Category Archives: Inspiration

My writing process (by Suzan)

photo (19)Fellow writers and readers: grab a corner booth and sit down! My friend Keanan Brand, writer of epic fantasy, has challenged me to a reveal of my writing process. And I’ve accepted! My writing process is not a tidy one, it is “a poor thing, but mine own.” But if it gets the job done, it’s how I roll.

I’m using the Q and A framework posted by Keanan at Adventures in Fiction .

Q: What are you working on?

A: What I’m writing is a novel I never thought I would attempt. It’s a mystery thriller featuring a mentalist, a wager, and six people who are thrown into a situation filled with choices and a life-changing game. I don’t want to give away too much, that’s a very short summary.

I didn’t think I would write about mentalism or hypnosis, because my primary voice up to this point has been in horror and suspense fiction. However, once the idea was sparked, the book began to come alive.

I would also love to create a short comedy screenplay or novel about life in a retail setting.

Q: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

A: Tough question. Most thrillers tend to be all action, or a mix of action/cognition. My novel is more like the latter–it delves into the characters’ thoughts and motivations. And it mixes historical ideas with more modern ones: a nice dark blend of fact and fiction, interwoven into the plot. I’ve been told that not a lot of research has been done in some of the areas I want to explore in this book. So I’m searching out sources with care, and looking at similarities in research situations to draw ideas from.

Q: Why do you write what you do?

A: I’ve always been fascinated with the genres I mentioned above. But I wasn’t interested in magic or mentalism till last year. I saw a program which sparked my interest, even if I was sure I was looking at clever television production as well as true mentalist’s art. Actually, good film production IS like magic…but don’t let me get off the subject.

I write about people’s deepest thoughts and fears. I write about their hopes and dreams, and their journey. Because I have been through some of these things I write about, and have searched out the answers. Sometimes the question I asked was never answered. I write for the “inquiring brain” that enjoys adventure, questioning, and deep ideas.

Q: How does your writing process work?

A: For years, I was able to whip up short stories and articles at on a whim. Too bad I was not employed as a writer then! Today’s process–at least for the novel in progress–is a slower one.

I realized that I knew nothing about hypnotism when I began to write the first chapter of my novel. I blithely wrote down my impressions of a TV show I had seen. It looked so simple! Then I set off into the wilds of the Internet to find hypnotists to interview. I found, to my pleasant surprise, four interviewees who either performed stage mentalism or were hypnotherapists, and they went above and beyond to give me the best look at what this type of phenomenon really is. To my dismay, I had to re-write chapter one: all my “TV knowledge” was a sham.

Nothing beats talking to real people about their jobs. I’m extremely grateful to my interviewees!

After tallying up everyone’s views and experiences, I tried to use the basic ideas they held in common (and have probably favored some opinions over others).

So besides referring to my notebooks, I research in the directions I was pointed to. I write in chapter or half-chapter “chunks” and revise almost immediately. I write at least twice a week. As much as I’d like to hurry, I know that good work can’t be rushed. But I set deadlines for myself anyway!

I hope to independently publish my work in 2015 or 2016. I’m not sure if I will publish under this name or my real one. In any case, I’ll be sharing links to the work here.

Thanks for “sharing a booth” with me at this writer’s chat!

-post first published under Suzan’s pseudonym, Jade Smith

That Junior High Feeling

Below is a quote from Jenny Simmons, musician and writer, in her blog post The Christian Industrial Complex and Why I Am Doing a Kickstarter Campaignabout the obstacles facing us un-famous creative folk:

Regarding my book, The Road to Becoming, I’ve met with a handful of literary agents and Christian publishing houses. One executive told me I sent in the best book proposal he has seen in a long time. Another said my writing style was laugh-out-loud, contagiously authentic. One agent said “there is room for this story at the table” another said the book is “spiritually profound” and and another said “this book will be a close spiritual companion to many.”  But at the end of the day each publishing house or literary agent has ultimately said-

We love this book but you’re not popular enough right now for us to take a risk on you. 

One Christian publishing house even went as far as telling my manager that I don’t have enough “heat.”  When asked for a clarification the executive said, “Look, if she is a mega-church pastor, we will give her a deal. If you come back tomorrow and tell us she got picked up by a major women’s conference and has a major platform, we will give her a deal.”

It kind of feels like junior high all over again.
Popular. Platform. Heat.

I’ve known  that junior high feeling. Man times. But I’m breaking free.
For anyone who has ever encountered the same attitudes, or who’s just now trying to break into the writing biz, I recommend reading the entire article.

Letters

(c2013, EE)
(c2013, EE)

In my closet is a box of handwritten epistles inside envelopes. Yellowing envelopes from my late grandmother. Decorated envelopes from an artistic friend. Varicolored envelopes that contain holiday cards. Bulging envelopes holding old stories exchanged between friends. Sometimes I open the box and read the letters, and hear once more my grandmother’s voice.

There was a time I could neither read nor write enough letters. I waited impatiently for them. I scribbled them when something unexpected happened, or when my friends wouldn’t write fast enough.

Along came instant messaging, internet chat rooms, e-mail, and communication flew between us. I reveled in the instant exchange of news and ideas.

But the charm faded. I couldn’t get away from people. There were questions demanding immediate answers. Friends or colleagues  planning events or meetings, often last-minute. My digital inbox expanded. An accusing mouse pointer or blinking cursor prodded me to drop everything and communicate. Now.

That pushiness is one reason I’ve never owned a cell phone. When I owned a landline, there were days I’d let the answering machine catch calls. A wielder of words, I had nothing to say.

As years passed, as career shifted, I’ve relaxed communications. A message may sit in the e-mail box for a few days before I compose a response. Although most messages I receive are the digital equivalent of casual scrawls, even from my colleagues in the professional realm, I tend to write as if each message is a letter. There are paragraphs, proper sentence structure, no text-speak. There is still courtesy.

A few days ago, engaged in spring cleaning, I found odds-and-ends of stationery. The paper is excellent, and the feel of its thick texture against my fingertips renders me nostalgic. Some of it is printed with designs at the bottom or along one edge, leftovers from my adolescence or from someone’s humorous birthday gift a decade or more ago. Some paper is still attached to a gum-adhesive strip at the top, keeping the leaves together, and much is loose-leaf, stacks of pale parchment waiting careful calligraphy.

How impatient will friends and acquaintances be if their e-mail receives reply by post?

Or will they look on the envelopes in puzzlement?

I wonder.

This Book, Right Now

It’s an epic, never-ending battle between mind and emotions: Who cares? Who’s gonna read this? Is it a story worth telling? Well, dagnabbit, I’m a wordsmith; of course it’s good! No, no, it’s utter garbage.

Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written — none or dozens.

Doesn’t matter how many reviews you’ve gained — none or hundreds.

Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve sold — none or millions.

It’s all about the book in front of you.

What I’m about to write may seem to contradict what I wrote in Mentors v. Gatekeepers, which is about finding mentors to teach us, and breaking free of the gatekeepers who might try to keep our stories from reaching the world.

However, as much as I am a dreamer, I’m also a realist. No writer is perfect. We all need an objective eye. That perspective can come from a critique partner, a writers group, an agent, an editor. We need that honest person who’ll say, “I understand you’re trying to make us feel the wind, but this sentence crashes to ground.”

We might, on occasion, pen a short story or a poem that needs minimal revising, or none. Sometimes we’ll write a scene or a chapter that is barely edited, if it’s edited at all, because it’s good from the beginning. However, those rare glimpses of perfection should not be mistaken for signs that we have nothing more to learn.

Sure, you might win contests, awards, accolades, admiration, celebrity, financial success.

Sure, you might publish a string of bestsellers.

Sure, you could kick back and rest on the smug knowledge that you have written, and written well.

But all that falls away in the presence of the book you’re writing now.

This book, right now.

Will you dash it off, not spending the same time and care as you might have done when you were green and uncertain? When you were hungry?

Or will you be even more precise with your choices, your efforts, knowing that you owe your readers your best, although readers owe you nothing?

Until recently, I edited manuscripts for a publisher. It was challenging and educational, and far less glamorous and lucrative than some might expect. Many manuscripts should never have been given contracts, because either the stories or the writing weren’t ready for publication, and read more like works in progress rather than final drafts. But there were many that only needed a scene rewrite here or there, dialogue revisions, minor proofing, or expanded endings.*

The point is this: every manuscript needed an editor.

bookstore entrance (c2011, KB)
bookstore entrance
(c2011, KB)

However, one major reason I am no longer working for the publisher is the notion that some writers are perfect, their work approaching the sanctity of Holy Writ. I was given the resumes and bios of certain writers, not merely to inform me of their background, but to tell me — without the actual words being said — Here There Be Untouchables. I was expected to do my job so lightly that egos were stroked without being ruffled.

Anyone who knows me also knows I am not an ego-stroker. I give praise and encouragement, but I will not flatter. Flattery stresses me. Flattery makes my insides curl up like frightened potato bugs.

So does letting a problem fester and lie there without being addressed. I hate confrontation, but dealing with a problem is necessary. It’s like feng shui for the soul.

After the latest round of flatter-don’t-edit, I turned in my resignation. (Read more about it here: “When It’s Time To Go“.)

Just as writers aren’t perfect, neither are editors. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve been the pompous youngster who thought he knew far more than he actually did. Memories of past stupidities still make me shudder.

And I’m a writer, too, so there are even more past mistakes to make me want to hide under a blanket until everyone forgets I’m an idiot.

Pride and insecurity are two fires that fuel writerly angst and sensitivity. Pride stings when someone pokes, stabs, or slaps it. Pride doesn’t like it when someone says, “That scene doesn’t work” or “This chapter is boring.” Pride wants to cross its arms and ignore the negative feedback, or even to draw a verbal sword and attack the critic.

I know. I battled stung pride a couple days ago, wanting to stab back at a reader whose own arrogance overshadowed his advice.

But I’ve been here before. I’ve learned to sift through the feedback, take what I need, discard the rest.

I can’t pull out my past awards, my references, all the contest certificates or publishing credits. They’re nice on a resume, but they don’t have any bearing on the book in front of me.

Like every other writer, all I can do is my best on this book, right now.

 

* One disservice, I believe, television and movies have done to modern fiction is the rush to an ending. Back when The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was finally complete, and The Return of the King came to theatres, some viewers complained about the long ending. Those viewers had likely never read the book, in which essential story continued past the main battle. The conflict wasn’t over, and there was still an enemy or two to deal with. But that’s like real life, eh? There’s always something.

 

The Purpose of Fantasy

ThePurposeofFantasyThis is a good book.

I could end my review right there and still have told the complete truth, but that wouldn’t tell you why or what, or how you can acquire your own copy of this useful, soon-to-be essential, little volume.

The WHAT and the WHO: The Purpose of Fantasy: A Reader’s Guide to Twelve Selected Books with Good Values & Spiritual Depth by Philip Martin. I met Phil many years ago at a writing conference in Oklahoma City, back when he still worked as the acquisitions editor for The Writer Books. He’d recently published the first edition of A Guide to Fantasy Literature (now revised and with a new cover, although I much prefer the dragon on my copy!). Since then, he has formed his own publishing house, as well as offering consulting and mentoring services for fellow writers.

The WHY:

As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I have defended my chosen genres to writers who deem them lower forms of literature, as pop-lit or pulp fiction. (Well, I ask, doesn’t the “pop” in pop-lit mean the form is popular? There must be a reason for that.) Fantasy has been and will always be a viable and powerful literary form, and Philip Martin is its apologist:

Fantasy is different from other types of fiction. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and “wonderful” here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off a small type of adventure fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries, where you mostly find books with sword-wielding barbarians, bushy-eyebrowed wizards wearing star-studded gowns, Arthurian knights galloping across medieval countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps a scaly dragon sailing overhead, perhaps a warty, axe-wielding ogre lurking in the shrubbery. But fantasy is far more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, philosophical look at matters such as good and evil…Someone said that the difficult thing about fiction is that it has to make sense. Fantasy makes sense, but it doesn’t show us reality. It shows us an inner truth, without any need to be any more real than an occasionally invisible hobbit with hairy toes. (Kindle locations 134-150) (emphasis mine)

Martin goes on to say, “At their core, fantasy stories are about what we believe about some matter of spiritual beliefs; they tackle core issues of good and evil, and how we should deal with it all” (Kindle locations 155-156).

Amen, brother! Preach it!

But this is not a religious book, nor is it a book of faith, but a discussion of how the spiritual is illustrated by and becomes accessible because of fantasy literature.

The HOW:

His three criteria for choosing the twelve books included in The Purpose of Fantasy:

  1. They had to be really entertaining.
  2. They had to be worth rereading.
  3. They had to be worth discussing.

As a result, and without prior design, most of the books that made the cut are generally marketed to children.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” (This may apply to adults as well.) What is clear is that the foundations of a person’s moral character are strongly shaped by influences and lessons absorbed in childhood. And the two things that fantasy is most about – imagination and issues of right/ wrong – are naturally in rich abundance in children’s books and stories. (Kindle locations 234-240)

However, the questions raised and the themes throughout are decidedly the realm of adults.

Some writers of fantasy have been quite annoyed to see their stories labeled as “for children.” These authors included the great fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, who insisted “my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature.” (Kindle locations 274-276)

Again, the WHAT (the books Martin discusses in The Purpose of Fantasy):

Momo by Michael Ende
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander
Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Reading this book was a joy. It reacquainted me with beloved books I haven’t read since childhood, and nudged me to become friends with books that have long been on my “to read” list. (I first learned of Momo from a popular South Korean television series, My Lovely Sam Soon, aka My Name is Kim Sam-Soon, and have been wanting to read it ever since.)

For me, there is a danger in reading interesting books that are also well-written. When I find something I like, something that speaks to me or draws me in, I will blitz through it. I skip across the water rather than immersing in it. This time, however, I read slowly, as Martin recommends we do when perusing the stories he suggests. Savor them, ponder them, ask their questions of ourselves. Feel the wonder.

Fantasy’s gift is to allow us to see our own world in a state of surprise and grace. (Kindle locations 475-476)

Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince,

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

But fantasy is more than the fantastic or the spiritual. In the chapter titled “Is Fantasy Subversive?”, Martin opens with this statement:

 Some authors have seen fantasy as a good way to introduce a type of creative questioning, one that can shake up, or sneak by, a conventional perception. (Kindle locations 492-493)

And bolsters it with this:

Ursula Le Guin wrote that some adults are uneasy with fantasy’s inconvenient tendency to reveal truths – to tell stories in which emperors have no clothes. (Kindle locations 504-505)

I grew up in a strict church that, despite its words, seemed more concerned with appearances than with truth, and eschewed obvious sins while indulging in the more subtle, more insidious sin of pride. I was that kid who stirred up controversy by pointing out what was, to me, as plain as sunshine: There’s something wrong. There’s a disconnect between what they said they believed and how they behaved.

One of the teachings declared that most fiction was useless and even sinful, because it was lies. However, as a voracious reader, I consumed fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, fairy tales, folklore, and the like, as well as the many stories in the Bible, and gained much from them all. In a Native American folktale, I might learn about wise choices, which backed up a concept I might have learned in Sunday School or heard preached from the pulpit. In an African fable, the evil of lying might be reinforced.

Martin asks,

Do stories question authority? How often, for instance, do stories and books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales. (Kindle locations 576-578)

It’s not important which church I grew up in, or what I observed. It’s important that I read widely and asked the questions. Eventually, I came to see value in much of what I was taught, because it was true and solid and a good guide for life. However, there is also much I abandoned as untrue and harmful.

For a time when I was in elementary school and junior high, there was a fear among the adults who knew me that I would mix up reality and fantasy, that the fiction that so enthused me would overtake my reason or my faith. When I wearied of defending myself and the books, I hid them behind more acceptable volumes, read them under the covers, sat in secluded corners.

The key to opening the mind is to be able to imagine something else, to ask “what if.” But “what if” does not answer questions. It simply creates a portal, an opening to build the structure of a story on top of those questions…Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are toldFantasy stories raise the question of Truth. But they don’t create it, and readers know that, because the worlds of fantasy are so clearly invented. Even more so than all the other branches of fiction, they are impossible worlds. (Kindle Locations 587-603) (emphasis mine)

It seems I cannot write a book review without applying it to my own life. That’s a good thing, perhaps, because it shows how well the book relates to me. Is it true? Interesting? Vital? Engaging? Well-written? The Purpose of Fantasy is all those and more. I recommend this book to writers and readers everywhere, especially those who see the wonder beyond the skin of the world.

Martin concludes the “Is Fantasy Subvervise?” chapter thus:

The solution, in a fantasy book, often comes from the smallest one who asks the biggest questions. (Kindle locations 608-609)

What’s your question?

*  ~  *  ~  *  ~  *

In addition to being an excellent and engaging writer, Martin is also an editor, mentor, and publisher. He’s the founder of Great Lakes Literary and its two imprints, Crickhollow Books and Crispin Books. Martin is blogging about the books he explores in The Purpose of Fantasy ( Mary Poppins, for instance), and readers are invited to join the conversation. Readers can also visit the Crickhollow Books page on Facebook.

One last note: Check out that awesome cover art! It’s called “Looking for a Good Book” and is by Greg Newbold. You can check out more of his work on his site.

Cold Heart, Kindly Meant

In recent months, I’ve been approached by new writers seeking to self-publish their work, and have participated in a few discussions about and with independent authors. As a result, I’ve come to this conclusion: Regardless of literary skill or monetary remuneration, one’s self-discipline and willingness to keep learning are important to one’s success. (And one’s definition of success is important, as well.)

Some of the authors I’ve met understood their manuscripts’ need for good editing, but have wanted it at little or no expense. I understand that. I’d love to obtain excellent products at no cost to me. Free housing, free utilities, free whatever — that’d be great, huh?

But we appreciate and cherish that which we gained at great cost, that for which we sacrificed.

So, despite how cold-hearted these words may seem to new writers in search of praise and handouts, I say, “Suck it up. Work it out. Learn. Strive. Improve. Don’t whine. Grow up. Bind your wounds. Stand on your own feet. Know when to ask for help. Keep fighting. Know your worth. Be humble. And in the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent.”

Cold Spell ("I'll get you, my pretties!") c2013, EE
Cold Spell (“I’ll get you, my pretties!”)
c2013, EE

Signposts of Hope

I photographed this little fella on a warm day last month, when the sun and the clouds fought for supremacy, and the autumn leaves waved brilliant colors to the wind. Surprise blooms from tenacious roses caught my eye. I grabbed the camera and contended with the wind and the ever-changing light.

This one looks like he’s smiling, a mischievous cross between a rose and the image that “snapdragon” conjures in my mind:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

And more roses nearby, clinging to a brick wall then flying out of shot whenever the breeze wandered by — the precocious pink flirts:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

Though no longer blooming, these cannes lily plants were sturdy, green, fresh, as if they grew in spring rather than in schizophrenic autumn, chill one day and summery the next:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

Maybe ten feet away from all this new life was this tree, covered in the vibrant colors of waning life:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

The end is not necessarily the end. There are signposts of hope, if you know where to look:

c2013, EE
c2013, EE

Now that tree limbs are bare and flowerbeds barren, now that my life hasn’t turned out as planned and my writing is taking new directions, these pictures are reminders that not all death is tragedy, not all unwanted change is failure, and not every loss is cause for mourning.

Matthew, Mark, Luke — and Dickens?

What if the innkeeper in Bethlehem had been named Ebenezer?

What if, like his Dickensian counterpart, he was a miser?

What if he met the Holy Family and turned them away — not because there was no room at the inn, but because the price of the room was too high for Joseph to pay?

71tOzSj59eL._SL1241_

The First Christmas Carol: A Miser, a Manger, a Miracle by Marianne Jordan is a brief, powerful book combining classic elements of A Christmas Carol with the Biblical account of the Nativity to form a fresh-yet-familiar story.

Ebenezer turned and stepped through the doorway, his elbow brushing against the mezuzah hanging on the frame. Like the one at his home, it had been a fixture of the inn since its construction.And like the one in his home, the mezuzah was severely cracked and chipped. It was amazing it remained attached at all. Ebenezer refused to fix either. To repair them would have been an unnecessary expense.

Most Jews who came through the door automatically reached to kiss the small scripture casing, only to find pieces crumble in their hands. Ebenezer had all but forgotten it was even there, but now the disintegrating symbol caught his attention.The small indentation appeared to be the image of a woman’s face.

Was that—? No, it couldn’t be.

He squeezed his eyes and shook his head, slinging drops of sweat around him. When he looked again, the silhouette had disappeared. He tilted closer, running his fingers over the fissures. Impossible.

Ebenezer’s old partner, Jacob, is dead, but that just means more money for Eb. He’s reveling in the census, because that means more travelers coming to his inn. He ratchets up the prices. Who’ll complain? It’s not like they have a choice.

Just as Scrooge was visited by three ghosts sent by Jacob Marley, the innkeeper is visited by three angels announced by Gabriel. And, just as Scrooge was forever changed by revisiting his past, experiencing otherwise unknown aspects of his present, and seeing his future if he doesn’t alter his ways, so too is Ebenezer powerfully affected by similar journeys to different moments in his life.

He is especially unsettled by his encounters with a young teacher — the man that the infant being born in his stable becomes.

As the rabbi turned to resume his walk, he looked at Ebenezer. It happened every time the innkeeper was in the man’s presence. Ebenezer shivered. Could the man see him? There were even times when Ebenezer thought the teacher was speaking specifically to him.

“The more lowly your service to others, the greater you are. To be the greatest, be a servant. Those who think themselves great shall be disappointed and humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”

Ebenezer and the silent angel of the future follow the rabbi all the way to his crucifixion. Ebenezer sees the empty tomb, but instead of gaining hope, he despairs, broken by deep realization of his unworthiness.

He is returned to the present, and goes to the stable in time to join the shepherds and others gathered there to worship the infant Savior. Hope returns, and the innkeeper will never be the same.

His heart is not the only one that needs opening. Interwoven with Ebenezer’s story is that of his assistant, Aaron, who is also changed the fateful night he and his family helps Joseph find lodging and Mary give birth.

Full disclosure: I edited this book. From the moment is was assigned to me, I was intrigued by the premise, and enjoyed watching this book change and tighten and gain power. I believe that reading The First Christmas Carol alongside the Book of Luke would make an excellent addition to family Christmas traditions, and I will be adding this book to my personal library.

The First Christmas Carol is available as an e-book (Kindle) and in paperback.

BONUS: Enter to win a Kindle Fire!

For Independent (Self-Published) Authors

A fellow writer and blogger, Sandy Appleyard, asked this on LinkedIn, regarding independent (self-published) authors: “Has the bar been lowered?”

One person commented that the bar is easy “to reach if you’re the one holding it.” Indeed.

Appleyard expanded further on her blog:

This past summer, however, I started reviewing strictly indie authors, simply to help them out and to gain more perspective in the indie world.  In a nutshell, as an indie author myself, I have found book reviewing to be a very positive experience, and it has helped my writing career a lot.

What’s disappointing is the amount of less-than-great independently published books that I’ve stumbled upon recently.

Here is a short list of the issues I’ve seen:

-Grammatical/spelling

-lack dialogue

-too much back story

-not enough action

-un-relatable characters and/or story line

When I read these less-than-great stories, I feel like rather than reviewing them, I need to provide a beta read and an edit.  Are indie authors neglecting to take these vital steps?

Susan McBeth, founder of Adventures By The Book, responded with a concern about professionalism:

As an author events coordinator, I am frequently asked to host events for authors with self-published books. I am amazed when I read the books, how poorly edited many of them are (strictly speaking from the ones I’ve reviewed, not to judge all). I recently read a book that I would have considered for an event because the writing was very good, and the story was compelling an innovative, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that it didn’t appear to have been edited, and as a professional who prides my business with quality events, I want to ensure the product I am featuring is professional.

She’s right to be concerned. Not only is the author’s reputation at stake, but so is hers.

By the way, for writers living in or near Southern California, McBeth has begun The Author Academy, workshops to train authors in marketing. (I live a few states away. sigh)

My two cents’ worth:

I’m a freelance editor as well as an associate editor for a publisher, but I was a freelancer first, and have always set a high bar for my clients. Whether or not they choose to rise to meet it is entirely their choice. I do my best for them, and then they submit their work wherever they will.

As an editor for a publisher, though, the circumstances are different: A contract has been signed, and now I must help the author polish his work for public display. Still, I encounter authors who don’t seem to realize that, yes, there’s still work to be done. A contract doesn’t mean a pat on the head, all is well, the work is perfect, and all the editor has to do is fix a few commas and grammatical errors. No, there are often major story overhauls and dialogue fixes, et cetera.

Even then, authors dig in their heels, revert corrected sentences to their original incorrect state (dangling/misplaced modifiers are a huge problem), refuse to insert a necessary scene or do the proper research into an industry about which they know nothing, and so on. It can be right warlike, trying to edit the book of an entrenched, recalcitrant author who deems his work perfect and my work meddling.

On the other hand, there is real joy in editing a writer who has already done much of the work, and submits a manuscript with clean copy, good story pacing and flow, dialogue that contributes to the story rather than stagnates on the page, and has considered every word’s right to be there. That means the author is a self-editor, and knows how to be strict with his work, and is therefore able to take the advice of another editor.

And, yes, I’ve encountered many self-published books similar in state to the ones described in your blog, Sandy. I wish authors could take a few steps back, release their “babies” into someone else’s arms, and open their minds to honest feedback — before publication. Perhaps they don’t realize that those nagging misspellings or a saggy middle or the anti-climatic climax really are big problems. Readers won’t just overlook them, nor will they be likely to forget. The next time they encounter a book by an author who disappointed them, they’ll pass.

Independent authors, don’t be afraid of feedback. Welcome it.

Honest critiques by beta readers are worth more than money, and you don’t have to pay for them. Beta readers have an objective point of view that you, as the author, do not. They’ll help you find plot holes, flat dialogue, forgotten plot threads, weak scenes, and much more. Not only will they find problems, they’ll provide solutions.

Hire a freelance (independent) editor. Seriously. Save up the money, no matter how long it takes, and hire an editor skilled in editing your type of book (novel, memoir, reference, et cetera). Ask for references or editing samples, establish a good rapport, and let the editor have at your manuscript. Nothing beats a well-edited novel.

If one or more of your beta readers is also skilled at grammar, spelling, punctuation, and such, they’ll likely find and point out many nitpicky errors as they read. This is helpful, especially if it’ll be a while before you can afford to hire that editor.

Writing can be a lonely business. If you have no close support system — a writers group, for instance — several can be found online via an Internet search. I belong to a couple, but don’t use them as much as I thought I might. Actually, I’m on the hunt for a group in my town or in a nearby community, and have considered posting signs, seeing if any hidden writers will join me in starting a new group. Just as honest beta readers are priceless, so is a solid group of writers who can critique and encourage one another toward excellence.

Questions or comments? I’m happy to help where I may.

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations

51ct7umFcIL._SY346_Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations is a memoir that reads like a coming-of-age novel about two young girls who meet while music students, then reconnect as adults when their former teacher’s younger daughter goes missing.

The authors, Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky, are a journalist and a violinist, respectively, and Kupchynsky is the elder daughter of the aforementioned “one tough teacher”, and the sister of the missing young woman, Stephanie, who also grew up to become a music teacher.

I love music. I love singing, and plinking around on the piano or strumming a guitar, but I’m good at neither singing nor playing. The lessons I took as a child and a teenager were minimal, offered by kindhearted folks at church, or by persevering teachers at school. I was that student who thought she wanted to be better, but never had enough perseverance or patience to actually put for the effort to be better.

Writing and storytelling, however—those I did want to improve. Hours passed before I realized, especially if a writing session was going well, or if I was absorbed in studying or researching, or simply reading for entertainment. I didn’t need someone standing over me with a stern look, a stick, and an eye for the clock, because I was motivated all by myself.

But what happens when uncertain, shy, and even seemingly untalented students encounter a loud, particular, demanding teacher who is determined—by shout, by thwack, and by sparing praise—that they are going to succeed?

Mr. K’s subject, of course, was music. But the lessons he taught his students are universal: about resilience, and the power of optimism, and achieving success. And about humor, too, not that he was necessarily trying to be funny.

It’s hard to imagine a Mr. K in today’s world. Parents would be outraged; administrators would be pressured to fire him. Yet he was remarkably effective. His methods raise the big issues we grapple with now ourselves, as parents. Are we too soft on our kids? How do we best balance discipline with praise? How hard do we really want our kids’ teachers to push them? And if our kids do complain, how do we know when—or if—to interfere?

The latest research on kids and motivation, it turns out, comes down squarely in Mr. K’s corner. Recent studies show that overpraising kids makes them less confident and less motivated.

One study of fifth-graders—kids the same age as Mr. K’s beginning string students—is especially striking. Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues divided the children into two groups and gave each a simple test. One group was then praised for being smart, and the other for effort. The result? The “smart” kids became far less confident, while the group praised for hard work became more confident, performed better, and in subsequent tests was eager to take on more challenging tests.

“The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash,” Dweck noted… “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.”

The concept that hard work trumps innate ability is at the core of current thinking about business success, too…

…(R)eal experts don’t want soft teachers: They want tough ones. Unsentimental ones. Ones who give them “painful” feedback.

We couldn’t imagine a more accurate description of Mr. K. (Foreward, xv-xvi)

Back in the 1970s and 80s, I was one of those kids praised for intelligence rather than effort, and came to equate difficulty with failure or stupidity. Or, horror of horrors, no talent.

…(T)o Mr. K, there was no such thing as an untalented kid—just a kid who didn’t work hard enough. You are going to fix this problem, he said when he diagnosed whatever was wrong, and there was never any question. Of course you would. It was just a matter of trying and trying and trying some more. He yelled, not because we’d never learn, but because he was absolutely certain that we would. (p83)

Joanne comes from a nice, middle-class family that Melanie envies, while Melanie grows up with an invalid mother and a driven father, who essentially becomes a single parent when his ailing wife can no longer live at home. She plays piano, and he violin, and he passes that skill to their daughters—whether they want to learn or not.

As for his school students, well, they adapt—sometimes humorously. Once, in his Ukrainian accent, he denounces the group’s “cheeken plocking”, and a rubber chicken flies from the back and lands at the podium.

One day, Joanne’s parents drag her to a recital. She’d rather go to the fair or read Harriet the Spy.

I yawned and fidgeted in my seat as the first few groups played, daydreaming about frozen custard and Ferris wheels. But I was jolted back to reality by a commotion on the stage. Mr. K was clomping across the floor—my, could he do anything without making a racket?—looking for something. I watched as he noisily dragged over a podium to the center of the stage.

(The) quartet drifted out from the wings: three teenage girls and Melanie, Mr. K’s daughter. Melanie was wearing a smock dress and shiny black shoes with ankle socks…Melanie’s red hair was even shorter than mine, and her jagged bangs looked the way mine did that time I got hold of my mother’s scissors and started snipping away… .

Melanie was tiny, so it was a good thing she had the podium to stand on. Hauling herself up the two big steps and positioning herself on the top of the box, she lifted her little violin with a theatrical flourish. The other violinists looked toward her expectantly. Michele, who so easily lorded her authority and wisdom over me at home, was gazing at this little girl with respect. She sure never looked at me that way. (pp 58-57)

Eventually, Joanne braves Mr. K’s furious methods, learns the viola, and joins the quartet, playing with Melanie and her sister, Stephanie, who plays the violin.

Melanie recalls a performance:

I can feel how nervous Steph is. She and Joanne play alone for the first few notes. Steph’s bow is wobbling. I suck in my breath and hold it, trying to will her to be calm.

…(M)y dad is right. We are ready, and after the first few measures we settle in to doing what we have done so many times before. The music flows. The audience seems to recede into its seats, and even my dad fades into the background. We stop thinking about the crowd and focus on the music and on one another. I only have to nod slightly, or glance up from the music to lock eyes for a millisecond with the other girls, and we all lean in to the music, or play softer or louder, or dig in to a passage together. We really are breathing together. We really do feel the music as if we share one brain…

When we get to the end of the piece, we all exhale at once. This is something none of us has experienced before, a secret bond that we’re sure nobody else can understand. The audience is cheering, but it barely matters to us…

When it’s all over, my dad hugs each one of us in turn. He plants a kiss on Stephanie’s cheek…”Go celebrate,” he says. “You earned it.” (pp98-9)

Praise from Mr. K is rare, subdued. When “Again!” and a thwack across misaligned fingers is common, a nod, a quiet “pretty good”, is enough. More than progress, it means a job well done.

When he chooses a difficult Brahms piece, Joanne wonders what he could possibly be thinking.

What made him think his orchestra was up to snuff to perform a piece better suited to college symphonies and the New York Philharmonic? (p103)

But she and her sisters gather their instruments and go to the practice room to warm up before the performance. The other quartet members are there, too, but scattered throughout the room as the orchestra struggles to play in time with one another.

“Quartet weel demonstrate proper way to play,” he announced. “Girls, you play.”

The hair on my arms stood up strait. My heart dropped to somewhere in my bowels…

The four of us timidly tried the passage. We were used to looking to Melanie to give us a nod to start, and then to each other as we played. But the other girls were nowhere in my line of sight. As we started to play, they sounded impossibly far away…The notes came out all wrong, the timing out of sync. My heartbeat sounded louder to me than my own playing.

Mr. K scowled. “Again!”

Tentatively, we tried it once more. I was so nervous that my bow skittered along the strings. Melanie sounded louder, more insistent this time, as she tried to lead…from the other side of the room. You could tell the rest of us were straining to follow.

“Again!”

I took a deep breath, mustered my courage, and attacked. This time, the four of us cut through the silence in the rehearsal room with a precision I had no idea I was capable of. Mr. K glanced at the high schoolers arrayed in front of him with a look of satisfaction. “Like that,” was all he said. (p104)

The orchestra wins competitions, as do individual musicians, and Mr. K is acknowledged as an effective instructor. He takes his students to nursing homes, and they play at events, even at the funeral of a classmate.

Generations pass. Those early students grow up and send their children to be taught by him.

Then, one busy work day at The Wall Street Journal, Joanne receives a call. Mr. K. His younger daughter, Stephanie, is missing.

She never misses lessons with her violin students. Where is she? Is she even alive?

How do her family, friends, former classmates deal with life with that terrible question hanging unresolved?

Her mother dies before it is answered. Now elderly and retired from teaching in public school, Mr. K remarries, moves down the street, gardens, teaches a few private students, and compiles a book of poetry written in Ukrainian.

Life moves on, only to be interrupted again, this time by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Then Mr. K dies.

Gathered to perform at his funeral, former students try to polish rusty skills while exchanging reminiscences.

Joanna:

Across the room I spotted my old classmate Ted Kesler, the boy whom Mr. K picked on so relentessly, who sat at the back of the first violin section. When I thought back to Mr. K at his toughest, Ted always came to mind. I could still see Mr. K forcing him to play alone—”Again! Again!”—while the rest of the kids in the orchestra watched. Ted was a college professor of education now. We greeted each other warmly, but I was puzzled. Why show up for a teacher who tortured him so?

“In some ways, Mr. K was a terrible match for me,” he readily conceded.

But then Ted told me something I didn’t know when we were kids. His mother had died when he was in grade school, before he moved to East Brunswick. His father was a Holocaust survivor who was raising for children on his own; other family members had perished in concentration camps. Mr. K showed his father a respect, a deference, that you didn’t see with the other parents. “Mr. K was hard on me in part because I was lost and aimless and unguided,” Ted said. “You know, he wanted more from me.” What’s more, “the orchestra kept me connected within a community,” he said. “It sustained me. All of those musicians in the group effort kept pushing me forward…That kept me going: the collaborative energy.” (p309)

Mr. K was a youth in Ukraine during World War II. He knew what Ted’s father had survived, and he knew what Ted could overcome.

On his way home one afternoon, he heard something that stopped him cold: the sound of a violin. He was transfixed. The music wafted through an open window and to the street below where he stood, motionless. Inside, a German soldier—one of the occupying forces—was practicing.

The music transported Jarema [Mr. K’s first name]. It took him away from the war, away from the death surrounding him, away from the uncertainty that was his future. It opened up, instead, a world infused with beauty. The music filled him with so much joy that it pushed out the darkness. Jarema yearned to play the instrument, too. It was a revelation, these melodies that lifted him up and chased the demons away. It was an escape. It sparked in him an almost spiritual belief in the power of music to heal.

“I want to learn the violin,” he told his mother.

“You will,” she said. “We will get you lessons.”

She was never able to deliver.

One day, the window was closed. There was no music. There never would be again. The soldier was gone; to another posting or to his death, Jarema would never know for sure. (pp256-7)

Ted was right. Mr. K understood better than anyone the bond music creates among people who play it together. Beyond his bluster—and behind his wicked sense of humor and taste for Black Russians—perhaps that was his lesson all along. (p310)

On sale October 1, 2013, Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations is a story of survival and understanding, perseverance and courage, and most of all love—love for music, love for country, love for a tough teacher who accepted nothing less than the best. It’s recommended reading, not just for teachers or musicians, but also for anyone from any career field or walk of life.

I finished reading this book several days before attempting a review, but the impact is such that, even now, I’m letting the book speak for itself. Although my copy is an ARC (advanced reader copy) with a paperback binding covered in quotes and information rather than the nice image of the final published copy, and although this ARC has spelling errors and missing punctuation, it will remain in my library. After all, just as Mr. K didn’t have the distinguished manner one associates with an orchestra conductor, this book may not have a pretty cover, but what matter is the music, not the face.