Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Ongoing Debate: Art vs. Commerce

by Matt Sinclair

I recently found myself in an interesting conversation among other writers. The question posed by a novelist with a dozen books published through a small press was essentially this: If I don’t think my idea for my next novel will sell, should I still write it?

The vast majority of those who responded to this thread said things was along the lines of “don’t worry about whether it’ll sell or not. Write what you love.” Similar ideas along the lines of “don’t follow trends” emerged, too.

That’s all good advice. I politely disagreed.

Let me qualify that: I don’t disagree; I just think that if a writer believes her work won’t sell, then her idea of writing something else that has a better chance of selling is a better use of her time.

The debate basically became one of art versus commerce. I think we’ve all heard that before, and it’s possible for both to be the right approach, even for the same writer. I came at it as someone who has spent years working, shaping, loving, and ultimately trunking more than one novel. (And you thought the pachyderm in Elephant’s Bookshelf Press was just because I loved elephants?)

A writer who does not want much more than to see a work on an electronic shelf should write whatever he or she wants. It might even catch lightning and surprise everyone, especially if that writer has some other marketable skills like social media savvy and the gift of gab.

I love the art of writing. If I may say so myself, I have some beautifully written pieces … that will never garner an audience by themselves. Perhaps if I’m fortunate enough one day to become one of those writers whose readers want to know what groceries I bought at Costco or Shop Rite (hmm, see that – he’s very conscious of unit costs. I bet that’s why his most famous character is a spendthrift…), I might be able to share those pieces. But they’re essentially exercises. Writing I practiced and did well with, like a great workout at the gym or a run that left me feeling reinvigorated and ready to tackle the rest of the day.

Exercise is absolutely critical to becoming a marketable writer. Exercising the mental aspect of becoming a sellable writer is also critical. What is the return on your investment of time? If you spent a thousand hours writing and revising your opus, another thousand dollars having a professional edit it, and a few hundred on a cover artist, and sold two hundred copies, was that time and money well spent? Only you can answer that.

At this point, my ability to live in a house and feed my family is based entirely on my capacity for weaving words together. (Not the fiction, mind you. But I’m working on that.)

Indeed, the explosion in self-publishing is a wonderful way for writers of all genres to take a swing at becoming an artist. Many of those who are doing so will not sell more than a dozen copies to people other than their family and closest friends. They’re fine with that, and I’m genuinely happy for them. My goals are different.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which is hours away from publishing Battery Brothers, a YA novel by Steven Carman about a pair of brothers playing high school baseball and about overcoming crippling adversity. Matt also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Authenticity vs. Perpetuation of Bad

by R.C. Lewis

As writers, we talk a lot about authenticity. Authentic voice, authentic setting, authentic characters. Particularly in young adult (YA), I spend a lot of time trying to make sure my characters resonate and feel real to teens. It doesn't mean all teens are the same, that there's some very specific teen-mold our characters should match. Just that teens should think, "Yeah, I believe a person my age could be like that."

You know what else we talk about?

Slut-shaming. Body-shaming. Rape culture. Misogyny. Hate speech. Pretty sure that's just scratching the surface.

I spend the work-week with about two hundred 14-year-olds. There are things a significant number of them say/do. Call another student retarded. Use the word "gay" as an insult or disparaging adjective. Objectify girls, judge their worth solely based on appearance. It goes on and on, and many of them do all these things without a second thought.

(At least until I give them a hard time about it, over and over and over. *ahem*)

These behaviors exist, and not in isolation. These words are in the vernacular for many (but not all!) teens.

So do we include it in the name of authenticity?

That's where it starts getting tricky, because more questions follow.

Do we only include it in cases where it's clearly shown to be a bad thing? (Either right away for incidental dialogue or by the end of the book where it's an overall theme…)

Do we lose authenticity by always having a character ready to call another out for speaking/behaving in a way we don't approve?

If we leave it out altogether, where do we draw the line? How do we keep from going so inauthentic that we actually cross into "rosy idealized way we wish people were"? (Face it—at the extreme, that lands you with no conflict and thus no plot.)

Is there a balancing point where we can show the authentic without making it "okay" and without getting didactic?

My own thoughts flit around from one side of the argument to another, creating more questions, giving no answers.

I'd love to know what others think.

R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—and frequently tells them to "pick a more accurate adjective"—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. Her debut novel Stitching Snow is coming from Hyperion October 14, 2014. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

6 Reasons You Will Never Escape the Listicle

by Riley Redgate

The listicle: it's an article, but also a list. No, that's not a portmanteau of "list" and "testicle," though that also sort of works, in a way.

Thanks to BuzzFeed taking over the world, you probably see a listicle or two popping up in your Facebook feed or on Twitter daily. This very blog post is a listicle! Help, I've been converted to the Dark Side, ha ha. No, seriously. Help.

I've seen plenty of people complaining about listicles being the downfall of civilized society or the end of Real Readership. I don't particularly agree, but that's fine. One can think listicles are the end-all-be-all of perfect journalism or that they are some terrible plague on society; everyone's opinion is pretty much valid. But I'm more interested in why and how they became such a phenomenon so quickly, because that is an undeniable truth. This is a type of writing that's catchier than chicken pox, and wherever writing trends pop up, it's always good to examine them closely.

As I see it, here's why these articles have proven themselves to have the sticking power of particularly determined leeches:

1) The ever-clickable titles.

The portal into the listicle inevitably has a cutesy but wait, there's more! tone to it. I just know there's some person out there behind a keyboard whose actual job is titling listicles. They're probably cackling gleefully, cracking their knuckles, and making unfathomable amounts of money off it all. These titles have a great and terrible power. 12 Quirky and Adorable Times Jennifer Lawrence Enraptured the General Viewing Public? I like being enraptured! Show me more! 9 Facts You Won't Believe Are True? Is that a challenge? That sounds like a challenge. I'd better click it, just to show them I can believe those facts are true. That'll show them.

More page views equals more success. Clickable titles are the first step, then, to taking over the world. These titles sell a product with efficiency and clarity -- you know exactly what you're getting. Brevity is the soul of wit. It is also apparently the soul of capitalism.

2) The convenient organization.

Listicles are essentially pre-chewed food. Everything is easily digestible, lined up in order so that the quickly scanning eye can hop from point to point with maximum efficiency. It's also convenient for the author, because it's essentially just an article taken to the chopping block: you take the topic sentence of the paragraph, turn it into a sentence fragment, put a number before it, and voila. There's an emphasis here on comprehensibility, rather than style. It's hyper-commercial, and organized to be so.

3) Their unthreatening nature.

Honestly, listicles seem to betray how scared the internet has become when it comes to reading anything long. This format is a great way to make articles look low-calorie. It's not some tremendous block of text, the listicle cries. You're still on the internet, the land of the miniature attention span! This is a quick article!

This is funny to me, because (as mentioned in point #2) I feel that many plain ol' articles could be easily converted into list-form, and conversely, many listicles could be transformed into plain ol' articles without too much hard work. Not that writing lists and writing articles aren't different arts, but wow, the magic effect of white space. How much more likely is someone to read an article titled 30 Things You Loved About the 90s, which is simply 30 numbered evenly spaced paragraphs about the 90s, versus an article titled What You Loved About the 90s, a 30-paragraph-long essay?

4) The ranking system.

Something that's uniquely wonderful about the list format is that it presents the opportunity for you to rank the importance of your points without having to state explicitly, This is the important part, for these reasons. Especially if the list is reverse-numbered (5, 4, 3, 2, 1), the reader can expect that #1 on the list will be something special. This also helps retain readers who otherwise may have stopped reading before the end. They will feel some terrible tug in their chest that urges them to finish the listicle, to see it through to the bitter end, no matter their current feelings toward it, no matter how much they might want to quit. They will want to be impressed. They will be stubborn. I am not at all speaking from experience.

What I'm saying here is that the setup creates unresolved tension. If you see #5 at the top, you'll naturally want to read down to #1.

5) Humor. has been doing these for ages. (Though there's a world of difference between BuzzFeed listicles and Cracked listicles.) The list format lends itself to joke format. Each number gets a setup and a punchline, and then you move on. In a lot of cases, the last number on the list is also a punchline. The audience expects this, in a way, which means it's all the more satisfying when their expectations are met.

6) The internet has a long memory.

The internet is the place that still can't let go of videos like They're Taking the Hobbits to Isengard and the trololo song. I doubt it'll let go of this oddly specific, highly successful writing format that's created a million viral articles. The internet has dug its little hands into the listicle, and the internet loves the listicle, so the listicle, BasedGod decrees, is here to stay.

So little time and effort involved, and so many laughs. Here's a gif of a cat. Moving pictures. We're basically in Harry Potter now. This is the final stage of human evolution. This is it. We've reached the top.

Am I against listicles? Not really. I think they're hilarious, and expeditious. And frankly, at least people are still reading articles at all. It's 2014. Weren't we supposed to be uploading information to our brains by now?

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Luck of the Irish

by S. L. Duncan

You've heard it all before.

There is no such thing as luck. 

You make your own luck. 

Better an ounce of luck than a pound of gold. 

As many sayings as there are clovers in a field in Ireland. In the world of publishing we often don't give enough credit where credit is due when it comes to how lucky we are when we get the agent or land the deal. But if we're being honest, we have to admit that there is a significant portion of success that comes from factors that lay outside our control, no matter how well we write or how hard we work.

Sometimes it comes down to being at the right place and at the right time. It's just a matter of getting lucky. (And isn't it always?)

You've got you're big boy/girl pants on. You know what it takes to get into a lucky situation. Make that query shine like a Real Housewife's ring finger. Have an eight karat manuscript. These things, you know. These things, you're already doing.

And if all your ducks are in a row, you've got nothing left to do but ask yourself, "Do I feel lucky?"

Well do you, punk?* Because at that point it's out of your hands. Is what you started writing a year ago still hot? Or is it about to be hot? Is it marketable? So many factors give weight to tilt the balance for and against your favor.

Just work hard and who knows? Maybe you'll catch a break. Try kissing someone who's Irish. Might help. Happy St. Patrick's Day, all!

*Sorry about that whole 'punk' thing. That was totally rude. Perhaps when we see each other again, I'll buy you a pancake and we'll call it bygones.

S. L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, The Revelation of Gabriel Adam, releasing August 12th, 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging on and on Twitter.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Non-Autobiographical You

by Jemi Fraser

Confused by the title? Stay with me!

  • How much of you is in your main character?
  • Is your story autobiographical?
  • Did you ever do that?
  • How personal are those love scenes?
  • Do you really want to kill off your spouse/mother/brother/sister/friend/...

Writers often face these questions - beginning writers more so. A lot of people assume that our first books are about us. I don't know about any other writers, but I'm WAY too boring to be the main character of any story!

My main characters are NOT based on me, their experiences are their own and no, I've never done THAT!

However I do think many writers appear in their stories. Not as characters, but as a tone, an attitude, a belief system or even a moral code.

  • If you're a goofball in real life, your stories are probably full of fun twists and turns no matter the genre.
  • If you think deep thoughts and wonder about the serious 'what ifs' in our world, your stories will likely have a darker tone and explore those questions
  • If you're an optimist with a soft & gooey centre, you'll probably have Happy Ever Afters or Happy For Nows for all your books (romance or not!)
  • If you like to challenge the status quo and make people think, your stories are likely to have more questions than answers with endings that stay with the reader long after the story is done

So for me it's not the characters, but the underlying message that gives me insights into the author.

What do you think? How much of you shows up in your stories?
Do you have another 'If... then...' to add?

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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Rhinoceros Skin - Every Writer's Must-Have

by Mindy McGinnis

I recently did a presentation about the path to publication that included a big fat picture of a rhinoceros, which always seems to set people back a bit. One of the first things I tell aspiring authors to procure for themselves is some rhinoceros skin. Don't actually go kill a rhinoceros and say Mindy McGinnis told you to do it before reading the rest of this post.

Rhinoceros skin is 1.5 centimeters thick - that's pretty thick skin. Even on our fleshiest parts (hands and feet) human skin is only about 4mm thick. Big game hunters in the early 1900's even believed that rhinos had bulletproof skin. This is not actually the case, but that particular myth has staying power- Kevlar backpacks have been dubbed Rhino Skin.

And this is the kind of protective layer you need to have covering your ego when it's time for feedback. Whether that is coming from your critique partners, casual readers, agents, editors, bloggers or professional reviewers, anything negative that anyone has to say about your book is going to sting a little. And stinging a little is just fine. In fact, even the rhino is used to it - the biggest threat to their skin is sunburn and insect bites. Rhinos cover themselves in mud to protect their skin from these threats, and then they move on with their lives.

These topical concerns can't kill you - in fact, much like the rhino you learn from them. But you can't allow the negativity about your work sink past your epidermis and get down into your organs where you can be fatally damaged by it. Your ego can take a bruising (in fact it's good for all of us) but a seeping lesion will drain the life out of you.

So put on your rhinoceros skin and roll around in some mud, at which point you'll be ready to face any negativity about your writing. And yes, you can say that Mindy told you to roll in the mud.
Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent. The companion novel IN A HANDFUL OF DUST releases September 23, 2014. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and has serious social media problem. You can find her on TwitterTumblrFacebookInstagram, and Pinterest

Monday, March 10, 2014

Calling It Off: when snow and writing rejections get the best of us

by Cat Woods

Last Tuesday night dumped a few inches of light, fluffy snow on us. Right on time Wednesday morning, the snow plow cleared our cul-de-sac. It's blade, grating over the tarred road like a mechanical monster sharpening its claws, woke me before my alarm did. Interestingly, school was two hours late.

Then the wind kicked up, visibility plummeted and my neighbor's seven foot high fence disappeared behind a mountain of snow on Thursday morning. Despite the snow plow not even hitting our street until nearly 10:00am (and then getting stuck in the enormous drift), school was right on time.

Who makes these seemingly opposing calls? I wondered. What are they seeing that I'm not? Why one day and not the other? I mean, seriously!

If you've ever submitted a manuscript for publication, the same questions have likely plagued your mind. Especially after you open the covers of a newly printed magazine and find someone else's story where yours should have been. Book store shelves and cyber shops are filled with books an editor accepted despite rejecting yours.

And the question remains, "Why? Why them and not me?"

Why one late start and not the other?

Unless--and until--we are in the position to make those calls, we can only live with the consequences of those decisions. Good, bad, or indifferent, a call is a call.

However, writers do have a little more say than students when it comes to the seemingly random actions of the powers that be.
  • We can keep working on the same manuscript, polishing, revising, editing and polishing some more until we find what works for the market(ing department).
  • We can begin a new manuscript that takes into account information we've received from outside sources--such as personalized rejection letters, critique partners, member experiences at sites like AgentQuery Connect and/or writer's magazines and conferences.
  • We can self-publish.
  • We can take a break from our passion and come back to it with fresh eyes down the road.
  • We can keep learning, keep working and keep honing.
  • Or, we can trunk our writing altogether and take up snow sculpting.
Have you ever been tempted to call it off completely, or do you have too much respect for your time, effort and education to toss in the towel and bundle up? What tips and tricks do you find helpful when it's just too hard to slog through another storm? How do you stay motivated when you've been passed up yet again on the "perfect project?" Better yet, how do you use this experience to become a better writer?

Curious minds want to know.

Cat Woods has allowed herself a late start or two in her lifetime of writing. She's long learned that writing is a journey and as long as you keep your eyes (and cars) on the road goal, you'll eventually reach your destination. For more of Cat's musings, check out her blog--Words from the Woods. For her actual published words, visit your nearest and pick up the Seasons Series of anthologies from Elephant's Bookshelf Press. And if you're really patient, you'll find her children's writing in Tales from the Bully Box and Abigail Bindle and the Slam Book Scam, both slated for release in 2014.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Bossy Bossy Books

by Charlee Vale

You'll hear it time and time again from authors: Every book is different, every one has to be written differently. But what does that mean exactly?

In general there are two schools of thought: 'Planners' and 'Pantsers.'

The Planners have a structure in place ready to tackle the story in their head, wrestle it into the ground and make it see reason. They outline, they build worlds, they do character sketches, they draw themselves a very detailed map to the story so that they don't get lost.

The Pantsers follow the story as it comes to them. They discover the world they are creating as the character leads them along. Sometimes they have to backtrack from a dead-end, and sometimes they have to fast forward. Everything is very fluid. Where the wind blows, they follow.

However, most people fall somewhere in the middle on the scale between Planner and Pantser, and create their own style when it comes to tackling stories.

But what if we're thinking about it wrong? What if instead of analyzing how we approach a book, we need to think about how the book approaches us. In looking at the projects I've worked on over the last two years, I can see that each one has hit me in a very different way, which led to a different process.

One project hit almost in it's entirety on a road trip. I wrote a synopsis when I got home that dictated the entire story. (The closest I've ever come to outlining) Another came in the form of the book sequel, a book I had to write in order to get to my original idea, and the drafting was a binging surge of words over 4 weeks. The latest has come to me in  snippets. Demanding to be written by and in journals and on scraps of paper and diner napkins. All by hand.

Sadly, these stories didn't care if I was a Planner or a Pantser, they were just demanding to be written the way they wanted to be written. In a way, it can be a very freeing sensation letting the story dictate the method.

If you've got an idea up your sleeve, or are starting a new draft try listening to the way the story wants you to tell it. It may be more different than you think.

Have you ever had a vastly different experience writing between projects? I'd love to hear your stories in the comments.

Charlee Vale is a Young Adult writer, bookseller, agency intern, photographer, and tea lover living in New York City. You can also find her at her website, and on Twitter, and being bossed around by her current manuscript.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


You can look through the pages of any of my favorite books. No matter how much I love a book -- no matter how dog-eared the pages are, how creased the spine is, how ripply the pages are from me sobbing over some character's totally unfair death -- you won't find writing in the margins.

One of my friends compulsively writes reactions in the books he reads. Another underlines a couple sentences per page, but without notes. Another friend thinks it's a less active sort of reading, "lazy reading," not to write anything in the margins. On the other hand, one of my friends thinks that writing in a book is a special type of sacrilege that reserves a spot in some minor circle of hell for the offender, so, you know, there's that.

Personally, I find it kind of hard to have any opinion on other people's reading habits. If we're talking a collector's item or antique, that's one thing, but I feel like the idea of 'defacing' a book places so much unnecessary emphasis on the material itself, rather than the experience of reading it. Personally, taking time to jot notes jolts me right out of the narrative, which is why those high school projects requiring annotations felt like me trying to extract my fingernails. But hey, if someone else feels a deeper connection to that story by writing thoughts or underlining, who am I to claim that their experience is invalid?

I feel like this is the same sort of issue that some people have with making art out of books - for instance, sculptures! I've seen book sculptures like that one floating around the internet with incredibly angry comments attached. "How could anyone do that to perfectly good books?" says the rage-filled internet browser. "That makes me sick!" Which, er, I don't know if they're actually looking at the sculpture, but that's a beautiful piece of art right there, worthwhile in its own right as I'm sure the books were. The actual physical form of a book is important, sure -- especially with all the symbolism surrounding the banning, burning, or destroying of books -- but is it the most important thing? If the books weren't going to be used, or if there are other copies in the world that can still perpetuate the idea, then why not sculpt something out of these books?

(I personally made a sculpture out of pages I took from Crime and Punishment and Moby Dick, so admittedly, I'm a little biased here. And let's be honest, it was more than a little fun to tear out that Whiteness of the Whale chapter, good Lord. But whatever, my gripes with Melville are beside the point.)

Sometimes, as a fellow non-note-taker, I want to have a good long debate with my friend who wants to condemn all the Book Graffiti-ers to Inferno-type justice. After all, in one of my favorite books, Fahrenheit 451, a band of book-loving exiles [spoiler!] memorizes books in order to preserve them for the future. The idea, not the form, is what's important; the idea is what's saved. There's also the fact that in this increasingly digital publishing climate, eBooks -- books made entirely out of computer code, oh gosh -- are comprising a growing proportion of what modern readers buy. Does that make these books less important, because they're not printed and glued together and kept on a shelf in pristine condition?

I would argue not at all. A book is a deeply personal experience, and to be honest, assuming someone is disrespecting books because they write in the margins is borderline hilarious to me. It's the story we crave, and hell, if someone needs to lick every page of a book in order to appreciate that story to its fullest extent, then I say lick away. I'll argue that books are important not because of packaging, but because of the meanings we attach to them. I'll argue that complaining about in-page writing is the silliest sort of traditionalism. At least a page-licking, margin-writing reader is a reader at all.

Meanwhile, I fully intend to memorize Fahrenheit 451, because dude, how badass would that be.

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Managing Expectations - Of Yourself!

I recently turned in the latest revision of my book to my editor, which means I now get to work on the next book. I opened that draft the other day and…yeah. It was not good. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice to say it was a bit of a shock after having just finishing a manuscript that was polished highly enough that I could see my face in the pages.

But then a funny thing happened. As I read through that draft, I found bits that weren’t so bad. Some were actually good. And even whole passages that I will definitely be keeping. In fact, I’m now just as excited about this second book as I was about the first. It obviously still needs tons of revision, but I’m anxious to dig in.

So what happened between “Oh-My-God-This-Is-Horrifying” to “Hey-I-Think-I-Just-Fell-In-Love-With-This-Book”?  It was the same book, but my expectations gradually shifted to something more reasonable than insta-perfection. I started out knowing what I can do with a book after many, many revisions--in other words, I set the bar WAY too high--so the reality of a first draft was a shock to the system.

But it was a necessary one.  I can’t beat myself up for not writing a perfect first draft. No one writes a perfect first draft. Everyone needs to revise in some way, shape, or form. Some books need more revision, some less, but every one of us starts off in the same place: the blank page.

The place to set that high bar is not on the first read through after drafting—it’s for when you’ve taken the time to put in the necessary work and make your book the best it can be. That could be the 2nd draft or the 20th draft; judging your work on the fact that you are making progress is a much better gauge than “Why-Isn’t-It-Perfect-Yet?” The latter will only leave you frustrated and likely depressed, but the former turns it into a positive thing.

How do you manage your expectations when you read through a draft? Share tips in the comments!

MarcyKate Connolly writes middle grade and young adult fiction and becomes a superhero when sufficiently caffeinated. When earthbound, she blogs at her website and spends far too much time babbling on Twitter. Her debut upper MG fantasy novel, MONSTROUS, will be out from HarperCollins Children's Books in Winter 2015.