Archive for March, 2011



Thousand-page journey, meet your new first step
by Sharon Ashwood on March 31st, 2011

About a week ago, I blogged about this new fitness kick I’m on. So, I thought I’d invite the inspiration for my new regime to do a guest post for Silk and Shadows. Meet fellow author Rachel Goldsworthy, freelance journalist, writing instructor, the diva behind the blog Calorie Neutral and critique partner who likes (occasionally) to put chainsaw to my more florid similes.

group3

So you wanna be a writer, a bestselling, critically acclaimed novelist.

“There are three rules for writing the novel,” said Somerset Maughm. “Unfortunately no-one knows what they are.”

In fact, though, we all know the first one: put your fanny in a chair, your fingers on a keyboard, and words on the page.

But it turns out that was the Old Wisdom; now scientists think there might be more to it than just, well, writing.

Along with helping your heart, muscles, and skin tone, exercise is now the front-running domestique in the marathon to a three-book contract.

Experiments over the past couple of decades have found that aerobic activity – either a short burst like dancing around the house for 20 minutes or long-term fitness from a regular program – actually boosts creativity.
One study used measures like colorful and rich imagery, unusual visualization, extending or breaking boundaries, and storytelling articulateness.

So “storytelling articulateness” is not how the average (or even bad) novelist would express it, but the message is clear: move that tush before you settle it in front of the computer. You’ll have more fun and a better tale.
And ultimately, you’ll have a trimmer tail too.

levis

Maybe what glitters is gold
by Sharon Ashwood on March 30th, 2011

The interesting thing about awards is that they can mean a lot and not much at the same time. Conventional wisdom says that shoppers and therefore publishers pay no attention to book awards. They do not help sales and they ultimately do nothing but collect dust on a shelf. But, like most such grumpy assessments, I don’t think that’s the whole truth. I have won awards before, and as shiny dust collectors go I think they are mighty fine.

My third book, Unchained: the Dark Forgotten, has been nominated for a RITA® Award in the paranormal category. I really, absolutely, utterly did not expect this. It’s not because I don’t think it’s a great book, but there are a lot of great books out there by bigger names than mine. I am hugely honoured and humbled.

For those that don’t know the RITA®, it’s awarded by the Romance Writers of America and is considered the Big Deal in romance awards, rather like an Edgar or a Hugo are regarded in their respective genres. One would think such news would involve champagne and confetti. My initial response was disbelief; I’m good at that. I finally figured out it wasn’t a mistake later on in the evening of the announcement day, when I was poring over the two-page email from the RWA outlining what I had to do by what date to keep my nomination in play. Apparently, if you want my attention, send paperwork.

Then came gratitude, because I suddenly realized that some people out there read and understood my vision, and it made them happy. The book I wrote gave them a few hours of escape and pleasure. That, above all things, is what an author wants. And maybe, just maybe, this nomination will help me keep on telling my stories to a wide audience. That would be the biggest win of all.

So when people wonder what good awards (especially ones without cheques attached) can do for an author, this is it. They act as a guarantee of quality. Maybe they’ll open doors. More important, it lets the author know someone out there gets what they’re doing. Suddenly, this weird one-sided conversation we engage in has a response. In this case, a thumbs-up.

What else really matters?

You gotta roll with the punches
by Annette McCleave on March 29th, 2011

The title of this blog post comes from a song by JoDee Messina called That’s the Way.

I decided to blog about this topic after receiving two emails from different people highlighting the challenges of being reviewed. In one instance, an author received a two-star review and then proceeded to harangue the reviewer on his blog for it. In the other, a young author got completely ripped apart by reviewers who I don’t believe have even read the book yet (it comes out in August).

One of the hardest parts about being an author is that you have to put your work out there and then take whatever comes. In today’s social media world both the review and people’s responses to it (including yours) become very, very public.

If the review is good, that can result in a flood of sales as the good word spreads. Unfortunately, a good review doesn’t automatically translate into fame or fortune. It generally has to ‘go viral’ for that to happen, and the truth is, bad news is more likely to go viral than good. The two emails I received were both examples of bad news traveling fast.

As an author, your sphere of control is very limited. You cannot control how other people react to your book. You can only control the words in the book itself, and your professionalism after the book is published.

It’s very hard to accept that some people disliked your book so much that they could not finish it, or thought it worthy of a scathing one-star review. But even if you write an excellent book, you won’t satisfy everyone. If you need evidence of that, take a look at the Amazon reviews for Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and Jane Austen. They all have one-star reviews. Heck, pick almost any current best-selling author and you’ll see the same thing.

You can’t please everyone. And you can’t control what people think.

You need to roll with the punches. Absorb them with the least amount of pain possible and move on. Take the high ground, even if the comments are bitter and unwarranted… No, scratch that. Especially if they are bitter and unwarranted.

Which, thankfully, most are not. :smile:

Craft Book Review: Story Engineering
by Jessa Slade on March 28th, 2011

Currently working on: Evil fairies
Mood: Anti-Tinkerbell!

First things first…

In case fellow Silk And Shadows author Sharon Ashwood forgets to mention it, she is a finalist in the Romance Writers of America RITA awards for UNCHAINED! The RITAs are for romances what the Oscars are for Hollywood. Yes, it is that cool! The awards even kinda look the same:

oscar

rita

Exhibit A: Oscar

Exhibit B: RITA

Actually, looking at them together, they could be characters in their own romance! “He was upright. She was demure. Together, they were… Solid Gold!”

The winners will be announced at the RWA national conference in NEW YORK CITY in July. Good luck, Sharon!!! Meanwhile, we can print a convenient shopping list of the finalists at the RWA website.

Now onward to my regularly scheduled post…

I read a lot of books on the craft of writing because I fantasize that one day I will find a magical technique that makes writing easy. Sadly, this has not happened yet. I am told it is unlikely to happen (by the same people who probably think unicorns don’t exist) and still I persist.

While I wait for this magical tome, I have found a lot of other good stuff over the years. Most recently, I finished “STORY ENGINEERING: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” by Larry Brooks.

If I can’t have “easy,” I guess I’ll settle for “mastery,” “success,” and “six.”

What I liked about this book:

It’s left-brained focused. Hence the “engineering” in the title. I already lean strongly toward left-brain thinking so the information is presented in a way that’s comfortable and appealing to me. While the information probably isn’t totally new to anyone who’s been around the craft book block, this presentation is very parsed and analytical, which makes it seem… I don’t want to say easy (still waiting for easy) but manageable.

Some of the previously murky techniques I’ve wrestled with in the past that Brooks’ interpretation made clearer:

  • Idea vs. concept vs. theme
  • The maximum-effect interplay between a character’s inner and outer conflicts
  • The difference between hook and inciting incident

What didn’t work as well for me:

  • There are a few too many digs at seat-of-the-pants/organic writers for my taste. If you are a pantser, you’ll have to ignore those parts.
  • Despite this being an “engineering” book, there weren’t many charts or graphs or step-by-steps. I can extrapolate from the material, but they aren’t laid out for me. And I do love charts.
  • If you read in order, there are a lot of references to material you haven’t covered yet. This is inevitable since every story is an interwoven tapestry of threads, so pulling on one pulls on them all. But if you are brand-new to the basic theories of story structure, I think it might get confusing.

Favorite snippet from the book:

“…you’ll be wallpapering your padded cell with rejection slips.”

He says that like it’s optional!

Final thoughts:

Some of the material from this book is available in posts at StoryFix and a one-page printout of some of the key concepts is at Writers Digest. But the bulk of the info is best assembled in the book itself. It has a lot of passages worth re-reading so although I borrowed a copy from my beloved local library to preview, I’ll be buying a hard copy for my keeper craft shelf.

If you have favorite craft books — writing, cooking, knitting, whatever — please share in comments. I’m always looking for ways to make life easier!

rtcLastly…

Last week I mentioned that I was designing Romance Trading Cards to take with me to various romance reader conventions this summer. Now I have them in my hot little hands! If you’d like a set in all their shiny glory, email me (jessa at jessaslade dot com) with your physical address (sorry, US addresses only) and I’ll send you a set of the three Marked Souls cards.

Writing is a dangerous job, and not simply to one’s sanity.
by Sharon Ashwood on March 23rd, 2011

One of the oft-overlooked hazards of the business is that if one a) sits at a desk to write instead of, say, dictating while bouncing on a trampoline and b) has a desk job besides, there is every danger that one might soon resemble said desk.

Naturally, we all wish to avoid a future as furniture–especially the overstuffed variety. Hence the number of places where one can gain wholesome advice about calories, fibre, and self-flagellation. Enough such web sites abound that I’m not going to discuss actual facts here (as a fiction writer, facts are typically a last resort). Instead, I would like to point out three observations—by way of mythbusting—of practical use to writers:

ONE. Of course there’s no time for exercise. Everyone knows that.

Who doesn’t want more hours in the day? Most authors will do some pretty silly things to squeeze in extra minutes of writing time—but we all have our limits. I have made repeated protests that I am NOT a morning person and cannot possibly write at 5:00 am. This is still true. I am zombie girl until at least 9:00 and am quite possibly dangerous until 8:00.

But I can work with that. I can show up at an exercise facility at an early hour. No one who goes to a gym at 6:00 am is there for conversation, so I don’t have to be nice. The benefits of this schedule are twofold: It frees up time later in the day when I can actually think and write, and with luck I don’t actually remember any of the sweaty morning torture session. Hence therefore, it IS possible to write and maintain a fitness routine—just go when you’re not at your intellectual peak anyway. Besides, it’s nice to have a chore completely finished by the time the work day starts.

TWO. I can’t write without chocolate.

No, I don’t WANT to write without chocolate. Or cheese curls. Or a small lake of black coffee. But I actually write better without them because I won’t feel like my head is stuffed with packing pickles.

In a fit of who-knows-what, I gave up all forms of grain and sugar. One the shock (and grumpiness) abated, I was astonished to have tons and tons of energy. According to the diet I was raised on, I should be starving and tired, but I’m not. The secret is to not stick to a “three squares a day” regime, but to frequently eat little bits of vegetables and protein to rev the metabolism.

THREE. I’ll accomplish so much more if I just keep my bum in the chair for the next twelve hours.

There are times when more is not more. Still, focussed concentration is great, but only for a few hours at a time. After a certain point, diminishing returns set in.

The key is getting food and oxygen to the brain, which means circulation. You know: Beating heart. Pulse. All those things vampire characters lack.

It’s bad when the author tries to emulate the physical state of the Undead. Vlad may be okay with zero blood oxygen; authors just get stupid—so get up and move around from time to time. Eat something nutritious. The cliché of the author hunched over the keyboard, eating junk and drinking their own blood volume in coffee and cola is not a model for real life. Not if you want your brain to stay friends.

I have a tricky enough relationship with my brain as it is—but at least now it occasionally comes when called. Up till now, its specialty has been playing dead.

Interested? Here’s a blog worth reading:
Calorie Neutral

Ergo-Writing
by Annette McCleave on March 22nd, 2011

One of the writing lessons I’ve learned the hard way has been the importance of having an ergonomic workspace. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with degenerative discs in my neck and the culprit was bad posture, mostly while working at the computer. Other people I know have lower back problems or carpal tunnel syndrome.

If you want to start off on the right foot as an author, I highly recommend spending a little time, effort, and money to ensure your workspace will support your ambitions over the long term. When your bones are young, you can flop on the couch with your laptop on the side table, and it won’t bother you. Later, the body won’t be as forgiving. Why not start off with good habits now and train your muse to work that way?

You can Google ‘ergonomic workspace’ and find several resources for properly setting up your desk, chair, keyboard and mouse. I also recommend investing in a good chair, or at least a good chair accessory, like this one from ObusForme.

Repetitive strain injuries (injuries done with simple motions repeated over and over again) can often be avoided if you take regular stretch breaks—at least once every hour. This is hard to do when you’re lost in your story, so setting up reminders with your Outlook calendar or using a kitchen timer might help you out.

Poor lighting can also cause strain, as can working without corrective lenses if you need them. I have a tendency to lean into my monitor, so I recently bought a pair of computer glasses—which are similar to reading glasses but they focus about twenty inches out where your computer monitor ought to be.

Stay healthy and enjoy a long career as a writer! If you have a tip or a website you found helpful in setting up your workspace, please share.

The view from my head
by Jessa Slade on March 21st, 2011

Currently working on: Some bizarre futuristic postapocalyptic action adventure thing that came out of nowhere
Mood: Baffled

In the strange alternative universe that is publishing, even though Book 3 of the Marked Souls doesn’t appear on bookshelves until April 5, Book 4 is going to cover conference in some high rise in New York even as we speak.

Here’s how I imagine it is happening:

Editor: We need eye catching! We need hot! We need…the bold hero cover!

(Trumpets blare from the coffee room.)

Cover designer (who looks as rumpled and sexy as the males on the covers themselves): I can build him. I have Adobe Photoshop. I have the capability to build the romance novel hero cover. Better than he was before. Better, chestier, more rippling abs…

Editor (producing Author cover notes with a flourish): Here are the specs.

Designer (reading through notes): There are specs.

Editor: Yes, I said that. These are the author’s specifications.

Designer: No, this actually says spectacles.

Author (appearing out of nowhere, much like the aforementioned story idea and the aforementioned trumpets): Ha! Yes, I have given the hero glasses because I wear glasses and it’s about time more demonically-possessed heroes had to wear glasses. We will be bold heroes together! In glasses!

Editor and Designer (blinking)

Author (also blinking as she wakes from her nightmare back in her bed in the middle of nowhere): Yikes. I had this dream I was in New York at a cover conference. And I wasn’t wearing a shirt…

And in honor of my bold heroes, here’s the first glimpse of my Romance Trading Cards. Much like the Book 4 cover, RTCs are in development around the country at right this moment as romance authors gear up for the spring and summer conference and convention season. You can see examples of some of the gorgeous work at the Romance Trading Card website.

Here are mine, with much thanks to my designers and with hands-clasped prayers that Book 4 is as bold!

rtc

Have you seen any inspiring book covers lately?

A Haiku
by KimLenox on March 20th, 2011

STATUS: Returned from Spring Break
Mood: PENSIVE

So many research books
Owned and to be discovered
I always want more

Because I write in historical time periods, I do a lot of research for my books. I may only use about ten percent of the information I write into my notes, but I love discovering obscure and surprising facts about the past. As you can see in the small stack above, I’ve collected books about London, Victorian feminism, travel in Nepal, the circus, Jack the Ripper and language/slang.

While I might have a very vivid and developed idea for a scene in my head, I feel like I’m bumping around in the dark until I know I have the correct details. For me, information and fact illuminate my path enough for me to move forward.

I use the Internet a lot — Google Books and various other sites, but my favorite sources are books. Books about the past, and books from the past. I usually find potential gems in the bibliographies of books I already own, and then I’ll see about tracking them down. If they are no longer in print, then I’ll find them at bookfinder.com

I also collect vintage household management guides, cookbooks, etiquette manuals and old elementary school text books.

Do you have a collection of books about anything in particular?

Theme-atic
by Sharon Ashwood on March 16th, 2011

I was thinking, “hmm, what should I write about?” and then my critique group started up a discussion around theme. Because I own the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and never get to use it, I looked up theme:

Properly speaking, the theme of a work is not its subject but rather its central idea, which may be stated directly or indirectly. For example, the theme of Othello is jealousy. See Leitmotif; motif.

But if we see Leitmotif, we might have to see Wagner’s Ring cycle, and I think one has to go into training for that, rather like an Olympic event. Let’s stick with theme.

In my experience, theme got a bad rap in school because it was presented like the prize at the bottom of a cereal box. Somewhere in every work of literature, a theme was hiding. It could be found, guessed at, or otherwise produced as a complete yet simplistic idea. It’s what a story meant, with all the subtlety of a 2×4 between the eyes.

Probably not the most effective use of the technique. To my mind, theme is more like the dryer screen that collects lint as the story tumbles to its conclusion. Lots of stuff in a story relates to an organizing thematic idea, but in more complex stories it’s often oblique, multi-faceted, backward, or even contradictory. It’s more about how a concept shows up in different ways in the story world without actually being a Holy Grail the characters chase. It’s that attitude, idea, or circumstance that impacts all the major players in different ways, and each example illuminates the others.

Longer stories often have several themes. A good example in my mind is (speaking of rings) The Lord of the Rings. It’s about stepping up and taking responsibility. It’s also about exile. It’s also about good versus evil. It’s also about the inheritance of sin. It’s about how good Viggo Mortensen looks in leather, and the artistry of Elven hairdressers. There’s no one cereal-box prize, nor should there be. That would diminish the work.

Perhaps themes are just whatever is roaming around in the author’s mind. I don’t start writing with a theme in mind—or if I do, I veer off of it pretty quickly because I have the attention span of a gnat. It’s when I go back to rewrite that I see strands of actual theme in the text. At that point, I dig them out and highlight them, usually with a puzzled, “Oh, so that’s what all this was about.” Scorched plays with ideas of meaningful self-definition. Unchained gnaws on the female role in society. I wouldn’t say that’s what they are about per se, but what flavors them–or so I discovered after draft one was complete.

It’s interesting that theme and Leitmotif are terms literature shares with music. That’s pretty informative all by itself. In pop music, we’d call it a hook—that little spicy phrase that pops up again and again and helps make the piece memorable.

Of course, outside of English class, does anyone actually notice theme, or is it something writers do mostly for themselves? Is anyone out there conscious of it?

Five Ways to Eliminate Sagging Middles
by Annette McCleave on March 15th, 2011

First off, my heart and prayers go out to those dealing with the disasters in Japan. May all of you remain safe.

As for sagging middles…these aren’t the only options available to you, but if you’re stuck, maybe they’ll spark a fresh perspective:

1. Raise the stakes. Have your hero discover the looming disaster is even worse than he imagined. An example of this would be discovering the kidnapped child he’s hunting for is injured or sick. Or the road in front of the bus has not been finished there’s a twenty foot gap between the hero and safety.

2. Peel back another layer of your hero’s character. Use an event to trigger a memory that is very painful for the hero. This is especially useful if it causes conflict between the hero and heroine, or causes the hero to veer away from a possible route to success.

3. Change direction. Put a big roadblock in your hero’s path that forces the hero to discard his current plan and come up with a new one. A hero always has a plan. Sometimes the plan doesn’t work out. A literal example of this is the escape tunnel that ends up blocked, but it can be anything.

4. Unleash your villain. Have your villain do something really smart and really nasty. And if your hero gets injured in the fallout, so much the better. The best villains are always the ones that manage to outsmart your hero a time or two.

5. Deepen the romance. Turn up the heat and let your hero and heroine sweat it out together. This one actually ties in nicely to any of the above events, because there’s nothing like a near-death experience to stir up the hormones.

If you’re a writer, do you have a favorite way to juice up your story? As a reader, do you recall an awesome story twist that really worked for you?