Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Essay Worth Your Time

I read was an essay today by writer Claire Vaye Watkins: On Pandering . It's about being a women writer in this misogynistic publishing culture and what we as women find ourselves doing to whore ourselves to a culture that doesn't respect us, treats us like shit, and, in general, refuses to acknowledge our writer selves.

I wrote a long post that I just deleted because it really served no purpose other than to vent my frustration with the current publishing climate. Anyway, read her essay.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Is it the Writer or the Self that Matters?

I was at my book critique group the other night, and a few of us have novels that are incubating to the point where we to at least give a nod to marketing. All of us are over fifty. At first glance this doesn't seem important, but actually it's so damn critical that it's terrifying. None of us are comfortable with the concept of the selfie, which is basically code for promoting yourself. I have NEVER taken a picture of myself to post on my Facebook, Blogger, or any sort of social media. I have an author photo. That's it. The concept of selling myself, whether it's a book or just, well, me is so foreign that it's like someone is speaking another language. And yet every publisher who FAQS I've perused demand that you have a robust presence on social media. Not just a blog, because they are dead. And not just Facebook because that seems to be passe. But tumblr and twitter and instagram. Post away, people!  You have a fully formed "self" that actually has nothing to do with your book. In face, IMO, the book is incidental, almost an after thought.

And what exactly does a fifty-nine year old woman have to sell these days in a world that is obsessed with youth? Fuck all, frankly.

I have just finished a book. It's done and I'm about to shop it around. I'm not making money on my writing, so I basically write what I want to write. I have fun with it. It doesn't mean that I treat my writing as nothing more than a hobby or a lark, but my lack of success actually means that I don't have to please anyone but myself. I don't have to churn out a book every six months, which given that I work full time, is absolutely impossible. And the reading public need to be fed on a constant basis. Unless you're someone like Donna Tartt where you can write one book every ten years. I'm not Donna Tartt. You can't write a book every five years like I do and expect to have a writing career. This is both freeing and also extremely depressing. But that's my reality.

So yeah, I had fun with this book. I wrote it in two different POVs, both males, and young men at that. And now I'm faced with the reality that I can't market this book as is now de rigueur. I physically can't put a picture of myself on a website or the back cover of a book and expect the market whom might actually want to read it actually pick it up or click on it. Why? Because I'm a fifty-eight year old woman writing about twenty-somethings. I have no street cred basically. I plan to market it under a pseudonym, but I can't take that very far.

For the first time I actually understand why authors create these alter personalities to sell their books. And I don't mean just writing under a different name. Remember that scandal of a street kid who wrote his memoir and it was horrifying the level of abuse he was subjected to. And the book was a massive hit and he was an industry darling, and it turns out he was a middle-aged white women who had trouble selling her novels and adopted this persona because apparently abused kids who turned were selling really well.

This is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.  The book and the author are now so joined, the "self" of the author so integral to the book, that you can't say I thought this would be fun to write and lease judge this book on its merits.

Authors are now a commodity and in some ways, I think more than the book itself.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What Constitutes a Good Book, I'm Curious

Yesterday I went looking for a book for my book club. I compiled a bunch of "notable" lists from various publications, and then went to the dreaded and now omnipotent amazon to read some reviews. Given that reviewing is now basically a lost art, and we are now at the mercy of the mob for commentary on our work, if you want to read a reaction to a book, you are basically forced to either go to amazon or Goodreads.

The number of one-star reviews for these books was staggering. So I  began reading these one-star reviews for several different books and a definite pattern emerged.
  1. Readers want to be entertained, and if the story is sad or the characters are conflicted, depressed, traumatized, or in some way not happy, then they hate the book and are bored. They don't like flawed characters. They want to actively identify with the main characters. The phrase I read over and over again was that these characters didn't have any redeeming qualities.
  2. They want happy endings and will only accept conflict if a happy ending massages the conflict away.
  3. They cannot stand not having a totally linear plot line; they are lazy readers and want a book's structure to be straightforward and easy to read;
  4. They hate multiple points of view because, hello, they are lazy, and they don't want to actively parse out a storyline; they want it fed to them;
  5. They seem to be experts on what makes a good writer, and yet what makes a good writer seems to be an elusive concept. Sometimes they will admit that a book has evocative writing, but it's boring. OR. The novel was interesting but the characterization was flat and, of course, boring. I wish I had a dollar every time I read the word "boring" to describe a book.
  6. I also wish I had a dollar for all the times that I read a book is "poorly edited." Now this has been a pet peeve of mine for years, and I've complained about that repeatedly on this very blog. Sadly, I don't think it's the lack of editing that bothers them. The sense I got is that they didn't like the voice and the pacing, which, hello, are very different animals.

They seem massively bored by everything. The underlying tone of these reviews is that they were looking to be entertained but in the context of demanding that a specific fantasy be met. There was an expectation that THEIR fantasy should be fulfilled.

I think the relationship between reader and writer has drastically changed. As that fourth wall between public and media has begun to disintegrate, there is the expectation that public owns the art and expects the artist to feed them. This is very different from an artist opening a private door into their world and inviting you in to have a seat. Now it's the public with the keys to that door and the artist is invited in to perform. To a script they haven't seen or a song they've never sung.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Oh, Envy, Pull Up a Chair and Sit for a Spell

My life has been quite crazy lately. Finished hush-hush book project, attended my daughter's wedding, and visited Hearst Castle, which, ironically enough, I visited when I was eight months pregnant with now newly married daughter. I've been having a grand time, and also not such a good time as work has been demanding. Oi, I'm tired.

But I also managed to read two very beautiful books, which I shall review in a bit. I haven't read much decent fiction in a while, so it was nice to put down a book and say that's mighty fine writing. And I could say that about TWO books!. YAY!

Envy is always something a writer has to contend with. It's so easy to succumb to it that I actively push it away. Most days it doesn't get a toehold. There will always be writers who write better than you do, and your skillz aren't going to improve no matter how much you might disparage theirs. I do envy some people's success, usually those writers whose popularity I find completely baffling. To this day I do not understand the popularity of  The Girl with the..." books. Authors whose success I understand, I don't envy. They deserve it, and all I have to say to them is, you go, girl (or boy). I also am not bitter about those authors whose success is such a total goddamn fluke that I'm more amused than anything else. The woman who penned 50 Shades of Grey? Laugh all the way to the bank, honey.

But this week I face a different kind of envy that I find very difficult to shove into the corners of my psyche. If you read this blog (all seven of you), you know that I penned an Austen pastiche, a take-off of Pride and Prejudice named Pen and Prejudice.  I worked hard on that book, and I think it's fairly decent. It's not brilliant, but then how many of us are brilliant authors? Damn few. So, yeah, I can look at it dispassionately and say, hey, not bad.

And I couldn't sell it to save my life. I flogged that book for almost two years. This was on the heels of the Zombie Austen book, and I thought, yay,  the market is ripe for a modern take on Austen! I was actually correct. Sadly, it wasn't me, a no-name author, whom the market wanted.

The Austen Project has handed out the Austen books to individual authors (all of them are well known) to construct a modern take on the Austen classics. Why does this sound familiar? Oh! Just like I did! I wish I had a dollar for every agent who said to me, "Hmmm, interesting concept, but I just don't think I could sell it." Clearly they were wrong, because all these books are getting a ton of hype, and as slowly as the book world moves, it was obvious to me that at the time I was trying to sell my book, this concept was actually being sold.

Of course it's possible that my book isn't good enough to compete with these other authors. Maybe. Their reviews aren't any better than my reviews, and, honestly?  I think I can hold my own with these other authors and their interpretations of my favorite characters in fiction.

Yes, I am envious that they didn't have to query a bazillion agents until finally realizing that no one was going to buy this book, and if I didn't want to mold on my hard drive, I had to publish it myself. Which I did. But it rankles, and I'm envious.

Anyway: the Austen Project. If you love Jane Austen, check it out. Ignore envy, who is snorting, pouting, and wheezing in the corner of this blog. She isn't staying long. I've handed her an eviction notice.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

National Grammar Day!

Grammarly, a site devoted to all things grammar-ish, has some fun quizzes in honor of National Grammar Day. Check them out and have fun!

Quizzes HERE:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Oh Fiction, I Seem To Be Deserting You, Or Are you Deserting Me?

I have a stack (um, stacks, actually) of books by my bedside winking at me every night begging to be read. My husband, concerned about the perilous stacks shoved up against the wall of my side of the bed, said at one point, "Let's get a bookcase. This is getting ridiculous." And now I have a bookcase of books begging to be read. Happy day!

Except. The stack is getting increasingly filled with non-fiction as opposed to fiction. I am currently switching between three superb books of non-fiction: Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia, Jones' The Plantagenets, and Roberts' Napoleon. I leap merrily from 14th century England to 20th century Arabia to 19th France on any given week. All three of them have very different styles of writing, and all three of them are crackerjack writers. It's a total joy to read them. I have no idea about the scholarship in these books, but it doesn't really matter. They are fantastic reads.

And then we look at the decreasing fiction pile. There is very little there to excite. Somehow I never got around to reading The Night Circus, and I'm looking forward to that. Nothing else grabs my eye. So I toddle downstairs to the office where the real bookcases live and pull out an old favorite when I feel I'm in the mood for fiction. The other night I was feeling "capote-ish" and singled out his The Dogs Bark. It's easy to forget what a wonderful writer he was because he became so malicious and angry at the end of his career, and the very thing that he despised, a literary clown. Anyway, much sadness there because much greatness squandered. The book is lovely, especially the bits from Local Color. I highly recommend it.

I guess the point I'm making is that non-fiction is still getting the rigorous go through by editors and fiction isn't. How many books have I read in the past two years that had me pulling my hair out because the editorial "pass" just didn't happen. The book was rushed to publication to feed the ebook reading masses. The real tragedies are the books that are near misses. The ones that could have graduated from being a Saturday afternoon read to being the sort of book you keep, that you will pluck off your shelf one night when you hanker for some decent writing. I have lots of books I have kept. And yet rarely do I keep a book these days. Very few of them grab me and the ones that do tend to be non-fiction.

Not that I have any room on my bookshelves for more books, but still.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Your Identity as a Writer

I'm writing a new novel these days but I can't say that I will ever ballyhoo it here. Why, you ask? Because the readers who have read the Mary Ryan mysteries or the Austen pastiche would flee screaming into the hills if I wrote this book under my real name. It's a "New Adult" novel, primarily catering to the market between 20-35. So there is casual sex, lots of swearing, drinking, and drug use (maybe, not sure about that part yet, except my 20-something kids tell me that pot use is rampant, so I need to shoehorn that in somewhere). It's written from two male POVs. It's sort of a mystery but not, and I'll probably have a bitch of a time trying to sell it.

So why am I writing it? And, more importantly, why am I spending so much effort to get it finished when its place in a market is debatable, it doesn't piggyback off of my current readership, and if the targeted readership knew that this was a 58-year-old women writing, they'd flee screaming into the hills.

Because it's there. Because I had an idea and I wanted to write from a male POV and I wanted to play with different POVs. And I wanted to feature people drinking, smoking, swearing, and having casual sex without alienating a bunch of readers. I wanted to write semi-graphic sex scenes. In short, I wanted to play with words.

I've reached the sad truth that I will never become rich and famous from writing. I don't write a book a year. I can't write a book a year. That day job thing. So I've decided to write what I want to write. In this No-Name book, I'm writing in a different gender and from two different POVs. This forces me to change the pacing, language, and feel of the two protagonists as I shift from chapter to chapter. It's not merely a question of changing the names. Both of these characters are wildly different, and the writing itself has to reflect that. One character is acerbic and formal-ish, and the language for his chapters reflects that. The language is more nuanced. More commas, believe it or not. The second protagonist is a simpler, nicer person. His chapter has shorter sentences and is less "verbose" if you will. This leads to two "voices" and a juggling act in regards to pacing.

It's been challenging and, I think, has moved me forward as a writer. I started this out by writing it in first person POV. That seems "thin." Then I thought, well, why not two POVs? So I kept one POV in first person and the second I moved to a third person POV. Still wasn't right. A year later, I finally found myself with two POVs in third person. I rewrote the beginning 30,000 words something like five times before it "clicked" into a shape that I could move forward. I'm at over 60,000 and hope to finish it up shortly. I'm not sure that this story will find a home anywhere in the publishing world, but I took some chances, and I think I benefitted as a writer from those chances.

Pseudonym for sale?