Category: For authors


Thighs Can’t Be Uncertain: A guest post by Mindy Mejia

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dragon Keeper author Mindy Mejia, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Thighs Can’t Be Uncertain

Ah, summertime. The endless daylight, the mojito menus, the garden salads picked straight from the garden, and—as frosting on the star-spangled cake this year—I received my editorial letter from the wonderful Emily Bestler and have been revising for the last two months.

Okay, I know not everyone gets as excited as I do about revision and critique. I didn’t always love it and can still remember those undergrad workshop experiences when I spouted any number of defenses against good, honest criticism.

Their opinions were obviously wrong.

They weren’t my target audience.

Or the old standby…

They just didn’t “get” my story.

It’s easy and lazy to reject critique, and guess what? Lazy writers don’t get better. Luckily, I’ve grown enough over the last few decades to understand the transformative power of this process, and here’s the secret: The only difference between an amateur and a professional writer is revision.

IMG_3160

Getting critique is an amazing gift. It means someone likes your book. They like it so much, in fact, they’ve devoted hours of their invaluable time to helping you make the book even better. They’ve spotted the problems you can no longer see because, unfortunately, proximity breeds blindness.

In my case, after spending several years with the murder mystery, my perspective on the book was dreamlike at best. I had old drafts rumbling around in my head, the accumulation of every character’s scenes smothering me whenever I re-read one of their lines, and evolving timelines I couldn’t keep straight without a spreadsheet. Is this the reveal? Have we learned this already? I’d better read the last hundred pages to make sure.

 So you can imagine the relief of receiving Emily’s letter, like a window had been thrown open in a stale room. The voice of reason had arrived. She examined everything from the larger plot lines and time setting down to the smallest descriptions.

Thighs can’t be uncertain, she said after reading a scene in which I’d described a nervous character.

And instead of being embarrassed about my blunder or trying to defend the ridiculous adjective, all I thought was, Yes! Hallelujah! Thighs, good and solid thighs, you just exist. You simply are.

So in the spirit of absolute thighs, here’s a peek at some of my revision practices.

After finishing the first draft, I sit back and think about where I’ve arrived. The book’s conclusion should bring me to a place that gives the journey meaning. I ponder theme and subtext in relation to that journey. (Yes, I ponder.) The most important question I have to answer is—disregarding plot and characters—what is this story really about? Once I know that, I grab a red pen and take a deep breath. Ready?

It’s time to murder my darlings.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice is the first commandment of revision and the hardest for any writer to adopt. My first draft may have taken months or even years to write, and I’ve poured my soul into it. How can I start hacking away at it like diseased shrubbery? But hack I must.

In this particular book I’m married to a total of eighteen sentences. Eighteen sentences that I will defend to the point of a Kung Fu death match if anyone threatens their existence. The other 99,500 words are completely negotiable. Having said that, I’ll give you a taste of my negotiation process.

  1. I recognize the scene/chapter/paragraph needs work.
  2. I break up the existing content, delete a few lines and guard at least half of it from oblivion, then I add new transitions, themes, content, whatever it was that I decided had been lacking.
  3. I read through the new section with its Frankenstein makeover and think it’s…okay.
  4. I go to sleep.
  5. I wake up the next morning and delete the entire steaming pile of crap and write a cohesive scene that accomplishes what I need for that section.

IMG_2997

It’s not the most efficient method, but that’s how I work, especially when I don’t have any immediate insight on how to fix the problem. Essentially, I make the wound worse to force a surgery.

I also tend to save prior drafts so if I ever decide a deleted description of the Egyptian sunset has become absolutely necessary to the trajectory of the story, I can grab it from an earlier version. Although now that we’ve all witnessed the Go Set a Watchman controversy, I’m rethinking my policy on draft retention.

Once I’ve done all I can possibly think of to wrangle the book into shape, I’m ready for some first readers. Obviously I don’t want a prospective agent or editor to be the first person to read the book. (See blindness, above.) I’m selective about who I ask. An early reader should be that perfect balance of enthusiasm, insight, and honesty. I sent the murder mystery to two trusted friends, one a writer with flawless taste, and the other a lifelong mystery reader who knows more about the genre than I ever will. Then I forgot about it for a while. I took nature hikes with the kids. Binge-watched Daredevil on Netflix. Ran a half marathon for St. Jude and limped around for the next week and a half. By the time I’d heard back from my readers I’d regained enough perspective to take their comments to heart and dove back in for another bloodbath.

Does revision fix everything? No, of course not. My work still contains plenty of flaws, but every draft brings me one step closer to the ideal. And even if I only correct one thing, at least that’s one less thing I’ll be shaking my head about when I finally crack the cover of the published book.

So let’s keep walking, thighs. There’s no uncertainty here.

 

Writing Conferences: A guest post by Jennifer Caloyeras

By Midge Raymond,

This guest post is courtesy of Strays author Jennifer Caloyeras, whose blog you can follow on her website. Enjoy!

What’s in it for you at a writing conference?

Each time I peruse the latest edition of Poets & Writers magazine, I see the endless amount of writing conferences offered across the globe, which got me thinking: Why should writers attend writing conferences?

I’ve attended a handful of these conferences (later this week, I’ll be at the SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – annual conference in Los Angeles), and I’ve compiled a list of benefits these conferences have to offer both seasoned writers as well as those just starting out.

What you can gain by attending a writing conference:

1. Networking: Conferences boast hundreds to thousands of attendees, depending on the type. Either way, you meet tons of people. You’ll find writers working in a similar genre, in a similar city, or perhaps you’ll meet your next writing group member!

2. Access: Most writing conferences have established speakers who are active members in the publishing world. Writers, agents, and publishers are all in attendance. Inevitably, one of the questions that is always asked by someone in the audience is, “Can I send you my query?” And I have to say, many agents and publishers will give you something specific to write in the subject line of an email to gain direct access to them so that you can forward them a query letter and they’ll connect it to your attendance at a specific conference.

3. Exposure: Most conferences have a designated time when writers can sell their work to the other conference attendees. If you’re a published writer, this is a great time to practice your sales pitch as well as answer questions about the writing process. And if you’re just starting out, you can walk around and speak with scores of other writers and ask them questions about their publishing experience and their books.

4. They’re valuable: The speakers at conferences have all prepared something very specific to talk to you about, such as character development, how to land an agent, how Excel can be used to track your submissions, and how to book gigs at your local library. There is always more to learn, and there are always new ways to reach out to readers. I keep all my notes from these various conferences and reference them often.

5. They’re fun! There’s plenty of time to socialize with other writers, and lots of conferences will have an evening out where you can leave the notebooks at home and just have a night of fun!

So, how do you pick a writing conference that’s right for you?

Check out the back pages of Poets & Writers magazine.

Go to New Pages for a list of upcoming conferences by state.

strays cover

Lizards in Love: A guest post by Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Lizards in Love

Many creatures mate for life. People, who often bungle this commitment, are shamed by such devotion in the wild. Watching a pair of swans glide across the surface of a still pond, we are stirred to admiration, even reverence, knowing how far they surpass us in manner and form.

Swans are inarguably beautiful, as are various other animals that lead devoted lives: turtle doves, wolves, French angelfish, golden eagles. For these glorious beasts, the discipline of monogamy seems a fitting attribute, a sort of noblesse oblige.

But what of the shingleback skink? Tiliqua rugose: a bob-tailed, slow moving, blue-tongued lizard. Found only in Australia, this lowly beast is one of earth’s most faithful inhabitants. Every autumn, for up to twenty years, it will seek out the same mate, the male inevitably finding the female by her scent trail. During their initial courtship and upon their annual reunion, the male will lick and softly prod the female. For two months they stay together, the male closely following the female as she makes her way across the outback. If one is killed, the other will stay with the body for several days, giving it a gentle nudge now and then as if to encourage animation.

Tiliqua rugose goes by several common names: Stump-tailed lizard, Sleepy lizard, Pinecone lizard, Two-Headed lizard (because the fat truncated tail mimics the head, minus the eyes and mouth). The skin of this reptile is dark brown, sometimes with yellow spots, and the protruding scales resemble armor. The eye are small and reddish-brown; the tongue is a brilliant blue. Reaching eighteen inches in length, the shingleback skink weighs in at a whopping two pounds. During the day it travels across open country foraging for flowers, berries and succulent leaves, as well as the occasional snail and beetle, which it handily crushes with its powerful jaws. At night it sleeps in leaf litter or under logs or rocks.

Six months after the male locates his mate, the female gives birth to two or three young. This process takes much out of her as the progeny can exceed eight inches in length and weigh nearly half a pound—compare a woman giving birth to a three-year-old child. As soon as they emerge, the young skinks dispatch the placenta, then promptly head out, en route to their own chosen life mates.

So how does unstinting loyalty benefit a two-headed lizard? Certainly any healthy female could produce viable young; variation might even strengthen the gene pool. But somehow this lowly lizard was bequeathed with devotion, the urge to seek its private treasure again and again, at any cost. Equally impressive are the researchers who brought us these facts, who braved the harsh Australian outback to study this odd creature day and night, year after year.

Love. Who can account for it?


Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 1.51.09 PM

Tips for authors: interviews, part II

By Midge Raymond,

To follow up on Interviews, Part I, I’m happy to present a Q&A with Wendy Call, author of No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy. Wendy is a longtime journalist whose book is based on hundreds of interviews over ten years — and then, as part of her book tour, she ended up on the other side of the mic. She did more than a dozen radio interviews within a month of her book’s release and has a lot to share.

What are the best reasons for authors to do radio interviews?

The primary reason might not be to sell more copies of your book, but to reach a wider public with the idea(s) behind your book. In the month since my book No Word for Welcome was released, I’ve given fifteen radio interviews. Perhaps two times out of three, I notice a bump in my Amazon sales ranking in the hours after the interview airs. When I don’t, it certainly doesn’t mean the interview was a waste. I can think of many, many times I’ve listened to an author interview, and then checked her book out of the library, or discussed the author’s work with a friend. When I buy the author’s book, it’s usually weeks or months after – most often after I’ve read or heard something else about the author.

If you land a radio interview in a city where you’re giving a reading, a radio interview can bring a larger audience to your event. One of the very first readings I did for my book, No Word for Welcome, was in Los Angeles. I have a few friends and acquaintances in the city; a local organization helped me promote the event; and I did two radio interviews in the week prior to the reading. About one-third of the event’s attendees were my friends and colleagues, one-quarter were members of the organization that helped with promotion, a few came because of a mutual friend’s recommendation, and the remaining quarter came because they heard one of the interviews. So, radio interviews help, but they should be only one part of a wider promotion strategy.

What did you do to prepare yourself for being interviewed?

My publicist and I spent quite a bit of time developing a list of “suggested questions” that were sent out to each of the radio hosts being approached, making sure that those questions covered each of the major themes and ideas of my book. I then devoted about six hours to crafting careful answers to each of the questions. Of course, many of the interviewers asked their own questions, but having those well-rehearsed answers has really helped. My publicist and I also did an hour-long “mock interview” over the phone.

I also do whatever is necessary to get enough sleep the night before the interview – it really does make a difference in both clarity of thought and quality of voice.

 

If there is one single thing an author should do before an interview, what should that be?

Relax for several minutes before the appointed time, breathe deeply, and review the three key points you want to make in the interview. (Note: “Readers, buy my book!” is not one of them!)

 

Do you have any tips for writers being interviewed for the first time?

Think in terms of vignette and story.

Listen to author interviews and think carefully about what appeals to you and what doesn’t. While preparing for my interviews, I listened to NPR’s audio archives. I found that the most compelling interviews are those in which the author offers clear, specific, brief vignettes to make her primary points.

Don’t expect the interviewer to read your book.

Radio hosts are extremely busy people; some interview three or four authors each week. I know very few people who read three or four books every week. I’ve had interviewers who had clearly read most or all of my book, and others who hadn’t read past the flap copy. While I’m grateful to those who did read it, I have to say it’s fine either way. To be honest, it’s often easier when the interviewer hasn’t read the book. Those interviewers tend to ask more basic questions, so it’s easier to give answers that will make sense to an audience that knows absolutely nothing about you or your book.

Be grateful.

There are far more books being published than there are radio hosts to interview those books’ authors. Any radio host who chooses to interview you is giving you a real gift.

To hear Wendy putting these tips into practice, you can listen to her interview with KPFK, as well as her interview with WBAI (her segment begins 15 minutes in).

And for more on author interviews, check out Everyday Book Marketing, in which you’ll find more advice from Wendy and many others.

Tips for authors: interviews, part I

By Midge Raymond,

These next two posts on interviews feature Elizabeth Austen and Wendy Call, both of whom have vast, invaluable experience as both interviewer and interviewee.

Today’s Q&A is with Elizabeth Austen, who has interviewed dozens of writers over the past ten years years for KUOW, 94.9, one of Seattle’s NPR affiliates. She is also a poet, performer, and teacher who has been interviewed countless times herself — and she has a lot to share about how to give your very best in a live interview. (Click here to find some of Elizabeth’s interviews.)

 

 

What are some of the best ways an author can prepare for a live interview?

The most important thing is to spend some time beforehand thinking about what you want to say about your work. Imagine the interview is already over: What do you want to have said? What would you regret NOT saying?

Often, the person interviewing you will not have had time to read your book. So you need to be prepared with a short description of it. What’s your book about? Why did you write it, and why did you write it this way? How is it different from your previous work? Is there an interesting story about how it got published? Also think about what you want to say about how you got started writing and why you continue to do it. You’re essentially interviewer-proofing yourself. Hopefully you’ll get an interviewer who is genuinely interested in you and your book, and will talk with you briefly before the interview starts about what he/she wants to discuss, but you can’t depend on that.

Also, choose a couple of short excerpts or a few short poems that you might read aloud. What would provide a good introduction to the book? Practice reading aloud, and practice giving a concise introduction to what you’re going to read.

If you have time, I recommend listening online to an example or two of your interviewer’s program, so that you’ll have a sense of what to expect in terms of tone and approach. Does this interviewer tend to ask more about craft and process, or about the backstory of the book or individual poems? Is the interviewer looking for anecdotes and stories? Does it seem like the interviewer has actually read the book?

I’m a great believer in preparing for anything, and then letting go of the preparation during the interview so you can respond to what’s actually happening in the conversation. The most important thing is to be present. In the moment, approach it like you would any conversation with someone you care about — by listening and responding as honestly and generously as you can.

What if you’re asked a question you can’t (or don’t wish to) answer?

If there are topics that you consider off-limits for the interview, try to come to an understanding about that with your interviewer beforehand. Remember that it’s perfectly fine to admit that you don’t know the answer to
a question. Maybe the interviewer is suggesting something you’ve never considered before — just say so, and answer as fully as you can in the moment.

And if the question seems intrusive or inappropriate to you, then take a deep breath and pose a different question to yourself, and the answer. Perhaps something like this: “For me, the real question is….”  or “Well, I’m more interested in why…”

Do you have any broadcasting secrets for how to sound your best on the radio?

Well, they’re not really secrets, but here are a couple of things to keep in mind. Try to get a good night’s sleep, but don’t freak out if you don’t. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, I got less than four hours of sleep the night before I was interviewed on KUOW along with former poet laureate Billy Collins. I think I was actually too sleep-deprived to be
nervous. However, I don’t recommend this as a tactic, in general! [Editor’s note: One would never guess that Elizabeth didn’t sleep 8 hours that night. It was an amazing interview and discussion.]

Of course, avoid dairy products for a few hours before and don’t drink so much caffeine that you’re twitchy. Keep your feet on the ground, remember to breathe, and most of all, treat the interview like you would a conversation — that means listening as well as speaking.

And on a technical note —  before the interview starts, try to get a chance to talk into the microphone to make sure you’re not too close or too far away.

Do you have advice for writers who get nervous before interviews?

Does anybody not get nervous before interviews? I know I do — whether I’m the interviewer or the interviewee. I have a mantra that I tell myself before I perform, and it’s equally true when I’m interviewing or being interviewed: “The performance requires me, but it’s not about me.” In other words, I need to show up and be present, but the focus is on the work, not on me or my ego (even if I’m talking about my process or any autobiographical connection to the material). The point — whether in a performance or an interview–is to help the reader connect to the work. When I keep my focus on that, my anxiety is much less likely to take over. Another thing to remember is that the nervousness is a kind of necessary fuel.

What if you make a mistake on the air — is there any way to overcome that?

The fact is that the best radio is made when people are actually talking to each other — so that means they’re going to make mistakes sometimes. If you mis-state something and realize it on the air, just correct yourself. If the interview is being recorded, and you stumble while reading an excerpt from your book, just back up to the beginning of a sentence — they can correct it in the editing room. If you’re reading live, just go with it, like you would at a live reading. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be you (hmmm — and maybe that’s the scarier prospect!)

Tomorrow, come back for a Q&A with Wendy Call, with more interviewing advice for writers…

And for more on author interviews, check out Everyday Book Marketing, in which you’ll find more advice from Elizabeth and many others.