I don’t have to prove anything, and neither do you. Your words are all the proof you need. If you’ve got those to offer up, then congratulations. You’re a writer.

And of course, there are still plenty of things you can aspire to be: a professional. A bestseller.

Or perhaps loftiest of all: a good writer.

So what do you think, guys? Am I onto something? Am I full of it? Take to the comments section and vent your spleen!

Paul Krueger wrote the upcoming NA urban fantasy, The Devil's Water Dictionary (Quirk Books, 2016). His short fiction has appeared in the 2014 Sword & Laser Anthology, Noir Riot vol. 1, and in his copy of Microsoft Word. You're most likely to find him on Twitter, where he's probably putting off something important.

Monday, March 30, 2015

7 Basic Blogging Tips

by Jemi Fraser

I've come across a few things in the bloggy-verse lately that have made me curious, a few things that have made me grind my teeth, and a few things that have made me roll my eyes. I'm most definitely not an expert on blogging, but here's what's been standing out to me lately.

  • Tip #1 - Tell Us Your Name 
    • Why would you run a blog and not tell people who you are???? Sure, you may not want to share your real name, but you need some kind of name. People connect to people. We remember names. When you put out your book, you're going to put a name on it. Start using that name now!
    • in the same vein, use that same name across all your social media platforms. You don't want to be Crazy Hazy Harry on one, Harold Hazar on another and HH on a third. Consistency is important if you're trying to build a presence.
  • Tip #2 - Photo Time
    • for your avatar, a photo of yourself is best. (Yes, I know I don't have one! For more on my struggles with that, pop on over to my blog.) 
    • head shots appear to be the most popular - and for good reason. In a head shot, it's easy to identify the person. And suddenly, you're no longer Crazy Hazy, but a real person with a real face. As humans, we connect to faces. Take advantage of that. You don't have to be beautiful or handsome or tall or short or thin or chubby or anything except YOU. You're special and unique. Show that off!
  • Tip #3 - Sharing Buttons 
    • It's hard to build up an audience. One great way to accomplish that is to have your current readers share your posts to their friends and contacts. Blogger has a handy-dandy bar of icons people can click on to share your posts to various social media (Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and more. Check the bottom of this post for an example.). All your reader has to do is click and your audience has grown. 
    • Some non-Blogger blogs have buttons that you can customize to include your twitter handle along with the post title and link when you share to twitter. This is awesome because that tweet will show up in your Mentions stream and you'll see exactly who is helping you out. (If you can do this in Blogger too, let me know how in the comments!)
  • Tip #4 - Subscription Options
    • make these easy to find and preferably near the top of your blog. The easier it is for people to receive your posts, the more they will read your posts. 
    • offer as many different options as you can. Don't know what RSS is? Add it anyway (although I'd suggest a simple Google search to solve that problem). Don't eliminate an avenue for people to find you simply because you find blog posts in one way and you assume everyone does it the same way
  • Tip #5 - Lure Your Audience to Your Other Platforms
    • make it easy! Include links to your presence on other forms of social media. Again, near the top of your blog is best. Don't make people work to find you.
    • don't worry about joining any and all social media. Not only will you be exhausted, but you'll spread yourself too thin and not do any of them well.
  • Tip #6 - Easy on the Eyes
    • avoid dark backgrounds with light fonts. These are very difficult for some eyes to read
    • keep your blog uncluttered. When an eye is drawn to too many areas, it tires out the reader and there's a sense of relief when the blog disappears - NOT what you want! Less clutter also makes the blog load more quickly.
  • Tip #7 - No Tunes Please
    • I'm a huge music lover, but please, please, please, don't have music playing automatically when someone opens your blog. First off, you might turn off some readers with your taste in music. Second, it makes your blog slower to load. Third, like many other bloggers, I often have music playing in the background as I'm blogging. Two competing songs at the same time does not equal double the fun. 
(Stepping down off my soap box now!)

I think the key is keeping things easy for your reader. Think of them rather than yourself as you're setting up your blog, and make them look forward to coming back.

How about you? Any of my pet peeves match yours? Any tips to add? 

Jemi Fraser is an aspiring author of contemporary romance. She blogs  and tweets while searching for those HEAs.