Reinvent Yourself

How many times in your life do you get to reinvent yourself? To leave behind your past and become the person you really want to be?

For some of us, it can happen when we move to a new place or switch schools. Sometimes it’s a goal we set for ourselves, like by the end of this summer you’d like to eat healthier, spend more time with those you love, learn a new skill, be happier. For writers, sometimes we want to create a novel with an entirely different voice, or in a new genre…like I did when I wrote my newest novel Drawn, a paranormal about an artist who channels a hot ghost with a sketchy past.  Pretty different from my earlier contemporary YA novels What I Meant… and Over My Head.  Writing aside, when it comes to do overs in your own life, maybe you simply decide that this is the moment when you will make a BIG change. To alter the course of your future. Yet sometimes that seems impossible. Sometimes your past gets in the way.

In Drawn, Michelle longs to escape her past and have a fresh start. As she says in this early scene from the book:

The two of us have only been in England for a few days, yet I’m already convinced it’s the best place in the universe. Not because of the quaint little shops or everyone’s adorable English accent, or even because of this supposedly grand castle on the edge of town. No. This place is perfect because here no one knows that back in New Jersey my family, the De Freccio’s, are called the De Freak-o’s.

Back in New Jersey, Michelle’s mother was an eccentric psychic who suddenly up and left the family without a trace. And her brother was a diagnosed schizophrenic. And Michelle had been friendless, an outcast. But in England, she hopes for a new life. A normal one.

Honestly, while writing Drawn I could really identify with Michelle’s do over moment. In elementary school a bunch of snotty girls used to push me around during recess, and it crushed my spirit.  So in middle school, where lots of new kids filled the classrooms, it looked like a clear do-over moment to me.

But reputations tend to cling to a person, so it was pretty rocky for me at first.  Those nasty kids still were in my school, even though their power was now diluted. Still I was too self-conscious and too worried about what I said and wore and how people looked at me.

Now looking back I can see the real problem wasn’t those girls, it was what I carried inside myself: the loser image I wanted to ditch, but that on some level I’d bought into.  What if they were right about me?

In the novel, Michelle may have left her past behind, but her insecurities have come along for the ride:

I get that familiar hot burn of humiliation. I always felt it whenever someone back in New Jersey would pull a trick on me, convincing me that I really was invited to a party, or that science class was actually meeting out near the woods on the edge of school grounds. I discovered I was an easy mark. Too trusting, too eager for friends.

I’d promised myself that those days were over. But here, an ocean away from New Jersey, it’s starting all over again. It’s like I’ve got a permanent “KICK ME” note stuck on my back.

Luckily for me, by the end of middle school I did have friends. I was liked. I remember wondering, why? It mystified me. Wasn’t I the same person who was so looked down on earlier?

In the novel, when things start looking up for Michelle, it mystifies her too:

I sigh, realizing I’ve disappointed my friends. I blink a few times, as this all sinks in. I’ve just turned down an “in” with the popular kids. And I actually have friends. It seems that by simply moving to a new place, I’ve somehow climbed out of my social wasteland. I think of all the high school kids in the world who are teased and shunned. They should all have the chance to move and start over—kind of like a witness protection program, but for outcasts.

Actually, I believe there is a sort of relocation program for anyone who needs it. And you don’t need an airline ticket to England to get there. It’s not a place, but a state of mind deep within ourselves. Michelle started to have friends not because she moved but because she had already begun to change inside. To trust others and have more faith in herself. She truly wasn’t that same person anymore.  And that’s what happened to me, too, in a way.  I’d started to genuinely feel good about myself and to open up to people more and that made all the difference.

Of course nothing is simple, and real change doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just wake up one morning and DING! Everything is all butterflies and happy songs.  It takes time to gain inner strength and for those better choices in what you do and who you hang out with to all gel and reshape your days into the life you truly want.  For me, it was a process of feeling better about myself and discovering what was most important to me. It did take time, but by the end of high school I felt like really strong, really happy.

In the book, not all Michelle’s new friends are good ones. And her life is NOT easy, especially after the appearance of Christopher who is either a delusion or a ghost.  This definitely spells trouble for a girl trying very hard to blend in. And it forces her to wonder about who she really wants to be. And what she should truly believe in.

She comes to learn she can’t control how others feel, only how she feels. And in the end she must choose whether or not to believe in Christopher, a spirit who may or may not be a murderer. Who may or may not love her back. His life, their love, and Michelle’s hope all hang in the balance.

Michelle does a lot of incredibly brave things in the book, but to me, she is most courageous when she owns up to this:

Maybe I am a fool. Maybe Christopher doesn’t love me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not in love with him…

It’s a huge risk, trusting that this is enough. And it propels Michelle into a life threatening struggle where she puts everything on the line. But in the end, trusting her own feelings opens Michelle up to true friendship and to true love.

Taking risks and believing in yourself.  It’s the bravest thing you can ever do, and what do overs are all about. So believe!

How Anne Tyler and I are “Still Just Writing”

I wasn’t an author yet. I was a “studying English, hoping to write something someday” person, when Anne Tyler became iconic in my mind.

As a University of Pennsylvania student with a job in the library, I’d volunteer to go in search of “lost volumes.” Then I’d get lost in the stacks myself, browsing through fiction. A friend passed me a novel. In the poorly lit gloom, I opened the cover to Searching for Caleb, enjoyed that wondrous whiff of gluey dusty bookness, and sank into the words. At that very moment, Anne Tyler became one of my favorite authors.

This was before she “hit it big” with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Before they slapped her face on Barnes & Noble mugs and posters. Still, she had several novels on that library shelf, and more novels appeared every so often.

A few years later, I was amazed, therefore, to read her essay, “Still Just Writing.” In it, she described trying to shape a character in her head as she did countless everyday errands and ferried her children around to various sporting and social activities. It seemed like so much of her creative time was fractured by the mundane. It was endlessly frustrating. And while she sat on the bleachers attempting to somehow cling to an idea beginning to form in her brain, another mother was asking her if she was working anywhere or “still just writing.”

And now, these many years later, I find myself on the bleachers at swim meets, notebook in my lap, trying to marshal together plots, images, character.  I food shop and vacuum and cook and clean, my mind lost in writing land.  The hours consumed by “life” are endless.  Yet people think wow, you’re a full-time writer. How nice. All that time to write.  But so much more than those mundane tasks of life get in my way.

As an author, I’m also stuck doing a ton of promotion. Something I know Anne Tyler didn’t have to deal with back in the ‘80’s when the marketplace was very different. So this means that I spend valuable writing time doing things like setting up book signings, and creating and running workshops, and making conference appearances, and contacting press.  How many hours do I spend a week doing this?  If I have a busy promotion schedule, sometimes an entire week can be eaten up this way, and that’s not counting the full-days I might spend traveling to and being at the events.

And Anne was fortunate to start her career at a time when she could let her career grow book by book. With today’s economy, authors are pressured to have huge breakout numbers with their debut novel.  And if that doesn’t happen, authors must scramble to impress publishers and be VERY business-minded in everything they do. So, also cutting into my writing time are things like researching new markets, corresponding with my agent, responding to comments by interested editors, and tweaking and re-tweaking and RE-TWEAKING my latest manuscripts before I’m even under contract. It’s that competitive.

I also belong to a writer’s group, so I spend time reading and critiquing other manuscripts.  I belong to Romance Writer’s of America, and so I attend monthly meetings with those authors.  Obviously, I have my own website/blog, a facebook page, a twitter page, plus more!  And I keep up with what’s going on in the industry, reading daily news from publishersweekly.com, publisherslunch, and shelfawareness.com.

Yet somehow I’ve managed to write two more novels in the past 3 years.  Because this is what I love most. Because once I start an idea I’m passionate about I’m compelled to finish it.  But with life getting ever busier, I’ve had to put my foot down to keep up with the writing.

So I’ve started doing a monthly Book in a Week challenge.  During that week, nothing else is as important as my writing. I keep up an away message, I turn off the Internet, and turn on the answering machine.  The world goes on without me, it seems, and the word count builds. It’s the most fun I have all month. Then, when the week is over, I play catch up with everything else.

Like Anne Tyler, I guess I’m still just writing, too.

*Cross posted on the Liars Club blog.

Burning Questions about Writing and Publishing

Hot tip: there is a new series of posts over at the Philly Liars Club site, which cover burning questions about publishing and writing. Over the next few weeks, the group’s 13 authors will answer a question posed to them, so you should check back there frequently (or subscribe to that site) to see what they have to say.  As a member of their group, I’ve kicked off their series, and I’m also including my post here, too. But be sure to check in with the Liars to see what their other fab authors say about this same question…

Burning Question #1: What one thing do I wish I knew before publishing my first book or article?

That crap happens. Honestly, every published writer I’ve spoken to has a story about how they have gotten the nasty end of the stick. This shouldn’t be such a big surprise, but somehow it is. This is partly because authors rarely talk about these nightmares openly. It’s the kind of thing we whisper to each other when swapping horror stories with a colleague. And I think this is a disservice to our fellow writers, who really should be better prepared for their future.

Writing is such a personal business. Especially with fiction. Your book is your baby in a way. You invest so much into it. You love it.  Then you have an editor who loves it. And you have this great relationship with your editor. Yeah, it’s business, but you feel really close to your editor, and you know that she will fight for your book till the end.

So, uh, how come there are so many authors with “crap happens, and it happened to me” stories? Because your book may be your baby, but in the world of publishing, nobody cares. It’s just a commodity. Not even your editor cares. Well, she does to a point, but I can promise you she cares about her job and her paycheck more. So books get accepted and then get canceled. Books come out and a publisher has already lost interest in them, so there is no publicity or support. Future books that you write may or may not be picked up by the publisher/editor who “loved” your last novel. And so it goes. It all definitely feels like a betrayal of sorts, but as Donald Trump says, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.”

I know, it sounds dire. But before you impale yourself on your fountain pen, think of how empowering this information can be.  Just knowing that crap happens and that it will probably happen to you should make your dealings more businesslike.  Don’t trust that an editor has talked up your book with the marketing committee, get over there and talk with them yourself.  Don’t be complacent and believe that since a publisher has accepted your book that your work is done. Assume that the rug will be ripped out from beneath you at any moment and work your ass off to promote the work you have gotten accepted, to relate to your readers and build a fan base, and to write an even better next book.  Always have projects going.  Dude, it’s survival. It’s business. And it’ll serve you well.

Sadly I’ve seen many a talented author get so distraught by what has happened to them in the publishing business that they’ve given up writing completely.  It’s killed the joy for them, and they just can’t pursue their craft anymore. It nearly happened to me. Having a book that was in final copy edits canceled, along with a host of other serious crap occurring at the same time, nearly did me in. I’m an extremely positive person, but even I felt beyond low. The only way I got through was to fight back hard promoting my book like crazy. And by sinking my teeth into more novels.

I’m a different writer now.  Paperback canceled? Okay. Passed on new novel? Fine. I’m not pleased, but I’m not devastated either. I’m too busy looking for the business relationship that will benefit my writing the most, and I’m too busy being the best writer I can be.

And I’m still loving what I do.

The Plot Sickens

Plot. Ugh! We writers need it to make our great ideas flow. Readers crave it…it’s what makes them turn pages, what creates tension, what makes them CARE about a book. But here’s a dirty little secret: many writers have a love-hate relationship with plotting. Mostly hate, really.

The Rebel Writers are (left to right) Damian McNicholl, Russ Allen, C.G. Bauer, Jeanne Denault, John Wirebach, David Jarret and Marie Lamba

I belong to an amazing novel critique group called The Rebel Writers.  (If you want to learn more about this group and our unique methods of critiquing long manuscripts, you can check out my article Plotting a Novel Group in Writer’s Digest Magazine by clicking here.) This month, our meeting was devoted to discussing plot. Our personal struggles with it, how it tends to bite us in the ass mid-way through our novels, how uncomfortable we are with artificially manufacturing it, and what the hell we can do to make sure our novels are tightly written starting right at the first draft. We came up with some interesting thoughts that I’d like to share…

All 6 of us were on hand for this meeting, offering a variety of perspectives. I’m a young adult author; Damian McNicholl is author of the critically acclaimed literary novel A Son Called Gabriel; C.G. (Chris) Bauer is author of the stunning debut horror novel Scars on the Face of God; Jeanne Denault is author of an amazing memoir about raising a son with Aspergers titled Sucking up Yellow Jackets – soon to be published by the UK publisher O Books; David Jarret writes historical novels and hysterical short stories, John Wirebach writes gritty crime and mystery novels, and Russ Allen writes literary novels.

C.G. Bauer's debut horror novel is "hotter than the flames of hell," says horror master Scott Nicholson

One thing we all acknowledged: we are uncomfortable with following plotting formulas and using step-by-step advice to plot novels. Here’s the thing: writing is an art. At least we writers hope so.  Art should flow, should be organic and original. Should be something new and exciting and enlightening.  We authors want to get to that spot of artistic originality in our completed works with every single bit of fiction that we create.

So imagine how a bunch of artists (put your nose in the air when you say that word) feel when they consider planning out their work of art on 3×5 cards or with post-its. When they think about following formulas in designing their novels… It feels so, so…artificial.

And herein lies the problem. Novels ARE artificial. And, as cheesy as it sounds, writers are manipulators. We use technique to create suspense, tricks to make cliff-hangers, melodrama to induce tears…if we are doing it well, then no one will even notice we are pulling the strings. And we need to be aware of these plotting techniques and embrace them on some level, don’t we?

So we Rebel Writers decided to take our noses out of the air and look around.  Pulp fiction writers use formulas. Soap opera writers use formulas. Many romance authors use formulas. So do television script writers. So do film writers. So, in fact, do many novelists. Maybe its time we face the facts: we can learn something from these folks!

Damian McNicholl's celebrated novel was a Book Sense Pick of the Year

Okay, so once we packed away our collective artistic snobbery, the info sharing really began to flow.  It was like a confessional of sorts, with each of us sharing our own secret plotting cheats.

Russ introduced us to a text called Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which outlines just over 50 plots, and argues that every story ever told was one of these plots.  We Rebels quickly found our own novels’ plots in the listings.  Humbling. Forget originality, right? All we have to do is pick one of these plots, and write a story…

We discussed our discomfort with this, but soon admitted that, yeah, it would be convenient to know the sort of story we were writing before we embarked on months to years worth of actually writing it and uncovering our direction. And we all reassured ourselves that whatever we wrote would be distinct if we were true to our own voice and our own view of the world.  That’s the clincher, isn’t it?

Many of us swore by Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which has exercises that ensure your novel has a sound structure, a strong subplot, tension on every page, etc. etc. etc.  John pointed out how focused movie script writers are in plotting, and how most scripts have a climactic moment on a certain page according to an understood formula. He recommended we look at books about treatments, including a book I have on my own shelf: Writing Treatments that Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. Another favorite of the group is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It follows myth and archetypes culled by folklorist Joseph Campbell in his incredible The Power of Myth, and applies the hero’s journey to plotting and structure. It’s phenomenal, and I used parts of this while plotting my newest young adult novel, Drawn. Jeanne shared how she used index cards to decipher the plot of one of her murder mysteries and to reorganize the plotting to fix a problem in its pacing.

I know, right about now you’re thinking: So if everyone has been secretly using all of these plot theories, what’s the big deal? What did the Rebel Writers actually learn here?  Well, every one of us have used these tools AFTER we wrote our novels. First we spent forever writing our monster works, then we sat down with our drafts and thought, hm, the middle is really slow, or huh, the ending just doesn’t do it, and we spent forever dissecting our works and fixing them by applying all of these plotting theories.

Jeanne Denault's stunning memoir about Aspergers

But wouldn’t it be nice to start out with a better sense of the structure and plot at the start? Wouldn’t that cut down on the length of time it would take to write a novel? Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to create two novels a year vs. one every two years. And wouldn’t we enjoy our writing more if we didn’t have to agonize over our edits, going over the plotting and structure again and again and again? Wouldn’t our final work benefit?

We are all nodding now.  But still scepticism rears its ugly head. Can you really sit down and plan out a novel, plotting its structure, its twists, its climax and conclusion, and still come out with a work of art?  I’m about to find out. See, I’m also a member of the Bucks County Romance Writers, and will soon attend my very first plot party with them. They ask that each member bring a brand new novel idea not worked on yet, a pen, and a stack of stickees. At the end of the 6 (!) hour event, each person is supposed to leave with a completely plotted out novel, and all we’ll have to do is simply write it. Easy, right?

Can this possibly work? Can I come up with something fresh and original, yet plotted, with only stickee notes, my imagination and some strong plotting traditions? Can I then save time writing my novel, with my first draft being close to a final draft? Will I end up writing more novels and being more productive because of this? God, I hope so. Stay tuned…

Resolution: Put Writing First

Happy 2010 all!  Confession: New Year’s is my least favorite holiday.  If it were up to me, I’d just go to bed at 10 and wake up the next morning around 10 and have a nice brunch. I know, exciting, right? Fact is that as a fiction author I’m all too often plotting in my head the what ifs. What if we, or someone we know is driving home from a party, and some drunken jerk is on the road. Shiver…

But there is something I do love about New Year’s: the fresh start.  Here’s where the fiction writer in me can plot eagerly. What will come in the next year? What do I want to change? What do I look forward to?  Naturally, I’m really into the whole resolution thing.  And I love to hear what other people’s resolutions are, too.  But every single person I’ve hung out with in the past few days has had no resolution. Or, worse, a resolution to never make resolutions.  Bummer.  And just this morning on the news they said just having a resolution makes you 10 times more likely to accomplish your goal. So feel smug resolution holders! (They also said that telling people your resolution and putting it in writing, keeps you more on target and keeps that goal from just fading away. If you want to add your resolution in a comment after this post, go for it, dude.)

I, of course, DO have a resolution: Put Writing First.

I’m a full-time writer, and I do spend plenty of time on my computer, but just how much of that time is devoted to fiction? Hm, definitely not as much as I’d like.  Like most authors these days I spend a huge amount of my time doing promotion. Setting up signings, getting in touch with press, doing interviews, organizing and running workshops. It’s fun and rewarding, but time consuming. (If you’d like to see what promotion you can do for your own writing, visit my post on it by clicking here.) Yet promotion is something we authors just can’t walk away from, not if we want our books to get into the hands of our readers. Gone are the days when writers wore tweed and cat glasses and squirreled themselves away into a room for months on end, only emerging briefly, blinking from the shock of daylight, to deliver a manuscript. Gone are the days when promotion was up to the publisher.  We writers today must be experts in every phase of a book’s life.  Writing is less and less a part of an author’s everyday ritual. Phooey.

A typical day for me involves checking my emails on various accounts and following up on what’s there. Next I stop by facebook, twitter, wordpress, verlakay’s blueboards. Sometimes I’m updating folks on appearances I’m doing, sometimes I’m promoting a fellow author’s accomplishments, and sometimes I’m just giving folks a glimpse of my life. Then I read the free newsletters sent to me: Publisher’s Lunch, and Shelf Awareness. This keeps me current with what’s going on in the industry. And that’s just for starters.

If I have a busy appearance schedule, I’m doing back and forth correspondence with organizers, I’m writing features and press releases about the events, I’m sending out this press. This can eat up DAYS. And if I’m actually making an appearance, there is time spent preparing for it, printing up promo material to bring, plus the time spent getting there, and being there. More days gone. And still no writing.

In addition to all this, there’s junk that I do. I confess that before I get down to really writing something, I get nervous. Especially if it’s a dicey bit of a novel. A complicated scene or a section that I’m unsure of. Then I hit the games on my computer. Huge confession: I’ve played so much spider solitaire that I’ve developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Luckily I’m not one to waste time watching t.v. (and luckily daytime t.v. sucks), and I actually have a fairly serious work ethic, but still…

Then there’s the other stuff I’m involved in. I’m in two different writing groups. One involves lengthy and rewarding critiques, the other involves lots of promotion. Since I am technically the stay-at-home-mom in this family, I’m the one who cleans the house and buys the food and cooks the meals. (My wild fantasy is that someday I will be able to afford a maid. Ooooo!) I’m also the one who ferries the kids to lessons, sports, etc. etc.  Plus I’m a scout leader.  As a writer, I’m an organizer.  I love to envision stuff and pull it all together. I like to think big. My scout troop is going to London this year, and guess who is planning the bulk of it…

So life is full. Life is good. But in 2010 I resolved to PUT WRITING FIRST!  One thing I know about myself is that once I start working on my fiction, I’m instantly on a roll. Four hours, six hours, ten hours. I can sit there forever and time flies. Because of things like meals and kids and sleep, I really can’t write like I want to. If it were up to me and only me, I’d write all day all night, and someone would slip great food under my door until a novel is complete. I don’t live and write in a bubble, but what if, instead of checking all those on-line sites, answering all those emails, and doing all that promotion, I simply start my fiction first? What if I didn’t play spider solitaire? Or follow up on what’s happening in the industry everyday? Or didn’t book so many appearances until I’ve finished a manuscript? Wouldn’t I have so many more manuscripts to put out there in the world? Wouldn’t I be happier?

So here’s the goal…first thing in the morning I go to the computer, forget about going on line (this is going to be a tough one), forget about playing spider solitaire-solitaire-minesweeper-hearts (this is going to be even tougher), and I will spend the next few hours writing. Just writing. Not press releases, not feature stories, not emails, just fiction. And then I can do everything else. AFTER.

Okay, I’ve officially put my resolution in writing. I’m ten times more likely to accomplish it now. I feel mighty. I feel like playing a quick game of spider solitaire. But no. I’m redoing my writing life. I can do this. I can!

To my fellow writers, be bold, be organized. Remember we do have some control over what we actually create, and we CAN make better use of our time.  2010. A new year. A fresh beginning.

May all of your writing dreams  come true.

Book Review: “Hush, Hush” by Becca Fitzpatrick

***UPDATE: My paranormal YA novel DRAWN is now out in paperback and ebook…If you like TWILIGHT and HUSH HUSH and books by Beth Fantaskey, then you’ll love DRAWN, the paranormal novel filled with forbidden love…and rich with believable characters. For more info about DRAWN click here!***

REVIEW: Okay, who among us hasn’t been simultaneously attracted to/repulsed by a bad boy? Something about danger, wildness, and stepping away from the known is at once exciting, yet scary…which makes it even more exciting.  Hush, Hush by  Becca Fitzpatrick (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) is indeed about the proverbial bad boy.  So what do you do when that gorgeous, edgy guy you are falling for, turns out to be a fallen angel? Hm. Not exactly meet the parents material.  But excellent material for a YA novel, and this one kept me up most of the night as I eagerly flipped the pages to find out what would happen next to Nora and that dark-eyed mysterious guy, Patch.

What originally attracted me to this novel was the stunning cover, designed by Lucy Ruth Cummins, and featuring a photo by James Porto.  It conveys the dark mood, and an appealing vulnerability. Bravo!  The other thing that pulled me in was the theme of the supernatural lover. I’m trying to keep up with these novels because my own recently completed young adult novel, titled Drawn, is about a teen artist who starts channeling one very attractive and mysterious ghost through her drawings.  Is he the love of her life, or is she losing her mind? Drawn is under consideration at publishers right now.

Some folks might at first glance think Hush, Hush as just another twist on the Twilight theme. But I assure you that Hush, Hush stands on its own, and is a fresh and original read. Now that’s not to say there aren’t some similarities. Even though there are no vampires or werewolves, there are plenty of supernatural creatures infiltrated into a normal high school. The location is a gloomy isolated town (in Maine, the opposite side of the map from Washington state, but similar in some ways). Nora lives in a one parent home, and that parent is mostly clueless or away, which is also similar to Twilight.

But you know what? These qualities weren’t invented by Stephanie Meyer’s either.  Go back to the Gothic novel, and you will find all the tales set in isolated locations and/or gloomy settings. Storms, clouds, dense woods. Par for the course, reflecting the story’s mood.  And what about the lone, clueless parent?  This is a story motif that goes way back to oral tradition. How about the father in Cinderella? And all those evil stepmothers? Weren’t they a dysfunctional bunch? They enabled, and often forced the heroes and heroines in folk tales and fairy tales to strike out on their own and face hardships and adventures. To quest.  This symbolized youth leaving their families, turning their backs on childhood, and facing adulthood.

Well, what about this whole fad surrounding supernatural loves? Not exactly a fad.  Of course there was Dracula, but long before that there were countless folktales told for centuries that involved a supernatural lover or husband.  The lover was often dangerous, mysterious, at times he took the form of an animal or a monster. Sometimes he was cursed, as in Beauty and the Beast or The Frog Prince, and sometimes the lover was a descended demigod. Take the story of Cupid and Psyche from mythology. In one version of this tale, Psyche had a beautiful young man come to her bed every night. He would be hers forever, as long as she never lit the light and looked at him.  Of course she is curious and finally must know more about him. When she lights the candle, she sees Cupid’s wings, and he is forced to leave her.  Varieties of this tale have been told for centuries throughout Europe, in the Near East and India. Even the Zuni of New Mexico told a variety of this story.

Cupid (like Patch and like Edward Cullen) is secretive, mysterious, his sexuality is dangerous, and the heroine is literally “kept in the dark” until she simply must know the truth.  So the new crop of supernatural lover stories are not really a “trend” but a revived archetype – something rooted deep in our lore that speaks to young women as they leave the comfort of their homes and their childhood and dare to explore the dangers of love and independence.

Archetypes aside, there are some further similarities to Twilight. Patch’s unusual dark eyes. His secretive life. Nora and Patch meet as Biology class partners.  I personally would have picked another class for them to meet in, but Biology, specifically the human sexuality unit they are doing, definitely works.  There is a huge showdown in the gym that echoes Meyer’s climactic scene in the ballet studio, and the heroine is lured there because a loved one (this time a friend) is in danger.

But similarities aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. There was plenty of tension and chemistry (as well as biology) between Nora and Patch. Lots of mind games and mysterious happenings heightened the drama and danger. And Nora is a much more appealing heroine than Bella, which makes the reader worry about her more and root harder for her to survive and thrive.  Can a girl with a mysterious birthmark and a pesky iron deficiency fight the evil of the ages? Can a fallen angel, shrouded in darkness and sin rise from his long and horrible past, and truly love? Can you resist staying up all night to find out how it all turns out?

Grab this book and start reading. It’s endlessly entertaining…and you can always catch up on your sleep later.

Marketing Outside of the Box

I recently gave a presentation to the Bucks County Romance Writers group about “Marketing Outside of the Box: Bringing your Book to Life and Keeping it Alive,” and it stirred up some common misconceptions about just what an author can and can’t do to promote her book.  Mainly, there is a pervasive belief that promotion is entirely up to the publisher, and the actions of the author can make no difference one way or the other in the success of a novel.

Okay, I think that used to be true to some extent. But these days a few things have changed.  First of all, all publishers are doing less and less for their authors. They tend to put their marketing muscle and dollars behind that huge book at their house that got the big advance…mainly because they don’t want to lose their shirts on it.  And for the rest of the books? Well….  You get in their catalog. Advanced Reader Copies get sent out for reviews. Um, and? Well, good luck to you!

I equate it to throwing spaghetti onto the wall and seeing which bits stick.  If a book gets a starred review and happens to win a major award, then cool.  Otherwise, push it aside for the next batch a mere 3 months later.  But if a book is beautiful enough for a company to accept it and to spend a year editing and producing it, isn’t it worth putting a bit more effort into? And if an author has poured her heart and soul into that work, isn’t it worth the author’s time to do whatever she can to be sure that the book doesn’t go quietly into the night?

Publishers are now banking on just that.  Why waste their precious resources on things like booking signings and sending out press, when the author could do that herself? Clever, right?  Now this isn’t exactly a spoken policy, and authors don’t all do this, but I think if you have a book out, or coming out, you need the whole eyes wide open approach, and you need to get busy.

You will have to work with your publisher to let them know what you’re doing.  At the outset, you should have a frank talk with your publicist at your publishing house about what you would like to handle, and how to do it without stepping on toes, or repeating what they do. You might find at first some resistance to having you handle some things, but since they aren’t handling them, what the heck? I think they are afraid that some authors may represent themselves badly, but once you show that you are professional and courteous, and once they have moved on to the next season’s lists, you’ll probably see that they are glad of what you are doing, and will be happy to get occasional “keep you in the loop” emails about what’s going on.

There’s a notion out there that you should take a good part or at least some of your advance and hire a publicist with it to get the word out. Nice. But what if you actually need the money for like, say, living? And what can you really get with that money that you can’t provide yourself?

photo by Pat Achilles cropped

photo by Pat Achilles

I decided I could promote WHAT I MEANT… on my own, and I have done this quite successfully at almost zero cost. Yeah, it takes tons of time, but I’d already spent tons of time writing the thing, right? And I have two things that a publicist does not: 1. Absolute passion for my book.  Remember, no one (not even your mother) will love your book the way that you do, and be driven to promote it the way you will; and 2. I have unlimited access to the author!  I can quote her in releases and features, book her at appearances, and connect her with readers in a positive way.

Just a few years ago, having passion and author access wasn’t enough.  You needed contacts. You needed a huge budget to print up ad materials, posters, bookmarks. You needed to go out on tour. You needed to cozy up to book reviewers.  Today, contacts in the media are readily found online. Okay, I’m not talking Oprah, I’m talking newspaper folk, radio folk, bloggers, book reviewers, etc.  Easy to find. Easy to send a personal note to, or a feature story to about an upcoming signing (with images of yourself and your book cover attached, of course).

And these days, it’s also easy to book signings yourself.  I’ve done SO many signings over the past few years, and I’ve booked every single one myself. Forget the cold call. Personally go to every bookstore within driving range, and introduce yourself, drop off info on your book (which you have printed up beautifully on your computer), and chat with the manager, asking if they would like to do a signing with you.   I’m sure if you were willing to travel, you could email stores in different areas and book a string of signings that way, and ta-da! You’re on tour.  This will cost you in terms of travel expenses, of course.  Remember that independent bookstores will be your most ardent supporters, so be sure to build your relationships with them (and shop at indies, and include a link to indiebound.org on your website so folks can buy your book through them!).

I tell booksellers that I will send out press to area media about the event, and wow, are they happy to hear that.  A few weeks before any signing, I create a nice feature story about the event and my novel, and send it out with pix. I ALWAYS get coverage. So if you don’t know how to format and write a press release, a public service announcement and a feature story, learn. Now.  The library has books that will show you how.

With color printers, you can make your own publicity info.  Printing bookmarks through a company is pretty cheap to do, but I haven’t done this.  Personally, I’ve never bought a book because I’ve gotten a bookmark…  I’ve created great signs on my computer and brought the file to Staples, and had them create large posters, mounted on foam core, that I display on an easel at my events.  This is all nickle and dime stuff, folks.

As you market, you need to think of who your audience is, what is your book’s angle, and how do you reach your audience in an unorthodox way?  You don’t want to be a spammer, or to spend a fortune creating junk mail that ends up in the circular file. My approach is to be the anti-spammer, meaning that I make an effort to contact people personally. And I use their name in my note. It takes a lot of time, but I don’t care. I’m asking for their time when they read a note from me, aren’t I? It’s old school, and that makes it retro and charming.

Author J. A. Konrath is a gifted promoter with a personal touch. His website (which he’s changed since I first found it) is loaded with advice on how to personally make a difference in the life of your book, especially if you follow the link to his tips page.  Start with Self Promotion for Authors Tip 6 by clicking here, and read on from there, going to more tips at the bottom of this page. His ideas are wise and witty and absolutely on target.

Aside from making personal contacts, another “outside of the box” way I found to reach my audience of teen readers is through workshops that I offer them to help teen scouts earn badges they need for important awards like the gold award.  It’s been unbelievably successful, and I’m in reprint again!  Because they were unusual, my workshops were also featured in Publisher’s Weekly’s Children’s Bookshelf and at shelfawareness.com, so remember that a quirky promotion can be news in itself.

Since my book features a biracial character who is half Indian, I contacted the international publication of India Abroad, and they ran a huge cover story about it.  I also contacted lots of great people who write about the mixed race experience, and they were really responsive. I was featured at AsiansofMixedRace.com, did a podcast with Mixed Chicks Chat, and in the UK, WHAT I MEANT… was a featured book on the site Intermix.com.uk.  I also contacted librarians via email who were in areas with high concentrations of Indian populations. The best part of all this has been the personal relationships that I’ve built with all of these talented and wonderful people and their organizations.  In the end it’s not just about selling a product, it’s about becoming a part of a community. You are building a future in the book-reading world.

So, what angles are in your book? What organizations out there would be interested? Can you write for their newsletter or blog, relating your personal experiences that tie into your book? Can you create a great presentation for their chapter meetings? Give an inspiring speech at their conventions? Give an honest piece of yourself to your readership, and they will respond to you.

This post would be woefully remiss if I didn’t mention a bunch of on-line stuff.  First of all, your website. You have to have one. That’s all there is to it.  But you can do what I’ve done and easily make your blog your website. It does all I want it to do, plus I can control it myself, plus it’s FREE! Then if you purchase your domain from a site like bluehost.com, they have a free redirect service. In my case, everyone who types http://www.marielamba.com arrives here. Can’t get any cheaper and easier than that, folks.

You have to get onto facebook.com.  The best feature on this is the event invite.  Create invites for all of your signings and appearances, and invite folks.  Pimp up your invite with added pix, links, and remember that once someone rsvp’s, they can then invite all their friends to the event too.  This has worked out amazingly, especially when I tell bookstores with facebook pages to do this.  My last event was able to send out over 500 invites!  A few days before the actual event, you can go to the invite page and message all invited with a cheerful reminder note.

Twitter.com can work in tandem with your invites, and press, etc.  Build up your follow list with librarians, booksellers, publishers, editors, reviewers, readers.  Then post on twitter links to your facebook events, or any online press you get.  Keep it short. If you leave at least 40 characters remaining, folks can easily retweet it to their buds.  And you can shorten your links by going here.

Don’t be a shmo. Also use these sites to promote other writers, other events, to praise books that you’ve read.  Balance is key, and you are part of a wide-spread community, so share the love.

Reader-oriented sites offer a great way to connect with your audience. Create an author page. Friend folks who have read your book. Friend folks who have read a competitor’s book and suggest they check yours out!  Here are the sites I spend time on: librarything.com, shelfari.com, goodreads.com.  Librarything and goodreads also let you post your events. Also, join indiebound.org and friend all your fav bookstores.

Booktour.com is an amazing site. Create an author page, and type in all of your appearances. They will automatically send out your appearances to a huge number of online sites.  And, I also suggest you go onto your book’s page at amazon.com and click on your author page. You can now add a picture, a bio, and link your blog posts here.  PLUS booktour.com will make sure that your appearances appear there as well.

Linkedin.com is a more professional site, meaning you can’t just friend, or connect, with everyone.  But join some groups, like one for bookstores or libraries or publishing, and then you can use that connection when you invite someone to connect to you.  Create a beautiful profile, and link your blog to it so that the content is always interesting and changing.  They give you a really simple way to do this.

Now, back to the human side of things… Involve your friends and family everywhere to help you in your promotion.  Like I said before, I’ve never bought a book because I’ve gotten a bookmark, but I have bought a book because someone recommended it to me.  I think J.A. Konrath wisely pointed this out on his site, and it really stuck with me.  So do encourage folks to write reviews for barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com, and on goodreads and shelfari.  Enlist this army of supporters to request your book be purchased at their libraries (most library sites allow this on their online sites, and require a library card number). Have them visit their local bookstores and put your book face out, instead of just spine out.  Hem, hem.  This comment may get some flak from the industry that actually pays to have a title face out on a shelf so it’ll get noticed faster, but if Aunt Minny quietly goes into a bookstore and does this, no harm, no foul I say.

Liars club25One more thing. There is definitely power in numbers. If you can create a group of writers who will blog together, or do panels and talks together, you can turn any event into something noticeable and special.  I’m a proud member of the Philly Liars Club, and it has been an incredible journey. We support each other, and we are able to support independent bookstores through our special truth tour events. Are there other debut novelists that you can link up with? Other authors you know in your genre who could do a panel with you at the next huge convention? Power in numbers, baby!

So you can see there is a lot that you can do, most of it while sitting at home in your jammies in front of your laptop.  After I gave this talk about marketing (not in my jammies), the members of the Bucks County Romance Writers group all wanted to know when I actually found time to write.  I told them that in the last two years I’d done all this promotion, AND written two additional novels. I encouraged them to get to work.

I’m pretty sure they will.

Stranger than Fiction: Are Industry Lies Keeping You Down?

To all writers out there who are dutifully following the rules laid out in guidelines and at conferences about submitting your work: getting frustrated much? How well I know that feeling.

If you play strictly by the rules, the whole process could take so long that you just might give up before your manuscript is seriously considered by an agent or an editor.  The following article is for anyone who has a tightly edited manuscript and wants to speed up the whole submission process without completely pissing off the gate-keepers to the publishing world.  I hope it helps you get closer to your dream of publication.

Stranger than Fiction:
Are Industry Lies Keeping You Down?j0402594
by Marie Lamba

Never send simultaneous submissions. Always tell you are multiple submitting. Never email. Do this, don’t do that. Yada yada yada. Guess what? Lot’s of this advice might be actually keeping you from getting ahead! Let’s sort some of this stuff out.

The Big Lie:
Never send simultaneous submissions. If you do simultaneous submit, you must tell the editor/agent.

The Big Truth:
Never send simultaneous submissions to two editors or agents in the same company. Other than that, all is fair in love and publishing. Hey, what other business expects you to do things one at a time and wait for months to hear anything? Makes for very poor marketing. And you don’t need to tell anyone it’s simultaneous. Just don’t mention it. Do you really think you are getting two offers from two different people at the same time? Seriously?

I know that if you talk to editors on a conference panel, they’ll tell you just the opposite. Think about it. Why would they want you to flood everybody with submissions? And if you were a buyer, wouldn’t you love to avoid all chances of competition? But talk to professional authors, and they will tell you to simultaneous submit. If they didn’t, they’d still be waiting by the mailbox for a response.

Caveat: Make sure you carefully target your submission to editors and agents who actually handle your type of work, or else you’re wasting everyone’s time. Also, if an agent asks for an exclusive read and you agree, make sure it is an exclusive or be up front if it isn’t. You don’t want to start things on the wrong foot.

The Big Lie:
Be patient.

The Big Truth:
Patience is sometimes stupidity. In every submission, include a SASE postcard with a check off that they’ve received your work in good condition. If after a month the card is nowhere in sight, email the editor or get on the phone and call to track it down. Otherwise you may be waiting for 4-6 months to hear about a book that they never even received. (Been there, done that.) Of course, if you’re multiple submitting, it won’t be a huge tragedy, but still.

Also, if you haven’t gotten a response to your manuscript in their promised reading time, do a follow-up by email, phone or mail to make sure you’re still in the queue and not lost in a junk pile. Be polite and no nonsense about it. Don’t waste everyone’s time chitchatting.

The Big Lie:
Never Email

The Big Truth:
Email is amazing. Email queries are fast. Agents love these. You can find most agent and editor emails by Googling “their name” plus “email.” Email is also great for a quick follow up on a return postcard that wasn’t sent, or if the manuscript is past the reading time promised. But I wouldn’t email a manuscript unless you got a go ahead for this first.

The Big Lie:
When going to a conference, leave your manuscript at home.

The Big Truth:
Okay, nothing screams AMATEUR more than hauling out that huge manuscript and foisting on an editor at a conference, but it is useful to have the manuscript tucked away just in case. When I was at a pitch slam and the editor liked what I said, he asked, “Could you quickly read me some of it?” I yanked that pile of paper out pronto and started off. Also, I like to bring to conferences a few stapled sets of my first chapter with a one-paragraph summary and contact info attached to them, just in case.

The Big Lie:
If an agent/editor doesn’t get back to you, give up.

The Big Truth:
Always hope. Agents and editors are swamped. They may say response time is 4 months, when in reality it could be 9 months to a year. They lose manuscripts, their computers fail, emails get lost in cyberspace. Always put in that SAS postcard to confirm receipt. If emailing a manuscript, ask for an email confirmation that it was received. Follow up every few months to make sure you’re in the queue and ask if you should resend. You’ll find that most feel really bad about making you wait and will be kind when you touch base with them.

The Biggest Truth of All:
If your manuscript is shoddy, nothing will work. If your manuscript is excellent, GO FOR IT! No one will turn you down, unless you are a complete jerk. So be professional and courteous. When these two qualities are mixed with an excellent work, it is the true formula for success. No lie!

Why Conferences? (Or, How I Got My Editor and My Agent)

It’s conference season. Tons of workshops with authors, editors, agents. Panel discussions. Pitch sessions. As you receive glossy brochure after glossy brochure, you’re probably wondering, is it worth it? Why go to a conference at all? Well, here’s an article I wrote a few years back, and I’m including it here in the hopes that it might motivate you to step out of your house, and meet some editors and agents face to face.  Some seriously great things can come from it.

Why Conferences? (Or How I Got My Editor and My Agent)
by Marie Lamba

Take the time to network with others in the writing biz.

Take the time to network with others in the writing biz.

Okay, none of the following can help you if your manuscript isn’t ready. I mean completely free of errors, completely interesting, completely wonderful. But what if it truly is? How can you get on the speedy (and speedy is a relative term here) road to publication? In a word: conferences. Seriously. Here’s how it worked out for me.

First I applied and was accepted to the amazing One on One Conference held annually at Rutgers University (children’s writers only). If you are writing for children, this is the ultimate place to be. The editors and agents there know you have some semblance of talent to be able to get in, and they are extremely available to talk with you throughout the day. You are paired up with an author, an editor or an agent who works in your genre and you get to talk with them one on one for 45 unbelievable minutes. Then you get a 5 on 5 round table discussion with your match plus four other pairs. Plus there’s chatting with anyone you dare to over lunch. Plus there’s a keynote and a panel discussion. Absolute heaven.

I was paired up with the very kind Alvina Ling, editor at Little Brown. Not only did she enjoy my first few pages and ask to see the whole ms (yeah!), but she also asked if I was interested in finding an agent. She recommended a small handful of agents she especially respected that dealt in my genre, and said I was welcome to say that she had referred me. I’d say that was the best $75 dollars I’d ever spent, wouldn’t you?

You know how they say never email an agent a query, especially one who says on her website “no emailed queries?” Well, ha! I decided to be bold, and I found out that when your message line says “Recommended by (insert the name of the editor or top author here…only if they’ve actually recommended you, of course),” that they would in fact read your query immediately. And if all goes well, that agent will email you back in a matter of hours asking to see your whole manuscript. It went well. So I jumped the queue, saving myself about 3 months of waiting just to hear a response to my query. So far so good.

I’d like to say that the response to the manuscript was as fast. You know. The agent waits with baited breath, reads your manuscript overnight, gets back to you immediately. Well, that didn’t happen. So I figured if I didn’t hear back in the next week, or at least the next month, then I was toast. One month went by. Two months. Three. I sent a cheerful little note to check on its status. Three and half months went by.

Blah. So, time for another conference. This time I decide to attend the BEA Writer’s Digest Conference in New York. The agent I’d hoped to get would be there. Perhaps we could meet? I email her. She’s too busy. Still, I’m hopeful about the conference. I tell her I’ll try to get on her line for the one-minute pitch session to say hi. There seems to be a large number of children’s editors on the roster, and I hope to talk to lots of them. Surely not every attendee will be a children’s author, right?

To my relief I am right about this. The lines for the adult fiction editors and agents snake out the doors and through the corridors. People in those lines are lucky if they can see one of their choices. In the room featuring the children’s editors and agents, the lines only have about 20-25 people on them. I’ll get to talk to as many of these folks as I wish. I’m the first in line at the desk of Jim Thomas, Editorial Director at Random House Children’s Books. The format is rigid. The organizers ring a bell, and you race to a seat and give your pitch. After one minute, the bell rings again, and it’s time for the editor or agent to talk with you and ask questions. One minute later, the bell rings again and you have to evacuate the seat for the next person. The hope is that by the third bell you’ll have that person’s business card in hand with an invitation to mail your manuscript to them.

I had practiced my pitch ahead of time, driving my whole family nuts in the process. I felt ready. I even had my manuscript with me in my bag (something they tell you never to do…but still). So the bell rings, and I start my pitch and Jim reacts with shock and interest at the topic, and then, to my total surprise, asks if I could read the manuscript to him. (See? It’s a good thing I had it, right?) I fumble through some papers and yank the book out and start reading in a fast and steady pace. DING! Times up. Jim is smiling. “You see that person on the end? That’s Lisa Findlay. She works with me at Random House. Get on her line. I think she’ll like this.”

Wow! Another referral. So I jump onto Lisa’s line. Tell her Jim sent me. Pitch her the book and she hands me her business card asking me to mail sample chapters. Things are really going great here.

I get on the long line leading to Jennifer DeChiara, my sought after agent, and finally get my chance to chat with her. She seems tired but attentive, and I tell her she’s already got my book, but I just wanted to say hi. I discover that even though her website says she responds in 3 months to manuscripts, 6 months or even a year are more realistic dates. Good to know.

Flash forward several months. I haven’t heard from Jennifer DeChiara or Lisa Findlay. Sigh. That’s okay, right? I start working on a new book. I try not to think about it. BUT NOTHING SEEMS TO BE HAPPENING. Then something happens. It’s September and it’s like the publishing world has returned to work from a long long summer break. Lisa Findlay asks to see my entire novel, so I send it. Great!

Then I get an email from Jennifer DeChiara. Something to the effect of: I am reading your manuscript tonight. Okay. Is this one of those form emails or something? I try not to read too much into this.

Then, THE phone call comes. It’s Jennifer, in person, saying all these incredible things we writers only dare to tell ourselves in our deepest slumbers. Would I sign with her? Would I?

So now I’m absolutely floating. I dare to dream and all that stuff. But it gets better.

Within a week, Lisa Findlay gets in touch. She loves the book, has some suggested changes, but would love to sign me at Random House. Me? Me! Okay, after I get up off the floor, and call my husband who seems to only be able to say, “You’re kidding. You’re kidding,” I immediately contact Jennifer to deliver the amazing news.

So both of my pursuits for an amazing editor and an amazing agent were successful, and within a week of each other. Pinch me!

And sign up for conferences. Lots of conferences.

Website Disaster!

Frustrated. Annoyed. Oh, and a little freaked out. I created my own website with my limited abilities and a really good book, and it’s served me well for about 2 years now. Then I forgot everything I’d learned about building the website, and only mentally retained enough info to update it with author visits, book reviews, stuff like that. But last month, as I was happily doing one of my updates, something happened.

Don’t ask me what, exactly. But somehow all the formatting shifted or disappeared. Cool, right? So fine. I was too busy to deal with it, and I just didn’t. For a month. I didn’t upload the changes to my site, and the news on it just stayed the way it was…dated yes, but formatted correctly still. Now the time had come to confront this snarling monster of a problem. Two days I’ve toiled. Reading that dreaded book that once made sense but now definitely doesn’t. And I fixed it. Yeah! Then published the changes.

Here’s the really sucky thing: the site looked perfect when I previewed it online. But when I published it, total change. A total you’ve-just-wasted-two-whole-days-making-things-even-worse sort of change. Links gone. Navigation bar non-existant. Indiebound link, disappeared. Lines duplicated. Other lines gone completely.

Two terrible things here: anyone who visits my site right now is going to think I’m a whack job, AND I know that it’ll take maybe days for me to unsnarl this mess, and restore things to the way it was before.

Give me strength. And dark chocolate.