Writers Helping Writers

My mother (who is an avid reader, but not a writer) is consistently amazed by the way writers help other writers, especially with regard to self-publishing.  I tell her about the conversations I enjoy at writers conferences or about the way New York Times bestselling authors take time out of their production schedules to beta read my work or about asking my writer-idols to breakfast so I can pick their brains about new-to-me subgenres, and my mother just gapes with astonishment.

Helping HandSometimes, I gape too.

When I practiced law, there wasn’t a lot of lawyers helping lawyers. In law school, there were times when I went to the stacks to retrieve a case, and I found the pages I needed had been cut out of the reporters. As a practicing litigator, one of my primary case strategies was not to assist my opponents; I learned to file briefs at times that made responses inconvenient, and I honed my ability to answer questions truthfully but without illumination.

As a librarian, however, my entire stock-in-trade was being helpful. I responded to questions from patrons. I anticipated questions from library users who had not yet entered my office. I worked with other librarians to collect resources for our community and to share those resources. (In fact, we had an active inter-library loan program that resulted in such strong ties that we all exchanged edible holiday presents in December and gained multiple pounds before each new year!)

Yesterday exemplified the way I’ve adapted those librarian skills to my writing. Yesterday morning, I spent 1.25 hours on the phone with an acquaintance, a woman I’ve known for years in my local Romance Writers of America chapter (and once ran into, completely by surprise, at the Tower of London!)  She is considering a shift from a 100% traditional publishing career to a hybrid career, and she wanted some advice about the balance such a transition requires.  Many of her questions were easy for me to answer, but some required me to think.  A few questions required me to share relatively personal details — about my income, or my personal philosophy of success and failure, that sort of thing.

Then, last night, I reached out to a different writer acquaintance, a woman I’ve also known for years through RWA and because she and I briefly shared the same agent. Her day-job gives her the precise knowledge to analyze the accuracy of my small-town Christmas novella, Fly Me to the Moon. I emailed her and asked if she could read my draft and turn it around in a few short weeks. She responded within an hour and said she’d be happy to do so — she even offered to get the manuscript back to me in fourteen days.

What goes around, comes around. A rising tide lifts all boats. A bunch of other cliches.

Bottom line: I love helping other writers. And I’m incredibly grateful when other writers help me.

Who has helped you in your work (writing or otherwise!) lately?

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B is for Book

B is for Book

B is for Book.

Continuing on our theme of obvious alphabet letters… But what exactly do we mean by a “book”?

Once upon a time, a book was a physical object that consisted of printed pages bound between covers. In the modern world, those pages were usually printed on paper, but the quality of the paper could vary from rag cotton (high end) to newsprint (low end). The covers could be clothbound (hardcover) or cardstock (paper) with yet more varying degrees of quality.

In the past, there was a wider range of “book.” There were, of course, the stone tablets of Sumerian cuneiform (although many people would argue those were “documents” or “records” but not books.) There were scrolls of papyrus or parchment or vellum. Books could be written out by hand before the invention of movable type.

And now, the range of “book” has expanded in other ways. Books may be electronic files, suitable for reading on a computer or a specialized e-reader. Books may be audio files, intended for listening, and a hot debate rages on whether listeners have “read” a book. (I’ll spare you a preview of the R is for Read section that I’ll never write—I personally believe that “reading” requires eyes looking at words, either in print or on a screen. Nevertheless, audiobooks maintain many of the characteristics of print books, with regard to how they are marketed, sold, and used by consumers.)

For years, students have relied on book summaries to grasp the essentials of a book—Cliffs Notes or Monarch Notes or other study guides. And others have opted for cinematic adaptations of books, although such movies often change major aspects of the underlying work. (Grapes of Wrath, anyone? Where the movie ends with the Joads arriving optimistically in California, their fortunes on the cusp of positive change?) At some point in the future, “book” might be stretched to mean movie or summary or game or…any number of other things.

“Book” also has a flexible meaning regarding the length of the work in question. In common parlance, a “book” of fiction usually means a novel, a full-length story. It’s distinguished from a short story, novelette, or novella. But the definition of those other forms is up for grabs, according to context. Lacking an industry-wide standard for defining length, a variety of genre special-interest-groups have set their own definitions. Those definitions are almost always used for the allocation of awards. For example:

•    The Horror Writers of America (“HWA”) states that “short fiction” is a work of less than 7499 words. “Long fiction” is a work from 7500 words to 39,999 words. A novel is more than 40,000 words.
•    The Mystery Writers of America (“MWA”) states that a short story is a work from 1000 to 22,000 words. A novel is more than 22,001 words.
•    The Romance Writers of America (“RWA”) states that a novella is a work from 20,000 to 40,000 words. A novel is more than 40,000 words.
•    The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (“SFWA”) states that a short story is a work of less than 7500 words. A novelette is a work from 7501 to 17,499 words. A novella is a work from 17,500 to 39,999 words. A novel is 40,000 words or more.

(All of these definitions are subject to change; some organizations debate the categories much more frequently than others.)

But do these distinctions matter?  When traditional publishing remained an author’s only option, length of a work was important. Various publications, usually magazines but sometimes print anthologies, would consider short stories, novelettes, or novellas, but mainstream publishers traded almost exclusively in novels.

(In fact, most mainstream publishers traded almost exclusively in novels longer than 40,000 words. Some publishers, like Harlequin, maintained precise page limits for its books, manipulating margins and type size to guarantee a specific number of pages in each category of romance. Those limitations allowed the publisher to buy large quantities of paper and cardstock in advance.)

The growth of self-publishing, though has expanded the options for publishing shorter works. Most self-publishing results in electronic files. Those electronic files are being read on devices such as phones and tablets, where an increasing number of readers has expressed a preference for shorter works. Moreover, the delivery cost of electronic files is low (compared to printing, shipping, and warehousing print works), allowing entrepreneurial authors to set low price points for shorter works. While a print publisher could not effectively market a short story for $0.99, an electronic publisher can do so without a problem. In fact, the ubiquitous $0.99 for a music file on iTunes conditioned many readers to expect similar low prices for short fiction.

These shorter works bear many of the characteristics of full-length novels. They have cover art and back-of-the-book blurb descriptions. They can be grouped in series, resembling trilogies or longer collections of works. They have an independent presence at vendors; each short story, novelette, or novella is displayed on its own page, with its own metadata.

Enough with laying out the options. What about you? How do you define “book”?

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The Author’s Alphabet: A is for Author

The Author’s Alphabet: A is for Author

When you call a series The Author’s Alphabet, you pretty much know you’re starting with “A is for Author.” (I suppose I could have started with “A is for Alphabet”, but then everyone would expect me to write an exposé about the mega-company-that-was-Google…)

So. A is for Author.

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Simple. Straightforward. We all know what author means. Authors write books.

Authors are inscribed in the United States Constitution: Congress has the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their Respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, emphasis added.) The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 elaborates on those rights, setting up a system for authors to register their copyrights and to protect against infringement of their work.

But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t have an exclusive category for authors. Instead, it places “writers and authors” in one class, defining their primary occupation as: “originat[ing] and prepar[ing] written material, such as scripts, stories, advertisements, and other material.” Illustrative examples include Advertising Copy Writer and Television Writer.

Along the same lines, Eudora Welty famously called her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings. One of the long-standing magazines designed to help people who want to be published is Writer’s Digest, and a literary magazine goes by the name of Writer. Thousands of college programs call themselves Creative Writing departments.

Is there a difference between an author and a writer?

Some people attempt to define the difference between author and writer as a difference in function. According to this school, an author creates, develops, and communicates original ideas, while writers record ideas created by others. One individual might perform both functions; however, the Function School seems to believe there are a lot of scribes-for-hire wandering around, capturing the otherwise unbound wisdom of authors.

The Function School’s parsing of words doesn’t have a lot of relationship to reality. There aren’t many people who fill journals with ideas, sketching outlines of concepts in preparation for a non-thinking wordsmith to reduce those concepts to reality. Moreover, the Function School ignores the legal reality of copyright, which explicitly states that authors own the specific expression of general ideas.

Another school defines the difference between authors and writers by the passage of time: writers focus on a single work they are currently creating while authors focus on the body of work they’ve created in the past. According to the Time School, writers are wrapped up in characters and plots, in specific stories they are in the midst of crafting. Authors focus on past works, defining their professional life in terms of the sum of their writing. Authors concentrate on series of novels, on acquiring a presence, a gravitas, in specific genres. Authors are established, and permanent, and career-minded.

The Time School is overly concerned with the success of a storyteller—authors only come into existence after writers see professional recognition. Moreover, the Time School doesn’t adequately recognize that one person can wear multiple hats in creating written work. Once a Time-School writer finishes a single creative piece, she doesn’t shove it in a drawer. Rather, she begins the process of fitting that work into her portfolio, placing it in a series, promoting it in a genre. At the same time, she likely has started on a new work; she flows back and for the between Time-School-defined writer functions and Time-School-defined author functions.

Yet another school divides creators into two camps according to their status: elite authors create literature; writers create everything else (genre books read for entertainment, advertising copy created to sell products, technical writing meant to instruct, etc.) According to the Status School, authors have been forged in the crucibles of great editors at powerhouse traditional publishers. Writers might have worked with less prestigious traditional publishers where they concentrated on churning out pablum for the masses. They might even have skirted traditional publishing altogether; the lowest writers, according to the Status School, are the self-published riffraff.

But the Status School does not reflect the modern reality of publishing. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Albert R. Erskine are long gone. Storytellers regularly make the bestseller lists and win awards without benefit of any traditional publishing houses’ editors. The slippery distinction between high status and low status is immaterial to a reading public hungry for Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey; those avid fans aren’t going to care about fifty shades of meaning of the word “author,” of the word “writer.”

So, where does that leave us?

This series follows yet another school: the Rational School. To the Rational School, author and writer are used interchangeably. Authors and writers are people who tell stories with words. They have a process for their work, regularly allocating time to achieving their writing goals. They focus on specific goals, publishing specific material for a specific audience. Authors and writers keep one eye on their craft and another on their business. The rest of the Author’s Alphabet will look at that process, examine those goals, studying craft and business for the successful, rational storyteller.

What about you? Do you use author and writer interchangeably? If not, how do you define the difference between the terms?

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A Few (More) Words About For Such a Time

ETA: I’ve been informed that RWA did changes its rules for its most recent awards, requiring authors not to judge categories in which they’d entered material. Nevertheless, I’m leaving this post up, to reflect my concerns at the time, based on my knowledge at the time.

 

If you spend any of your online time in or around the community of romance writers, you have likely read volumes about Kate Breslin’s inspirational romance For Such a Time, which was recently nominated for (but did not win) a Romance Writers of America RITA award for Best Inspirational Romance and for Best First Romance.

If you aren’t aware of the controversy, here’s an article from Newsweek that summarizes the matter fairly neatly:

http://www.newsweek.com/bizarre-nazi-love-story-thats-tearing-romance-novel-community-apart-360965

(And for people who don’t want to take the time to read the Newsweek article: Breslin’s novel is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther, set in a Nazi concentration camp. The heroine falls in love with the commander of the camp and ultimately converts to Christianity to cement their love and life together.)

A couple of points for the record: I have not read For Such a Time. I am Jewish.

Many, many, many people have written about the problems with Breslin’s novel, focusing deserved attention on: 1) the fact that sex without consent is rape, and that prisoners are incapable of giving meaningful consent; 2) the offensiveness of religious conversion being mandatory for a character to achieve her “happy ever after” in a romance novel; and 3) the perversion of presenting Time as a retelling of Esther’s story, given the many narrative differences between the two.

I embrace all of those concerns. But I have one minor point to add to the matter, one that I have not seen referenced elsewhere.  (Of course, if you have, please point me in the right direction!) My point is this: The rules for judges make it substantially more likely than not that problematic material like Time gets nominated for awards.

For the 2014 RITA awards (recognizing books published in 2013), RWA substantially revamped its rules for the contest. Several categories were removed, and judges were required to certify that books were romances, answering two key questions:  “Is the love story the main focus of the book?” and “Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic?”

In 2014, at the conclusion of the first round, only three books were nominated for inspirational romance, and only three books were nominated for erotica. At the time, many onlookers speculated that the short nomination lists were because the judges for those categories tended to answer the first question in the negative. For inspirational romances, the relationship between the characters and God is often the main focus of the book. For erotica, the sexual exploration of the characters is the main focus.

For the 2015 awards (recognizing books published in 2014), RWA changed its rules again. The trimmed list of categories remained, and the questions remained. But for the 2015 awards, RWA no longer required judges to recuse themselves from a category if they wrote books in that category.  Therefore, authors of inspirational romance could judge inspirationals (and authors of erotica could judge erotica.)

In this environment, Time was nominated for two RITAs.  (Best First Book nominees are not read separately and nominated; rather, authors who are submitting first books note that status on their submissions, and the top 4% of all first books move forward to the Best First Book category.)

I submit that Time would not have been nominated for a RITA if it had been judged by authors who did not include inspirational authors. Instead, Time resonated in an echo chamber, where authors publishing narratives with similar themes of Christian redemption chose to amplify Breslin’s story.

Do all authors of inspirational romance believe that Jews must convert to be saved? Of course not. Do all authors of inspirational romance accept non-consensual sex as romantic and redemptive. Obviously not.

But the closed system of the current RITA judging allowed this embarrassment to proceed to the second round of judging. A more open system — additional judges — resulted in Time not winning the award.

It’s time for RWA to reinstate its recusal requirement for judges.

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Another RWA Nationals Bites the Dust

I spent the majority of last week at the Romance Writers of America annual meeting, in New York City. When it came time to register for the conference, I almost chose not to go–I don’t have any ongoing traditional contracts right now, and I parted ways with my agent earlier this year, so there weren’t those all-important dinners, lunches, and other meetings to attend. As I dithered about whether or not to attend, the slots filled up at the massive book-signing that launches the convention, so I couldn’t give away my books in the service of literacy charities. Plus, the conference was at the Marriott Marquis, in the middle of Times Square, which is so crowded and loud and crowded and bright and crowded and under construction and crowded and…

timessquare

(That’s not my picture of Times Square; it belongs to one of the jillions of tour bus companies that ply their trade in the space. I didn’t stop to take pictures–see above for the the explanation of chaos!)

But one of the workshops I suggested for the conference–The Midlist Guide to Making Six Figures in Indie Publishing–was accepted, so I had a chance to sit on a panel with smart, funny, successful women like Deanna Chase, Angie Fox, Eliza Knight, and Kathryn LeVeque.

And I scheduled meetings with some of my favorite authors, to find out how they’re doing, and to talk about possible joint projects (in some cases) and perspectives on some of my solo projects. And I had a chance to meet my new cover designer in person. And I saw my former Harlequin editor, who is now a freelancer offering her decades of experience to clients. (Hi, Pamela Aares! And Deborah Blake! And Kristan Higgins! And Mary-Theresa Hussey! And Kim Killion!)

And I was able to schedule a meeting with my editor and publicist at Open Road, the publisher who currently has my Glasswrights Series–all in service to an exciting announcement I can share with you in the next month or so.

And one of my Book View Cafe compatriots, Sarah Zettel, was looking for a roommate. Sarah was one of my beta readers for the Diamond Brides Series. She’s a life-long fan of baseball, so she was able to comment on all aspects of the game plus she wasn’t afraid to comment on details in love scenes. I already knew we had a ton in common, and I was looking forward to discussing all sorts of career issues with her.

And so, I arrived in New York City a week ago. I spent Tuesday as a civilian, not a writer. Sarah and I went to see The Weir, at the Irish Repertory Theatre, a play about the power of stories and storytelling and truth and fiction–a perfect launch for the convention.

Conference began on Wednesday, with all those planned encounters I mentioned above. Plus, I ran into friends from all over the country (especially a number of folks in Washington Romance Writers and Maryland Romance Writers, who I just don’t get to see often enough here at home.) I listened to horrific stories of traditional publishing messing up writing careers. And I heard amazing tales of publishers who came through in major, unexpected ways. I developed ideas for new writing projects, both solo work and collaborative efforts. I talked, talked, talked.  And I ate, ate, ate.

IsleOfCapri

Our group at Isle of Capri restaurant, before the table was filled with amazing pastas, meats, desserts, etc.  (That’s Angelina Lopez, Amy DeLuca, Me, Denny Bryce, Olivia Kalb, and Erika Kelly.)

On my last day in New York, my roommate had an early flight, so she left before my eyes were fully open. After I staggered to wakefulness, I walked up to the Bouchon Bakery, where I indulged in a cheddar bacon scone and a chocolate macaron. (What? You don’t do dessert-for-breakfast?) Then, I returned to the room and finished packing.

My last task was to slip $5 into an envelope left on the desk for that purpose–for tipping the maid who had served us so well each day of our stay. I’d left $5 each morning, and Sandra J had been a fantastic ambassador for the hotel, greeting me cheerfully in the hallway every time I saw her. On this last day, I opened the envelope and found $20–left by my roommate. Neither she nor I had ever discussed the matter, but we both believed in tipping such hard workers who get paid so little. Just another sign that Sarah was the right roommate for me!

Envelope

Now, I’m back at home, with dozens of new ideas for short stories, novellas, and novels. My career-management to-do list has a number of new entries.

Yes, it takes time and effort and money (so much money!) to travel to RWA Nationals. But this year, it was worth it!

Pardon me, while I get back to work…

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