books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Have Big Publishers Become a Bunch of Zombies?

I have a confession to make. My high school nickname was “Zombie.”

The moniker was intended as an insult, but I loved it. I dressed in black, dyed my hair a dead ash color and wore ghastly white lipstick. I was goth before goth was cool. My senior year, my family moved to a house next to the town’s graveyard and I’d ask guys to drop me off at the iron gates. When they asked where I really lived, I’d go all spooky. Silly fun.

But right now, I’m totally over zombies and all things undead.

Why?

1)     They stopped being funny. Zombies first hit mainstream American culture with a hilarious 1950s Calypso song about dancing zombies, with the chorus, “Back to back/belly to belly/I don’t give a damn ’cause it doesn’t matter really.” 

George Romero’s 1960s classic Night of the Living Dead was high camp for stoners. People didn’t watch it to identify with the suffering hero. They watched it to revel in its low-budget outrageousness.

The 2004 film Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite Britflix ever. It has the memorable line, “Just look at the face: it's vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who's lost a bet.”

But the other night I tried to watch The Walking Dead. I was equally bored and revolted. Realism ruins all the fun. You see one exploding zombie head, you’ve seen them all. And watching a little kid suffer as he locks his suddenly brain-eating mother out of the house is just icky. If I want high tragedy, I’ll re-read King Lear.

2)     Zombies are not worthy opponents. Once stories start getting realistic, you can’t help noticing zombies are REALLY stupid. And easy to kill. You shoot them in the head. A bunch of stuff splurts out. Next zombie, please.

3)     They’ve been overdone and “trended” to death. Like so many contemporary businesses, publishing companies have taken a fun quirky thing and ruined it by throwing too much of it at us, while limiting our other choices. (Like pastel plastic objects in the 1980s. Anybody old enough to remember when you couldn’t buy a dishpan or a toilet brush that wasn’t powder blue or mauve?)

So now even the best zombie yarns are going to be dated and embarrassing by next year. (Try finding a new mauve scrub bucket these days: I dare you.)

Recently, ZombieLit has been one of the few acceptable genres for debut fiction. Publisher’s Lunch is full of reports of zombieana getting six figures and/or seven-book deals, while mysteries, women’s fiction, and literary novels are a “hard sell”—and big, multi-generational mainstream sagas are deader than a headless corpse.

Publishers “don’t want to take chances in this economy,” and need to “play it safe.”

But what’s so safe about copy-catting, over-saturating and fad-chasing? Or ignoring your main customer demographic? (Most adult book-buyers are women over 45.)

And why does the basic truth that hot trends have a short shelf life come as such a devastating shock to marketing departments year after year? Didn’t they learn anything after killing off funny women’s fiction with the “chick lit” bubble? Or the soon-to-be-defunct vampire craze?

I just checked this week’s NYT lists and it’s entirely zombie-free. What I see is, um, mysteries, women’s fiction, and literary novels—plus a big, multi-generational mainstream saga by a 71-year-old debut author.

Book buyers didn’t get the memo.

Something seems pretty brain-dead here. 

As former agent Nathan Bransford said in an interview on Rachelle Gardner’s blog soon after he changed professions—

“It's mind-numbing how many times I've seen an editor get extremely excited about a book, only to get struck down when they try to get clearance to make an offer. And all the while, they're under tremendous pressure to make a splash and build their career, but how can they if they aren't allowed to take on the books they're most excited about? If ever there were a time to empower young editors and trust their instincts, it's now.”

Is it any wonder a new novelist can’t get a read from an agent? Agents can’t get reads from editors. Editors can’t buy new projects. It’s trickle-down zombification. The industry is eating its own brains.

With all this “playing it safe” going on, I find it annoying that a lot of writing websites are still partying like it’s 1999—telling writers that if you’re getting form rejections it’s always because something’s wrong with your work.

Because the message I’m picking up here is: it’s not you; it’s them. If your work is entertaining, creative, and polished, and your query has been edited to three perfect paragraphs—but you’re still getting silent and/or one-line rejections—maybe it’s because agents and editors are brainlessly ignoring everything but the current fad.

Maybe it’s NOT because your book sux.

Nathan’s not the only insider who’s let us know things are kind of dysfunctional in the book business. Right after the mass-firings/pay freezes in 2008, a number of agents and editors sounded off about nasty, snarky editorial meetings—which seemed more like episodes of Gossip Girl than meetings of the intellectual elite. One can only assume they’ve become even more vicious as the bloodied survivors fight over the festering remains of the industry.

Does this mean we should all give up writing and start working on something more promising, like thinking up new and creative uses for dryer lint?

Nathan doesn’t seem to think so. He says, “as long as there are people reading books there will be publishers to publish them, authors to write them, and agents trying to get the authors the best deal possible.”

But he doesn’t say they will be the same publishers who now command the industry. The result of all this nonsense may be the reign of the Big Six houses will finally come to an end, and a bunch of smaller, more nimble publishers will drive the industry. Publisher’s Weekly reports even some A-listers like Pulitzer winner Alice Walker (The Color Purple) are moving to independent presses.

The road ahead looks rocky and uncertain for people in all aspects of the business, but maybe, in the end, it will lead to a more alive, fresh future for us all.

And zombie stories can be fun again.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Careful, or You’ll End up in My Novel

That’s the message on a T-shirt I see at writers’ conferences a lot. Apparently it’s been a popular item in the Signals Catalogue for years. 

It’s interesting that most writers I’ve met who wear them say the shirt was a gift from a friend or family member. I can’t help wondering if those gift-givers weren’t expressing their own anxiety. A lot of people presume all novels are thinly disguised autobiography.

But the truth is, most fiction writers don’t like to write about real stuff. If we did, we’d be writing nonfiction, which pays better.

OK, I have to admit I’ve tried to skewer a few real people in my fiction, but it never works. The character always takes over and makes herself sympathetic, and/or entirely different from the person on whom I tried to perpetrate my literary revenge.  

That’s because novelists can’t help making things up. It’s what we do.

As John Steinbeck said— “I have tried to keep diaries, but they didn’t work out because of the necessity to be honest.”

But a lot of non-writers don’t seem to get this.

I discovered that with my very first published fiction piece—a story I wrote for the newspaper of a new high school. It was a silly story about how a football team lost when a school was divided by squabbles between the team and the pep squad. The satire was so ham-handed, I called the protagonists Joe Jock and Cherry Cheerleader.

I’d been at the school such a short time, I didn’t even know there was a cheerleader named Sherry dating/squabbling with a football player named Joe.

After my story came out, Sherry accosted me in homeroom and said—

“I hope you’re happy. Joey and me broke up.”

I sat in stunned silence. No cheerleader had ever even spoken to me—and I had no idea what she was talking about.

She went on to accuse me of listening in on her private conversations. Then, as she flounced away, she said—“Anyway, I'm nothing like the girl in that story. I am not blonde; I’d never hold a bake sale; and I don’t have freckles.”

She was accusing me of both writing about her and NOT writing about her.

Things like this have continued to happen throughout my writing career. Like the time I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. She asked me about my writing and I sent her my latest manuscript. When she finished it, she phoned me in tears.

“You’ve written my whole life here,” she said. “I work at a place just like this. My husband left me in the same horrible way. He said the exact same things. How did you know?”

I didn’t, of course. I’d made it all up—pure fiction.

It happened again in a critique meeting this week. I read a scene that revealed the antagonist’s abusive childhood. One member said, when he finished his critique:

“You pretty much described my own childhood there.”

He wasn’t angry. As a fellow fiction writer, he was praising me for tapping into an archetypal human experience and expressing it in a way that related to his own.

In fact, nobody except Sherry the Cheerleader has ever expressed anger after “recognizing” themselves in my fiction. (And you’ll be happy to know she and Joe got back together.) Most people understand the similarities are coincidental—and they come from the Collective Unconscious that all writers tap into when we create.

But what if it’s not coincidence? What if something a friend has told you about his past wanders into your fiction? Or a character resembles someone you know?

“That awful mother is supposed to be me, is it?” says your mom, looking teary.

“Of course not,” you say. “It’s fiction.”

Although maybe, now that you think of it, the bad mom is a little like your mother when she first started getting those hot flashes…but no, Bad Mom is more like your childhood friend’s mean Aunt Harriet. Yes, definitely there’s some Harriet in there. Funny, you never thought about her when you were writing the novel, but there she is, saying those mean Aunt Harriet things.

Do you owe Aunt Harriet an apology? Should you find out if she’s still alive and ask permission to put her nasty remarks in your novel?

I don’t think so. We can’t be expected to keep our memories out of our fiction. As Isabel Allende says, “writing is a journey into memory.” What does your imagination draw on but what’s in your memory banks? 

What a fiction or poetry writer does is take tiny fragments of memory and make an original mosaic that is “the lie that tells the truth.”

But not everybody understands this. The wonderful writer Catherine Ryan Hyde has recently been attacked for “stealing the life” of an estranged relative in her new YA novel, Jumpstart the World--as well as “getting it all wrong."  Just the way I did with Cherry Cheerleader.

And I’ve been cyberstalked recently after an offhand comment on an agent’s blog about an unfortunate man who thinks a line of poetry by a famous poet “proves” said poet has participated in animal cruelty.

This guy also “proves” on his website that I am an evil person because I advise writers to “activate your inner sadist. Never let your characters get what they need. Throw as many obstacles into their path as possible. Hurt them. Maim them. Give them cruel parents and girlfriends who are preparing to kill them for alien lizard food.”

Yeah, if I was talking about doing those things to real people, I’d be pretty rotten. Especially about feeding them to alien lizards.

These two incidents have reminded me that some people really do assume every written word is intended to be a solid, concrete fact. Irony, fantasy, metaphor, hyperbole, whimsy, and humor are incomprehensible to them.

It’s not their fault, and I shouldn’t have scoffed at the unfortunate man.

Instead I should have directed him to the works of the brain-chemistry pioneer Dr. Temple Grandin, who explains to the rest of us how autistic minds work, and why they are essential to our survival as a species. People with this kind of brain can’t “read” people or understand non-literal communication. They need to stay far, far away from poetry and fiction. Not that they miss it. Dr. Grandin says anything about nuances of emotion bores her silly.

So, for the people who don’t understand the nature of fiction, I’m wondering if maybe writers shouldn’t Mirandize everybody we meet. Shake hands and say—"I’m a novelist. Anything you say can be taken down and used against you in a work of fiction.”

And we should probably all stock up on those T-shirts.

What about you? Have any of you had an experience where the product of your imagination seemed to mimic real life? Did people get miffed?

Another Award!

Simon Kerwin just passed this award on to me.--the Hard Writer's award. Thanks, Simon!



I'm going to pass it on to these hard-working bloggers who are fellow fighters against the Virus from Hell

Kittie Howard at The Block
Meghan Ward at Writerland
Samuel Park at  Daily Pep for Writers

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Smiley Award

Kittie Howard has given me a Smiles award. I hope she gets over her Virus from Hell. I seem to finally be emerging from mine.



I'm going to pass the smiles on to: 


Sunday, January 16, 2011

How To Blog—Codicil: What Happens to Your Blog When You’re Dead?

I’ve got to admit that having the Virus that Will Not Die has been taking my thoughts to morbid places. And I think a lot of us may have been dealing with dark thoughts as our emotions process recent disasters—especially the senseless tragedy in Tucson.

I notice the first thing we do when somebody commits mass murder these days is look at his social network sites. With good reason—the murderers usually have posted something suitably creepy to feed the media’s curiosity.

But what if you did NOT get up this morning planning to make yourself famous by doing something so despicable that people couldn’t ignore you any more? What if you’re one of the victims? Or you get hit by a random truck?

Or what if, at the age of 34, you go to sleep and have a heart attack and don’t wake up, like blogger Mac Tonnies did last year? What happens to your social network sites then?

And—what happens to your blog?

According to the New York Times, on October18, 2009, Mr. Tonnies updated his blog, went to bed and died of cardiac arrhythmia. His blog, Posthuman Blues, is still just as he left it. The thread of comments is heartbreaking—first expressions of annoyance from his regular followers about his lack of updates, then rumors, then the death announcement, then poignant memorials, then…spam.

Without his password, nobody can delete it, and his cyber remains may hang in limbo for years.

I’m not the first person who has worried about this. The subject of our cyber legacies is addressed by Evan Carroll and John Romano in their 2010 book, Your Digital Afterlife. They also have lots of valuable information at their site, the Digital Beyond. They have pressured networks like Facebook and Twitter to put mechanisms in place for heirs to present a memorial and/or delete an account by sending administrators a death certificate.

Adele McAlear is another blogger who focuses on the electronic remains the modern human leaves behind. On her blog, Death and Digital Legacy she notes over 200,000 Facebook members die every year and most survivors are unprepared to deal with contacting cyber-friends or deleting the account. She offers excellent tips on how heirs can deal with Facebook and Twitter, as well as Flickr and other photo-storing sites.

But I haven’t found anything that directly addresses the problem of blogs. So far, there’s no standardized system for dealing with our blogs once we’ve gone home to the Great Social Network in the Sky. That means that unless you’ve got a designated blog executor, your blog could hang forever in cyberspace, untended—attracting endless invitations to meet hot Russian women and enlarge your penis.

That’s why I’ve just asked a writer friend in my critique group to be my blog executor and care for this blog in case I’m suddenly done in by the Virus that Will Not Die, a surfeit of iceberg lettuce—or one of the random maniacs the US gun industry likes to keep armed to the teeth.

I’m suggesting that all bloggers do the same: designate a blog executor—right now.

Yes, now. While you’re thinking about it. Don’t just hope your Luddite parents or spouse will know what to do. Give your username and password to a trusted, blog-savvy friend who can post a death notice and leave it up long enough for followers to express their grief—and then take it down or tend to it regularly.

If you’re in the query process, it’s also a good idea to let your blog executor know where to find the list of your outstanding requested manuscripts and story submissions. A quick email to the agents or editors who are reading your material would not only be kind, but it might even make it possible for your story or book to be published posthumously. (If we can judge by Steig Larssen’s phenomenal success, being deceased might even be a good career move.)

Nobody likes to think about suddenly shuffling off one’s mortal coil, but it’s not a bad idea to have some plans in place. I figure it’s like carrying an umbrella. It always seems more likely to rain when I don’t have one.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Stylish Blogger Award

I've just been awarded The Stylish Blogger Award by sci-fi blogger Alex J Cavanaugh ! 















Rules:
1. Thank and link back to the person who gave you the award... thanks Alex! 
2. Share 7 things about yourself
3. Pass the award on.


7 Things About Me
1) I still have an awful cold
2) I read 7 New Yorkers yesterday, but the pile doesn't seem to get any smaller.
3) I sort of hate the NYT Book Review, but I read it faithfully.
4) I still pay for TV, but I'm going to give it up next month. Really.
5) I'm starting to find Glee annoying.
6) I'm secretly fond of iceberg lettuce.
7) I have at least ten pairs of shoes I can't take a step in, but I won't get rid of them. 
I'm going to pass the award on to
Sierra Godfrey
Elaine EM Smith
Anne Gallagher

Sunday, January 9, 2011

5 Essential Tips on Self-Editing from Catherine Ryan Hyde

While I’m in bed, sick as a Schnauzer, be-virused and ensnotified, and my brain seems to have gone on a journey somewhere far, far away, one of my favorite authors, Catherine Ryan Hyde, has kindly offered to Pay It Forward with a guest post.

Some Notes on Self-Editing
by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I’ll open with the words of cartoonist Joe Martin, creator of the Mr. Boffo comics—

“Pay attention to detail: the five most important words in business.”

If you’re wondering why that’s funny, you need some tips on finding flaws in your own manuscript.  And you probably need someone else to double-check your work.  But don’t feel bad, because we pretty much all do.

Years ago I was rereading a short story of mine, which contained the following line:

 “In the morning she photographed Vincent making coffee in his boxer shorts.” 

Now, I had already read that line dozens of times.  And nothing had struck me as out of place.  But on that last reading, something broke through.  It was…laughter.  I began to laugh uncontrollably.  Real hurt-your-ribs kind of stuff.  And I said, out loud (when able), “Why doesn’t Vincent just use a paper filter like everybody else?”

“In the morning she photographed Vincent in his boxer shorts, making coffee.” 

That’s what I had meant to say.

Unfortunately, you are the author.  And you know what you meant to say.  Ergo, you are the least qualified person on the planet to judge whether you are saying what you meant to say.

I have no magic bullet to remedy this special form of blindness.  If I did, I’d be a rich author, indeed.  But here are a few helpful hints.

1). Always use spellcheck but never rely on it.  Do an editing run-through dedicated to the errors spell-check won’t catch.  Look at every “through” and “though,” and pay special attention to “it’s” and its,” and…well…I could go on, but you get the idea.

 2). Try the proofreader’s trick of reading one sentence at a time, starting with the last one at the end of the page and working backwards.  It helps you not to get caught up in content when you mean to study form.

3). Create your own “search list.”  Pay close attention to the errors that are pointed out in your critique group, or by your beta readers.  If they note that you’ve misused a semi-colon or put your punctuation on the wrong side of the quote marks, make a list of these shaky areas.  Then open the manuscript file and do a series of computer searches.  Enter a semi-colon in the search field.  It will stop at each semi-colon, one at a time, allowing you to check its usage.  Then move on to search a quote mark followed by a comma or a period.  I guarantee you, your eye will miss instances of the error.  I guarantee you, the computer will not.

4). Read your work out loud, slowly, to a friend, or, better yet, have them read it to you.  No friends, or friends out of patience?  I know.  I empathize.  You’re a writer.  It comes with the territory.  Read it into a recording device.  Read slowly, and read it exactly as it appears on the page, pausing where there is a comma, not pausing where there is not.  See if it comes out the way you thought it would.

5). Give up and seek help.  No one ever said writing could be accomplished as a solo flight.  A helpful member of your critique group can be quietly enlisted.  You can arrange a trade.  You will do a great job editing his or her manuscript for obvious errors, and he or she will do a bang-up job on yours.  It’s just one of the many unwelcome truths in the life of an author: it really helps when the page is not fully memorized.

One of the best self-editing strategies you can develop is more an attitude than an actual technique.  Take pride in the cleanliness and correctness of your manuscript.  Imagine that you are preparing for a job interview, and that you want this job more than you’ve ever wanted a job in your life.  Prepare your manuscript the way you’d prepare yourself for that interview. 

The sneakers with the holes in the toes won’t do.

Maybe that seems unfair to you.  After all, it should be about whether or not you can do the job.  You’re qualified.  So why should your sneakers matter?

What if 200 fully qualified applicants show up to apply for one opening?  Then the choices boil down to more subjective factors.  And the applicant in the clean, un-holey shoes is showing better judgment, more desire for the job, and a good overall personal ethic.
 
But it’s up to you.  Just ask yourself how much you want this job and go from there.

************

Catherine Ryan Hyde’s latest novel is the fantastic JUMPSTART THE WORLD  which has been called one of the four best YA books of 2010 by the winner of the “Best Kidlit Book Blog,” award, There’s a Book by blogger "1st Daughter."

And if you’ve got a ms. ready for the editing process, you’re in luck—because Catherine is offering manuscript evaluations for a limited time. For a very reasonable fee, she will evaluate your first 30-50 pages and give suggestions for further self-editing. Contact her for details at ryanhyde@sbcglobal.net .  

Thanks Catherine!



Sunday, January 2, 2011

Why Not Celebrate the SUMMER SOLSTICE Instead of the Winter One? Let’s replace Dickens with Shakespeare.

Charles Dickens has a lot to answer for. With the publication of his Christmas Carol in 1843, he single-handedly made Christmas our biggest cultural holiday. Before the debut of his (self-published) little novella, celebration of the holiday had all but died out in Anglo-Saxon Christendom. The pen is powerful indeed.

A Christmas Carol revived the custom of taking the day off work, gathering for big family feasts and getting generous with gifts—remnants of an ancient pagan Solstice celebration which had been meshed with the Nativity story by some very clever Early Christian Marketers.

It was a great idea in Dickens day. People were stuck in their houses and villages and it gave everybody a chance to gather for some convivial cheer at the darkest time of year.

But I think Mr. Dickens and those early Christians would be appalled to see what the holiday has become. Every year it gets worse: travelers stranded at airports for days...buried in snowdrifts while trying to buy last minute gifts or that extra can of Ocean Spray… imprisoned in grounded airplanes with nothing to eat but rationed packets of Cheez-Its.

All in the middle of flu season. (…she writes after taking another swig of DayQuill.)

OK, Aussies, Kiwis and other inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere: you can ignore this rant or read on and chortle.

But seriously, Northern Hemispherians, what’s up with setting our biggest travel-holiday at the time of year when we can count on the worst travel conditions?

It’s not really about Jesus, is it? There’s nothing in the Bible about Jesus making his fleshly debut in December. And we know for sure this event did not happen in a place with a lot of snow. Or holly, mistletoe, reindeer, or bearded white guys in furry outfits.

The bearded white guy who was first reputed to reward good children and admonish the bad ones at the winter solstice was a Norse deity called Odin (or Woden or Wotan—whatever you want to call the Wednesday god-guy.) And the rituals involving holly and mistletoe and pointy evergreen trees? Kind of more Druidish than Judeo-Christian.

So do we really need to go through all this suffering to honor a Teutonic war god who slithered down chimneys to put anthracite in the footwear of bad little Vikings?

Not that the Christmas/Druid holiday hasn’t had a good run. But now we’ve got wildly scattered families. And climate change. And sadistically dysfunctional air travel.

So I’m going to suggest a change of authors. Boot Charles Dickens in favor of William Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have our big yearly celebration at the SUMMER SOLSTICE—Midsummer’s Night?

OK, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t as heartwarming as the Scrooge tale, but who needs warming in the middle of June?

Wouldn’t it be more fun to go home and visit Mom and Dad in the summertime? To barbeque that turkey on a backyard grill? Inspired by the Bard, you could decorate the front yard with inflatable Bottoms, Rude Mechanicals, and any number of sparkly fairies.

Maybe Puck could pop down our chimneys and leave gifts under the potted palm, which could be adorned with little surfboards and beach balls and those lights shaped like chili peppers.

We could still conduct the same kind of retail frenzy, since that seems to be necessary to the well-being of our economic system, but we could shop on safe, sunshiny streets, with evening light to choose them by.

Or maybe we need another story altogether. What about it, writers? Anybody up for writing some Summer Solstice tales and carols? About Rudolf the Red-Nosed Surfer, maybe? Or Frosty the Slushy Man? Hark the Herald Fairies Sing?

If Dickens could write a novel that created our biggest holiday, maybe one of you can write the book that will give us a new celebration that will fit better with our times.

An awful lot of cranky travelers and flu-sufferers would be very, very grateful.

***********

For those of you who still haven’t made your New Year’s resolutions—or even if you have—I recommend reading a great piece by Catherine Ryan Hyde at AOLNews Closing the Happiness Gap  I’m going to follow her suggestions myself and resolve to be happier this year.

And if your own resolutions include a final edit to your manuscript so you can start sending that puppy out, Catherine is offering manuscript evaluations for a limited time—a little bit of her own Paying it Forward. For a very reasonable fee, she will evaluate your first 30-50 pages and give suggestions for further self-editing. Contact her for details at ryanhyde@sbcglobal.net .