Tag Archives: Innovation_Passport

Putting Writing to the Test

When I tutored executives on communications, they wanted to know how to talk people into things.  They were always surprised when I gave them practice in listening.  I mean, what does that have to do with communications, anyway?

Most writers know that, ultimately, it isn’t about just putting words on paper and being read.  It’s also about hearing what the readers have to say.  Did they have tears in their eyes?  Did they laugh?  Did it change their lives?  Did they get it?

There are intrinsic problems with this.  Most of a writer’s acquaintances will never actually read what they write (even if it is very short — too many distractions).  Most readers do not ever communicate with authors.  Most responses are along the lines of I liked/didn’t like it.  Even “I like it” responses may be just polite.

So writers join together in groups to read each others work and provide feedback.  This can be somewhat helpful or it can be a disaster.  Under the best of circumstances, fellow writers can provide a encouragement or a sense that something (not always something specific) has gone wrong.  I’ve gotten beaten up on my beginning to Warriors by an online group and a face-to-face group and I think with two complete rewrites I’ve made improvements.  But most of the criticism was diametrically opposed.  If I were younger and fainter of heart, I might have chucked it all.  As it was, I groused, grumbled, cursed the gods and otherwise spread gloom with more effectiveness than a flu patient on a red-eye flight.

On Innovation Passport, I had four readers with specific recommendations and editors with even more.  It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was a certain way to get rid of flabby prose and anything that was not clear.  I’m looking at a request from the editor to cut 1000 words from the 6800 word “Civil Complaint,” but he also has some suggestions for me to follow up on.  I’m hoping for a better story, and I think that has happened along the way with other short stories.  Sending short fiction to magazines in one of the best ways to put your writing to the test, especially if the overall quality of your writing encourages editors to comment.

What about novels?  How in the world do you get a critical mass (so to speak) of feedback on a work of 50-100 thousand words?  If you can find a reader out there who actually knows the genre (thanks, Janet!), will take the time and can be articulate, you are truly blessed.  For two novels I wrote, the only comments I ever got were from my agent of the time and from one reader (who said “I liked it”).  Luck and someone who makes 10% may not be enough to get the feedback needed to avoid foolish mistakes and to become a better writer, but I’ve stumbled upon another possibility — contests.

Consider if you will the wonderful Writing Contests page of Ms. Stephie Smith.  At a glance, you get a sense of what contests are out there and what they require.  Each of these also has links so that you can get into the details of submissions.  It is an elegant and useful page, and I recommend Ms. Smith for canonization.  I’m sure she’ll get the requisite miracles in no time.

The first important point: you will not get rich from the winnings in these contest.  Almost without exception, the prizes are miniscule.  But all of them will get at least a portion of your novel in front of a judge, and, provided you rise to the top, your work will get read by a real agent and/or editor.  These people have piles of manuscripts on their desks, and the contests provide a way to cut the line and show your stuff, so this is no small thing.  And these are people who can actually help you by taking you under their wings or buying the work.  (The sales records for finalists and winners of these contests are posted in many cases and are impressive.)  But even if they don’t, you’ll get their comments back.  More on the benefits below.

The second important point: most of these contest are for romance novels.  For many people, this is an immediate problem since they don’t write romances.  If this is a concern, allow me to point you toward the Golden Heart Award page of the Romance Writers of America.  The honors here are essentially for best first novels, but lets take a look at the categories and how they’ve changed.  When the Golden Heart was established in 1983, the categories were Contemporary, Historical and Young Adult (with some attention to “series” aspects, essentially the length of works).  But look at the genres that have joined the party since then: Inspirational (’85), Suspense (’89), Paranormal (’92), and Strong Romantic Elements (’04).  This year was the first for Suspense/Adventure.  (Don’t ask me how this differs from Suspense.)  My point here is if you write mainstream, science fiction, horror, fantasy, thriller or novels about people being saved, there’s a place for you in “romance.”  Just make sure you have a love story.  (But you had one anyway, didn’t you?)  None of this should be surprising since most fiction novels — of any sort — sold are sold to women.  The romance houses have, to a large extent, just acknowledged that.  Think of them as the Borg of stories.

But what if you’re a guy — like me?  I looked through the hundreds of winners of the Golden Heart, and I found a dozen ambiguous names (Kit, Robin (2), Tracy, Pat, Kim, Bronwyn, Sandy, Angel, Jackie, Laron and Kris) in 27 years.  There was one clearly male name, Vince Brach, and this intrepid man does not appear to have published a book under his own name.  Does this mean that those with a Y chromosome should walk away?  No.  Just as for many years women who wrote SF and other genres where men predominated wrote under pseudonyms, I suspect that there are a lot of men out there writing romances under the cover of female names.  Mr. Brach became, at least for awhile, Fran Vincent, presumably without any surgery or hormone treatments.  However, for the purposes of the discussion here, this is interesting but unimportant.  Virtually all the contests Saint Stephie lists require that the authors be anonymous.  So if you keep a female audience in mind, there shouldn’t be a problem.

Aside from the direct benefits of good readers for your novel (usually just a piece, admittedly) and making a publishing connection, these contests are wonderfully diverse in their requirements, and this leads to some lessons.  Want to enter the Ohio contest?  You better learn how to write a query letter.  (And your letter will become text for all those agent queries you’ll be writing.)  If the Maine competition is interesting to you, there is only one way to win: write a dynamite synopsis.  (Again, agents and editors will demand this.  Here’s a chance to get the piece done.)  Can you grab a reader in 15 pages (Gotcha)? Or 3 (Hudson Valley)?  Want to put your first kiss up (New England) against what others can do or hook folks into a romantic comedy (New York City)?  There’s a contest out there for you.

One last important point: when they say only unpublished writers are eligible, don’t give up.  Romance writers in my experience are a nice bunch.  There are competitive types, of course, but the culture is more nurturing than that of most cadres of writers.  Yes, most of the competitions for unpublished works are “closed” to published writers, but they provide wiggle room.  For many of these contests, you get your virginity back if you have not published in five years (and sometimes three).  And if you just happen to have a contract in hand for a Romantic Suspense, this usually is not an impediment to entering a Young Adult or a Paranormal.  It ‘s like being an Olympics amateur today instead of in 1960.

If nothing else, all these contests provide deadlines.  Lots of deadlines that tell writers, when no one else is marking up their calendars, that the work has to be done by a specific day.  My own deadline is a shrinking bank account, but perhaps contests deadlines will be incentive for some of you.

Keeping Lovers Apart

All the energy of a romance comes from the tension created by keeping the lovers away from each other.  Once they are really, finally committed to each other, the story is over.  Think of all those TV series that A) explicitly ended with the man and woman getting married or B) shot themselves in the foot (unintentionally ending the series) by bringing the lovers together.  (I have grave worries for Big Bang Theory on this account.)

Everyone seems to believe in the happily ever after so much that whatever love has joined together may break apart, but there certainly won’t be anymore romantic moments.  Not true, but how do you fight that?  As I recall Cheers did an interesting turn where the consummated love was in the summer, off screen, and the new season began with everything in tatters.  Which is an interesting way to renew things since it is less and less believable that people will be dancing around love for years.

Luckily, I’m not facing the challenge of a TV series.  But even in novels and movies, some things don’t play the way they used to.  Domineering fathers who stand in the way of love ain’t what they used to be.  The old standby , one lover caught in a loveless marriage, has lost its punch since most marriages end in divorce.  I wanted to understand what the options were, so I did some analysis.

There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but I found, just off the top of my head, forty ways to keep lovers apart.  This was way too many to absorb, so I sorted them according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  (A need jerk response.  I expect to end my days going to cafeterias and sorting the vegetables according to Maslow.)  This worked well.  Physical reasons why people were separated included distance, time (in various forms such as Lake House), disease (Fifty First Dates) and death (Ghost).  Safety brought in war, addiction, mistaken identity and crime (Some Like It Hot).  Social included all those stories where friends, family (Romeo and Juliet), taboos (like age differences) or culture stand in the way.

Status/Esteem is trickier.  While there is overlap when I look at stories on every level, teasing status out is trickier.  Perhaps the purest play here is when someone is perceived as trying to climb the ladder of success at the other person’s expense.  Dirty Dancing and Working Girl come to mind as possibilities.  It Happened One Night might fit in.  The biggest lesson, looking at these, is the doubt/trust dynamic.  It is present in the other levels, but it seems to be in high relief here.

The last step up the Maslow pyramid is Self-Actualization.  The level is all about becoming all that we should be, and I thing “becoming” is necessarily not set or stable.  In Ghandi, it (as a grace note in the movie) seems to take the hero out of love, where he at last eschews the marriage bed in his search for a more spiritual life.  The reverse might work in a story (such as those torrid tales of women luring priests into their beds), but love bringing someone away from self-actualization feels negative.  Perhaps Casablanca, where Rick becomes who he is supposed to be and creates a deeper, truer bond of love because he has moved up the pyramid is a good example.

Anyway, either I now have a powerful tool for keeping lovers apart or I successfully managed to avoid writing for half a day.

Other doings

I went to Atlanta to do some promo work for Innovation Passport.  The conference was not exactly how I imagined it, but that was a good thing.  I was forced to listen more, meet more people and create opportunities.  I had very good practice in questioning people about their work, and I think this will help me to promote in a less me-centered way than I might have if there had been more opportunities for me to be the center of attention.   I also was able to observe another writer promoting her books.  She has a poster, fliers, a box of books, rounded the price to an even $20 and worked her way over to a good table for selling and signing.  The only bet I saw that she missed was not having her picture on the poster.  I’m sure there were folks who would have bought the book from her if they’d been able to spot her.

I also entered portions of Lucky Numbers and The Charm Offensive in contests.  This is mostly dog work.  Every competition has a different format for text and different entry forms.  All of them want headers and RTF copies (which kill Word headers).  Lots of page-by-page reworking of manuscripts.  Ugh.

Good news. Phase Six is now available on Hypersonic Tales.  It’s a free read.  I also sold Civil Complaint, which will be on the Electric Spec site October 31.  My About page has links for these and other stories.  I’ve now sold all the short stories I had written and circulated prior to digging into Lucky Numbers.  Time to write some more.

Rewriting Is Hell

In the lab, I used to love to tweak a process or to grab a hint from nature and then go crashing through a repeat of the experiment.  While working on ibm.com, it was always fun to take a Web page, move the images around, change the headers and otherwise reinvent it to make it clearer and more attractive.  Why doesn’t this translate into rewriting fiction?

Why don’t I enjoy fleshing out a scene or finding and filling the gaps in the narration?  Why don’t I love to get the red pen out and rework those limp sentences and convoluted thoughts?  Why does editing feel like root canal?  If I can figure this out, I might be able to make big chunks of my day more pleasant or at least less tedious.

Thinking about the lab work, a big difference from rewiting is that all the action takes place in three dimensions.  All the senses are involved.  Rewriting prose, on the other hand, is very linear, start to finish, with a set course.  (As I think about this, there was a big difference with scripts when I used to plot them.  Moving card and Post-Its around and making timelines and maps was fun.  And, perhaps, it resembled lab work for me.)

When I think of my days working on the Web (early 90s), I can identify another difference.  Back then, I couldn’t get it wrong.  There were no standards and the examples were limited.  But when I write a short story, I inevitably am comparing myself to Poe, Harlan Ellison, Eudora Welty and dozens of others who mastered the craft.  Rewriting provides ongoing reminders of how I come up short.  I know I should turn that nasty voice in my head off, and I do a pretty good job of that while writing first drafts, but I’m not sure how you rewrite with the Critic bound and gagged in the corner of your frontal lobe.  The Critic is there for a reason, after all.

What does all this mean?  Well, for me, it provides some ideas on how to make rewriting more fun (and I’m convinced that will make the work itself better).   Less linear?  Maybe shuffle papers or draw some pictures.  I’ve already begun to use titles and subtitles in the rewriting process.  (I love to title things, so this is a spoonful of sugar for me.)  And perhaps I can keep the Critic at bay by breaking things down (creating specific assignments, like “describe the heroine”) or resorting to pencil and paper (when words are not in print, they are harder to compare to those that are).

Anyway, that’s a few ideas to try.  And now I’ve managed to avoid rewriting long enough.

Other doings:

The long awaited (by me) book is available for sale, and I have a copy.  I watched today as Innovation Passport went from number 3,500,000 million on Amazon down to 60,000 and then up to 240,000.  This is hugely distracting, doesn’t sell one extra book and stops the new books from being written.

This week also brought the good news that another short story has been accepted.  “Phase Six” will be in the October issue of Hypersonic Tales.

Searching for an (Honest) Author Web Site

Bleak.  Dismal.  Vapid.  Why is it an authors who can make you turn pages so quickly you get windburn have such awful Web sites?  I understand that the obligatory stuff has to be there: Bio, Contacts, Books, How to Buy the Books.  But can anyone present this boilerplate in a new way?  (And I don’t mean with crawls, flashing text or typographical excess.)

I’ve been looking at author Web sites out of pure hubris.  Somehow I got it into my head that my fiction would sell.  And the word is that you gotta have a Web site.

To be fair, Scott Turow has a site worth looking at.  Neat.  Clean.  Easy to navigate.  The only problem is that it is very stingy.  Way back when when I was an editor of the “fun” IBM sites, I had an ironclad rule.  The page must be worth the click.  Not the case here.

It is the case with the best overall site I found, Theresa Meyers.  I’ve never read any of her books, but I imagine that her fans are delighted by the excerpts (which are more than the few paragraphs doled out in most author sites), FAQs (that sound like real questions from fans) and her bio (not a resume, for once — the best part of the site).  I’m willing to bet that her site actually sells more books than those who blast their readers with book covers and blurbs.

I do like one site that offers postcards based on the covers.  Another author will provide personally signed bookplates upon request.  I don’t think she even asks for the postage.  These are nice touches for fans.

Many have blogs.  Most are worse than the Web sites.  But, while I can’t say much for her Web site or the design of her blog, I think Monica Burns does the job with her blog.  It don’t plan to follow it myself, but it looks like those who read her books get what they come for.  She actually talks about life as a writer, which is pretty much an exception.  (Though I’ll admit that the one that talked about dipping bras in imported beer caught my attention.)

The best feature on author Web pages, when it is there, is “inspiration.”  This is like the “making of” tracks on DVDs.  It is fun to see the creative process exposed, where problems cropped up, the tenuous connections between characters and real people and the research into locales, professions, etc.  I suspect I like this stuff mostly because I write, but I guess fans like it, too.

It takes a lot of effort to write a book.  Every one of these writers, I’m sure, wants readers (and, yes, probably some fame and fortune).  What a shame it is when the book does not find its audience.  You used to have some chance that the publisher would promote the work effectively, but I think this is more and more in the hands of the author.  Until a career is rolling in a Stephen King way (his site is not terrific, btw), these Web sites (and similar venues) are really essential, so it is a distressing that most are disappointing.

Occasionally, you find a podcast (and YouTube has some nice examples to look at), but where is the interactivity?  I’d like to see some real reader questions, a bulletin board that is active, opportunities to chat with the author.  Do any authors have wikis?  Do the blogs actually cite other blogs?  (Okay, I’m guilty here, too.)  The most I see are pictures of strangers from signing.

Overall, the Amazon pages beat most author Web sites.  I hope to do better.

(If you have favorite sites or parts of sites, please let me know.  Great examples should be honored and shared.)

Notes on what’s up

BIG mistake, my talking about finishing Lucky Numbers.  I’ve been accused since of taking a vacation.  So it is not done, okay?  I still have a two-page epilogue.  And that won’t be written until the last minute, I promise.

I got the full cover proof for Innovation Passport this week.  The back leads with the generous quote by Greg Dawson (which is also on the About Peter Andrews page).  The “rough cut” electronic version is already available via Safari Books.  And folks in India can buy it for 1,530 rupees.  I’m anticipating good things.

Drama took a good turn (at last).  I got some kudos for the dialogue in a piece presented on Monday.  I also got a free bowl of soup for some script doctoring.

…and, the work on the Zeitgeist Rangers graphic novel is developing in a way that pleases me.  I’ve done character descriptions, titled sections and even done some world building.  Enormously challenging, but fun.