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A Dubious Fascination: Culture as Commodity

Recently, on a writer’s forum that I moderate, someone asked the very salient question, “how can you tell the difference between having an interest or enthusiasm for another culture, and fetishizing that culture?” I myself have had some experience with straddling the lines that exist between consumption, appreciation, and experience, and have enough to say on the topic to fill multiple articles, but first, some context.

I moved to China when I was twenty-three years old after spending four years in university learning first Japanese and then Mandarin Chinese. I took my first Japanese class in high school, and at that point I certainly had no deep understanding of Japanese culture. My desire to learn Asian languages was driven mostly by a desire to do something different. Plus, I’d run out of Spanish classes to take by my senior year in high school but foreign language had always been my best subject. Doing a year without studying a language seemed inconceivable, so I chose Japanese. If they’d offered Vietnamese or Arabic or Igbo, I’d certainly just as soon have taken those. I wanted to learn something that wasn’t the usual Spanish French and occasionally German that my peers were all learning.

As a teenager and young college student I certainly engaged in some degree of fetishization. I was consuming foreign cultures as if they were the cure to that mid-90s suburban boredom that I felt so keenly as a teenager. Heck, eager for a break in the monotony, I even heckled my parents until they agreed to let us host a Japanese exchange student for a year. I took a trip to Japan after winning an essay contest, and I took first prize in the Japanese speech competition, and learned to like Japanese food, music, and dramas (I never did get into anime, however).  And when the Japanese language lost its luster for me, I turned to Chinese. It wasn’t until much much later, after living in China for close to two decades, that I was able to see my past behaviors as problematic. By that time I’d long since ceased being “fascinated” by my host culture. China was simply the place where I lived, and Chinese culture was the culture that I was living in — beloved, complex, often infuriating,  just like my own.

Realize that unless you immerse yourself in a culture (and sometimes you can do that, but other times, you can’t), your perceptions of that culture are usually largely based upon a commodified version of that culture, and in turn you treat that culture as product to be consumed. We must examine why we are “fascinated” by a culture, or the products of that culture. Is the fascination rooted in othering? Certainly, for teenage me, my desire for an escape from the monotony of American suburban culture, and my impulse to find that escape in Asian cultures was rooted in othering.  Usually when we speak of being fascinated by a foreign culture we mean we are fascinated because the culture is different in a way that we can enjoy from afar, and then set aside when we are through. It is treated as an expendable commodity, and the culture is made to serve us, rather than existing on its own, separate from our own perceptions and expectations of it.

Understand too that when you “other” a different culture, your implicit statement is that the culture is lesser than your own. It is something to enjoy, a pastime, but something that you ultimately set aside at the end of the day in favor of your own “superior” culture and its values. Think about the adjectives you might use to describe the other culture, and contrast them to the adjectives you would use to describe your own. Oftentimes this will reveal those implicit biases about those cultures. Do you call it exotic? Quaint? Fascinating? Colorful? Are the people humble? Generous? Kind?  How about the food? Is it an adventure? Crazy? While seemingly innocuous, those statements carry with them a distinct undertone of superiority. The message is “this is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay.” They tell us that this place is different from our own homeland, good for a diversion, but not suitable for those with more gentle tastes. This language of othering is extremely harmful, as are the attitudes which prop up the language. T

Of course, enjoying other cultures as commodities doesn’t make you an evil bad person. Many of us enjoy traveling, learning new languages, and experiencing new cultures. However, the impulse is not something that should go unexamined. Consider what you mean when you say that you appreciate a culture. Have you lived in that culture? Interacted meaningfully with people from that culture? Do all of your interactions involve consuming, and does that consumption benefit the culture itself? When possible, rather than seeking out surface level ways to interact with a culture, you should interact in a meaningful way that actually benefits the culture, or at the very least, does little harm. “Appreciating” Japanese culture by eating sushi or watching anime is not, on the surface, harmful, but nor are they really meaningful ways of engaging with Japan. If you like the commercial products produced by this culture then consider that perhaps you just like anime, or sushi, instead of claiming to appreciate Japanese culture.

I critiqued the work of a young man who was writing a Chinese-based fantasy and yet the entirety of his engagement with Chinese culture came from C-dramas. Still, he claimed to appreciate Chinese culture. It goes without saying that while he created a world that looked, on the outside, somewhat Chinese, it was at best a surface level replica. I found his world to be a pale imitation, something that shared at best some shallow similarities with ancient China. As it turned out, he enjoyed C-Dramas and particularly the aesthetic of long haired men in flowy robes, but knew little about actual Chinese culture. His China was a pre-packaged imitation China, not the real deal.

For us writers, this is a particularly important lesson to learn. Interacting with a culture in a non-harmful way goes beyond simply avoiding appropriating from said culture — writers must be mindful of how we engage with a culture on the page. Here is the kicker — you can do all of your research, treat the culture respectfully, engage with sensitivity readers and still have your work be based upon a version of the culture that does not exist except in the mind of the author as consumer. Writers in particular must be wary of borrowing from cultures they have merely consumed, rather than engaged with and experienced in a meaningful way.

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#PublishingPaidMe and the Industry’s Problem with Race

In the wake of the historical Black Lives Matter protests that sprung up following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, conversations about race began to take place in many industries, and publishing was not exempt.

Of the many discussions that emerged surrounding the racism that permeates the publishing industry (publishing as a whole is 76% white according to a study by Lee and Low ) was the discussion of author advances. An advance is the money that the publisher pays an author up front, before the book has sold any copies, as an advance against any royalties earned. Before an author can start receiving royalty checks, they must earn back their advance, which means that authors who receive high advances have to sell a lot more books before they start to see royalty money. Usually, advances can be seen as a mark of the publisher’s confidence in a book. A high advance indicates that the publisher is relatively certain that the book will make a substantial amount of money. Higher advances often, but not always, mean that the publisher will invest more effort in the marketing and promotion of the book.

Advances have long been a rather mysterious topic, with very little transparency regarding the specific amounts that authors can expect. Traditionally authors have been reluctant to disclose their exact amounts advance amounts, although it is relatively common to read press releases stating that so and so’s book sold at auction for “six figures.” Some authors actually have clauses worked into their contracts which state that they may not disclose the amount of their advance, whereas others simply feel uncomfortable, in a culture that treats discussion of salary as taboo (a norm that has long been used to perpetuate salary gaps in many industries), discussing their exact advance figures. However, given the current Black Lives Matter movement, many authors and allies felt like a conversation about the discrepancy in advances between Black and non-Black authors was long overdue.

Thus, author L.L. McKinney created the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe.

The purpose of the hashtag was to expose these discrepancies. McKinney emphasized that Black authors did not have to participate by disclosing their advances, but that non-Black authors should disclose their advances in order to help Black authors confront a wage gap that existed so far mostly anecdotally. The hashtag would provide actual numbers which would prove not only that the wage gap existed, but that it was pervasive. Armed with evidence of what their non-Black colleagues were being given in advance, Black writers would be in a better position to negotiate their own advances.

However, Black authors quickly began taking part, exposing massive discrepancies in advance numbers. One of the revelations that sparked the most consternation was Hugo award winning Black author N.K. Jemisin’s:

Many authors and readers found it completely unacceptable that an author of Jemisin’s caliber had received such low advances. But Jemisin wasn’t an outlier. A Google Docs spreadsheet was quickly compiled in order to create more solid and actionable data. The numbers were revealing. While genres varied, at the time of writing this, of 163 advances payments greater than or equal to $100,000, only 12 of those advances went to Black writers.

Clearly publishing, like many industries, suffers from a wage gap. Publishing seems unwilling to take the same risks on Black authors as it does on white authors. In fact, white authors are often given multiple chances and are still awarded second chances even after a first book flops, whereas Black writers often are given only one shot.  As many have pointed out, this discrepancy does not fall solely at the feet of agents and editors, but is also the responsibility of sales executives and even booksellers who see books by Black authors as a poor investment, this despite the fact that college educated Black women are the demographic most likely to read books.  The source of this misconception? Implicit biases among mostly white publishing professionals who assume that Black people are less likely to read books and that white readers will not pick up books featuring Black protagonists.

To show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the light it shed on the issues with the publishing industry, a group of more than 1000 publishing industry workers declared a day of solidarity and took a day off to protest against racial injustice and also vowed to donate a day’s pay fundraisers. In response, major publishing houses such as Penguin Random House acknowledged the problems with racism within the industry and vowed to foster more diversity within the company. They also promised anti-racist training for all staff members. Of course, only time will tell if these measures will make a difference, or if publishing houses are simply worried about the optics should they fail to make a bold statement in the midst of a global movement.

One thing is for certain, publishing has a race problem, and that problem reflects the larger culture of white supremacy that exists in all countries where the legacy of slavery and colonialism lives on. While efforts such as We Need Diverse Books and #DivPit have helped to mitigate the effects of racism upon the publishing industry, it is only through the complete eradication of white supremacist culture that the publishing industry, like all other industries and institutions in this country and others, can finally rid itself of the specter of racism. So while diversity training and education and earnest pledges to do better are a nice gestures, they will be ultimately meaningless unless white supremacist culture is dismantled once and for all.

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What White Writers Can Do

Activism can take many shapes. Some people take to the streets in protest, others donate to bail funds, still others choose to change the world by creating the works of art that shape our culture. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a writer, and, if you’re a white writer like me, you might be thinking about how you might best use your words to create change in the world. What can you, a white writer who wants to be actively anti-racist, do to make sure that you are not a part of the problem?

Recognize your privilege

Recognize that as a white writer you have benefited, from your earliest days, from white supremacy.  Even as a writer, you benefit from a publishing industry that is overwhelmingly white, which means that when you pitch your novel? Chances are the agents you pitch to look like you, share your experiences, and probably have some implicit biases in your favor. It means that your women’s literature book about two white sisters caring for their aging white mother, or your Game of Thrones medieval European fantasy, will not be considered a risk to publishers. No one is going to call your book weird or complain that the characters or setting are unfamiliar or confusing. No one will look at your book and think, “can we fit another white author on our list?”  Benefiting from white supremacy doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make those agents and editors bad people, but it means that you have an obligation, as a white person who wants to be part of the solution, to help dismantle those systems where you see them. Let go of your white fragility, of the knee-jerk reaction that is telling you “yes, but not me,” and remind yourself, “yes, even me.”

Boost BIPOC Voices

Instead of trying to write the definitive book on racism yourself, use your privilege to boost the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Of course, not all of us have massive platforms, but the size of your platform doesn’t particularly matter. A great place to signal boost is in pitch events, particularly #DivPit and #PitMad, the latter of which has a brand new hashtag associated with it, #BVM, for Black Voices Matter. You can signal boost the pitches of Black and other marginalized creators by commenting or retweeting (according to the rules of each event) the pitches you like. Remember, the agents and editors need to know that these pitches have broad appeal, and your voice can help those pitches get noticed. When you see people asking for book recommendations, don’t just recommend books by white authors — make a point of recommending books by marginalized creators. Promote writers of color on your platform — retweet, link, boost. Remember, writing is not a zero sum game. Boosting others doesn’t mean that you take away from your own work, and in fact, some of the most successful writers are known for lifting up their fellow writers, rather than just focusing solely on self promotion.

Don’t Speak over BIPOC

Sometimes the hardest thing for us white people to learn is when to sit back and listen. We are used to being heard, after all, and writers, especially, have chosen this mode of expression because we feel like we have something to say. And of course, this doesn’t mean we should shut up and say nothing, it simply means that sometimes we should let others do the talking, and know when it is our turn to sit back and listen. What it also means is that sometimes we need to understand that our thoughts and feelings are not always going to be the most important ones on each issue. I am in a group for freelance writers, and during the recent Black Lives Matter protests a white woman wanted to know where she might pitch an article about why being married to a BIPOC doesn’t absolve her from racism. The members of the group politely told her that while her article was surely well intended, her voice was not the voice that was needed right now. At a moment in history when the Black community is taking to the streets to protest Black people being brutally murdered by the police, we don’t need a navel gazing article by a white woman centering her experience of white privilege, we need to hear the voices of the Black people who have been impacted by white supremacy. Will there ever be a time and place for white people to muse about their struggles to be antiracist? Certainly. These types of articles have their place, but that place is definitely not in the middle of a national Black Lives Matter movement. Make sure you read the room.

Change Your Reading Habits

Similarly to boosting BIPOC voices, consuming more media created by BIPOC yourself is a way that you can make a difference, however small, by doing your part to normalize non-white content. You might need a deliberate effort at first, depending on how diverse your consumption already is, to read diverse books, or watch diverse shows. Make a personal commitment that for every book you purchase that is written by a white person, you’ll purchase another written by a BIPOC. There is so much great content out there, and if you’re only reading books by white writers not only are you perpetuating a kind of white hegemony in publishing, you’re missing out on a lot of really great books.

Donate Time, Energy, and Money

Probably one of the most helpful things you can do is to donate, either your money, or, if you are short on that, your time, to causes that help marginalized writers or BIPOC in general. Recently, industry professionals and experienced creators have been offering mentorships and query letter critiques for writers of color, a way to help combat the imbalance in the publishing industry. If you don’t feel like you’re qualified to personally offer help to BIPOC writers, try donating money to an organization such as We Need Diverse Books, the Diversity Fellowship of the Highlights Foundation, the Carl Brandon Society, or the Writers of Color scholarship fund at the Viable Paradise workshop. In a broader sense, get involved in grassroots organizations in your community,  and most importantly, campaign, volunteer for, and donate to candidates that will support BIPOC causes and fight against white supremacy.

Finally, Always Speak Up

This should go without saying, but unfortunately, it is easier to stay silent than to speak up, and as white people, we often choose the path of least resistance when it comes to activism. Now, I say this with the caveat that if you cannot speak up for mental health reasons, I trust that you know your limits, and I do not mean to shame you for them. That said, if you are able, and if you care about being a good ally to BIPOC, then of course you should always fight against white supremacy when you see it in person. It might be uncomfortable to speak up and tell Aunt Karen that her views on the nationwide protests are wrongheaded, but imagine how far beyond uncomfortable it is to be a Black person who must live in fear of being shot by the police. Put things in perspective, and if at all possible, speak up when you can. Rather than muttering “yikes” to yourself and moving on, take the opportunity to educate when you can, and condemning when you can’t educate. As writer, be a voice for change, rather than a fence sitter or a reactionary. Boycott problematic writers, refuse to query agents who are not supportive of BIPOC and movements such as Black Lives Matter, and choose agents and publishers that support diversity in publishing. As a white person, use your white privilege to effect greater change in both the publishing industry and the world in general, rather than hiding behind that privilege and allowing the status quo to continue unchecked.

Please add any resources in the comments section of this article, and I will edit the article to add them in. I welcome any comments, suggestions, and corrections. I too, strive to always do better.

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Social Media and the Writer

Conventional wisdom says that in the year 2020, social media is key to getting noticed, whether you’re an author or a musician or even an artist. The internet is full of people throwing around words like “platform” and “following,” but is a platform really neccessary if you want to be published? Does having a following on Twitter help an author sell books?

The answer, as with so many things, seems to be: it depends. A social media following certainly doesn’t seem to hurt certain authors. I only read Alexa Donne’s space romance The Stars We Steal because I watch her YouTube channel. I have picked up books because I came across recommendations in my Twitter feed, usually from authors who are mutuals (that is, two people who follow each other on a platform) with the author in question. I cannot say that social media unequivocally does not affect an author’s chances at publication or their future book sales. However, for every one of these authors, there are many successful authors with a minimal or even non-existent social media presence. Certainly genre factors heavily too — Young Adult fiction writers are notoriously prolific on social media, particularly Twitter. Adult historical fiction writers, perhaps not quite as much (my favorite historical fiction writer, Sharon K. Penman, keeps a Facebook page and a sporadically updated blog as the full extent of her social media presence and yet she still has managed a long and successful career. Each genre seems to have its own social media norms, but generally speaking, the younger your audience skews, the more important social media will be.

That said, avoiding social media altogether as an up and coming writer in 2020 is probably not a realistic game plan. Sharon K. Penman, who I mentioned above, started her career in the 1980s, and by the time social media was invented, much less widespread, she was already well established as a historical fiction writer. In 2020, however, a social media presence is expected. Not only do accounts on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram give potential agents an idea about your “platform,” perhaps more importantly they give an idea about what kind of person you are and what sort of content you engage with. Do you harass teenagers in the Harry Potter fandom and generally make a fool of yourself? Are you vocal about social issues? Do you interact positively with other writers, or are you antagonistic? These things might count for more than a high follower count, which, afterall, can be a poor mark of your overall reach as a writer.

So do numbers matter? Do you need Twitter followers in the tens of thousands to get published? Certainly not. I can think of dozens of professional published writers who have followings of fewer than 10k. I can name many writers with very high follower counts who gained those followers mainly through writers’ lifts and follow for follow games rather than through genuine interaction. My own personal Twitter following is modest, hovering between 2500-3000 followers, but my interactions are genuine, and when you scroll through my feed, you will get an immediate sense of what I am passionate about. I interact positively with my fellow writers, am vocal about the issues that are important to me. I am happy with my social media presence and do not feel pressured to inflate my follower count just for the sake of empty numbers. Genuine engagement will always make a bigger impression than numbers with no interaction to back them up.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to build a social media presence, but do it honestly. Do not stress about numbers. If you’re trying for traditional publication, you should probably be on the more popular social media platforms, but you don’t need to be a huge name with a massive following. Create a genuine following, avoid being antagonistic or overly edgy, at least on your main account, and try to interact positively in the writing community. Follow some writers and agents you admire, boost other writers during pitch events, join in conversations about what’s going on in the industry, and you might even start enjoying the process of creating your social media platform. At the very least, the process should feel less like a chore, and more like simply another step on the long road to becoming a published writer.

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Writing the Deed: Sex Scenes in Fiction

Eventually most writers will have to decide whether or to include sex scenes in their books, and if so, how to handle them. Sex scenes can be incredibly difficult to write well, to the point that while good ones can add chemistry and passion to an on-page pairing, terrible ones can ruin an otherwise good book.

Sex scenes or not?

Not all books need sex scenes, or even romance at all. A reader is just as capable of getting involved in a well written platonic friendship as in a romance, and most readers would prefer a well written friendship to a poorly written romance. Even the writer who does choose a romantic sub-plot, or even a romantic main plot, does not need to include the deed itself. Authors who feel uncomfortable or unable to write a gripping sex scene might consider writing a sweet romance. Also consider — are the characters in question underage? Harry Potter, for instance, includes romance, but considering the age of the characters and the target audience, actual sex scenes would have been in poor taste. As a rule, Middle Grades books should be sex-free, while Young Adult books run the gamut, with more chaste romances found in books like Yes, No, Maybe So, by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, or The Betrothed, by Kiera Cass. In those books the couples in question share kisses, but nothing much beyond that, aside from, of course, lots of mutual longing and angst.

The middle-ground: fade to black

“Fade to black” is a technique that borrows its name from cinematography, when the camera would cut away from a couple, or literally, fade to black, before a sex scene as a chance to get explicit. In writing, fade to black can include details of foreplay — kissing, touching, with the action usually staying above the waist — but will generally stop short of penetration or description of body parts below the waist. Many writers skillfully employ fade to black as a way to imply the sex act without having to write more graphic descriptions. Many YA and adult authors use fade to black as a sort of middle-ground. Holly Black’s Folk of the Air books for the most part have fade to black sex scenes, as does the Graceling series by Kristin Chashore. In adult fantasy Juliet Marillier and Robin McKinley both write great love stories and sex scenes that are either fade to black, or low on detail. Keep in mind that a fade to black sex scene does not have mean that it was written for your grandmother. Many authors subscribe to the less is more philosophy when it comes to sex, revealing just enough detail to excite the reader’s imagination, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps according to their own preference. Fade to black sex scenes should be treated as any other sex scenes, and if you want the scene to be sexy, rules of consent should apply. A person being forced or coerced into sex is not appealing outside of specific kink communities, and if you’re writing for those, you’ll know it.

Explicit detail

Finally, if you’ve decided to write a sex scene, you might decide to go for broke and make it explicit. Perhaps your book has a grittier setting, and the sex scenes are not meant to be pleasant, in which case brutal detail can bring home the cruelty of the act. Perhaps you do intend for the sex scenes to be sexy and romantic, and believe the more detail, the hotter the scene. Detailed sex scenes can be hot and passionate, but they can also quickly verge into cringe territory when writers try to get overly creative with their euphemisms. What reader of A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t remember Martin’s “fat pink mast” or “Myrish swamp?” Or Sarah J. Maas’ description in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series of her male lead’s “velvet wrapped steel?” There is something about sex scenes that turns authors all of a sudden into aspiring poets, and a cock is no longer just a cock.

Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, praised by many to have some of the best sex scenes in fiction, says in a blog post “A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids,” and goes on to elaborate that this can mean any emotion — not just love, but anger, sadness, tenderness, surprise, boredom, anything. She suggests that one of the most efficient ways to accomplish the exchange of emotions is through dialogue, so rather than describing a play by play of body parts, who put what where, your characters should speak to each other, talking through the sex scenes. Perhaps they talk about the act itself “tell me how much you want me” (and the benefit of your characters talking it through is that the consent is explicit) or perhaps they speak about their feelings for each other, or perhaps they use metaphor to talk around important issues.

Actions can also accomplish something similar. Does character A reach up and touch character B’s face during the act? Does he rake his nails down his partner’s back? Actions can express emotions too. Most readers do not care how large your character’s member is, or how pink another character’s nipples are. The details are matter are the details that anchor the sex act to the story emotionally. Painting a complete visual picture is less important to writing a compelling sex scene than is connecting the characters to the acts through their emotional reactions to the action.

Regardless of whether you choose to write fade to black or no sex scenes, of course make sure that you do not glorify rape or non consensual sex, and be extremely careful when depicting underage characters having sex. A rule of thumb is that teenagers having sex with other teenagers is generally acceptable and can be written in a healthy way, but teenagers having sex with a 500 year old immortal vampires is unhealthy and problematic. If you want to write problematic sex scenes — sex between the lord of the manor and a servant, for instance — make sure that you depict it as problematic.

Sex scenes can be a lot of fun, and certainly writers should not shy away from sex if they feel comfortable writing, but nor should a writer feel obligated to include sex scenes. However, if you do choose to take on detailed sex scenes, write with care, because while a good sex scene rarely makes or breaks a book, a cringey one, or worse, a problematic one, can easily poison the well of what is otherwise a good book.

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Twitter Pitching 101

Twitter is an invaluable tool for an aspiring writer. Not only can writers connect with each other through various hashtags such as #writingcommunity and #amwriting, but many agents and editors also hang out on Twitter, making it a great place to make industry connections and even pitch your manuscript. Throughout the year various pitch events take place on Twitter, in which agents and editors review submissions from writers and request manuscripts based upon what they see. Many authors have launched their careers after Twitter pitch events, but catching an agent’s eye with a 280 character tweet is not always easy.

Follow the rules

Whatever guidelines the pitch event has set, make sure that you follow them. Being unable to follow simple instructions will not endear you to an editor, so now is not the time to play fast and loose with the rules. If the rules say the pitch must fit inside one tweet, then fit it in one tweet. If the rules say no pictures, then do not include your mood board, no matter how cool it is. Most pitch events have very clear guidelines which are available online, so make sure you review the rules before you pitch.

Remember your goal

Your pitch is not a synopsis of your story, and you do not need to worry about including every detail. The most important thing is that you should grab the viewer’s interest, and make them curious enough to request an actual synopsis. What is the most intriguing thing about your manuscript? This recent pitch, which garnered some interest in the recent #DvPit event, for instance, starts with an intriguing hook that raises immediate questions:

“When Skjall accidentally shoots the daughter of the King, he finds himself thrown down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and blood rites. Now, he is caught between two feuding monarchs determined to destroy each other.”

Don’t be gimmicky

While I have seen gimmicky pitches work occasionally, in general, it is best to be professional and let your pitch speak for itself. Bullet lists, loads of emojis in place of words, pitches in verse — no matter what the gimmick is, agents have seen it before, and I promise they’ll be more impressed with a punchy pitch with a good hook than any attempts at being clever. If you have a strong concept, then gaining the attention of an agent or editor is really a matter of how you present it. You have 280 characters, so rather than wasting them on emojis, show off your skills. A pitch is a form of writing, and if you can’t write an intriguing tweet, how can industry professionals expect you to write a whole novel?

Comp your work

While comps are not required, they are often a good way of conveying a lot of information with a few words, and giving the reader an immediate feel for your manuscript. If possible, try to choose your comps from relatively recent publications, and avoid overly obvious comps, such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, which will read as laziness. The general consensus is that movies and even T.V. shows may be used in comps as well, but they should be relatively well known. Normally you should use two works that are relatively different in order to provide a contrast, or something unexpected. If I said, for instance, that I was writing a book that was a combination of The 100, which is a gritty YA Sci-Fi about a group of teens surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and The Selection, a romance about a prince’s competition for a royal bride, there is an element of unexpected to the pairing that an agent might find intriguing. Consider if I said I was writing a book that was The Selection meets The Royal We. While those two books are not really similar in detail, nor in setting, they are close enough in genre and theme that pairing them together as comps does nothing for the pitch.

Try different tactics

Most pitch events allow you to pitch several times throughout the day, so take that opportunity to rephrase your pitch and see which version lands. You may find that some agents are drawn to one version of the pitch, while others are drawn to another. Play around with the phrasing of your pitch and see which version is most effective. If you find one version is most effective, you might re-use that version, making slight changes only. This is usually not against the rules.

Pitch events throughout the year:

January: #SFFPit — an event for science fiction and fantasy pitches

February: #KissPitch — an event for romance and women’s fiction pitches

March, June, September, December: #PitMad — an open event for all unrepresented authors in all genres

April: #DvPit — an event for marginalized and underrepresented voices in publishing, all genres

 

 

 

 

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Am I Too Old to Publish?

Recently a young writer on Twitter lamented the fact that they were, perhaps, at thirty years old and still unpublished, too old to achieve their dream of becoming a published writer. The myth that a writer must publish in their 20s or risk being over the hill, too old, too irrelevant, is a pervasive one. Perhaps it is fueled by the popularity of Young Adult fiction, which would, perhaps, being catered towards young people, favor a more youthful voice. Perhaps it is simply authors’ networks on sites such as Twitter and Goodreads skew young, creating the overall impression that writers are being published at greater numbers in their 20s than in their 30s and 40s. Whatever it is, the myth of the young prodigy is just that, mostly a myth. If you are approaching 30, or, like me, 40, and haven’t been published yet, there are a great many reasons why you should not lose hope. In fact, sometimes being published later can even be better than being a young prodigy.

Writers get better with age

Wait, don’t roll your eyes at me yet; this is not the meaningless platitude that it sounds like. Whereas other creatives — painters, musicians, sculptors — can produce brilliant work while very young (call it a fluke of talent, or the genius of a prodigy), a novel relies far less on sheer talent and much more upon skill and experience. An inexperienced writer may hit upon a few brilliant lines, an entire poem, but the amount of brilliance required to create a truly brilliant novel is generally something that takes time. Now, let me add, before some 20-something takes offense, that of course great young talents do come along every now and then; however, the majority of us are going to need more time to hone our craft. With time we acquire not only more writing skills and techniques, we acquire lire experience. The “write what you know” adage can be fairly limiting if you’re 24 in ways that it will not be when you are 44.

You can publish too young

You are never too young to start writing, but I do firmly believe that you be too young to publish. I don’t believe there is any magic number, for it will vary from person to person, but if you publish before you are ready you may find yourself piegeonholed before you even really know yourself as a writer. The stuff you love at 25 might not actually what you wish to base your entire career on. Take the example of Terry Brooks, who was pigeonholed early on as a Tolkien clone and struggled for years to shake that label. If you publish before your skills are up to par you may also find yourself in the unenviable position of having published a dud. If your first book is a flop, or at best a mid-lister, will you be given a second chance? Perhaps. Some authors change agents, or even genres, and make a successful second go of it. However, there is no denying that it is much easier to keep momentum going than to regain lost momentum.  Think about those people you knew who were ultra successful in high school, but sort of fizzled out later in life. There is simply something to be said for the idea that success often sits more comfortably on the shoulders of those with a bit more experience and maturity.

Your capacity to accept criticism is better when you get older

Taking criticism can be hard. I read a Goodreads review recently in which the review writer mentioned how the young author whose book she was reviewing had a propensity for mentioning and calling out her negative Goodreads reviews in social media. This made the reviewer highly uncomfortable, feeling like if she spoke honestly, she was running the risk of being put on blast by someone with a larger following and more social capital than she, a regular person reviewing a book for other readers. While it can be hard, authors have a strong responsibility not to interact with their negative reviews, and to take criticism, provided it is  given in good faith, with grace. Grace, however, is often something that develops later in life (I myself was not a very gracious 25 year old). A young writer who finds themselves unable to handle criticism may alienate the very reviewers who are responsible for hyping a book and driving sales. On the other hand, praise can be a heady thing. The older we are, the more we learn to handle praise without allowing it to go to our heads. Young writers who get too used to lavish praise may find it harder to grow as writers, feeling like they have no reason to improve. While many authors will warn other writers, don’t read the reviews, ignoring reviews altogether takes a certain amount of self discipline that few young people have.

The myth is simply untrue

About 10 years ago writer Jim Hines did a survey of over 200 novelists and found that the average age at publication for an author’s first novel was 36. Not 25, not even 30, but 36. Now, that’s the average, which means that many published younger than that, but many published older. It seems that, overall, the majority of novelists were about 30-40 years old when they sold their first book. So the idea that you must be a wunderkind, be published in your 20s or not at all, is simply not true.

Now, my disclaimer, lest young authors take offense

If you’re a young published writer reading this, please understand, I’m very happy for you and wish you all the success in the world. This is not meant as an attack on young writers, but rather, I hope to give those writers who are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, or even older, a bit of encouragement. Youth is not everything, and writing is perhaps one of the few creative industries in which youth is not always an advantage. Of course there are plenty of reasons why publishing in your 20s is great, and perhaps even better than publishing later in life, but if you’re a published writer in your twenties, you’ve achieved the dream. Writers in their 30s, worrying that it might never happen, are the ones who, at the moment, need this boost.

So if you’re an older writer? Keep writing, keep learning, and keep improving. It is never too late, and you are never too old, and as long as you have something interesting to say, and can say it in an interesting way,  no matter how old you are, there will be someone out there who wants to read it.

General Writing, Uncategorized

Software for Fiction Writers

Judging by how often would-be writers ask what software to use, you might think their choice would make them a better writer. It won’t, of course. The only useful answer is to use whatever application with which you are comfortable. However, there are other considerations, such as stability, security, and price that you might want to consider.

Here are some of the popular choices, and what you should know about them:

MS Word

For many, MS Word has the advantage of being familiar. Many, too, already have a copy of it on their computer. However, Word is not designed for files of more than about thirty pages. Manuscripts of several hundred pages can crash in Word, risking corruption.

Nor should you use Word’s infamous master document feature, which allows you to create a mini-TOC of files so that you are never working with a single bulky file. Technical writers used to say that master documents in Word are always in one of two states: corrupted and about to be corrupted. I’ve seen no evidence the situation has improved in recent releases, and, anyway, the interface is awkward.

If you must use Word, the only sane way is to use one file per chapter. Any other approach risks disaster.

Google Docs

Google Docs has the advantage that files can be accessed on any computer. If you are one of the legions of users who treat word processors like a typewriter, it may be adequate for you — and it is convenient for adding comments when you critique. However, it barely comes with styles, let alone standard features like fields that can automate your work. Possibly, a careful choice of extensions would make Google Docs tolerable, but why make the effort when other choices are available, and do the job better?

However, if you do use Docs, preserve your privacy by uploading only encyrpted files. You should take the same precaution with online storage. A variation of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) can teach you to encrypt and explain the process.

OpenOffice & LibreOffice

Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both descendants of OpenOffice.org. Both are free for the download, but LibreOffice is more streamlined and has more features. Both are far more stable than MS Word — I’ve loaded 900 page files into them without much problem, and never any corruption.

Like MS Word, OpenOffice and LibreOffice include a master document feature. However, unlike Word’s, their master document features are stable. Both also include a complete set of features to automate your work.

Scrivener and Its Alternatives

Scrivener is valued less for its word processing tools than its tools for organizing and outlining information for planning. It has numerous fans, although some admit they don’t use many of the features. Others balk at paying for the full version of the software, despite the fact that discount coupons are often available online.

If you still would rather not pay, you could use LibreOffice and develop templates that mimic most of Scrivener’s functions. You can also find free alternatives like Bibisco. Personally, I am cool towards this kind of software, finding that it creates an illusion of progress that is really busy work, but many dedicated outliners swear by it.

For me, a more practical solution solution might be to install a personal wiki. Wikis were originally designed for software developers to plan and collaborate, and support a wide variety of file formats in a single document, making them equally useful for writers. The greatest drawback is that their ever-changing content encourages chaos, but with an effort you can slow down the chaos by imposing some basic structure.

All these applications are easily available, so shop around before settling on one. If none of these suit you, there are numerous text editors that provide a minimal tool, with few distractions. In the end, it’s you, not the software, that matters.

Uncategorized

The Last Words: How to End a Chapter

I admit, as a writer, I have a bit of a “thing” when it comes to writing endings. While overall I do not consider myself a perfectionist, the ending is something that I will re-do again and again — on first draft, mind — in order to get it it just perfect.  The final page, the final paragraph, right down to the final sentence, each need to pack not only an emotional impact, but they need to set the stage and make the reader eager to keep reading. There are many ways that a chapter can end, and depending on where you are in your overall narrative, you will find yourself using different techniques at different points in the chapter. If, like me, you sometimes find yourself struggling to end things, here are a few suggestions for writing the end of a chapter that I have picked up along the way.

Cliffhanger ending

Most readers find books that end on a cliffhanger to be irritating, particularly if they have a long wait in store for the next book in the series. However, ending a chapter on a cliffhanger can be a great way to keep the reader interested. The advantages are obvious — your reader needs to keep reading in order to find out what happens. However, if your chapters consistently end on cliffhangers you risk irritating your reader, who will soon catch onto your (let’s face it, rather cheap) trick. The other problem with a cliffhanger ending is that you do not necessarily end the narrative arc of the chapter, meaning that you will have to begin the next chapter where the first one left off. Personally, I prefer to treat each chapter like a short story, making sure that I see it through to the end. There can be exceptions to this rule, and at times a cliffhanger chapter is exactly what is needed for maximum tension, but use it sparingly.

Ambiguous ending

A close kin to the cliffhanger ending is the ambiguous ending. The ambiguous ending has a slight advantage over the cliffhanger ending in that the author can end ambiguously while also having wrapped up the narrative arc of the chapter. In one of my chapters of my current manuscript, at the end of all of the chapter’s action the main character has to have an conversation with her husband. She is going to tell him something that will not make him very happy, but rather than show the conversation, I end the chapter with the first words of the conversation. Later on, in the next chapter, we learn what his reaction had been. This isn’t exactly a cliffhanger — it is reasonably clear from context that the husband won’t like what the wife has to say. However, we leave on that slight note of ambiguity, leaving the reader curious about how everything ended up between the couple. You can create ambiguity by introducing a puzzling line of dialogue. I find the ambiguous ending to be a compromise between a cliffhanger and what I call a neat ending. You can wrap up the threads of the chapter, but still introduce question that needs to be answered next chapter.

Introduce a new conflict or question

Sometimes the very end of a chapter is a great place to introduce a new problem or conflict for your characters. In one of my early chapters, in the last few paragraphs my main character learns that her mother was murdered but she does not know who did it. This complicates things, obviously, for my character, and creates a mystery that must be solved. On a lower stakes note, in a later chapter, in the final sentence my main character invites her cousin to stay at her home, despite knowing that her husband strongly dislikes the cousin. This sets up a potential conflict between the husband and the cousin as well as between husband and wife. The conflict that you introduce does not have to be a high stakes game changer. It can be any kind of fly in the ointment, something that will vex your character in the coming chapters.

Introduce a new character or setting

While quite the same thing as introducing a new conflict or problem, introducing a new character or a new setting can have a similar effect. It creates a question in your reader’s mind: who is this person? How will they effect the story? What is this place? How will being here be different from being elsewhere. Aside from arrivals often being a good natural stopping point, arrivals which introduce a new setting give the reader something to anticipate. Ending which introduce a new character into the mix likewise can be intriguing to the reader. This can be a particularly effective way of introducing both love interests and antagonists, people who will change things for the main character in a big way. Introducing new elements at the end of the story draws attention to them, and signals importance, so do not use this technique on inconsequential characters or places. In one of my chapters my character meets her cousin, who she has not seen in more than a decade, at the end of the chapter. His appearance at the end of the chapter is a signal to the reader that this person is important, and will play a major role in the narrative. Introduce a new character at the end of a chapter and your reader will automatically take note.

The neat ending

This is the chapter that ends on a satisfying note. It completes the narrative arc of the chapter, and signifies a point in the narrative where all is well. The neat ending is more likely to be found in the first half of the story than the second. This could be the point in the story where the characters have what they think they want, when they are moments from losing everything. This could be the moment before everything changes, or, it could be a moment later in the narrative, building towards a happy ending. If your story involves romance, this could be the chapter ending where the characters are happy and together. This could be the moment when your characters defeat a major foe on the battlefield. The neat ending could also be simply the natural stopping point for those particular scenes. Maybe your characters are on a journey, and they’ve stopped and made camp for the night. That’s going to be a fairly natural place to stop a chapter, and if they get ambushed in the middle of the night, well, you’ve got the perfect beginning to the next chapter. A note of warning however: readers will get bored if every chapter ends with your character going to bed, and begins with them waking up. Once in awhile is alright, but vary things a bit.

The philosophical ending

Every chapter should have a central theme, the message that the chapter is conveying, in addition to the overall theme of the novel. Strengthening the theme of your chapter or novel is one of you duties as the author. You may not incorporate the theme into every sentence, and some chapters will have a clearer theme than others. Deeply thematic chapters often call for a philosophical ending in which the final words of the chapter reflect upon the theme in some way. I have a chapter in my manuscript that reflects upon the relationship between bravery and pride — what pride makes us do, why it is important to some, and why it is ultimately unimportant, and how true bravery often means giving up one’s pride. Towards the end of the chapter the narrative is mostly within the mind of the main character as she reflects upon what pride has cost her, and decides the truly brave people in her life are not the proudest ones. A chapter that comes to a sort of thematic conclusion can be very satisfying to read, and both gives us greater insight into the inner minds of the characters and adds overall depth to the narrative.

One last note about chapter endings

Remember, the way that you end the chapter will have a direct effect on the way that your next chapter starts. Starting or ending at the wrong place in the narrative can have a disastrous effect on the narrative. Occasionally, I have become so enamored with a final image or final line that I have forced myself to end a chapter at an inappropriate place, leaving unfinished action to carry over into the next chapter. This can create a thematic disconnect between the beginning of a chapter and the end. Overall, the main job of the author in crafting a chapter is to create narrative that is cohesive and satisfying to read. A disjointed chapter, or a chapter that seems to end too soon, too abruptly, or, on the other end, one that seems to drag on for too long, can disrupt the overall pacing of your novel in a major way, so choose your ending point with care.

 

 

Uncategorized

Using Prompts for Character Development: An Experiment

For me, drafting a novel is only partly about getting words down. It’s also a chance to experiment with writing habits. Recently, for example, I experimented with using existing prompts, like photos or music CDs, to help create characters. It is a new technique for me, and I was curious what the results might be.

My usual approach is begin with the needs of a plot, and keep asking questions. What kind of character might fill the necessary role? What relevant back story does the new character have? And, in some ways, most important of all, what other roles might the character play so I don’t have to invent another one? Many of the answers only come as I write, sometimes after several rewrites. From my feedback, this technique can produce colorful characters, but it’s not quick or efficient. If an alternative technique could save time, I was ready to try it.

In this experiment, I wanted a love relation for a heroic figure. More – I wanted a lover who could stand up to him, and was maybe heroic herself. Immediately, I thought of a tentative character for my next novel attempt, an older woman, a widow, who is a major figure in the Sisters, a group of vigilante women who punish predatory and abusive men. I based this character on a publicity shot of folksinger June Tabor:

https://i0.wp.com/www.expose.org/assets/img/artists/tabor-june-eng.jpg

In this picture, Tabor has a “don’t mess with me” look. She looks sardonic, with a flare for the dramatic in her black. She may be in her sixties or thereabout, but she is someone who can take care of herself. The only difficulty is that she is thirty years too old for the character I want. I easily found pictures of a younger Tabor, but none of them had the same look (these are, after all publicity shots, and may have little connection with Tabor herself). So I set about the task of imagining the Tabor of the original photo as a younger woman.

Tabor herself has traces of a North Country accent, and I might have given my character the same voice. However, while I developed the character, I came across a documentary about the folksinger Kate Rusby. I was especially interested to learn that Rusby lives in a village near where my father grew up – and before I knew it, my character had a Yorkshire accent. Not a thick one – I wanted to have mercy on readers – but some of the cadence and a few of the words.

Having a good sense of what the character looked and sounded like, I went to work on her back story. While I already knew she had been in the militia, I wanted some heroic proportions in her. Inspiration came in the form of “Thomas the Rhymer,” a song I first heard at fourteen. The song tells of how Thomas of Ercildoune accompanies the Queen of Elfland to her realm. The song was my introduction to medieval ballads, and what has always fascinated me is that its hero was a historical figure. Go to Scotland, and people will show you the tree Thomas stood beneath when he met the Queen of Elfland, centuries ago.

During the trip to Elfland, Thomas is given “the tongue that will never lie,” although he begs the elf queen to take it back. Upon returning home, he becomes a prophet – and some of his alleged prophecies still exist. Perfect, I thought. With such a gift (or curse), my character would speak carefully. Like Cassandra of Troy, prophecy has warped her life, except that, instead of never being believed, my character would have suffered because she tried to keep a prophecy or two from coming true.

At this point, I had enough to start writing the character. When I completed the chapter in which she first appears, I was pleased with the result, and the first critique was reasonably positive. In terms of results, the experiment of finding prompts worked.

However in terms of efficiency, I am not so sure. I did not save any time, and if I had not already had a photo as a starting point, I could have spent much longer developing the character. More disturbingly, my critique partner warned me that I seemed to have become obsessed with the character, which was quite true for a few days, and in a way that couldn’t be justified by the character’s relatively minor role.

So, a mixed result overall. While I might use prompts if my usual plot-driven character development fails, I can’t see any reason to switch to it exclusively. You might have different results.