Thursday, February 24, 2011

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program...

...for this important announcement!

Wait, what?

Yes, yes... I'll get back to the whole why write thing next post. I'm hard at work on it (well, not at this very moment, but I have started it); hopefully, it will see the light of day sometime tomorrow, but the kids are home sick, and they make it hard to write anything.


Back in January I entered my novel in the annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. I spent the month getting it all polished up and formatted correctly and all the other little things that had to be done for submission. Since I was getting it ready for that contest, I also set up on Amazon's CreateSpace self-publishing site. You know, killing two birds with one stone and all that.

Of course, now that I have my book in hand and have had a chance to look through it, I've found some rather embarrassing errors (like "here" instead of "hear"). It's amazing how much easier it is to edit the actual book than it is to edit the text on the monitor. I had no idea! Those kinds of things make me want to bite off my fingers (why stop with just the nails, right?), but, you know, you have to go with what you have, and I'm sure, at least, I keep telling myself that I am, that the judges won't let some bad editing come between them and a genuinely good story. Right? RIGHT?

Okay, I'm breathing again...

But the contest...
The contest is divided into two categories: general fiction and young adult fiction. They accept 5000 entries for each category, and the winner of each category gets a book deal with Penguin. It's possible that other entrants could also get book deals, but the winners are guaranteed one.

All of that to say that the results of the first round of judging were announced today, and I am officially moving on to the next round of judging. I guess, that makes me a semi-finalist. The quarter-finalists will not be announced until March 22, so it's a long wait. Well, not really, but it'll sure feel like one! I'm sure I'll actually forget about the whole thing amidst all the chaos of life within the next couple of days, but, at the moment, while my stomach is all tied in knots from both moving forward and the anticipation of the next stage of judging, it feels like a long time to have to wait.

So there you have it. Surpassed 80% of the entrants to get here. I'm a big ball of nerves.

Remember, you can own your own copy of The House on the Corner; the links are just over there on the right.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Questions... (part 1)

The question I'm  most frequently asked is, "Why did you write a book?" This question is especially popular from the kids I read to. Occasionally, the question actually comes out the way I think most of them mean it, "Why do you write?" If you put this in the context of coming from kids who think of writing as something they have to do for assignments and whatnot, it makes sense. There is a certain amount of disbelief from them that anyone would sit down and write anything willingly, much less a whole book. The answers to these two questions aren't the same, but, perhaps, the answer to the first will help lead to the answer to the second.

"Why did I write a book?" or, more specifically, "Why did I write this book, The House on the Corner?" As I've mentioned, I've sort of always had an urge to write. My first attempt at a book was while I was still in the single digits and was supposed to be a Hardy Boys style mystery (yes, I will still get back to that, later). Through the years, there have been many more starts and notes and plans but no completion. Not even any real progress (at this point, I don't call 25 pages progress; that's just a start). But I had (have) stories I wanted to tell. How could I do that?

First, I had to figure out what the problem was. Makes sense, right? So what was the problem? Mostly, it was a lack of discipline. Writing, like most anything, takes practice. Even when you're good at it. But novel writing takes specific practice. Like running a marathon. It's not enough to just be a fast runner, you have to train yourself to keep going. And going. And when you feel like you can't go anymore, you have to be able to keep going. Sitting down and writing something is relatively easy, but, when you have to sit down and continue writing that same thing, day after day, even when you don't feel like writing that particular thing or writing at all, well, that takes practice. Essentially, it is very much like getting up and going to work and doing your job no matter how you're feeling about it on a given day. And, you know, not getting paid for it. See, that's the thing, when you're first starting out, there is absolutely no reward for doing it and a lot of stress, heartache, and hardship involved. How do you persist through that?

I needed a trick. Something to keep me motivated and moving on my project. Something to take me past the doubts and the... well, just the sheer scale of what it was I wanted to do. Obviously, none of my previous projects were going to cut it, so what could I do? I decided I needed two things: 1. a topic I knew well and 2. accountability. And, thus, we arrive at The House on the Corner.

I've spent a lot of my life, most of it, in fact, working with kids and teens. And I have three kids of my own, so I wasn't likely to find anything I knew better. All right, so I'm going to write about kids in some fashion, but what will keep me accountable to keep doing it when I don't want to? That was when I was struck by the Tolkein inspiration: I'd write a story that could serve as a bedtime story for my kids and read it to them as I went along. Once begun, that wasn't going to be something that I was going to be able to get out of. I'm not sure if there is anything more persistent than a child trying to get something s/he wants, so I wasn't going to be able to just abandon it part way through and go back to the way things were. In fact, having written this first one, no matter what else I may end up writing, I have a feeling I'm going to be writing this series for the rest of my life.

So, really, the whole point of this first novel was to help me develop the habits that I need to be able to write the things I really want to write about. The super, secret things that are squirming around in my head and trying to get out. Shh... some of them are really cool. But that all leads back to the other question, why write at all?
Do I have you hooked? Because that's a question for another blog. >insert evil laugh here<
See you next time! Same Bat channel...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Oral Tradition

My two most favorite books in the world are also the two best books I've ever found for reading aloud: The Hobbit and Watership Down. I've read The Hobbit more times than I can remember, largely due to the fact that I've been reading it out loud to my kids or to their classmates at their school for years. It's a wonderful book written so expertly that the voices of the characters seem to come to life all on their own. This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Tolkein. He was a linguist, after all. And he wrote The Hobbit as a bedtime story for his kids. He'd write some and read it to them in the evenings and, then, write some more. In fact, if it hadn't been for The Hobbit, I'm not sure The Lord of the Rings would ever have seen print. But that's a whole other topic.

Watership Down, which I haven't read aloud nearly as often as I should, started as a story that Richard Adams was telling his children in the car on a long trip. It developed orally. Eventually, he wrote it down. I'm sure the book has a deeper richness of description than did that initial oral tale, but it still carries the fingerprints of a story meant to be told aloud.

Sure, there are plenty of other books that are good reads out loud, but none that I've ever found that beg to be read aloud like these two do.

Now, I'm no linguist, and I'm certainly no Tolkein, but I did write The House on the Corner with the oral quality of it in mind. I've gone back and changed things which read just fine in my head but were awkward on the tongue. Besides reading the book to my own kids at home, I also tried the first dozen or so chapters out on my kids' classes at their school. Chapter 4, which read just fine in my head, was a real mess out loud. I stumbled through it every time I read it. That chapter has been completely re-worked since my initial writing. I'm still not sure if it works out loud, so I'll be trying it out, again, soon, in the classes at school. I wouldn't be surprised if it gets another re-write for the second edition of the book.

No, I don't think it's necessary for an author to write with the aural quaility of his work in mind. Some books wouldn't even be appropriate to be written that way. However, I did want to write a book that parents would find inviting to be read aloud and that kids would ask to have read to them. I think I've succeeded. I'm as sure as I can be from the reactions of the kids I've read it to, something over a hundred of them. And I'll be back in my first class reading, again, tomorrow. I'd really love to get feedback from parents as to whether it works for them as a bedtime story.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Where Music Fails

I always enjoy when a writer lets us know what s/he was listening to while working on whatever project s/he was working on. Sometimes, you can see where the music has influenced the piece. Not that it always does, but there are those times. Generally speaking, it's just cool to see that bit of a writer's personality. Sometimes, someone says they listen to a particular type of music, and it so fits them that they didn't really need to tell you. However, there are those times when the appropriate response is, "What the heck?! You listen to what?!" That's not necessarily because the music is "bad" but just that it seems so contrary to the type of person they are. That applies to anyone, by the way, not just writers.

So... I'd love to tell you all about the great music I listened to while I was writing The House on the Corner, but, you see, I can't. Why? Because music failed me.

I didn't really discover music until I was 15. Before that, I only listened to whatever my mom was listening to, which means I grew up with a lot of 60s folk music. It has been a heavy influence on me, though, even if I was never inspired to go through her LPs and throw one on the turntable myself. At least, not when I was a kid. I still believe "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel is the best song ever written, though. But at 15, music finally "snapped into place" for me and became one of the predominant things in my life.

In fact, it became obnoxiously predominant. The problem was that I didn't know it. See, I took my music everywhere. You don't see the issue, do you? Walkmans were only just becoming a thing, at the time, and I didn't have one. What I did have was a big, clunky tape recorder and no headphones, and that's what I took everywhere. And I had no shame about singing along whenever I wanted to. I have a collection of 45s (yes, I know some of you are reading all this and have no idea what I'm talking about) of my favorite singles from the 80s, and I would make casettes of the songs, so I could take them along. I was a walking soundtrack, of sorts.

I also sang on the phone. I spent all of my time when I was home and not asleep from the ages of 15-18 on the phone. This meant hours of time at one stretch on the phone with the same person, often, without really having anything to say. But I had a radio in my room tuned to the local light rock/pop station, and, when there was nothing to say, I would sing along with the radio. I thought this was, somehow, normal.

As I shifted from high school to college and I started spending lots of time driving, I was in total control of the music. It didn't matter whose vehicle I was in. The radio was mine. The casette player was mine. I ruled all. And I sang along. I even made people sit in their cars to finish a song before getting out. Even that rarely brought forth a comment.

I tell you all of this so that you understand how ingrained music was to me. How I constantly had something playing. Not, really, to demonstrate what a jerk I was with it. But, you know, no one, I mean no one ever said anything about it to me. Except my cousin. Once. Because we were in his car, and he wanted to talk about something, so he turned the radio off. It never once occurred to me that this behavior was... rude.

Then I got married (there are so many stories that can come from that one, little statement). I quickly learned that my wife wasn't interested in sitting in a car while a song finished. And my wife, although very musical, didn't enjoy the constant background noise, so I had to get used to having the music off for long stretches at a time. Still, though, when I am by myself, the music is on. At least, most of the time.

When I set out to write my book, I actually started planning what I was going to listen to while I was writing. I had grand plans for it all. And I sat down to write, put something in, and the music failed me. Although I grew up doing my homework in front of the TV (as a kid) and to music (as a teenager) and everything to music as I got older, I sat down to write, and the music got in the way. I kept trying to sing along, and I couldn't form words while I was singing. It was somewhat horrifying. I turned it off, but the silence was almost as bad. I thought maybe something without lyrics? I tried one of my Star Wars soundtracks, but that was almost equally as bad as songs, because I kept humming along, and I couldn't write while I was doing that, either.

In the end, I found one CD I could listen to: the soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring.  That was it. So, there you go, The House on the Corner was written entirely to that music. It provided nice backgroung noise without proving to be distracting to what I was doing. My family, though, is thoroughly tired of that music, and they weren't even present while I was doing the majority of my writing.

I'm going to try Pickin' on U2: A Bluegrass Tribute for my next book. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

400 Words

Remember how I said that every author has their own list of how to be successful that all start with the same two things? Well, I suppose you could say that this is the beginning of my list. I'm not actually suggesting this as the "magic pill" that will make you able to write, but this is the one thing that helped me the most, so I thought I'd pass it along.

I've had fits and starts with writing for years. And years. Like I said before, my first attempt at a novel was when I was about 8, and I've started several others since then. Like I also said, writing is hard and allowing distractions to pull me away from what I was doing was easy. A few years ago, I decided to really focus on writing. I started with small things. Poems. Some short stories. Things that had an end I could see. I thought I could build up to longer pieces, but that really didn't work, either. I needed a way around these barriers, and I just couldn't seem to find one. Until...

I've been a Neil Gaiman fan for, I don't know, 20 years or so. Since The Sandman first started up. A friend of mine turned me onto it within the first year or so of it coming out. I moved on to his novels from there. Good Omens is one of those few novels that I have read more than once. If you haven't read it, you should. I've never met anyone that's read it and not liked it. At any rate, I suppose it's somewhat appropriate that it was words by Neil Gaiman that gave me the "ah-ha" moment I needed to persevere through writing an entire novel.
Interestingly enough, the words weren't advice or intended to be inspirational or anything like that. In the current edition of Good Omens, Neil and Terry Pratchett (the co-author of Omens) write the about the author pieces about each other instead of themselves. In his piece about Pratchett, he talks about how Pratchett started out. About how Pratchett would come home from work each evening and only have the energy time and energy to write 400 words. He wrote his first novel that way, 400 words a night.

400 words a night. Do you realize how few words that is? This, right here, is 400 words. An email is 400 words. 400 words is... well, it's almost nothing. And Pratchett wrote a whole novel on just 400 words a night. I thought to myself, "I can do that. I can write 400 words. That's... well, that's easy."

And that became my first goal. 400 words a day/2000 words a week. Sure, there was a little more to it than that, but, really, not much. I mean, when you're sitting there staring at a blank sheet of paper and all you have in your mind is your end goal of 100,000 words, it can be pretty daunting. You know, like standing at the base of Everest looking up. But staring at that same sheet of paper knowing that you only have to get to 400 words... well, suddenly that becomes so much more achievable.

I never had a problem hitting that 400 word mark. Generally speaking, I was able to do something in the 1000-1200 words a day range. Occasionally, I'd have a "bad" day and only get 800 words or, even, 600 words, and I'd start to feel bad. Like I wasn't accomplishing anything. It can be like that when you've gone two hours struggling with the same paragraph. But, at the end of the day, I could always look back and say, "Did you get that 400 words?" and the answer was always "yes."

Now, I'm  not saying that this is going to work for you. I'm not making a list of the 10 things you need to do. I'll just stick to the two things that everyone can agree on: read and write. However, I am saying that you need to find the thing that works for you. Find that thing, grab it, and do it. Manageable goals is something I think is important. I'm sure there are other people out there that it's important to, too, but it may not be what's important to you.

If you don't know what it is that works for you, I encourage you to do some experimenting. Like tasting food. Find the thing that you like and that works and do that thing. Don't get stuck on anyone else's list for success. Find your own! Just make sure you follow it once you've figured out what it is.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Real in Surreal

Before I delve into today's post, let me, first, just say that I'm not intending this to be a daily blog as it may appear at the moment. At some point in the near future, I'm going to be settling down to some serious work on The Tower on the Hill, and I will drop these posts to, probably, a couple or three a week. However, right now, I have a lot of topics I want to cover, so these will be popping up as often I get a chance to do them (although probably not more than once a day). Okay! On to today's topic (which is not one of the "lot of topics" I want to cover but one that has inserted itself into what I'm doing)!

The real that I'm holding in my hands is a physical copy of my book, The House on the Corner. It is rather a surreal experience and one that, although I intellectually believed would one day happen, is rather hard to comprehend. It makes me wonder what it has been like for other authors the first time they've held their first copy of their first book in their hands. All in all, it's rather a confusing mash up of emotions, and I'm really not quite sure how I feel about it.

Of course, there's excitement. But that's tempered by the fact that this is just self-published. There's still a lot of work to do to make this successful, and, of course, I really need to continue to look for a more traditional publishing method if I really want to get the book out there. But my kids are excited about it all. Very excited. My middle child went running around outside somewhat insanely on Saturday after it arrived shouting that his "dad's book is here!" And my father-in-law seems very impressed. The ability to actually hold it in his hands, despite the fact that it is just self-published, is very powerful, evidently.

And then there's the fear... the fear that no one will buy it or read it and all of this will be over. I try to shove that down when it happens as it doesn't really do anything constructive. I mean, after all, I did write a book. How many people can say that? (That's rhetorical. I know it's a large number just in and of itself, but not as a percentage.) I know it's good even if no one else ever discovers that. And my kids love it, which is (almost) the only success I need. It is the most important success that I need, since I wrote it as a bedtime story (of sorts) for them like Tolkein did with The Hobbit. So you try to get beyond the fear, because "fear is the mind killer" (That's from Dune, for those of you who don't know.).

Those are probably the biggest of the two emotions running rampant in me, at the moment. A few others: satisfaction, happiness, concern, upsettedness (at myself (for letting what is, to me, an unacceptable amount of mistakes slip through (but we'll deal with editing on another day))). I'm sure there are more, but naming my own feelings has never been my strong point, just ask my wife.

What is cool, though, is that, if you go over to and type my name into their search engine, I come up! I'm not the first listing you get, but, still... that's pretty cool! Soon, I will come up twice. Right now, it's just the Kindle edition that comes up, but, once they finish their page construction, I'll pop up for both Kindle and hard copy. Yeah, I'm sort of geeking out over that.

So where am I going with all of this? I guess, what I really want to say is something along the lines of what Ferris Bueller says about the Ferrari, "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up." Here's the thing, in our age of technology, there really are no barriers. Sure, I may never be a best-selling author. Or an any selling author. Well, that's not true. I have, actually, sold a few copies, already, and not even to just people I know, either. But I have a book I wrote in my hands. Not just a bunch of papers that I typed up or printed out but an actual book. That's pretty incredible. 20 years ago that would have taken either an actual publishing contract or a lot of money to self-publish. Today? Today, it's free. The book in my hand cost me the price of the book plus shipping. How neat is that?

If you have the perseverance to write your book, you can get it published. If you've written a book, you can get it published. The publishing world is changing. Agents need to learn that. Agents, especially, need to learn that. Publishing houses need to learn that. Writers need to learn that. There is no need to hang on and hang on trying to find an agent or get a publishing contract. Go forward. Take the next step yourself. You can do it! I mean, you can really do that, now. Not only can you, but you have no reason not to. Sure, I'm still looking for an agent. Looking for a publishing contract from a large publisher, but why have the book just sitting around doing nothing while I pursue those things. Now, the book is out there. People can buy it and read it and enjoy it, now. And people are. There's no need to wait. And exposure of your product can only help. Even if what you find out is that people don't like what you've written, it gives you the chance to know what they don't like and to go back into your work and fix it. Make it better. If you want to write, do it. Really, there's no reason not to.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reading to Write

Oh! So many topics to choose from; I hardly know where to begin!
Actually, I'll just go with that "possibly even next time" topic I mentioned last time. Although I have other things I think I would rather talk about, that one is kind of central to all of this. What, though, exactly, is that topic?

You have to read to write.

"What?! How can you say that? I'm sure that's not true."
Unfortunately, it is true. Unless, you know, you hire a ghost writer, in which case, it's not really you doing the writing, even if you do get the credit.

The sad fact about humans is that we almost exclusively learn to do things by copying what other people do. Sure, we can combine those things in different ways, cut out things we don't like, sometimes, even, add on some new bit that no one thought of before, but the initial act was copied from someone else. It's how we learn to walk. It's how we learn to talk. It's how we learn to write.

Heck, it's even how we learn to eat.
My younger son (middle child) decided quite early on  that he was ready for "real" food. He watched us eating and decided he wanted to do what we were doing. He  had his first bite of apple sauce at 6 months or so, and he never went back. For the next year, he would try anything and everything that was put in front of him (ask me the story about the first time he ate a banana, some time). We thought we'd hit the jackpot. Our oldest son had been very difficult with food and what he would and wouldn't eat, so we were overjoyed that #2 would wolf down whatever was put in front of him. Then, he turned 2. And quit eating. Not everything, of course, but gone were the days of gobbling up whatever was put in front of him. He'd learned what he liked and what he didn't and, as unimaginably impossible as it was, became even worse about eating than his older brother. "Picky" just doesn't cover it. And he's still that way.

And that's how we learn to write. Well, that's where it starts, at any rate. We start reading. We read some more. We read some more. Somewhere in there we start copying what we're reading (remind me, sometime, to tell you about my first attempt at a novel (I think I was about 8)), then combining different authors and styles and, somewhere in there, we discover our own voice. We discover what we like.

I've heard people say that you don't need to read to be a writer. I even heard some people say that reading is a crutch to writing, the only way to be a "true" writer is to be uncontaminated by other authors, that you can't have your own voice if you're "listening" to other people that write. Hogwash. It's a good theory, but, you know, it just doesn't work. If you never hear other people talk, you can't learn to speak. I'm not saying that you can't figure out how to make noise, but actual, intelligible speech... it's just not happening.

Not long ago (and I wish I had saved the reference to this when I read it, but I didn't), there was some sort of survey done of some of the most successful authors of our day. On this survey, they were asked to list the top 10 things they believed that a person should do to be successful at writing. That sounds simple enough, right? 10 things. Surely, there must be things in common to be successful at writing! If we can just get those things figured out, more people could do it, right? As it turns out, there were only 2 things.

Wait! What?

Yes. Every author's list was different. Except for 2 things. And, not only were these 2 things on each author's list, they were the top 2 things on each author's list. Everything else was different. Anyone want to take a guess as to what those 2 things were? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
They are reading and writing. It seems sort of redundant to say that you have to write to be a writer; of course, you have to write! But you would be surprised at how many people "want" to write or have that great story inside them, but, yet, it never happens. So, yeah, you have to actually sit down and do it to do it. Or stand if you can work that out. Or lay  in bed at night. But you have to write. And, yes, the other thing is reading. You just have to do it.

I'm sure I'll say more about reading in the future. I believe strongly in it. We all read in my house. It's just the way it is. There isn't actually an option, although 4/5 of us love it, and the 5th one is working on it. She's a bit more kinetic than  the rest of us, so she can have a hard time sitting down for daily reading.

One last thing, when it was first getting around that I was writing a book, there was this person that told me that she couldn't wait to read it. Now, lots of people have told me that (I kind of take it with a grain of salt, because people are always talking about how they should read more or wish they just had the time to read more), but this person, in particular, told me that she couldn't wait to read it because I read all the time and, since I read all the time, she knew it would be good.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

To Start Infinity

Let's start out all metaphysical: infinity is finite. Why? Because anything with a beginning must have an end. Considering that some infinities are larger than others, I think we have to believe, that, although infinite, the infinite has boundaries. Yeah... I don't want to get into it, either, since that's not what all of this is about, but it is fun to think about.

What, then, is all of this about? That's a very good question!

Last year, over a six month (or so) period, I wrote a novel. I'm not going to say it's the hardest thing I've ever done, but, having written it, I do know why more people don't write. Writing is... well, it's just hard. It's sort of like running a marathon or climbing a mountain. It doesn't matter how many times you've done it or how good you get at it, every time you do it, it's hard work. People can't always see that, though, since anyone can run a bit or hike a bit, but no one who has climbed Everest or run a marathon will ever tell you that it was easy.

The best part about all of this (and I do mean that sarcastically) is that writing the book was the easy part of all of this. And that is why there are so many more authors than published authors. We'd like to think that it's because of quality. That makes us feel better. "He's not published, because he's crap." That frees us from any sort of responsibility toward the author. But it's just not true. I'll point to Emily Dickinson, first. Most people believe that she wasn't published during her life because she didn't want to be, and, while that's not exactly untrue, she did try to get published early in  her career, was turned down, and didn't continue to pursue it. Of course, we know her as one of our most beloved poets. Then there's Stieg Larsson. I just want to say that I don't want to be posthumously "discovered."

So, back to the question: what is all of this about?

The first thing it will be about is discussing writing, the writing process, and the publishing process. In no particular order. I'll pretty much go with whatever I feel like addressing on any given day, so this could mean that I will go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the above. In fact, I can say fairly definitively, that it will mean that I will go off  on tangents that have nothing to do with the above. But, hey, it's my blog, so I get to do that if I want to.
The other thing it will be about will be convincing you, the (currently non-existent) audience, that you want to check out my book. Being someone who reads, because every author must read (we'll get into that, later (possibly, even, next time), and speaking as someone who reads (from an objective a standpoint as I can achieve), I know my book is good. No, it's not Harry Potter (I don't think I'll ever approach the wit and cleverness of Rowling), but it is better than, well, most of the similar offerings on the market.

Having said all of that, here are the details about my little book:
The House on the Corner (copyright 2010)
It is currently available for the Kindle:
There is a preview of the first chapter available:
It will be available as hard copy soon (within weeks). I am awaiting my proof copy, as we (I) speak. And, I have to say, it is very difficult to await that proof copy and not just release the book for sale! It will be available through Amazon and Amazon's Create Space branch. Links will follow as soon as the book is available.