books with Athena

books with Athena

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's Official: Chocolate is a Health Food!

Off topic, but had to share what I just read from the AP--

An article to come out in a European medical journal this week says German researchers followed 20,000 people over eight years and found people who ate chocolate every day had "a 39 percent lower risk of either a heart attack or stroke." Other studies have suggested dark chocolate could be good for you, but this is the first big, long term study that proves it.

So go eat a chocolate bunny. Now. For your health.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Editorial Ass: half a million and counting!

Editorial Ass: half a million and counting!

Editorial Ass, the anonymous editorial assistant (now editor) known as Moonrat, is having a contest to celebrate her blog's half million hits. The prize is a critique of your first 20 pages! Check it out through the link above.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

THE GROUCHO MARXIST MANIFESTO

I know this is a blog on writing, but I’m going to talk this week about Marxism: Groucho Marxism.

The Groucho Marxist manifesto is, to paraphrase the great Julius Henry Marx himself—

“I DO NOT CARE TO READ A BOOK WRITTEN BY A PERSON WHO WOULD ACCEPT ME AS A FRIEND.”

Groucho Marxists are your family members and so-called buddies who won’t read your work and assume it’s terrible, just because it was written by somebody they know.

I’m not talking about those helpful beta readers who comb through your unpublished manuscript looking for flaws to be fixed before you submit. These are the folks who refuse to read your work—and often feel compelled to ridicule it—even after it’s been vetted and edited by professional publishing persons.

Again to quote Mr. Marx: “FROM THE MOMENT I PICKED UP YOUR BOOK UNTIL I LAID IT DOWN, I WAS CONVULSED WITH LAUGHTER. SOME DAY I INTEND READING IT.”

They don’t, of course, intend reading it. You’ll hear amazing excuses, like “I’m dying to read your book, but I’m so busy, I can never get to a bookstore. Some of us have real jobs, you know.”

After three years, this one gets a little frail, especially from your former college roommate, who works at the Starbucks counter in her local Barnes and Noble.

And there’s the pal who says, “I tried to get through your story in Another Realm, but it just didn't interest me.” You wince and say—“But you love zombies. Didn’t you like it when the heroine walked into the schoolroom full of zombie first-graders?” Your friend gets huffy and says “I couldn’t get that far…”

The zombie 6-year-olds are in paragraph one.

And how many people do you know who endlessly email you silly poems, cartoons and videos—accompanied by dire threats to your karma if you don’t pass these treasures on to 150 of your closest friends? But when you tell them you’ve just posted a great joke on your blog they say—“I never read blogs. They’re such a waste of time.”

Or how about this one: “I never read fiction. I can’t waste my time reading frivolous stuff. I want to learn something when I read.” I had a boyfriend who loved to say this—until I caught him reading that great fiction publication, the National Enquirer. Novels are still with me. He isn’t.

And there’s my personal favorite: somebody who hasn’t read any of your work recommends something by another author in your genre—“so you can see how a pro does it.”

And these people are so surprised when you’re annoyed.

So where does this nastiness come from?

1) Stifled creativity. In her classic creativity manual, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about “crazymakers”—friends and family who actively thwart your creative process. She says the most common reason for this is their own fear: crazymakers are desperate to create something themselves, but they’re scared. So instead they make life miserable for those who do.

Try encouraging your stifled friend to take a pottery class, or try his hand at jewelry making.

2) Fear you think you’re better than they are. Even though you’re both still waiting tables at Applebees, you’re a WRITER now. She’s still a waitress.

Time to remind her how much you’re in awe of her bowling skills. And maybe educate her in the realities of the writing life. Let her know your advance is already gone, paying off the bills you racked up while you were learning to write.

3) Narcissism. Some people simply can’t share the spotlight. This type is probably in your life because you so often sit quietly in the corner not saying much. He thought this was because you were admiring his wonderfulness. Now he realizes you were taking notes for your novel.

It might be best to let these people drift out of your life. There will always be more, if you need novel-fodder.

4) They miss you. You’ve been working on that book for five years, plus doing the rewrites and pre-launch networking, then planning your big publicity campaign, and of course, starting your next opus.

It might be time to take your friend to dinner and reassure him that writing isn’t the only important thing in your life.


And we need to remember that some people really don’t like to read. Feel sad for them. Very sad.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

88-YEAR OLD SELLS FIRST MYSTERY NOVEL!

You know how everybody keeps telling you to keep sending out those queries in spite of all the rejection? How it pays to persevere? And the only way to fail is to give up trying?

Now I have proof they’re right. You’re never too old for success.

My nearly 89-year-old mother, Shirley S. Allen, had her first mystery novel, Academic Body, published this week by Mainly Murder Press.

MMP is a small, independent press that specializes in traditional mysteries set in New England. I first heard about them through my Sisters in Crime newsletter. (Thanks, Sue McGinty of Central Coast Sisters!)

I passed the information on to my mom, who had been working on a cozy set in a New England college town. After she finished her final draft last September, she got herself a website (required, according to MMP guidelines) and sent off her query. Within weeks the enthusiastic editors asked for the full manuscript, and by mid-November they sent a contract. They asked for a few edits, but nothing major, and even allowed author input on the cover (and a few suggestions from pushy offspring.)

On March 15th the book was officially launched. That’s a little more than six months from query to publication. Try that with a big-name press!

My mom started writing Academic Body over thirty years ago, when she was teaching English at the University of Connecticut. When she retired from full-time teaching, she polished the book with the help of a critique group, then started attending writers’ conferences, querying agents and entering contests. She placed in several contests, including Minotaur’s Malice Domestic but finally got discouraged after endless agent rejections.

But last year my sister and I urged her to give her book another chance. After several attempts to update it to the technological era, she decided instead to set it back in time to the 1960s. Since anything set fifty years or more in the past is officially “historical,” I pointed out she would have a historical mystery—a popular genre, and one MMP was looking for. She threw herself into the revisions, and had the manuscript ready when the submissions window opened (MMP only accepts submissions three months out of the year.)

So if you’re getting discouraged by rejections that say, “I love this, but where are the zombies?” or “Beautifully written, but it won’t appeal to the 18-30 year old demographic,” or “What, you couldn’t put in a couple of vampires? Or even a small troll?” you might consider a small press instead of the agent/big publisher route.

Of course, small publishers like Mainly Murder don’t usually pay advances. But they DO pay royalties—often a higher percentage than big publishers. They expect you to do most of your own promotion, but so do big publishers these days. And there are advantages like the ones my mom found: speedy publication, more creative input, and friendly communication in all aspects of the process. And if you’re a mystery writer, take note: traditional mysteries like Academic Body often do better with a regional or niche press than they do with big conglomerates.

And best of all, you don’t need an agent to submit. Just start searching for small presses in Writers Market, or join an organization that vets publishers in your genre, like Sisters in Crime, MWA, SFWA or RWA.

Mainly Murder is a new press—only a year old—so you won’t find it listed at Preditors and Editors or any of the other sites that you’d normally want to check before signing with a publisher. But they are a solid company who charge no fees for editing, printing or cover design. They use POD technology, as do most small publishers, but their books are available through Amazon and other online book outlets, and well as brick and mortar book stores (distributed through Ingram.) They also leave your ebook rights with you.

If you decide to go with a small press, do make sure they have good distribution and no hidden fees before you sign, and make sure they’re not listed on Writer Beware’s Two Thumbs Down list of less than honest publishers.

Then you might find a publisher, too—and you don’t have to wait until you’re nearly ninety.

Did I mention that Academic Body is a great book? It’s an exciting, elegantly plotted read for anybody who loves a traditional mystery. The charming sleuths are a couple of fish-out-of-water New Yorkers of the MadMen era trying to fit into small town life in rural Maine—as well as survive the often down-and-dirty politics of academia. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble (where they are offering a great limited-time price) or at the Mainly Murder Press website.

Congratulations, Mom!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

TEN WAYS NOT TO START YOUR NOVEL

First, completely off topic here, I’d like to say—after stumbling out of bed an hour early and changing the time on all 30 of my clocks, electronic devices and watches—that Daylight Savings Time is WAY more trouble than it used to be, because we all own so many time pieces. The folks who thought this up did not have clocks on their coffee pots. And our internal clocks are a bigger problem: we now know that changing sleep patterns weakens the immune system. Besides, we all should have CFL bulbs by now, so how much energy are we saving? I think the time has come to go back to all-year, nature-based time keeping.

OK. Rant over. Now to today’s topic:

FIRST PAGE NO-NOS

When we start writing fiction or memoir, some ideas seem to come to us logically and naturally. Unfortunately, the same ideas come logically and naturally to everybody, which means slush readers see the same stuff a hundred times a week. I read a lot of tweets and blogposts from agents and editors complaining about hackneyed openings.

Here are some starting scenes they’re bored with:

1) Weather reports: the famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night” may keep contemporary audiences aware of Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, but not in a good way.

2) Morning wake-ups: waking from a dream or getting ready for work/school hits the snooze button for your readers.

3) Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.

4) Funerals: Writer’s Digest’s Jane Friedman recently blogged about this. Apparently a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement.

5) "If only I’d known…" or "If I hadn't been..." starting with the conditional perfect may seem clever to you, but unfortunately it does to a lot of other writers, too.

6) Personal introductions: starting with "my name is…" has been overdone, especially in YA.

7) Dialogue: introduce your characters first—before they start blabbering—so we have a reason to care what they say.

8) Group activites: don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters right off the bat. It’s like meeting a bunch of people at a cocktail party: you don’t remember anybody’s name if you hear too many at once.

9) Internal monologue: don’t muse. It’s boring. Bring in backstory later.

10) Too much action: Who knew? They keep telling us to start with action, action, action, but in another post Jane Friedman says this is bad advice. She says without introducing a character first, your scene “has no center.” The reader doesn’t know who to root for. We need to be emotionally engaged with a character before we care how many trolls he slays.

I admit to having used most of these openings in a work of fiction at some point or other, and I’ve seen them all in published novels. I guess that’s the problem: we tend to copy the successful books out there, and don’t realize that everybody else is doing the same thing.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

FICTION VS. NONFICTION

I’ve noticed I get a lot more comments here when I write about fiction than nonfiction. And I’m more interested in fiction too. But we’re in the minority. We live in an increasingly “reality” obsessed world.

In fact, faux memoir has become something of a mainstay in the publishing business, and fake “misery lit” now has its own page at Wikipedia. But in all the discussion of forged substance abuse/holocaust/ethnic minority memoirs, not a lot of talk focuses on the sad truth that fiction writers felt they had to pass off their work as nonfiction in order to sell it.

Even though James Frey wrote what a lot of folks agreed was a heart-stopping read with A Million Little Pieces, chances are slim he would have become an overnight celebrity if he’d called it a novel.

And even after his disgrace, Mr. Frey has a solid writing career. Maybe I should have tried to pass my romantic comedies off as memoirs, too: “Chanel at the Fence” perhaps, or “A Million Bad Dates with Guys Who Look Like Hugh Grant.” When the Smoking Gun found out I was really an old hippie chick who couldn’t walk three feet in a pair of Manolos, I still would have had name recognition.

The truth is that despite the occasional publishing phenomena like Dan Brown’s conspiracy theories and sagas of angsty high school vampires and wizards, most bestselling books are nonfiction.

And this isn’t just true of the book industry. Look at the Oscars: would Sandra Bullock have even been nominated for The Blind Side if she hadn’t portrayed a real woman? And how many awards go to actors who portray real celebrities like Ray Charles, Katherine Hepburn, Truman Capote, Johnny Cash, etc. in all those biopics? One actor friend, more than a bit annoyed by this phenomenon, suggests that the Academy establish separate categories for impersonating and actually acting.

Then of course there is the phenomenon of “Reality TV.” Today people are more entertained by a bunch of Z-list celebrities clunking through dance routines in embarrassing costumes than by anything resembling a story. Even popular dramas like the CSI franchise chug along with wooden dialogue and tired plotlines, relying for their thrills on real-life footage of rotting pig corpses and/or somebody’s colonoscopy.

Have we become like the circus audiences of ancient Rome, so jaded that we can only be amused by witnessing real-time human suffering?

Fiction was once our most effective voice for social and political truths. Abraham Lincoln accused Harriet Beecher Stowe of starting the Civil War with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And novelists like Charles Dickens and Sinclair Lewis alerted the world to wrongs and changed the fabric of society.

But in a market like ours, I suppose Mrs. Stowe would need to claim she “just growed” in Uncle Tom’s cabin herownself—maybe before suffering from that strange skin-whitening disease that so tragically attacked Michael Jackson. Instead of Oliver Twist or Main Street, we’d have Charlie D’s painful memories of abuse in the bootblack factory, and “Red” Lewis’s personal confessions of debauched Gopher Prairie nights.

And I’ve got to admit I my own nonfiction reading has taken a bite out of my novel reading time, since most of what I read online at least purports to be nonfiction. And here you are reading this blog, which is pretty much reality-based (I swear.)

So what about it—are you reading more nonfiction than fiction these days?