Friday, May 31, 2013

Blogging from the Home Office

It's very nice to have a room of one's own, even if that room is really just 185 square feet serving as bedroom, office, and kitchen all at once. I'm not sure how productive I've been, but I feel productive because I'm sitting down at the computer at least once an hour to type, revise, or research something. In between I'm reading (but sparingly--I don't meet the residency requirement for a library card and I don't have much cash for buying new books, so the ones I've got have to last!) and just today, performing a grocery run and culinary experiments. After wo-manhandling a minifridge into my room. I'm glad they delivered it the door, but I'd have been happy to let strangers into my room just to get it three feet farther...

Part of what I've been working on is The Starter Guide for Professional Writers, which I hope to have out before the end of June. The IndieGoGo campaign for pre-orders and publication expenses has two weeks left to run, and to as a last prompt I'm offering a complete line-by-line manuscript critique as a perk. A few people have expressed interest, so you might want to check that out before it's gone.

Going by people's choices of perks, I may expand to offering opening chapter reviews as a service beyond this campaign, since it's a swifter and more affordable way to determine your novel's all-important first impression. If I make line-by-line critiques of novels (above and beyond developmental edits) a regular thing, though, I'm afraid I'll have to increase the fee for it, because intensive line by lines take a lot of time and effort. So the IndieGoGo perk may be your only chance, or at the very least the most inexpensive.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

WisCon 37--A Partial Review

I was certain I wouldn't make it to WisCon this year, coming as it did right before my moving trip to Washington, D.C. But with some last-minute crunch and a willingness to run around disoriented (I've learned these will get you far in life, or at least lead me very far afield), I made it for at least the weekend and Friday evening.

After hurriedly packing for DC, I stuffed my backpack with my immediate needs for one weekend and set out to brave the Memorial Day weekend traffic. And then Madison's one-way streets. This harrowing experience concluded in time for me to make it to dinner with my sister and some lovely strangers she met on the Internet. Between weekend festivities and the convention, every restaurant in central Madison was packed. Still, the 45 minutes before harried waitresses brought our food gave us time to go through our pocket pamphlets and circle likely-looking panels. This process is one of anticipation mixed with frustration--there's always 2 or 3 different panels going on at the same time that I want to see. And there's a limit to how much running around disoriented even I can do.

The first after-dinner panel we attended was "Cyborg Identities," a discussion of Donna Haraway's theory that cyborgs transcend science fiction and have potential for feminism and social theory--given the omnipresence of technology and constructed reality means that we are all cyborgs. I'm paraphrasing from what I gathered, as I haven't actually read Haraway (Megan, the grad student, made our panel decision there ;D). Still, it left me with some take-away thoughts on how reality is constructed--"there's no such thing as nature," if nature means a state where humans do not alter our environment through our interactions with it--and a glimmer of understanding about polyrythms as the panel was lead in an impromptu performance by panelist Andrea Hairston. I am not particularly good at managing even a monorythm, but it was interesting to know more complex patterns are possible.

We dropped by the QUILTBAG TARDIS party, but turned in early after a long day. Megan wanted to prepare for her reading and to be a panelist on Saturday, and I saw a morning panel that looked appealing.

Woke up bright and early, hoping I could get lunch before the panel on 'Digital Death' that I dearly wanted to attend. I was in luck, as right outside the hotel doors I discovered a farmer's market, including multiple booths selling bakery items. Cinnamon raisin bagels provided me with nourishment to face the next few panels.

Digital death: Worrying about the privacy of your online information while you're alive is bad enough, but what do you do when you die? Who inherits your ebooks? How technologically savvy does your digital executor need to be? Are you better off just waiting for a grad student of the future to crack the encryption on your hard drive (much joking about what that student may find there--including disappointment that it's only 2D), or perhaps creating a "dead man's switch" to automatically revert your password to 'password1234' when you, presumably dead, fail to log in after a year? Takeaways to remember: Katherine Mankiller's story of the parents of a friend whose discovered, upon that friend's untimely death, the slash fanfiction on her LiveJournal (they made peace with that side of her, prompting the slogan "We love our dead slash-writing daughter!"); the importance of periodically reviewing your will and any listing you have of active accounts and passwords; the impact of changes in format ("Plain text is your friend," and maybe pdf if it's kept simple), and "loooove your data". Also sue people if you really want to do a favor to your future family genealogists; it's a great way to get your information recorded and preserved.

Women in Power: This one seemed to fly by far too quickly, before the panelists could really sink their teeth into issues like "what is our working definition of power?" and "Do we recognize power when it's coming from someone other than the recognized head of a community or association?" We did learn about a number of remarkable historical and modern women, from Wu Zetian (first female emperor of China) to a modern Chinese scientist who single-handedly fought an AIDS epidemic in her province. Also discussed was the importance of media attention, documentation, and the use of awards and public recognition to turn the personal power of an individual into the communal power of a movement.

I met up with Megan after the morning panels to grab lunch in the con suite (the sweet onion relish, which must come from a local Wisconsin farmer or his/her grandmother, is to die for; and for some reason all the LonCon fortune cookies we opened recommended stores by Iain M. Banks) and explored the dealers room and art show. Despite being too broke to buy much of anything--except a copy of Dr. Who Magazine with Paul McGann on the cover, modeling the Eighth Doctor's new black leather peacoat look--I made grabby hands and high-pitched yearning noises at books, jewelry, paintings, felt creatures, and a miniature clay figurine of Jon Snow and his white wolf puppy. I haven't even read the books or watched Game of Thrones.

Editing for Writers--this after-lunch panel was packed, probably to the joy of panelists who remarked "There is not enough good editing going on." Being almost obsessive in my pursuit of melodious prose, I can only agree. However, the main problems are less stylistic than failures of clarity--or, as one panelist put it, "Is this clear? And is this funny to anybody but you?". Thus the importance of beta readers and professional editors, and the importance of listening to and communicating with your editor. However, the main flaw of beginning editors (and betas!) is tactlessness--being too blunt about the failures of a text. Sadly, I can testify to the truth of that myself (I and my friends have gotten way better since the first meeting of our high school writing club). Another observation true in my experience is that many new writers develop bad habits as a result of lax schooling--basically, teachers are so happy to find students who enjoy writing and have a grasp of grammar and structure that they never push us to try better. But again, that's what editors are for.

I attended this panel for more than one reason, given my freelance editing jobs. It was not exactly encouraging to hear one woman ask for advice on becoming an editor only to be pressed to keep writing instead--"You can make it rich writing!" Then again, these are also editorial positions that include wading through slush piles, which I have only heard horror stories about. Panelists did mention that developmental edits can be particularly useful for writers who have what they feel is a solid manuscript which keeps getting rejections for no reason they can discern. Developmental edits and copy edits are both essential for authors considering self-publishing--otherwise, the publisher will supply a copy edit. Sometimes a copy edit from Hell where all the flavorful local dialect your characters utter is corrected, but that's why communication is important! Personally, I think it's also appropriate to hire an editor when you have a manuscript which needs attention that beta readers can't give it (either because you can't find a beta in your genre, or want something more in-depth than most volunteers can offer) before being submitted for publication.

It's Actually Quite Hard to Rip a Bodice Part 2: The panel on historical accuracy in fiction was as much of a riot as it was last year! Refreshingly, there was a greater range of panelists this year--guest of honor Jo Walton said her method of research was less directed than "suddenly writes something and realizes random recreational reading of the past decade was leading up to it", which sounds more my style than "50% background research before story, 10% during, 40% after" because with my luck the 40% after will be what proves everything I wrote could not possibly have happened (in this world, at least). I'm more likely to look at real-world historical research for inspiration than to let it tell me what I can or can't do (*stops foot like petulant teenager, shakes fist at History*). All the same, I'm perfectly happy to hear what people who do research exhaustively write and discover. Discoveries include things as weird as the "Swiss army knives" carried by the Roman legions, and the fact that ancient Greeks and others told the future by examining the liver because they believe the liver is the seat of the mind. "Because it's triangular," Walton assured us. This somehow led to her wondering whether they ever told the future by the placenta (apparently you have to have seen one to get this; I have not and will take it on faith). They never did, so she can write that original idea into a story sometime...the payoff for intensive research, I guess.
Oh, and they've tried ripping bodices. From what I remember from the panel last year, bodices are sewn together in a way that resists tearing quite remarkably. Sorry.

Help, Gender Essentialism Is Everywhere!: I attended this panel on how writers can avoid gender essentialism to give support to my first-time panelist sister, missing out on a discussion of Large House vs Small Press vs Self-Publishing and, perhaps even more distressing, "Realistic and Unrealistic Sex in Fiction."
I jest.
Well, a little.
I did attend to provide moral support, but this was an intensely interesting panel that I would gladly have attended anyway (even to the point of missing out the other two? Well, that's what the internet's for! By which I mean the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum has plenty of discussion of publishing options--what did you think I meant?). The panelists discussed their own efforts to include sexualities outside the gender binary, what methods were successful, and what happens when reviewers get confused. Luckily, there seems to be a healthy number of short fiction markets that are enthusiastic about representing non-binary identities, though this may be more difficult in longer works with New York houses--none of us are exactly sure. My question about managing and countering stereotypes for characters who lie on multiple identities prompted one of my favorite quotes of the convention, from Keffy R.M. Kehrli: "Be careful when playing at intersections; you may get hit by a truck!" By which he meant not that it isn't worth doing, just that it needs to be done sensitively and with care. The air of the panel was overall encouraging: representing non-binary and/or trans* characters isn't to be done lightly, but it's also done far too rarely and many editors and readers are eager and supportive of writers willing to try.

After grabbing dinner (and an ARC of Sam Sykes' The Skybound Sea, which I was literally unable to put down--I tried, but blasphemous monstrosities were rising from the ocean and the prose sang in my ears), Megan and I grabbed seats somewhat in view of the stage for the Tiptree Auction. Last year we were on the far side of the ballroom, but really, wherever you're sitting the auction is as good or better than a night with the stand up comedian of your choice. From the opening bids on a paperback copy of the 1971 classic The Feminists--our sacred text went for almost $50; not bad considering I think the cover said 35 cents--to an Alice Sheldon pillow, decorated rocket ship tiles, original Lynda Berry illustrations, more pulp paperbacks featuring buxom 'hoydens' and sheer pastel spacesuits (I'd have bid on A Woman in Space but it was already over $30, which given my budget seemed a bit much even for such a juicy morsel), a Space Babe engraved hip flask, a robot-decorated bag featuring the damn cutest baby robot ever, and the shirt off Ellen Klages' back. Also an Ellen Klages doll, which I'm sure we never knew we needed before. And a bottle of Lysol, which I'm sure was never ever never needed for its advertised purpose. Why we need feminism, indeed (well, that and in order to round up all the men for breeding chattel. I read it in a paperback, it must be true).

We popped out of the auction long enough to see Lauren Jankowski read from her first novel, Sere from the Green, at the Broad Universe reading, but then we came back because we were having just too much fun. We left once the auction started winding down.

No farmer's market, but I did have to jog across the Madison Memorial Day Marathon to get to the Concourse. Not quite certain what to do, I stood on the curb and applauded runners approaching the finish line until I saw a clear space.

Another early morning panel for me, this one on "Intimate vs Remote Gods". Panelists ran the gamut from a Lutheran minister to a content atheist, so lots of interesting discussion made it worthwhile. Also one of the panelists recommended C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy, and I savor the proof that I am not the only human being to read and enjoy it (logically the fansites and fanfiction suggest I'm not, but I never run into fellow fans in-person). I also need to check out the Dark Faith anthologies, which kept providing intriguing examples.

Race and Class in Urban Planning--though the topic has some applicability to science fiction and fantasy, this panel was mostly about real life: school closures in Chicago, "affordable housing" in San Francisco, gentrification everywhere and enough hipster artists and "urban pioneers" to make you want to call pest control. By which I mean hipster urban pioneers were discussed; if any actually attended the panel they kept it well hidden (wisely). Audible dismay passed through the room when we learned that classrooms in Chicago public schools are considered "underutilized" if they contain less than 32 students. My parochial school class was treated as unmanageable in the second grade for having 31 kids. Which wasn't inaccurate. Developers still only pay lip service to consulting communities before going ahead with projects that can destroy neighborhoods--except when they run into committed citizens ("granny power" as one panelist described what happens when the retired and unemployed in a community go to work lobbying for its interests) who can command media attention. This is the sort of fascinating conflict that should be appearing more in fiction.

Megan and I compared notes and realized we each technically meet the threshold for the Mid-Career Writers lunch roundtable: we've both been publishing short fiction since 2008 or earlier. In any event, we didn't get thrown out. New writers have a lot of resources to draw on, which is great, but what happens for the rest of your professional life? A group of eight or nine of us introduced ourselves, described what was going on and particular challenges faced at this point in our careers, and brainstormed solutions. This is the sort of meeting I'd like to attend more often, although still being on the very new end of the mid-career I spent most of the time listening.

My last event of the day was the Outer Alliance Reading, with Megan along with 6 other writers reading excerpts, short stories, and poetry. I don't usually read Megan's fiction for some reason, maybe lack of time or the feeling that I'll be asked to beta for her again one day (I don't think I'm afraid of being influenced by her; our styles have gone in very different directions), but ohh boy, I had goosebumps at her reading. Other stories were more lighthearted. Especially fun were Cliff Winnig's "The Call of the Sky" (in When the Hero Comes Home 2), with clone families and ensuing identity crises that were just complicated enough to be refreshing rather than confusing, and Sunny Moraine's snappy, elderly seer confronting the wastrel playboy of her space-nomadic tribe in Line and Orbit. In my post on using bookmarks for promotion I mentioned that they are useful more as a reference for individual readers than as a sales tool, but Moraine made good use of them for both--I grabbed one after her reading convinced me her story is something I'd really enjoy.

I drove home after the OA reading, to finish packing and get some rest before setting out tomorrow. This is my last blog post from Wisconsin in who knows how long. At least you can be a fantasy fan & writer from anywhere!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Home to Wisconsin and Back to DC

I write this from my new laptop, a generous graduation present from my family. Yes, I've graduated, and will spen the rest of my life confusing people by telling them I have a (single, not triple) Batchelorate of Arts degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Or at least until I get a Master's.

But that's far off in the future yet. Now begins the job search. I'll be conducting it in DC, where I'm also working some internships over the summer. I look forward to returning to the city--it's the right mix of exciting but not overwhelmingly large, like Chicago or New York. It is a bit expensive, though, so I'll continue working as a freelance manuscript editor (speaking of which, fees may be adjusted in the coming weeks to incorporate the possibility of a full line-by-line revision) and keep writing. Things are going to be busy! I have a number of blog posts lined up or drafted to ensure I keep up here. They include my adventures in Ghana, which I'm processing through a mixture of culture shock at my first-ever experience abroad and a haze of lasting excitement at my first-ever experience abroad.

This weekend, my last weekend in my home state, I'll be attending WisCon with my sister. If you'll be there too and you spot us (hint: picture to the upper right of this page is a suspiciously good likeness of both me and my twin), do say hi!

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Plants of Middle-Earth: Botany and Sub-Creation by Dinah Hazell

Hazell Book Cover

What a charming book!

Like The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel, this was a find made in the American University library shelves. It stood out not only for the title (of all things it was sub-creation I was drawn to; the concept is Tolkien's gift to the fantasy genre far more than any number of medieval worlds and elves) but also its soothingly soft green cloth binding with gold letters. Inside, it is gorgeously illustrated with drawings and watercolors of the planets, flowers, and trees discussed. The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges... is a book you can put on your bookshelf to look intimidatingly smart; The Plants of Middle-Earth belongs on a coffee table or anywhere you'd like a guest to see it, pick it up, and feel welcome.

An unusual mixture of herb lore and literary criticism, Hazell's book traces the significance of the plants featured throughout The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's related works. The history and myth surrounding plants can guide reader interpretation of the fictional events and cultures they appear in. The brief chapters were a pleasure to browse through on quiet evenings, studying the illustrations and learning the old names, uses, and superstitions of the herbs, flowers, and trees. The prose is simple but has a certain whimsical poetry that shares observations and the occasional new insight (I jotted down the line "roses escape commonality" to share with a friend who I associate with roses yet who is anything but common). I did not find the book particularly challenging or groundbreaking, although it had more texture than an ordinary book on botany and more real-world connections than most literary criticism.

I chose to say 'real-world' in the above paragraph advisedly; The Plants of Middle-Earth is less about the botany unique to Tolkien's creation (though Hazell briefly discusses the possible inspirations of athelas and other fictional plants, including the Ents) and more about those shared with Earth and its own rich botanical traditions. This relates to the point Hazell wants to make about sub-creation: because the herbs, flowers, and trees which inhabit and form Middle Earth are familiar to us, we are willing to accept the otherwise unbelievable things that happen with them as a background. However, this potentially runs the risk of erasing an author's work in creating his (or her) setting by over-reliance on what we know of the primary world. The folk magic that offers insight into the significance of Hobbit women's names is based on the beliefs of medieval England, rather than anything Tolkien writes his Hobbits as believing. What if their superstitions about the Sweet Briar Rose are different? Does that matter, given real-world readers will form their impressions of a character named Eglantine based first and foremost on our own experiences and half-remembered knowledge? On a subject different from botany, Saruman the White's choice of colors may be deceptive or ironic to Western readers familiar with white as the color of purity and goodness and black as the shade for corruption and evil, but I wonder if the turn his character takes would be less shocking to readers from cultures where white is the color of death and funerals.

As with The Unimaginable Mathematics, the target audiences for this work make up a Venn diagram: gardeners, folklorists, and Tolkien fans. Of course, there's quite a bit of overlap (as there is, I suspect, between lovers of vast numbers, arcane mathematics fans, and Borges aficionados). I learned more about botany than Tolkien in reading it, and though it prompted some thinking about the role of environment in fiction and in the real world as well it is not by any means rigorous literary criticism; yet it sticks in my mind as a singularly unusual and enjoyable read.

Find It At: Goodreads   Amazon  Barnes and Noble   Better World Books

Saturday, May 11, 2013

IndieGoGo Campaign for Self-Publishing a Book on Publishing

Long story short, I’m living off what I earn through my writing right now. This isn’t so bad, except writing income tends to arrive over the course of months, and is less than helpful when you need money right away. So to meet some expenses in the meantime, I’m hiring myself out as a manuscript editor and self-publishing a guidebook for writers who want to get their work into print.
The Starter Guide for Professional Writers is a whole-picture handbook that helps you finish your story (whether by the age old butt-in-chair method or with the help of your imaginary friends), revise it, and publish it—whether online, in a magazine, though an Indie press, or with a New York publisher. The publishing industry looks really scary at first, but I think too many talented writers let themselves become so intimidated they never take the first steps to publishing, and getting paid for, their work. Over the years I've guided many friends and fellow newbies in the day-to-day of writing and selling, now I've written down my experience and advice to guide you all the way from the blankness of page one to the challenge of letting readers know your book is there on the shelves.
I’m running an IndieGoGo campaign as a way to take ‘pre-orders’ of the book and to raise some money for formatting, design, and distribution expenses. As encouragement I’m offering not only signed copies of the book but also the chance to get your first chapter reviewed b yours truly—or your entire manuscript if you want to be my hero. The campaign is here:
Even if you’re not a writer, you can help out by signal boosting and by considering the purchase of my books (or any books; anything you buy after clicking through the affiliate links on my webpages will earn me a small commission at no additional cost to you). 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Promoting Your Writing: Now is the Time to Keep the Faith

In the story, that is, although it's completely understandable if you'd rather kneel through a litany of novenas or light candles on the altar of the deity of your choice in hope of landing on the Times Bestseller list.

You can't effectively promote a story you don't believe in.

This is the most important thing to remember once your story is published and it becomes your job to spread the word about it. 
Driving promotion is the belief that people will buy your book, should buy your book, for their own benefit—for the sake of their education, help, health, comfort, morals, sex life, or entertainment. At best, more than one of the above. In short, you have to believe your book is good for people and good in itself.

This is far more easily said than done, even for me. Like many writers, I have outwardly bombastic, inwardly fragile self-esteem and tend to shrink in at the first sign of someone's dissatisfaction. It took me a long time to be able to manage critique groups, and reviews continue to be extremely difficult for me. There is a reason why writers are told never to read reviews. However, I have often done so in quest of good quotes—compliments that will not only support my failing ego for a few days (Mark Twain claimed to last weeks on a good compliment) but also serve as a good promotional blurb. Finding someone who both believes in your story’s quality and can describe it well is a gift from the otherwise cold and unfeeling universe of publishing. Reviewers are hardworking and talented people; I would send them chocolates if that weren’t considered creepy.

But perhaps reviews aren’t working out for you. Or your story hasn’t been reviewed at all—it’s too new, published in an outlet too obscure, or else it and you are just unlucky. Nobody is saying good things about your story. In fact, nobody seems to be reading it at all.

This is a horrible shame. Your potential readers are missing out. How are you going to reach them, let them know of this fantastic story they could be losing themselves in? How are you going to convince yourself to do this reaching out? Especially if you’re a timid writer whose darkest moments are consumed by the fear that any pride you’ve ever felt in your work is only a delusion of grandeur?

That’s called imposter syndrome, and everyone has it. Great writers have it. Great actors have it. Politicians probably have it, too (Did everyone just elect me president by mistake?)—although depending on your viewpoint, 50% or more of the time they’re right.

In the words of a man one of my class’ speakers this semester quoted, a man who circumnavigated the north pole during a year of unparalleled melting for the Arctic ice cap: “It’s too late not to be an optimist.” He was talking about the fate of our planet in the face of catastrophic climate change, but frankly, once your novel is published from your point of view something just as drastic and irrevocable has happened.   

There's a time to see your book's flaws, in fact, to see nothing but its flaws. That time is during revision. But in fact, I think the best time to start planning or even launching your promotion of your story is while you make the final edits to your story. Not only is the lead time helpful, but you’re at a stage where you can genuinely believe in the perfection of your work, since you’re fixing its flaws. Logically you know true perfection is impossible, but you are making improvements, and the potential for those improvements is limitless. You can promote the book you wish you could write. And in doing so, by picturing your goals, you’re coming that much closer to writing and eventually publishing the book you wish for.

Once you put on your promotional hat, you need to know your story’s good points and have ideas for how to share them with the world. The handiest way to do this is through your “pitch.” If it helps, you should realize you already have a convincing pitch, or at least you had one at some point—one so convincing it even snared you! The first successful “pitch” a story ever has is to its author. It had to be, in order to get you to nurture this kernel of an idea over the course of months or years. The next pitch comes when an editor or publisher became convinced that the story was worth paying you for and worth investing time and money to polish, present, and promote. Only after these successes does a pitch go on to snare the readers. 

Get a list of talking points for your story, and experiment with different ways to present them (I’m still tinkering with Aqua Vitae’s “blurb” over a year after it was published). When people do want to tell you about how they enjoyed your story, listen. And not with the terrible guilt of “Look at this poor soul I’ve hoodwinked.” Your readers are smart people, if they liked your story and want to tell you why, they are very worth listening to. They might offer insights you haven’t considered (is Aqua Vitae a subconscious tribute to Heinlein? I don’t know, but you bet I’ll mention the fact if I’m talking to a Heinlein fan!). Your articulate and passionate fan--whether they're your mother, a member of your bookclub or critique group, or even a complete stranger writing you fan email--is as good as any of the reviewers you risk breaking your heart to get a kind word from. Plus in many cases you can actually offer them chocolates without appearing creepy.

The nice things your fans say can also, yes, soothe your bruised artist’s ego. But be careful about that. Coddled egos only get softer. Realize that not everyone will like your book, and some of those people who will not like your book will even, unfortunately, read it and say so. It’s sad for them that they spent time on something that wasn’t their cup of tea and it’s sad for you. But, and I’ll be as gentle as I can here, get over it! The reader will move on from their disappointment, and so will you. Concentrate on finding the readers who will love your story, because of the good points you know are there. Ultimately, belief in the story has to come from the author first, as it always has. 

This musing on the importance of confidence in promotion now forms part of the introduction to a chapter in The Starter Guide for Professional Writers. Specifically, it opens the 50-page chapter on promoting your book, which contains plenty of no-fear, low-cost ideas for building a marketing platform. And how's that for confident self-promotion?

Friday, May 3, 2013

On 2500 Word Scenes

Depending on how you define "work in progress," I currently have anywhere between 14 and 34 of them. And I expect to finish every last one in due time. 

Just how I’ll manage this at first seems a mystery of faith, but looking back, I’ve had twenty pots on the broiler for as long as I can remember. It's not always the same buffet being cooked—I finish one piece and start on the next. For a while I had a rule that I could only count as many WIPs as I had "live" submissions pending with markets. After too many rejections that I didn’t bounce out again, when my Duotrope page showed 14 submissions and I was trying to write 15 stories…either I needed to write a new cover letter or I needed to finish something. For a while, this was very effective, but then I began to write novels, which take much longer to sell and cannot be finished on the spot.

All the same, I have finished novels (whether I finish editing them is a completely different question). I’ve also finished novellas, novelettes, and at last count something like eighty short stories. I manage this by trying to avoid getting stuck, by switching to a different story when I am stuck, and by trying very hard not to think about everything I have yet to write. This doesn't mean I don't get overwhelmed sometimes. 

But recently, I've had a breakthrough:

You can write a 2500 word scene.

If you're really stuck, you can write a 1000 word scene. And then another one. And then a half.

People write 2500 words all the time, often in one sitting. At the end of it your wrist starts getting sore and that’s your signal to stop (it really is. You can get repetitive strain injuries if you keep going without at least adjusting your posture). NaNoWriMo participants are supposed to get down around 1,665 words a day, so you’re pushing yourself a little harder than them. But you probably have much more to get done than a short 50,000 word novel. And maybe you’re not doing this every day. Maybe it’s 2500 words every other day, every four days, every week. But you can easily do 2500 words.

Two thousand, five hundred words is a short story. A bit on the short side—maybe even a single-set piece—but you can tell a full story in 2500 words. You can fill out a novel scene, which is a short story with open ends, in 2500 words. It’s brief for a chapter in some books and about right for a chapter in a fast-paced thriller.

Two 2500 word scenes (which you can write if you can write 2500 words—it might not even take you twice as long) is absolutely a short story. Maybe you write two 2000 word scenes and a 1000 one. Or six 750 word scenes and nice transitions.

Three 2500 word blocks and, if you’re trying to write a short story, you’re getting rather overlong. You now have the problem of writing too much. Congratulations. 

If you write another 2500 word scene you have a novelette, and depending on your genre, an ebook.

Ten 2500 word scenes gets you a novella.

Twenty of them means you’ve won National Novel Writing Month (am I suggesting you shoot for 2500 words a day and then take ten days off? Well…no…but you could. If you really wanted to).

Thirty of them is 75,000 words, which isn’t bad for the first draft of a novel, depending on your genre and how much you expand or contract while revising. If you write forty 2500 word scenes, your story is getting epic and you’re in danger of writing too much. Unless they’re forty really rocking 2500 word scenes.

Now Zahara, the writer I intern with, recently remarked that longer stories get progressively more difficult in an almost logarithmic pattern--it's harder to write one 75,000 word novel than it is to write ten 7,500 word short stories. It's true: in a novel, each 2500 word scene is going to have to connect to and build on the preceding 2500 word blocs and lay a foundation for future ones. But each time it's still a matter of getting 2500 serviceable words down on the page. And you can do that.

If 2500 words is completely pushing it, try 1000 words. Try 500 words. Five 500 word scenes make a 2500 words. They're all building blocks of each other. And if you sit at the keyboard or with your journal and sweat, weep, and bleed for hours, and at the end of it you have a thousand words--congratulations! Assuming your novel is anything less than monumental (seriously. 100,000 words is about the limit for a debut novel, and even then only when the story involves a lot of worldbuilding and textural detail), 1000 words is a whole percentage point or more of it completed. That's measurable progress. Write on!

The advice in this blog post, plus much more--including several other solutions for writer's block, revision advice, and methods for submitting and marketing your finished stories--can now be found in The Starter Guide for Professional Writers. It's a 97,000 word compendium of my best information on publishing from the new writer's-eye view. I wrote it over the course of about nine months, 2500 words or so at a time.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In Which I Indulge A Moment in a Display of Ungodly Power

Hello to the reader who found this blog after, Blogger informs me, searching with the keywords "The Xeocin Empire the Halcyon"!

I assume you are seeking information about the setting or story, "The Halcyon in Flight," which appeared in Crossed Genres magazine some time ago. Never fear! It's still archived, and as for the setting itself (you may have already read this in previous posts) I am revising a novel set in Xeocib with an eye to eventually landing an agent and then a publisher!

I'll take this little nudge from google's statistics tracking as a sign that I should put my nose to the grindstone and keep editing that novel, something I spend more time claiming to do than actually doing (in defense of myself, I do have other stories in progres, too).

Also I just really enjoyed the chance here to act creepy and omniscient for a moment.

On IndieGoGo Campaigns

This week, my student team finished mailing out perks to the sponsors of our IndieGoGo campaign, which raised funds for a community-level organization in rural Ghana to extend microloans and scholarships to local women. We were able to deliver $1,290 to Capacity Rural International during our class visit, over $900 of which came through IndieGoGo.

The IndieGoGo campaign actually raised $1,085, but the site takes a fee. Although we knew that going in, there are some other things we discovered over the course of the campaign that would have been helpful to be aware of beforehand. Since I know IndieGoGo (and its sibling rival Kickstarter) are popular crowdfunding platforms, not only for charitable causes but especially for creative ones--and I suspect a lot of this blog's readers are creative types--I'm writing this post to share key points of our experience.

First off, it’s crucially important that you build in lead time for planning your campaign. Kickstarter suggests you spend 2 weeks tinkering with your campaign page before going live. This time can also be used to set up and polish the webpages and social media you’ll be connecting with the page. Breathing room is important, because among other things it lets you take your hands from the keyboard and rest, not to mention allowing those insights in your brain to percolate in case you wake up at 3 am one night having found the perfect way to explain that perk you're offering which involves your Cousin Fran's goat ranch and your personal recipe for caramel swirl cake in such terms that nobody could pass up donating $350 in exchange for it.

If you're wondering what perspective I approach this from, my group's IndieGoGo campagin was set up in 4 hours. We had planned ahead of time--for weeks, actually--and had some idea what perks we'd offer and what sort of narrative we were making, but next thing we knew we had a fundraiser to complete before midterms (and more importantly, our flight to Accra which came right after Sprin g Break) and there was nothing for it but butt-in-chair and go. We set up the campaign and made it live in the same afternon, as soon as our plan was approved by the powers-that-be of our university course. We may have hit the ground running faster, or sooner (even deciding to be less timid about seeking approval from the powers-that-be, who found nothing to sanction in our plan after all) if we'd known about IndieGoGo's dispersal time.  

Which is, to say it bluntly, long. In fact, if funding closed on your Indie campaign and you sat down to think of a sequel on Kickstarter, you'd have that Kickstarter alive and--ahem--kicking by the time you saw your IndieGoGo funds. We were leaving for Ghana on the 20th, so I set the fund dispersal for me recieve the funds on the 15th--about as close as I dared cut it with travel preparations. Except I did not recieve the funds on the 15th. IndieGoGo sent the funds on the 15th (despite the weeks elapsing between that date and the time our fundraising had to close) and they arrived in my bank on the 22nd. By which point I was safely in Ghana. I managed by borrowing against myself, which was more stress and inconvience that I'd have hoped. In short, if you want to fund something through IndieGoGo, make sure you won't need the money on short notice, and when they ask you "When you do want the money?" they're not promising they'll give it to you by then.

Also think carefully about how much money you ask for, and remember the impact of IndieGoGo's fees. Deciding to reach for the stars, my group set our fundraising goal at $2,000, figuring with the "Flexible Funding" option that let us keep whatever we collected even if we failed to meet that goal, nothing could go wrong. And it's true, things did work out. But IndieGoGo collects a 9% penalty fee for Flexible Funding campaigns that don't meet their goal. We could have made a more modest attempt of $1,000, met it, and paid only 5% in fees.

Other student groups within our class had other issues, including one group that used a fundraising platform incompatible with PayPal. On the bright side, IndieGoGo allowed donors to give in various ways, and we had a parallel PayPal donations button running. Making things easy for the people who want to give you money is always the best practice.

Images and media for the campaign are crucially important. Though the number of photos we had, which came from previous semesters' visits to the villages, was limited, we were lucky in that we had a wonderful spokeswoman. Her smiling picture spoke a thousand words for us at the top of the page. Longer-running or larger-scale campaigns generally incorporate video, where a more dramatic appeal for the project can be made. I've overlooked this in the past because I personally don't watch a lot of videos (unless it's an IndieGoGo campaign funding, say, an Indie movie), but I do see how it would help draw in interested potential funders.

We linked our IndieGoGo page to Facebook, but not to other sites, deciding in the end that a Twitter account wasn't worth running for the brief duration of our campaign. There was some trouble coordinating between the websites, as different people were in charge of running each. Longer lead time and more explicit planning would have cleared this up. If we'd done videos, linking to YouTube would have been an obvious second move, as would connecting a website if we had one. According to IndieGoGo and Kickstarter's guides, each additional social network connected and each piece of media added increases the odds of a project meeting its funding goal. While the FaceBook account was enough to get our project going and give all of us some experience with coordinating social media and crowdfunding, in a larger campaign I would go all-out. That 2-week lead time is perfect for collecting photos and polishing a short video as well.

The major attraction of IndieGoGo to us was the chance to offer perks, which seemed like a fun way to reward our donors. However, because it did take some effort to acquire and send our main physical perk (a handcrafted gift purchased during our trip in Ghana), we set the giving level to earn it rather high, at $100. I think this encouraged people who already wanted to give to give at a higher level than they might have otherwise, as the $100 level, which I first worried might be too much, proved our most popular.

But it didn't encourage people not already familiar with us to give (at least not many of them--we did have one donor from Australia! Who, if she's reading this--thank you very much! Your perk is on its way! I hope the attached customs form doesn't spoil you for what's inside; the Post Office wanted me to be very specific!).

Finding donors is a struggle for all crowdfunding sites (I think Kickstarter's success rate hovers around 60%), and it's especially difficult for charity causes. I didn't see any charitable campaigns that did particularly well on IndieGoGo, and none of the projects I found when searching 'microfinance' met their goal. In making a bit over 50% we in fact did outstandingly well. Some of the problem is establishing the legitimacy of a cause through the Internet, and another part is the fact IndieGoGo is oriented more towards artistic and inventive projects than redistributive giving (though not to the extent of Kickstarter, which forbids any non-artistic projects). Lastly, and perhaps the greatest challenge of all, is that if people want to crowdfund microfinance they already have an established, legitimate site with a thriving community: When describing this project I tried to differentiate it from Kiva loans, but competition wasn't really possible. Simple shared interest in microfinance wasn't enough to draw donors to us, and in hindsight it was overconfident of me to think it might, or to expect the campaign to go viral. Just as well it didn't. The perks were very fun to shop for, but you have to be careful to budget money and time to fulfill them, even in small numbers!

Managing the level of information we offered funders was another challenge in hindsight. I wanted to be perfectly clear, brilliantly persuasive, and share my passionate interest in microfinance services with the world. The world listened politely to me but just could not get that excited about the walls of text I threw at it. Looking at the pitch I made before posting my pledge-story, "The Family" looks like there's two short stories there, and you had to read through one to get to the other, or even to the PayPal donations box. I fear I may have talked some of my dear audience to death. "Less is more" is a lesson I'm still learning, after years of academic writing and novel writing and the joy I take in shaping a narrative--which a fundraising pitch is. These women begin in poverty and, with a little bit of help from donors and a lot of their own effort, they expand their production, hone their skills, improve their businesses and livelihoods and emerge more empowered and with greater income and resources. A sort of rags-to-riches story without an unbelievable level of glitter. The reality is not always quite so neat, of course (they don't always start in rags, for one thing, nor of course end by dripping with diamonds for another). But when I even tried to engage with the complexities of the issue, both to indulge my interest and to head off any possible criticism I feared might come (none did), it lead to Walls of Text (TM). I would have done well to remember the classic advice to revising authors: Resist the Urge to Explain. You need to explain a little more when making a persuasive statement, to show people how what you're seeking is possible, and microfinance isn't a concept intuitively grasped by everyone, but it doesn't help to strain the reader's patience by writing a master's thesis when they wanted a simple outline.

(Yes, I delivered the money in cash. Our trip took us through many rural areas where ATM machines were not readily available. On the one hand, I got to enjoy physically holding multiple Ben Franklins and realizing this was the amount I'd helped raise for a cause I believed in. On the other, making sure I kept a hold of that envelope through my travels was a bit nerve-wracking).

That said, I am very proud of my team's hard work and our success! $1,290 is very close to our private goal of $1500 (we upped it for the Indie campaign because we figured reaching for the stars couldn't hurt, a position we've since, as I've mentioned, gently adjusted) and enough to fund an entire round of loans to the 50 women in the villages' microfinance project, or to fund 5 youths pursuing vocational training. Ultimately how much goes to loans, and how much goes to scholarships (and if they men of the village wish to rent a tractor for this growing season--under the blanket of 'microfinance, business, and empowerment' we were actually fundraising for a lot of things, only adding to the length of my explanations) will be decided by the leadership of Capacity Rural International itself, based on its knowledge of needs on the ground in the community it serves.

For a creative IndieGoGo project, thinking about the target audience and how to frame the narrative pitch, as well as choice of media to add and what sort of goal to reach for, would be different, but the general  pointers about having a long lead time for preparation, linking your websites together and developing them into a coherent campaign, and being careful about finances and timeframe hold true. I really enjoyed the chance to try out a crowdfunding campaign, am glad and grateful at the amount of good it did, and hope I'll have the chance to launch one again someday.

The author I'm interning with, Zahara Heckscher, has just launched a creative Indie campaign of her own for a nonfiction book on international volunteering. To see how they incorporate video and balance a somewhat complicated (even controversial) issue with a clear narrative, check it out here: